Three

December 31, 2008

Three

 

The trip back to the base was long and pointless. As was to be expected, they took much longer returning than they had departing; the sense of rush and the necessity of being quick was never present on their return journeys, but they did not fret over it. After all, it wasn’t like anything would be drastically different when they returned. In top of that, rushing home and wasting their energy completely defeated the purpose of relaxing since they had finished the job.

As was to be expected, Felix rode into the base and the place looked the same as it always did. He still could not stop himself from glancing around the place, expecting some radical change to jump out at him. Leaving Glenn unattended at their base was a good reason to expect such a change, though. In the past they had always made sure that at least one other person remained at the base so that nothing bad would happen to the place.

Just as he finished looking around and was satisfied that nothing had changed, he looked ahead to see the familiar form of Raffin cheerfully coming towards him. Of course, it was only to be expected; Sieker and Glenn couldn’t have been very good company for him, and he and Felix were close friends from all the battles they had been through. Well, this could probably be said for any two members of their group. A close friendship, or at least trust, was only natural when you spent countless battles entrusting your life in the hands of your companions.

“You’re back already, huh? Good, I was getting tired of sitting around the base.” He called to them all, and there were several different responses that he got. After most everyone in the returning group had spoken, he added, “Oh, yeah, Felix… Sorry, but Glenn wasn’t willing to leave until somebody gave him money for at least one drink at the bar, and since my wallet’s a little light compared to yours I leant him a bit of your money.” He shrugged at the end of his sentence, still grinning cheerfully.

Jumping down from his horse, Felix clapped him on the soldier with a grin and said simply, “Please tell me that you’re joking. If not, I guess it was inevitable but I’m never telling you here I keep my gold stashed away again… Why did I tell you in the first place?”

“I promised to get you a date with that one barmaid you saw in whatever village it was, back on one of our jobs together. You told me as a good faith that you’d pay me if I was able to pull it off.”

“You never even did that!”

“It was in good faith, and you were paying for my efforts, not my successes.”

“Yeah, and you were paying for my drinks,” Felix grumbled sarcastically. “Either way, I guess it doesn’t matter now. What’s done is done. Anything new around here?” This question was mostly brought on by his inevitable thoughts that the base had changed in his absence appeared once again.

“Well, I got rid of Glenn a few days back with your unwilling help, but otherwise no. We haven’t received any letters other than some thanks from Prince Aeolus.”

“Do we usually receive letters from royalty thanking us for doing their jobs?” Felix asked curiously. Nobody had ever mentioned them getting such a letter after they eliminated bandits or the like, even the individual lords that hired them thought themselves to be too important to converse with ordinary mercenaries.

“No, but I guess rebellions are getting to be a rather serious problem throughout Elthren. He mentioned in his letter that he’d be willing to hire us if we were able to take out a rather important group of rebels. They had the support of villages across the land and seem to be gaining fame steadily.”

“And he wants to keep out of it so that he can send his soldiers after the mercenaries that got rid of the righteous rebels… That’s what’ll happen in the end, anyway, I bet, I’ve heard about such things before. I don’t doubt that Prince Aeolus would be willing to use it to stir up support again. As of late he’s turned into quite the unpopular ruler,” Inferno commented dryly before continuing into the stables.

“It doesn’t matter; we probably won’t be taking on any more rebels. Arkis died in the last battle, and Atticus was wounded severely. Even with Crystal’s spells he’ll need at least a month to recover. Even if that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be too keen on trying to fight these people. We might be mercenaries, but we’re not like most mercenaries. We’re commoners too, and we only take on jobs that we agree with. Perhaps with all these rebellions sparking up everywhere, Aeolus isn’t the right person to have on the throne.”

“Maybe not, but who are we to tell? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Have you seen my father by any chance?” Felix asked. He wasn’t trying to cut off whatever else Raffin might have been trying to say, but his curiosity about the other job his father had taken on had been building ever since they left the village and made their way back. He had asked Scarlet, but even she had said that his father hadn’t told her much; just that he had another job that he was going to do. Hopefully he had decided to take Aelar with him.

“Only a little, boss and Aelar were on their way out just as me and Sieker got back. Boss said that they had somewhere to be, and we assumed that they were heading out to help you and the others in the battle. If he wasn’t with you, then where is he?”

“That’s what I’m wondering,” Felix said, absentmindedly beginning to walk towards the mess hall. “Scarlet told us that he had another job that he had to do, but she didn’t tell us anything about it. I was hoping that he might have run into you and told you.”

“No luck there either, mate, sorry,” Raffin said. “He didn’t say much, but he looked like he was in a bit of a rush when he left… Who knows, maybe it has something to do with the other rebels that Aeolus offered to pay us to hunt?”

“I doubt it… He would have wanted our assistance.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Raffin answered. “These rebel groups are mostly small so that they’re able to attack and disappear without much notice. Even the one that Aeolus mentioned in his letter has only about ten members. The commander’s easily one of the greatest warriors I’ve ever seen, and I bet that he could easily take out a group of ragtag rebels.”

“I’ve seen him fight when I’ve been on jobs with him before… It really is a sight to behold,” Felix said. He didn’t mean to sound like a typical stupid admirer, but his father truly was a great warrior. His swordsmanship easily outmatched Felix’s and he trained several times a day against dummies in order to make sure that it stayed that way.

“You might be like him, one day,” Raffin commented. “If you were willing to stop slacking off and put in some work!”

“What do you mean? I put in my fair share.”

“You realize that when you all rode in here heroically, you just left the others behind to care for your horse? You didn’t bother to stick it in the stable or anything.”

“Did I? Whoops…”

“Well doesn’t look like it matters now, Aragon took care of it. He’s a real natural with horses, they seem to listen to whatever he says, it’s almost eerie. Was he a stable boy before he joined us? He could be making good money judging from how well he can take care of these horses…”

“I’m pretty sure he wasn’t, he joined up with us so long ago that I can’t really remember, so it’s entirely possible I guess. That’s not really the job that you tell somebody about; it’s kinda obvious what you do.”

“I was just trying to compliment the man, Felix! Geez,” Raffin responded. “But I gotta say, since we don’t have any jobs right now and winter’s coming we should probably get to work on getting enough firewood and other supplies to last us through the winter. I was already planning on going hunting tomorrow so that we can preserve as much of our food as possible.”

Felix stepped into the mess hall and looked around while taking a deep, relaxing breath. The place looked, as could be predicted, the same as it had when he had left. A single large wooden table was tucked away in a corner of the room, covered with dents and scratches from its many years of use. About halfway down along the wall he had walked in on, an enormous fire still burned, casting off enough heat to warm the place even on cold winter nights. The mess hall had occasionally served as a place for them all to sleep on winter nights when it was too cold to keep their barracks warm. A small distance from the main entrance was a second door that led into the kitchen, where Crystal, Veruka and Lightning often showed their culinary talents.

“Come on Felix, it’s a little bit cold out here. The mess hall hasn’t changed at all since you left,” Raffin said sarcastically, and Felix realized that he had not stepped through the doorway yet. He stepped past the threshold and began to walk towards the worn down table that was tucked away in the corner. Once or twice in the past, his father had been known to leave information about different jobs he was going on here in the rare case that an emergency so drastic occurred that they needed him.

“Sorry about that,” he said as he continued to walk with loud steps. Behind him, Raffin’s softer footsteps barely touched the floor, sounding padded and muted whenever his foot touched the ground. “I just was lost in my thoughts.”

“Yeah, that’s unfamiliar territory for you so I guess it would be easy to get lost,” Inferno said as he stepped in past Raffin, who let out a short laugh at the comment, as did Felix in spite of how serious he meant to be; his father going missing was something that even he was unable to joke around about. “What are you looking for anyway?”

“Father sometimes leaves a paper on the table that tells where he’s gone,” Felix said, scanning the table fruitlessly. Other than dents and scratches and slight discolorations from the ink that Levon used for their financial reports and other documents, the table was completely empty. He began to walk around the table scanning the seats of the chair even though he already knew there was nothing there. His father had never left anything in one of the chairs before.

As he had predicted, when he finished walking around there was nothing left. Though he had already been sure that there wouldn’t be anything, he couldn’t help but feel a terrible sinking feeling as he realized that nothing had been left behind. Scarlet would lead their group as she often did in his father’s absence, but because of the lack of information this one seemed much more permanent than his previous departures which had ranged from a few days to a few months.

“He told me he wouldn’t be able to leave anything behind, that it was too important in case it fell into the wrong hands,” Scarlet said. “He said that he’d be back soon, and that the job might be the most important that he’s ever embarked on.”

“Can it really be that important?” Inferno wondered aloud, “I sure hope that he’s going to be getting a huge payday for all the effort he has to put into this.”

“It wasn’t a real job, Inferno,” Raffin said matter-of-factly, “I think it was more of a personal matter… He mentioned something about a ghost of the past when he left, but he didn’t elaborate. Who knows, though? We definitely don’t, and I’m sure that boss’ll tell us all about it when he gets back. There’s nothing out there that can stand a chance against him.”

“I hope so, at least,” Felix commented, feeling slightly let down. The rest of the night he was in low spirits, even though the others tried everything that they could in order to cheer him up. Even when Robin came back from the village with a slew of women he had no interest, and he stayed similarly uninterested when Diran broke out drinks in an attempt to improve his chances with these same women.

 

The next morning, though, his mood only soured more by the news that they received, but it did break him out of his spell of silence and his perpetual worry about his father and Aelar. A messenger bearing the seal of Aeolus rode to their base early in the morning, just after he awoke. The man was looking for his father, as was to be expected, but he deigned to relay his message to Felix as well. Although several of them told the man that Scarlet was in actuality their leader, at least for the time, the man refused to listen, although he did allow Levon and Scarlet to listen to his message, but prohibited any of the others from hearing it until they had made their decision on it.

They sat around the large dented table of the mess hall, which the messenger looked at distastefully. Every new location that they walked past he seemed to view with disdain, presumably because it did not match up with his standards as a lord. Felix couldn’t care less; the opinions of nobles didn’t matter to him. Even though he was he was a commoner and considered below them, he viewed himself as equals to them and treated them as such whenever he encountered nobles. His behavior seemed to take the messenger back as well, but he had quickly recovered from this.

“So why were you sent here? We’ve already been paid by your general, Valtiel, for our fight with those rebels about a week back.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” the messenger said, his voice oily. Felix was distinctly aware of him moving his hands around under his cloak and was under the impression that Valtiel had not informed Aeolus that the mercenaries had already been paid; apparently this messenger would be keeping the gold he was sent with. “And His Majesty Prince Aeolus is most satisfied with your conduct. That particular band of rebels has been eliminated. However, on the subject of rebels, apparently news of your defeat over the soldiers has spread across Elthren rather quickly. Another group of these rebels are under the impression that you are honorary knights of the prince, or something to that effect, and they have decided that you have to be… taken care of, to use the phrase.”

“Cut to the chase. You want me to take care of them before they can get to us, right? Can’t do that. We’ll get out of fighting them somehow; we’ll just have to talk it over.”

“You would deal with rebels?”

“Why not? We don’t have much to say about who rules and all that, we’re just mercenaries.”

“Exactly, and the pay for killing these rebels would be well worth it. Prince Aeolus has never skimped on your earnings in the past.”

“Besides you trying to get out of paying us right now,” Felix paused to see the messenger’s appalled look, and then continued, “Not in the past he hasn’t, no. But on our last job against these rebels on of our men died. I might not have known him well, but I knew him well enough o be able to say that no amount of gold can get you to risk my companion’s lives again; especially in a cause that we are not fully behind.”

“Your entire job is made up of taking the risks that others refuse to take! If you won’t take them, then how can you call yourselves mercenaries?”

“We do take the risks that others won’t take, you’re right there. Risking our lives and the lives of our comrades is what we do, but usually it is for a cause we can believe in. Killing bandits and thieves is a cause willing to participate, but we know next to nothing about these so-called rebels.” He paused, and then decided that he had gone far enough; this next sentence would have terrible effects, and he knew it, but he said it nonetheless. “Maybe if Prince Aeolus was a very good ruler, you wouldn’t have to deal with these uprisings in the first place.”

The messenger briefly looked as if he had been struck in the face with a heavy object, but then he managed to compose himself and opened his mouth again. “I’m sorry that you feel that way, I assure you that Prince Aeolus does everything he does in order to help out the less fortunate members of his country.” That is such a lie… Felix thought bitterly, If he was doing everything he could than he wouldn’t be eating meat and feasting grandly with every meal while his subjects starve. “However, if you are unwilling to accept a job against a group of ragtag rebels, then His Highness Prince Aeolus has another job he would be interested in you assisting with.”

“What might that be?” Felix asked, feigning interest; the messenger didn’t catch the sarcasm behind his tone, or else chose to ignore it.

“As you might have heard, a month ago Elthren declared war on Altaril.” The messenger said it offhandedly, as if the information was old news. Felix had heard nothing of the sort.

“What? How did you declare war and yet have no one hear about it?” Levon asked. He was piercing the messenger with the one eye that was not covered by hair. The same thought had struck Felix. There had been no rumors, at least none that he had heard, of Elthren preparing for war.

“We might have… declared war a little bit after the fact, but the point remains that we are currently engaged in a war with Altaril. We are winning, but we would be willing to pay well in order for your air. Prince Aeolus thinks quite highly of your abilities.”

“No, I’m fairly certain that we can’t join your cause,” Scarlet said. “We might not currently be affiliated with any countries, but the boss originally hailed from Altaril and won’t betray his own country, I can assure you.”

“For mercenaries you certainly seem unwilling to take on many jobs… Well, in spite of that I must do what I was sent for.” The man drew a sack of gold from within his robes. “I was sent with this by Prince Aeolus to help… convince you to accept our offer. Consider it a good-faith loan that you will help us out soon. And if I were you, I would double the watch on this place.”

“Is that a threat?” Felix asked defensively, instantly sitting up in his chair.

“Not from I, but from the people I have spotted in the village. If my eyes don’t deceive me than I have seen a few members of this group of rebels that wants to fight you in the general area.” The messenger mockingly bowed low, and then swept from the room, slamming the door heavily behind him.

“I’m sure you have,” he muttered in response, standing up to shake hands with the man as he knew he was expected to do. They would accept the gold, but even Felix didn’t try to delude himself into believing that they would be returning to Elthren’s service soon, if ever.

Although he had no particular reason for it, he had had deep misgivings about Aeolus ascending to the throne and had thought from the start that he was the wrong man to rule a country. This surprise invasion only cemented his belief that Aeolus did not belong on the throne, and he knew well enough that his father thought the same thing.

“Well, it looks like we won’t be receiving any more jobs from Aeolus. I’m not sure whether we should be happy or depressed about it, though,” Levon said.

“Don’t be dumb, we couldn’t take on any jobs against Altaril! Like it or not, Levon, most of our group originates from Altaril. Why do you hold such a heavy grudge against Altaril, anyway?”

“I’ll tell you one day, but that day isn’t today.” He looked towards the bag of gold on the table. “We might not be accepting any of Aeolus’ job offers, but I’m glad that we got this still. Like I always say, you can never have too much gold. Still, though, many of your comments today were uncalled for and somewhat out of line, Felix. We’re dealing with a noble here, and one who seems to have a heavy sway with the prince as well. Some of the things you said could potentially lead to a severe punishment from the prince if he saw fit.”

“Sorry, I guess it just slipped my mind. I still don’t see why these nobles always have to play a game of cat and mouse with words. If you’ve got something to say, come out and say it.”

“For some reason I’m not surprised that you would have such a blunt view on it. But Felix, I’ve seen times when you’ve used words to play games of deceit and trickery as well, so can you really criticize them?”

“They play with a lot more important matters on the line, so I’d say yeah, I can still call them on it without being a hypocrite.” He allowed his chair to gently touch the ground and stood up. “I guess you probably don’t need me anymore, right? You only had me here because you needed to satisfy the messenger, so I’ll be going then.” Hesitantly he took a few steps towards the door and when no one called him back he walked much more confidently to the door and strolled out.

He took a deep breath of the fresh air, glad to be out of the room, but his freedom wasn’t to last. Almost as soon as he looked ahead he realized that Crystal was standing directly in front of him, blocking his path. Her blue eyes were sparkling and she had a cheerful smile on her face. She held a sheath in one of her hands, and the ornate hilt stuck out on the other end. “Hey, Felix, I was just looking for you!”

Felix looked at his sister, wondering if it was indeed just a coincidence that she had happened to go to the right place at exactly the right time. “Yeah? What about? I just got out of a meeting with Levon and Scarlet so try to make it a bit short. I want to head back and take a nap before I go to work splitting wood.”

“Well… It might stop you from being able to take a nap before splitting the wood, but I was hoping that you’d teach me some swordsmanship.”

“I guess I could, but why would you want to learn from me? There are plenty of better swordfighters in our group.”

“There might be, but you’re the closest I can get to learning from father. You’re the only person that he ever trained.”

“Okay, let’s go then. Do you have the practice swords? I’m not going to spar with my own sister in case you get hurt.”

“Yes, I asked Atticus to bring them up to the training grounds when he went up there.”

“Got it,” Felix said, and he turned towards these training grounds, taking long, heavy steps. Beside him, Crystal was walking with much smaller and lighter steps, trying to keep pace with his much larger strides. “So how much do you know about fighting with a sword anyway? I know that you keep one on you during battles in case of an emergency, but can you actually use it very well?”

“If I could use it very well do you think I’d have to have a guard with me? No, I can barely use a sword, definitely not enough to actually be able to fight someone off if I had to.”

“Then it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me today, huh?” He asked, continuing to plow his way towards the training grounds. He passed the gate, where Aragon and Raffin were on watch, looking bored. Raffin was dozing off and barely noticed them pass, while Aragon only nodded silently as they passed. Their training grounds were a small distance from their base, and outside of it as well. Occasionally when they had reasons that made them stay within their walls, they would use the courtyard to train, but it didn’t make maneuvering through the base easy.

Instead, their base was placed in a decent sized clearing that they had found just inside the boundaries of the forest. It was close enough to be safe to leave their equipment there when need be, but far enough that the clatter and occasional shouts of their practicing would not wake anyone up. This did, however, make it difficult to call for help if they ever needed to, but that situation had not yet arose.

Felix stepped past the first tree and looked back at Crystal, who looked somewhat hesitant. Although she did not carry a fear for the place, she had once been attacked by a wolf here. Robin had dispatched the animal easily enough, but she had been hesitant about entering the place ever since. “Come on,” Felix called back. “I’m with you, you’ll be safe.”

She nodded and stepped into the forest, her former hesitation instantly washed away with his words. After a moment when he turned back around to keep an eye on where he was going, however, he heard the unmistakable sound of her drawing the short sword that was kept at her side. I’d be scared of this place if I was attacked, too… It’s only lucky that Robin was able to save her before that wolf was able to do anything.

As could be expected from what Crystal had told him earlier, Atticus was waiting there. A few other members of their mercenary group were there as well, and so was a man that looked younger than him that he didn’t recognize. This was not at all odd to him, because it was common for the villagers to venture out into the forest either for hunting or training, and would often elect to stay with them for a while and talk. Several other villagers that he did recognize were scattered about, some chatting with the mercenaries and others training themselves. Mysteriously, though, Breeze was also there, absentmindedly twirling a dagger. When she caught sight of Felix, she waved cheerfully and walked over.

“Why are you here? I barely ever see you up here.”

“I know, I’m not really a big fan of training until I’m too tired to move, but I have other reasons for being here. That messenger and I have… a past, you would call it. I really didn’t feel up to running into him again. Now that you’re up here, I guess I can head back down, then?”

“I guess if you want to, nobody is going to make you stay up here. It’d be nice to have some company while I’m training Crystal, though.”

“I’m sure it would,” Breeze said, “But you can talk to her better than you’d be able to talk to me.” She walked past him and departed from the training grounds without another word. Felix had never learned why she avoided the place so much, but the fact remained that she stayed away from the place as much as possible. The messenger must have had a terrible past with her if she was willing to come up to the training grounds to avoid him. Of course, due to Anilam having much longer life spans than ordinary people, it was obvious that her encounters with the man were from before she had joined up with their group.

“I’ve never seen her in such a rush before,” Crystal said after she had returned from getting the practice swords from Atticus. They walked to an isolated corner of the clearing, a safe distance away from the other people that filled the clearing.

“I only ever see her in that much of a rush when she has to come up to the training grounds. She hates it up here; she doesn’t like the amount of fighting. She told me once that a battlefield isn’t as bad for her, but she doesn’t know why. Practicing she understands, but she doesn’t like it because she doesn’t like the idea of friends having to fight amongst themselves.”

“You two certainly seem to know a lot about each other,” Crystal said, her voice clearly showing that she thought there was more than he admitted. Felix walked a safe distance across from her and turned around, resting the wooden replica of a sword against the ground with a firm grip.

“We’re pretty close friends, we’ve had to go through a lot together and we’ve helped each other out a lot. Doesn’t matter though, Crystal, we’re only friends so stop overreacting. Now come on, get ready.” He pointed his blade at her, and she lifted her own weapon and pointed it at him. To Felix, the light weight of the wooden sword in his hand made a drastic difference compared to the heavier, bulkier iron weapons that he usually used. I can barely remember when I used to train with these!

“Good. Keep your balance and don’t take risks while you’re fighting. Stay with what you know, I’ve seen several men die because they have tried something new during a battle. It’s a quick way to die. Keep a firm grip on the handle, that’s obvious enough.” He waited a moment for her to digest what he had said, and then he opened up his mouth to speak again. “Now come on, let’s go! Show me what you’ve got!”

Crystal seemed hesitant, and Felix twirled the wooden sword, waiting for her to strike against him. After a moment she seemed to decide that Felix wouldn’t be starting out the battle, so she thrust her blade forward, swinging in a wide arc. Due to the wide arc, she left herself open and Felix easily raised his wooden sword in time to block the weapon. Twisting the stick, he knocked Crystal’s blade to the side and pointed directly forward.

“Yeah, I can see why you wanted me to teach you,” Felix said. The sentence had the effect that he desired. Crystal seemed somewhat angered by the simple sentence, and she leapt forward, swinging again but slightly more wildly. Never strike out in anger, Felix thought, remembering the first principle that his father had taught him. He caught Crystal’s sword once again and knocked it to the side easily. “Okay, stop. Never attack in anger. You have to keep yourself calm and collected in a fight, regardless of what changes might happen.”

“Okay…” Crystal sounded somewhat hesitant, but she was obviously willing to listen to his advice because she was certain that he was trying to help her. “Anything else?”

“Try to avoid pointing your sword straight ahead when you aren’t stabbing; it makes parrying a lot more difficult and leaves you open to attack. Don’t move straight forward, either. Move side to side. If you go straight forward, you’ll walk straight into a blade. Try not to move your arm so far before you go for a swing, too. It leaves your front exposed. Now let’s go again, try to use what I told you.” He stepped back and prepared his blade again, holding it at an angle across his front.

Crystal was nowhere near as hesitant to strike this time. She started off by taking what he had said into consideration, and the wide stroke that she had used before was absent. Her arm hardly moved before she struck, and Felix was almost hit before he realized that she had swung. At the last instant, he flashed the wooden weapon up, glad for how light it was, and parrying his sister’s attack. He knocked it aside and slowly went in to attack her, but she had once again listened to what he had said; her blade was pointed diagonally in front of her to prevent anyone from striking past her defenses, and with his dramatically slow strike she leapt to the side.

Felix finished his strike and leaned against the stick again. “It’s good to try and keep both feet on the ground at once. Jumping out of the way will make you lose your balance. Other than special circumstances that you’ll be able to see, keep at least one foot on the ground at all times.”

“Got it,” Crystal replied, lifting the stick lazily. Felix draped his own over his shoulders, still unsure to do with the blade considering how light it was. She prepared another strike, and Felix dodged it, once again knocking her to one side and striking again, this time quicker. She stepped out of the front of the blow just moments before it would have struck her and made to swing for Felix’s hand, but he tore his weapon back and parried the blow.

“Good… Now I think I’ve taught you enough to train for a while, right? Can you use some of those dummies now? I’ve got to go and chop wood so I might as well get it over with so I can go and do something better with my time.”

“Yeah, thanks a lot Felix!” She said sincerely. “Should I use the wooden sword or should I use a real weapon?”

“Just use the wooden sword for now, you don’t want to destroy those things too bad or we’ll have to pay for a new one.” He turned away from her and caught the strange man from earlier that he could not recognize looking at him, but rather than lingering he walked past without giving the man a second glance.

“Hey, you!” Felix turned at the voice and saw the man walking towards him, and realized that he also had a long blade sheathed at his side. He was about as tall as Felix and wore a long black jacket that almost fell to his feet. His face was sharp and piercing and his sandy brown hair was about as long as Felix’s. Unlike Felix, however, the man had allowed a slight bit of facial hair to grow in on his chin, but there was not even enough there for it to be considered a beard.

“What?” Felix replied, almost unconsciously allowing his hand to drift towards his blade and rest on its hilt. The man didn’t look familiar, and suddenly the warning that he had received from the messenger came drifting back to his mind. It was entirely possible that the man was just one of the villagers and that Felix’s mind was overreacting, but he had the distinct feeling that it wasn’t. He thought that the man was either one of the rebels that they had been offered a payment to kill, or else he was one of the messenger’s men, out for vengeance because of the way his master had been treated. The latter was incredibly unlikely, but he didn’t want to rule anything out.

“I couldn’t help but notice you teaching her over there. You look talented with a blade, care for a match?”

Felix never had been one for turning down a match, and the fact that he thought the man meant him harm only made him want to accept the challenge even more for some strange reason. “Only if you’re not a sore loser,” he responded.

“You’ll be able to judge that for yourself.” The man drew his blade and pointed it at Felix, who nodded and began to walk towards a less crowded area of the clearing. The man caught notice of this and followed him, but his drawn blade convinced Felix to keep his eyes on the man the entire time. When they had reached the secluded section of the clearing, Felix instantly drew his blade and turned to face his opponent. The man had already moved to strike, though, his blade swinging towards Felix’s stomach. Rather than attempt to parry the fast-moving metal, he leapt out of its path as he had so recently told his sister not to do.

Irritated that the man had started their duel without his knowledge, he swung in return at the man’s chest as soon as the swing that he had just avoided passed. In almost inhuman instants, the man was able to get out of the way of the stroke which otherwise would have been his end. Felix struck again, though, and this time the man was unable to sidestep the attack. Instead he raised his own blade, which was considerably thin compared to Felix’s. In the brief moment that their weapons were connected, the two struggled wordlessly for power, straining the blades against one another, and then the other man twirled his blade around, leaving Felix’s front completely exposed to a strike.

The man was eager to strike, and Felix used all the strength he had to lift up his blade in time to block the blow. He had put so much strength behind the blow that it knocked aside the weapon, but his enemy’s front was exposed for a much briefer time before he leapt out of the way. Cursing himself for not taking advantage of the split-second opportunity, Felix braced himself to prevent a barrage of swings from the man. Felix had him beat in terms of raw power, but the man’s agility easily nullified this advantage and evened out the match.

They exchanged several more blows before a few of the other mercenaries began to gather around, interested to see the outcome of the match. This influx of his companions gave Felix the edge he needed; he was not willing to look weak in front of them. He locked swords with the man once again and easily overcame him with his physical advantage. Rather than giving the man the time he needed to recover, Felix quickly kicked him in the chest, taking advantage of his momentary weakness and knocking him to the ground. As soon as the man touched the ground, Felix stepped forward and kicked the man’s sword from his hand before resting the same foot on the man’s chest. The command he gave was a simple one. “Yield.”

“I yield.” The man said, and Felix sheathed his blade, stepping back from the man and the helping him to his feet. “You fight like an animal! I’ve barely lost before. Who trained you to fight the way that you do?”

“My father taught me the basics of swordplay but for most of the rest of what I know I taught myself. You fight pretty well yourself, usually I don’t have a challenge like that. I’m Felix, by the way.”

“Thank you. I’m Lloyd,” he paused and reached forward, shaking hands with Felix before saying. “I believe I’ve heard of your father and his abilities before, but if you’re only his shadow… I’m amazed, I’d have to say.”

“You’ve only heard of him? Aren’t you from around here?”

“Me? No, I’m a part of another group that is visiting the area. The leader of my group and your father are old acquaintances, and I’ve grown up hearing tales of his talent with a blade.”

“Really? I heard a rumor recently about a group in the area, would you happen to be a member of this same group?” Felix knew well enough that the man already knew enough about him, so he decided that there wasn’t anything wrong with attempting to find out whatever he could from the man. If they were the rebels and they really were there for revenge, then getting the man to slip up could prove rather advantageous.

“I don’t know… What’s the rumor that’s going around about this group?”

“Supposedly it’s a group of rebels, here to recruit more people to their cause,” Felix replied. He decided that attempting to act as dense as possible about the group’s motives was better than coming out and potentially provoking another fight. He was uncertain that he would be able to beat Lloyd again if Lloyd were to decide to fight him.

“Hm… Rebels, eh? Well, I guess we could be considered rebels if you wanted to call it that.” Lloyd seemed briefly uncertain, and then he said, “Are you going to tell me that you really know why we’re here or are you going to continue to pretend to be stupid? I can tell you know more than you’re letting off, Felix.”

“Am I that obvious, or are you that good?” Felix asked in return, somewhat surprised by the man’s logic and glad that he was honest about his intentions.

“Why else would you know about us? Somebody warned you, I can tell. Probably that messenger of Aeolus that rode in here earlier. But since you were willing to mention who we are to my face, I’m fairly certain that your group turned down whatever offer it was that Aeolus gave you to kill us.”

“You seem to be able to tell a lot.”

“I pride myself in it.”

“Why are you rebels anyway? Were you affiliated with the group that we had to fight before?”

“Geez, you’re full of questions, aren’t you? Well, yeah, we knew who the group that you fought was, and that’s why we’re here, but chances are that our messenger has arrived by now. The messenger will be able to tell you the rest of what you want to know, they’ll decide whether or not we will make you pay for our deceased allies.”

“You don’t seem to care much.”

“The rebels you fought before… Were not the most honorable of people, even though they were associates of theirs. I guess I just don’t really care much that they’re gone and I don’t feel that people need to suffer when they don’t have a reason to. Your group might have helped us rebels out just as well as you helped out Aeolus back there, that’s probably why he sent you this newest messenger. But I’m just delaying you. The next time I meet up with you, we’ll have more time to talk, I assure you.” Lloyd turned and disappeared into a group of the villagers. His disappearing act was almost as instant as Valtiel’s, albeit not arcane.

I guess I should head back to hear what this messenger of theirs has to say. He glanced at Crystal once to make sure that she was safe, and then cast his eyes around the training grounds until he caught sight of one of the other mercenaries, Joshua, who he was sure would protect her if anything was to happen. Joshua looked up at him and nodded, at which Felix merely gestured towards his sister and then turned away with a nod, hoping that Joshua would understand what he was trying to say.

This done, he turned back to the forest and began to plow his way through the undergrowth, penetrating deep into the woods much faster than he had when he was with his hesitant sister. The time it took him to return to the gate of the base was much shorter than before, but his desire to get there quicker made it seem like it had taken much longer. Aragon and Raffin were still standing guard, looking uninterested as before. Raffin looked like he had begun to sleep, and as he passed him Felix could have sworn that he heard the man snoring. Aragon nodded as he passed, leaning lazily against the wall of the gate.

He passed through the wooden gates and into the courtyard, looking around for anyone who looked out of the ordinary. Breeze was standing in the courtyard, now talking to Lucia and looked slightly worried. When Felix saw the expression on her face, he knew that something was wrong and he hastened to make his way towards her, his urgency to see the rebel messenger gone for the time. Both of the women caught sight of him as he made his way towards them, but neither of them stopped talking and Felix was able to catch bits of their conversation as he neared.

“-don’t think he had any connection to the messenger from earlier, do you?” Breeze was asking Lucia, her worry bleeding through into her voice.

“No, why would that guy send somebody else? According to Levon, Felix was able to piss the messenger off pretty bad so I doubt he’ll be eager to come back here. Besides, did you see the man? He definitely didn’t have the look of somebody who was working for a noble.”

“What are you worried about?” Felix asked, and then added, “And yeah, I guess I might have gone a little over on the messenger, I said some things that usually offend nobles. It’s surprising how easily they can be disgusted by something that we couldn’t care less about.”

“What do you expect?” Lucia answered, “They’re all used to pampered lives and being served blindly, so as soon as somebody says something even remotely out of the ordinary then their false perception of the world is shattered. Breeze was asking about this guy who just came in, though. He said that he was a messenger of some sort, looking for our leader. Unlike that guy from earlier, when we said that Scarlet was in charge for the time he didn’t have a problem with going to her with whatever message he had.”

“Why were you so worried about the messenger from earlier anyway?”

“Well… Felix, you know pretty well about how mistreated the Anilam are throughout most of the continent. Once about a decade ago when I was with a group of other people from my tribe, he attacked. He massacred almost all of us, and I was taken as a prisoner and forced to work as a slave. Then your father and Aelar broke into the man’s lands when Raffin told them that the man took part in the slave trade. The man never knew what happened, but he probably thought it was a rebellion; most of his guards were dead, and all of his slaves had been set free. Most of my friends were dead, though, and I didn’t think I had anywhere to go so I told your father that I would join up with him. Ever since then I’ve been a member of this little group.”

“So you didn’t want him to see you in case he remembered you and made the connection that my father was the one who set all of his slaves free?”

“Something along those lines. My face is a little bit distinct, so I thought I might be easier to recognize than most of the other slaves that are free.”

“But that must have been several years ago by now, and the laws in Elthren say that a slave who has lived free for a year isn’t a slave anymore.” This was one of the few laws of Elthren that he knew, and he could only remember it because he had once helped his father on a job to free a group of slaves. Freeing slaves was one of the only jobs that they weren’t contracted or paid for because they didn’t want their involvement known in case of repercussions. According to his father, and he believed the same, all men were equal, and people did not deserve to be treated as mot slaves were.

“Those laws don’t apply to the Anilam. Like it or not, Felix, Elthren and the rest of the continent are, for the most part, a lot more prejudiced than you would believe. You haven’t encountered much because in all your jobs you almost always play the part of the hero, but… If you ever were to see underneath the façade that the people put on, you would be shocked at how racist and intolerant most people are.”

“I’ll remember that,” Felix said darkly, hoping that the day when he had to look beyond people’s kindness and into their troubled minds would never come. “But for now, where did that messenger that came from the rebels go? I’d like to listen to whatever he has to say.”

“You sound eager,” Lucia observed, “He’s in the mess hall with Scarlet and Levon.”

“Thanks,” Felix said, and turned to make his way towards the mess hall. For a moment he could feel Lucia’s eyes on his back, and then she and Breeze began to talk again. Before he walked under the eave of the mess hall, he thought that he felt a drop of rain and looked up to see that the sky was overcast and gloomy, something that he had not paid much attention to when he had left earlier. He didn’t pay much attention to it then, either, and instead was quick to step under the eave and into the mess hall.

The mess hall was lit by the cheerful crackling of a fire which cast a bright light around the room. Quiet voices indistinctly spoke, and Felix walked towards the silhouettes of Scarlet, Levon, and a third, heavily muscled man. At the sound of footsteps on the ground, the heavily muscled man, who was the only member of the group with his back turned towards Felix, turned around.

The man had a claymore draped across his back, and the long sleeves of his black overcoat were rolled up to his elbows, showing his muscled arms. His hair was slicked back, revealing a cunning but strong face. His tunic was a darker black than that of his obviously more used overcoat and had few stains on it, or at least many less than Felix expected. Although the man looked like a strong warrior, he did not give off the aura of being a very good messenger. The man caught sight of Felix and then simply turned around after ascertaining that he was no harm.

“So, back to the matter at hand,” the man said. “The rebels you killed back under the employment of Aeolus were for our cause, but they were much more barbaric than the rest of us and we were in constant disagreements with them, so I guess it could be considered that you did us just as much of a favor as you did Aeolus. That’s why he’s so eager to pay you off to eliminate us now. We didn’t come here to try and pay you to eliminate his soldiers, and we aren’t here to attempt to extract vengeance, because I’m sure that you were in the right and knew as much. I, and my group, are here to find out what your intentions are and whether you stand opposed to us, whether you intend to side with us or if you simply wish to stay uninvolved.”

Felix slid into his seat next to Levon almost noiselessly and the man made no move to show that he had caught sight of Felix. Scarlet briefly glanced over at him even though she had seen him when he was coming in. Levon seemed to be having a difficult time thinking up a response, one of the few times that he had seen him struggling to formulate a sentence.

Finally, Levon was able to say, “Your side of this story certainly is convincing and explains much about the conduct of Elthren and Aeolus’ running of the country, and so we will revoke any further contracts with the prince on top of the current two jobs that we have already refused. As for joining your rebellion,” He paused and seemed to be struggling to find words again, and then said, “At least for the time being, I believe that our mercenaries will remain neutral in this conflict. If my beliefs are correct, though, it is entirely within reason that Aeolus will take out refusal to take action as aiding your cause and in doing so turn us to your side of the conflict, so we might be seeing you sooner than you might believe.”

“It’s good to know how well ahead you think,” the man said, laughing slightly. “I thought you were going to leave your opinions ambiguous, but your willingness to help us if you’re pushed into the situation is comforting. Rumors of the talent of your group are prevalent, and fighting you might not have turned out well for us in the end.”

“I don’t know if we should take that as a compliment or an insult, Cadoc,” Levon said as the man pushed himself up and out of his chair. “Regardless, I believe that it would be in your best interests to stay with us as you requested. We’ll protect you from Aeolus’ soldiers, but do try to spread rumors amongst the townsfolk that you’ve left the village, alright? Then the soldiers that you say are on the way here will be sent off in the belief that you’ve already left.”

“Just call it a mix like I would and forget about it. Good luck, and I hope to see you soon, as long as it isn’t as enemies. We’ll accept your offer if you’ll take us, but about the soldiers you mentioned… The other messenger that Aeolus brought a small group of soldiers with him as well and there is always the remote possibility that they will attempt to strike at us.” Cadoc pushed his chair in, nodded to each of them in turn and then turned and walked away confidently. When he had exited the room, Scarlet turned towards Felix.

“Why did you come in here?”

“I heard that a messenger was going to be here.”

“From who? I thought that you went to the training grounds with your sister to train her.”

“When I was up there I ran into one of the rebels, a man named Lloyd, and he told me about the rebels being here. Then he said that there was a messenger that they had sent to us and said that if I wanted to find out any more then I should come here and listen to what the messenger had to say. Looks like I might see Lloyd soon and I’ll be able to question him then, huh?”

Scarlet sighed sarcastically and said, “Only you could go out while trying to help your sister and come back after having fought one of the men that we’re attempting to ally ourselves with.”

“What can I say? It comes to me naturally.” Felix laughed and pushed himself out, hoping that neither of them would bother to point out that he really didn’t have any right to be sitting there. He pushed his chair in as Cadoc had so recently done, and began to walk towards the exit. Neither Levon nor Scarlet seemed to notice him, or else they did not care enough to say anything to him.

“Hey, Felix! So what’s the news from the meetings that’ve been going on today?” Inferno asked, walking towards Felix as soon as he walked out of the mess hall. From the expression on his face, it was apparent that he was as bored as Felix was and looking for anything to pass the time, even if it involved as mundane a topic as news from the meetings.

“Nothing much, but I think the rebels that the guy warned us about earlier are coming to rest here for a while. The guy who just left, Cadoc, was a rebel messenger.”

“So we’re officially partnering up with the rebels or what?” Inferno seemed to be genuinely interested in what he had to say now, and Felix could see why. Up until he had heard it with his own ears, he would have doubted it if any of the others had told him that they had partnered up with the rebels. Other than hearsay, Felix knew next to nothing about the rebels and was looking forward to asking some of them about their intentions when they arrived. While he might not know much about the rebels regarding their motivations, though, he did know that rebellions were increasing around Elthren at a frightening rate.

“We’re giving them shelter at least, but I don’t know about much else. Judging from what Levon says, it sounds like Aeolus has a group of soldiers heading our way to find the rebels and kill them. We’re giving them shelter and the villagers are going to claim that they’ve gone so that they’ll be able to survive.”

“Don’t you think that Aeolus’ soldiers would be intelligent enough to try and search the fort?” Breeze asked as she and Lucia walked towards them, obviously having listened to their earlier conversation. “I wouldn’t trust anyone if I was as lousy of a ruler as Aeolus. Nobody really knows much about how he keeps power, even. I wonder how he convinces such a large army to serve him so loyally.”

“It’s probably not that hard. He probably threatens the families of some, offers riches to others… I’d wager that he just bribes them basically. I guess there could be more behind it than Elthren’s royal treasury, but it’s unlikely.”

“What else could there be?” Felix asked, looking at Lucia curiously.

“Well…” She seemed uncomfortable, if only for a moment. “He hires mercenaries to work as soldiers; I’m certain of that as well. But some time ago I served him briefly as a personal guardian. Many of the people that we say seemed to fear each other rather than Aeolus. He pits people against each other and feigns aiding both sides to gain loyalty. Beyond that, there’s certainly a dark aura around him. As far as I know, there are only two of his councilors who I would be willing to trust, and both seem to be good men.”

“Who are these two?”

“Nàrihpes is one of them, he is a very young lord who has only recently been given the title. I don’t know a lot about him other than that he treats all with kindness. He keeps many of his actions quiet from Aeolus, and he is a strong voice for peace rather than war. From what I hear, he threatened to resign recently, but I never heard the reasons why. The other man in Aeolus’ council who I would be willing to trust is much more experienced than Nàrihpes and has served much longer as well. His name is Ryker and he is the leader of the councilors. He is somewhat old, but the people support him. I’m fairly certain that if rebels were to overthrow Elthren he would most likely be placed on the throne because he strikes me as a very good leader.”

“I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of either of them, but how do you know so much about Elthren and the running of the country? I know that you used to serve the royal family as a mercenary, but that was a long time ago.” Felix couldn’t keep the curiosity out of his tone. Lucia had trained to be a mercenary by serving Elthren’s prince, Aeolus, but even after departing still seemed to know a lot about the hidden details of the country.

“I have my sources, but it would be a lot less exciting if I told you, wouldn’t it?” Lucia replied with a slight laugh.

“All right, I’ll give you that, but only ‘cause not telling me really makes me wonder a lot more than I normally would. Do you have a network of spies or something?”

“A network? Come on Felix, even you know that that kind of sneakiness is beyond me, I wouldn’t even be able to have one spy reporting to me without accidentally blowing cover. Nope, sorry to say it but you’re wrong there.”

“Well I’m out of ideas, too, so I guess I’ll just leave the answer shrouded in darkness for now. What else do you know about Aeolus, though?”

“He is a rather crude, unrefined man, similar in some ways to you, Felix. He lives by his own laws and doesn’t really care much about the opinions of others. Honestly, though, that’s all that I ever learned about him. I only spoke to him in person on one occasion, and that occasion was very brief.”

“What he thinks and what he means don’t matter. What actually happens due to his actions does, and that is what has led us to rebel against his tyrannical rule.” Felix turned and saw Lloyd walked towards them with a grin on his face, Crystal walking next to him. “I heard from my brother that your group had agreed to allow us to rest here.” At the curious expression on Felix’s face, he answered by saying, “Cadoc is my brother, believe it or not. We might not look alike, but it’s true.”

“I never would have seen the connection,” Felix said truthfully. A sudden thought struck him unexpectedly and unwanted; he was supposed to be working on cutting wood by now in hopes that he would be able to finish the job early. The arrival of the rebels wouldn’t be a good enough reason for him to have ‘forgotten’ his job, at least not to Scarlet. “I hate to abandon you guys, but we’ve got to go and cut wood. Me and Inferno. We’ll be back soon.”

“I’ll come with,” Lloyd volunteered. “After all, you are giving my group shelter so I might as well try and repay that even if just a little, right?”

“No, you don’t have to if you don’t want to; chopping wood for a few hours will be anything but fun, I’m certain, and since you’re all guests here it doesn’t make sense to have you do it as well.”

“Well if you don’t want me to come along then just tell me, if not I’m coming with,” Lloyd said, and Felix couldn’t think of a response. He hadn’t been meaning to give off the impression that he did not want Lloyd to come along. Lloyd noticed his change in expressions and said calmly, “Okay, then, let’s go! You already got axes up there or do we need to get some before going?”

“No, there should already be some up there. I think that Diran, Sieker and Robin have already been up there and since we’ll be swapping spots with them it’ll be all set,” Inferno said, and Felix couldn’t help but chuckle at the vision of the frail Sieker cutting wood. Felix wondered how much difficulty it took the man to lift the axe, even. Although he was a very kind man and Felix did like him, it couldn’t be denied that he was a rather weak and frail man. His magic, like Levon and Lightning’s was much stronger than that of Atticus’, definitely a force to be reckoned with, but this magical strength unfortunately didn’t carry over to his physical frame.

He was a very thin man, and the monocle that he always wore only reinforced this perception of him. Usually, he wore long, overly large robes to cover his slight frame and this combined with his hair, which was darker than the blackest night, occasionally gave villagers the wrong impression upon seeing him. In spite of his appearance, he was a very kind man who had on more than one occasion donated all of his payment from a job to help repair a village that they were working on or else to help improve the local village.

“Who was honestly mean enough to stick Sieker on wood-splitting duty? I thought that he would be with Scarlet and Levon meeting with whatever messengers were sent out.”

“I don’t know. Raffin told me last night that he was going to be sent out hunting, but he’s watching the gate right now so it looks like the schedule might have been changed up a bit. I haven’t seen Veruka or Lightning around today, though, do you know what happened to them?”

“They’re probably in the village, I saw two people that looked a lot stronger than most of the villagers, or I got that impression from them at least,” Lloyd commented. Inferno quickly added a brief description of the two, and Lloyd confirmed that it sounded like the two people he had seen. This didn’t quell their questions so much as help to bring more up. Usually Lightning and Veruka stayed at the base more than the village, so their motivations for leaving were shrouded in mystery.

Their conversation was very brief as the walk to the location of Robin, Diran and Sieker took much shorter than any of them could have expected. The trio was working when they arrived. Sieker’s arms were shaking with the effort of his exertion, but in spite of his effort the amount of work he had gotten done paled in comparison to that which his two companions had managed to do.

Almost as soon as they stepped into the clearing, Robin embedded his axe deep into a round of wood and turned around. Sieker, who still had his own axe lifted above his head in a precarious and dangerous position, brought the tool down and then retired, shaking in exhaustion. Rather than his usual black robes, we wore an ordinary stained brown tunic that had been further stained with the sweat of his exertion. Diran, the strongest of the three, split the round he was working on and then turned away from it, wiping his forehead as he did so.

“Don’t abandon me or anything Robin. Sieker put in more work than you did and he’s weaker than you too!” Diran didn’t seem to be worried in the slight bit that Sieker would hear him and be offended. It was unlikely that Sieker would take the comment as offensive, though, as he knew it to be true.

“The amount of work he got done compared to the amount of work let me leave before him, regardless of how much effort he put into it,” Robin answered. He usually was abrupt and rude in his comments, but they had learned to ignore this. It would be an overstatement to say that he had a heart of gold, but underneath his gruff exterior he was a good man and his skills with a bow and swords easily made up for his mannerisms. “Now are you coming or not, Diran? I’m gonna try to head into town, if we get there soon enough we might be able to pick up on some of the barmaids and have a good time.”

 This instantly cut off any sarcastic remark Robin’s foster brother was about to say, and he simply nodded. “Let’s go, you can’t go wrong with the bar and the barmaids.”

“My thoughts exactly. Good luck, you three.” Neither Robin nor Diran seemed bothered in the slightest that they hadn’t seen Lloyd before. Their thoughts were already I the village, Felix was sure, with all the women that they constantly chased after, sometimes successfully and sometimes fruitlessly.

“So who were those two?” Lloyd asked, watching the two retreating backs with interest. Inferno had already walked to the axe that Robin had planted in the round and was doing his best to remove the weapon with very little in terms of results.

“The two guys that just left were Robin and Diran. The bigger guy was Diran, the smaller one Robin. They’re best friends and foster brothers and they’ve been with us since about when my father started up this group. Robin’s a little rough, but he’s the best archer you’ll ever meet and Diran is just an animal on the battlefield, we’re all glad that we don’t have to face off against him.”

“They sound like interesting men. Praise for your father came from the head of our group often, but we were told next to nothing about the identities of the rest of your group.”

“Who’s the leader of your group of rebels anyway? You’ve mentioned him a few times, but you’ve never given up a name.”

“Rwaderne is his name. I don’t know if the leader of our group would be the proper title to give him, but he is very important to our group. He was a wandering swordsman before he joined up with us, and he taught me and my friend Hermes in how to use a sword. He’s a very unique man, very strong.”

“I’ve never heard of him. He certainly has an interesting name, though, that can’t be denied,” Felix admitted. He had thought that he might have been one of the many men that his father had mentioned from his past when he had told their group tales on their outings, but this wasn’t the case.

“Yeah, well none of us know very much about him so I couldn’t tell you about it.” Lloyd lifted up the remaining axe and took a swing at a round of wood, digging the metal of the weapon deep into the wood before tugging it out and swinging again and leaving a deep crack in the side of the round. The axe pulled out much easier this time, and on the third strike the round split in two. Felix pulled his eyes away and began to hack at his own round, quickly splitting it just as Lloyd had.

“So you don’t even know very much about your leader? That doesn’t sound like a very good decision,” Inferno commented.

“We don’t really know a lot about my father either, Inferno,” Felix pointed out. “Just look at some of the weird things he does, like this job that he set out on. If we knew much about him we might be able to say why he did it, but we don’t so we can’t.”

Inferno shrugged before swinging again. “Maybe you’re right, I guess I hadn’t given it much thought. I guess I didn’t notice out fault when I pointed out theirs… How many people do that?”

“A lot more than you’d think, actually. Everyone does, it seems like,” Lloyd answered.

“I meant that as a rhetorical question, but thanks for trying to make me feel better Lloyd.”

“No problem, man,” Lloyd answered, either not catching the sarcasm in Inferno’s voice or choosing to ignore it if he had. While the two began to banter back and forth, Felix continued to work on the considerable pile of rounds that lay in front of him. Some of it could be left there for the third group that was to be sent out, but they had a few hours to eliminate the majority of the pile or else suffer punishment.

He had succeeded in finishing chopping up the first round into a group of smaller pieces when the two first noticed that he wasn’t talking. “What’s wrong with you?” Lloyd asked, “You’re being way too quiet, it’s eerie.”

Felix brought his axe down mightily, and split a second round in half. He would need to continue to split it into smaller pieces, but he still looked up from his work briefly, leaning on his axe, and said, “Nothing, just trying to finish this off. We’ve gotta get it done soon so might as well finish it and then talk back at base where it’s easier to relax. Besides, I’d like to get to meet some of the members of your rebel group, from what you’ve saw about Rwaderne the group sounds pretty interesting.”

“I guess you could say that about us, but your group is pretty interesting too, that’s why I came to your base so much sooner than the rest of my companions. I guess it’s inevitable that we think of others lives as more interesting than our own, huh?” Lloyd turned away and waited for a response, chopping another round and bringing the axe up around his shoulders for another strike.

“Not always, but I guess you might be right,” Felix admitted, striking the wood once again with his axe. Slowly, their conversation dwindled as they continued to work. Within minutes, they changed from speaking cheerfully to only grunting as they chopped away at the wood. Each round that they eliminated lessened their workload slightly, but the pile of wood that needed to be chopped never seemed to shrink. Felix was just glad that they weren’t in the third group, who had to finish whatever they didn’t do and then carry it all back to the camp.

“Think we can get away with quitting now and just standing here?” Inferno asked after an hour had passed. It had been so long since they had spoken that Felix had almost forgotten that the other two were also there. The amount of work that they had gotten done in the hour easily paralleled how much the lazier Diran and Robin had done, including the efforts of the diligent Sieker.

“We probably could, but I’m not that much of a jerk,” Felix answered, leaning his axe against another incomplete round and placing his hands against his knees. The sweet scent of sap filled the air, and when he placed his hands against his knees he found that his clothes were covered in the sticky substance. Having his hands stick to something was one of the few things that he could not stand, and he instantly tore them away, first wiping the sap off on a nearby trunk and then washing them off in some of the water from his wineskin. They all carried wineskins, but it was very rare for them to be filled with the expensive liquid they were intended for.

When he had finished, he happily rubbed his hands together to reassure himself that they were no longer sticky, but kept them away from his knees. Once again he hefted his axe above his shoulder. “Besides, we’re going to be out here anyway so we might as well get some of the work done. It’s not as bad as the first time we had to come out here, right, Inferno?”

The first time that he and Inferno had been sent out to chop wood had been a few years back, and they had put in their best efforts in spite of having a dangerous job the next day. When they had returned to camp their hands were covered with popped blisters and splinters, and Felix’s father had been forced to go with Aelar to fill their spots on the job while they waited for their hands to recover.

“I’m hoping to avoid that situation again, which is why I think we should quit while we’re ahead.”

“There’s no way you even have a single blister yet! Besides we don’t have any jobs for a few days at least, easily enough time to recover.”

Inferno shrugged and admitted, “I know, but this just isn’t very fun. I thought that I might be able to convince you out of it, but you have to be all good and do what’s right.” He made a sarcastic face and brought his axe down on a round of wood, indenting the round but otherwise not causing any visible damage. When he brought it down again, the resounding crack was a refreshing noise of success.

“So Lloyd, how long has your group been rebels for? I can’t say that I’ve ever really talked to any rebels before, I only fought those guys back on our last job.”

“I’ve been with the group for about three years I think. I joined with Cadoc back when we first encountered them. Our father joined as well, but he generally doesn’t travel with our group. We joined because of some of the things that we saw innocents being put through, injustices that they didn’t deserve. After we saw their actions, the three of us attacked the soldiers who were inflicting the injustices on the civilians, and after that we didn’t have much of a choice but to go on the run.”

“Our group never really supported Aeolus taking the throne, but it hasn’t affected us or the villagers that live around here either. The closest person we have around here to a soldier is Glenn, the guy who lives in our village as a guard. When we first saw that Aeolus was sending guards to the villages, we thought that it might have been a good sign that he would be a better ruler than we had thought, but it didn’t take him long to prove us wrong there. Even Glenn doesn’t like him, he’s always whining about being underpaid.”

“Aeolus has… many ways of keeping people in his service, regardless of what they believe. We’ve witnessed this before and I’ve fought men before who I didn’t think deserved to die. He promises them riches, or if that doesn’t work then he threatens to kill their family. If that still doesn’t work then he kills a single member of a person’s family daily until the person gives in. It’s a good way to get people to join his cause,” Lloyd said the last line with disgust, making it obvious that he didn’t believe it.

Felix swung again, splitting his round further before saying, “I guess he wasn’t ever suited to be a ruler if he has to resort to such barbaric methods to recruit followers.”

“He doesn’t always have to do it, some men freely pledge their allegiance to him and others only follow him because they see him as a road to power. He takes advantage of it all and uses people for whatever he wants.”

“Eventually he’ll be overthrown; you’re already working on it, after all. He can’t rule through terror forever,” Inferno seemed confident as he said this and brought his axe down on the round again.

“It’s easy to say that, but unless everyone takes action then he’ll be in power for a lot longer than anyone wants to see. He’s even lost the support of the Shaden.”

Felix struck twice more before he allowed his curiosity to overcome him and he asked, “The who? I’ve never heard of them before.”

“You’ve never heard of the Shaden? I guess a lot of people haven’t, their past is enshrouded in darkness. The Shaden were a tribe of shadow-dwellers and assassins who were sworn to protect the Elthren royal family centuries ago. They followed the king’s every whim and did everything necessary in order to protect them, ranging from killing rebels like me to silencing rumors about the rebel family. They were a mighty and unstoppable force, at least in their prime. Over the last few centuries their number has begun to dwindle and now not many still remain. For a long time they attempted to serve Aeolus as they had served his predecessors, but even they were unable to stand his tyrannical rule and they departed the country. Nobody knows what happened to the remainder of the tribe.”

“They just disappeared, huh? They almost sound similar to the Argiaund, but a lot more sinister in nature.” The Argiaund were a rather large group of sorcerer-warriors who were dedicated to bringing peace and order to Injelin. They had long ago been granted an island to the east of Injelin on which to build their order, and that was where they still lived. Felix had never met one, but he had heard rumors of them and knew that they were unstoppable warriors in battle, dedicated to serving what was right. Their powers were a mix of arcane and natural abilities and members of their order were generally trained for many years before being inducted. Rumors claimed that their order included members of every race, ranging from elves to dwarves to goblins and even to lesser known beings.

When he was a child, Felix’s father had told him that he had encountered the Argiaund several times on jobs to eliminate bandits and similar villainous people from the world. Now, though, he said that their affairs had shifted to much larger matters and they were typically involved in larger-scale activities. Perhaps becoming involved with the rebels would bring Felix in contact with these people who he had admired as a child.

“I guess you could say that the two are similar, but the Shaden are so much darker that I never made the connection. I’m not yet entirely certain about the reasons, but they were required to commit mass executions in the past, in a place that had not been the same since. It’s infested with the spirits of the dead that still seek revenge.”

“Mass executions? How long ago was this?” He had never heard rumors of mass executions in the history of the country.

“I don’t know, but a long time ago. If I remember correctly it was because a confidential secret of the royal family was leaked and they killed everyone who had knowledge of it. Shaden could read minds, they say. Most of them could at least, and for those who didn’t they had tools in the temple that gave them the ability.”

“They sound like pretty villainous people.”

“I guess you could say that, but judging from what I’ve learned they didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. Once I met a man named Anarion who was a member of the Shaden. It was he who told me about all of this, and he also told me that he was going to try and enter the temple one day and discover the secrets within. He was traveling with a woman named Wave” Lloyd turned around and split a round a few times while Felix got back to work as well. Lloyd certainly did seem to be full of interesting stories.

“I guess you just got all the luck, Lloyd. Most of us will never get to meet half the people that you have and you’re only a little older than we are!”

“Yeah, I might have run into some interesting people but I bet you guys live lives that are more interesting than mine, regardless of what you say! You’re mercenaries, after all, every day of your lives is probably filled with excitement!”

Inferno laughed a little at his impression and said, “You’d be surprised how many of our days are spent like this, just doing mundane jobs like cutting wood, hunting, or even waiting around for a job to come our way. Of course, usually we have to try and work on finishing up some of the incomplete parts of the base then.”

“What part wasn’t’ done? It looked pretty complete to me.”

“The third barracks is still being worked on, but it isn’t essential so we haven’t worked heavily on finishing it up. We stopped working on it a while back because we didn’t have any use for it, and we’ve only recently started working on it a little bit. It’s more of a side-job. When we’re done with it, it’ll probably be used as a warehouse for our weapons or else a place where we can keep food without fear of it going rotten. Sometimes people who stay with us sleep there, usually acquaintances of my father’s.”

“So I guess that’s where our group will be staying then?”

“If we’re out of space in the rest of the barracks there might not be much of a choice, sorry.”

“It’s not like you have to put up with us staying there, and any shelter is better than being stuck out in the cold like we would be otherwise.”

“Just how large is your group anyway?”

“Not too big, actually. I think there are about thirteen of us. Quite the lucky number of newcomers you have,” he said, laughing slightly when he finished his last sentence.

“Come on, Felix, we’ve done our work here, let’s get back to base now,” Inferno said.

 

This is the most recent chapter, but I’m in need of some reviews to see what I’ve done wrong or right, I’m dying of curiousity here! So please, tell me how it is, what you’d like me to improve on, etc… Thank you again for reading!

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Chapter 2

December 21, 2008

Two

 

“Watch your back,” Gaheris said to Felix as he finished loading his saddlebags just outside the main gates of the base. “I won’t be there to watch it for you, and Elthrenian soldiers can be unbelievably fierce fighters, especially unprepared. I’ve told Raffin and Sieker to be as quick on their search as possible so that they can join up with you. Glenn’s going to watch the fort as well as he can, so Aelar and I will try to tag along and catch up before you’re all overwhelmed. If you’re there before Lightning and her group, then don’t attack at all costs.”

“Hey, I can watch my own back, father, don’t worry,” Strider replied carelessly. “What’s the worst that could happen, especially with such a large group?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care to find out, either. And I know that I’ve told you this, but Strider, watch after your sister, alright? If anything happens to her, it’s going to be your ass on the line, got that? And watch after Saphir, too, our reputation would shoot to hell if she was to be harmed while we were supposed to be protecting her.” He gestured to this woman, who was standing a few feet away. She had long black hair and a fair face, and Robin was eying her still, which Felix couldn’t help but notice when he looked up.

“I know, I know,” Felix said; he had nearly memorized each one of the different lectures his father would always give him before a job, and that just made them much drier and increasingly dull with each repetition. All the others in the group had already saddled their horses and were prepared to leave while his father plowed through his rant as usual.

“Well then if you know, prove it on this job,” he said, and turned to walk away from them, leaving Scarlet in control. She seemed to think that they had talked long enough, and quickly galloped out of the gate, leaving them all to follow and keep pace with her.

As he rode, Strider couldn’t help but look over the events of the previous night, laughing while he rode. Diran, who had been left out of their trip to the pub, thought the following day’s job was a cause worthy of celebrating and so he had brought out some of his hidden caskets of alcohol for the celebrations. After a drinking game between him and Raiku, the rest of it had been consumed in almost equal share by a few members of the group, and some people woke up with the headaches to prove it.

 Felix was glad to be able to say that he was not one of these few people who had been in pain all morning and dreading the ride because of the effect of the riding on their headaches. In a twisted way, he found it humorous that the people had been stupid enough to drink so much the day before departing.

The day’s riding passed by slowly, and the fact that so many of his companions were unwilling to speak because of the pain that it caused only exacerbated this problem, and most of the day he passed by simply trying not to fall asleep. When night finally came and they made a hasty camp, he fell asleep, exhausted, almost immediately after eating in spite of the fact that he had done barely any physical activity during the course of the day. Scarlet had agreed to take their first watch shift, and she was going to swap off with Robin halfway through the night. Robin had been one of the few who had barely been affected by his drinking the previous night and had not spent any time whining about it.

“Wake up, man, come on, we don’t have much time,” Inferno said, and Felix reluctantly opened his eyes; he had been having a good dream, albeit a strange one, though it had been somewhat interesting. For some reason it involved him plucking rocks up and throwing them at assorted objects to watch the results from a safe distance. Where it had come from, he had no idea, but it was undeniably interesting in its own way.

Grumbling something indistinctly, Felix pushed himself to his feet and then rolled up the few blankets that he had used the night before. The pot that they had used for cooking their soup dinner the night before sat over the now-dead fire, covered by a by a crudely shaped hunk of wood. Diran was handing out bowls, while Crystal sat tiredly next to the dead fire before standing up to ladle herself a small portion of the leftover soup. Their goal was to distribute enough to feed them all and eat all of it; they could not carry the soup with them through the day without it spoiling, and wasting resources went against everything they had trained themselves to do.

“Better get yourself in on that before it turns into a madhouse,” Inferno observed as he spooned some of his own breakfast into his mouth. “There might not be many of us, but even I have to admit that I’m shocked sometimes about how large of a fight we can cause.”

“Yeah, I get you there,” Felix answered with a laugh as he walked towards the pot, which Crystal was now walked away from. His sister was younger than him and had long brown hair that hung down her back as well as piercing blue eyes that were similar to his own. Her face was filled with kindness, and she wore a white skirt. Other than their similar eyes, they were different in almost every imaginable way.

After quickly getting his own share of the leftovers, he departed from the fireside and went to stand next to Inferno. “You have any idea when we’re going to be getting there, or are they still holding that information back?”

“I couldn’t tell you. I might be the commander’s son, but they sure as hell don’t tell me that much,” Felix answered, shaking his head sadly.

“We should get there by the end of today or early tomorrow,” Saphir said, “As long as we don’t encounter any other obstacles. If we make good time, we might arrive before then.”

“What’s the layout of the area like?” Felix asked. “Is it easy to defend, or an open plain?”

“The soldiers camped a small distance from a small village and had found an abandoned castle, but there weren’t enough of them to man the entire thing. The villagers don’t want anything to do with them, that’s why me and my companion were sent out by the others to the prince and from there to recruit mercenaries to our cause.”

“Interesting,” Strider said, nodding slowly. “This castle was abandoned, right? So how strong are the defenses? Are there any secret entrances or particularly weak points we should be aware of?”

“Actually, now that you mention it, me and my younger brother used to sneak into the castle and play in there when we were children. But since Mother forbade us from entering, we found a back entrance and used it to sneak in. We thought she wouldn’t know if we didn’t use the main entrance. It was probably put in there as an escape for the lord of the castle; it comes up directly to the throne room.”

“Could you locate the entrance?”

“Yes,” she answered, “Easily, I’ve used it so often that I could tell you different details about the stones on the wall, trust me, I can find the entrance.”

“That alone will make this job a lot easier. If we can sneak into their base, we have an element of surprise. And dragons shouldn’t be able to fit into a castle from what I hear, so if we can get in there we can eliminate most resistance without fear of the dragon master attacking us, at least not while with his steed.”

For a few minutes after Saphir left, he discussed tactics of the battle with Inferno, but the topic didn’t really interest either of them and was primarily a feeble attempt to quell their worried thoughts about the fight, so it was put to rest soon. Luckily, however, they were not silent for long because almost as soon as their conversation lapsed, Scarlet told them that it was time to set out.

Due to the lack of drinking the previous night, many of those that he generally spoke to while riding were once more willing to talk during the course of the ride and he passed most of the day conversing with Lucia, Inferno, and Robin, who was being uncharacteristically cheerful. By the time night came, they had located the castle that Saphir had spoken of and they were also close to the village that she claimed to have come from.

Rather than stopping two miles from the village, they decided to push on, their hopes of warm bedding and food spurning them to continue when they would have stopped before. They arrived at the village under cover of darkness, and so Felix was unable to make out much of the village, but they were quickly led deep into the village by Saphir. Finally after passing by countless darkened door shadows and other ominous looking obstacles, she led them into a wooden building larger than all of those that surrounded it. A dim light still shone out in the brief crack between the bottom of the door and the ground.

Saphir pushed the door open, and the dim light streamed out, illuminating the darkened street in a slight glow. Felix threw one last glance at the shadow of the castle where the soldiers were staying, which was a safe distance away, and then stepped inside behind the others.

As soon as the door shut behind him, Felix turned around and looked around. They were at an inn that obviously doubled as a pub, but it looked as though most of the patrons of the place had long since retired. A few of their missing companions were sitting at a table in the corner of the room, waving Felix and his companions over.

He walked towards them, and as he got closer he recognized Arkis, a heavily muscled older man who carried a broadsword and a crudely crafted axe, Lightning, a woman with long black hair and their most powerful magician, as well Joshua, a former member of Elthren’s army who had retired after repeated disputes with his captain. A fourth man who Felix did not recognize was also sitting with them. He had shoulder-length grey hair similar to Arkis’ and had a bandanna covering the lower half of his face. A variety of deadly looking sharp objects were stuck into his belt.

“You know the price, if you need me again, you know how to get to me,” the man said as soon as he caught sight of the large approaching group. Without speaking another word, he stood and seemed to glide across the floor and disappear into the night in the brief second that the door was open. Arkis leaned back in his chair, shaking his head.

“Should’ve known that we couldn’t trust him, their race never is very reliable. I’ve never met a single Shaden that was worth trusting. No wonder the race is going extinct; I don’t see why boss even trusts that one,” Arkis seemed to be talking to all of them as much as himself.

“You shouldn’t stereotype them all like that, Arkis,” Lightning said coldly. “Just because you’ve had a few bad experiences with them doesn’t mean that they’re all bad. Besides, according to the legends I’ve heard they used to be the guardians of the royal family.”

“Used to,” Arkis pointed out in response, not even bothering to open his eyes or lower his chair for his response. He almost always looked this careless, except when he was on the battlefield, at which time he was practically the personification of a demon. He also tended to label people by their race as he had done with these Shaden, ignoring the good done by some or most in exchange for his own personal discrimination.

“What are the Shaden anyway?” Strider piped up, “And who was that man?” Judging from the looks of the companions he had entered with, they were asking themselves the same questions.

“Haven’t you ever heard of the Shaden? That’s one of those things you can’t really be told all at once, and at a time like this I don’t think it’s quite the right timing for a story, you know?”

“I guess,” Scarlet answered. “The others are all here, correct?”

“Yeah, we we’ve been staying here for a few days. The villagers think of us as saviors or something, so they’ve been giving us free room and board. What took you guys so long?”

“We only set out two days ago,” Robin said, and Joshua nodded in understanding.

“I’m surprised you even were able to make it here that quickly. Our trip was from a much closer distance, but we took almost a day to get here on horses. Of course you were probably riding at a much harder pace than we were; we knew you wouldn’t be here yet, so we took our time in getting here,” Joshua said.

“Have you worked on any tactics for storming the soldiers?” Scarlet asked, and Felix immediately felt the cheerful air that had followed their reunion disappear.

“Well, that’s part of why that Shaden was here before,” Lightning said, “He said that he would scout out the castle for us, in exchange for the right price. Said he’d find all the secret entrances and whatever else we wanted. We almost reached an agreement with him, too, but Arkis kept slipping in snide comments so he kept raising the price on us.”

“You didn’t hire him yet, right? I know a way to get into the castle undetected, I discovered it with my baby brother when we were children,” Saphir said. “I thought that you would have been told by Ruby when she brought you here.”

“We weren’t, and since when did she turn into your younger brother?” Arkis asked jokingly. Saphir glowered at him for a moment, but he still had his eyes closed and so he didn’t see it.

“She isn’t my brother, partially because she’s a girl. But I told her about the passage before I left and told her to tell you of it if you were to ask about anything of the source.”

“Then we overlooked her. None of us thought of asking her and then tonight Arkis thought up the bright idea of consulting a shadow man,” Lightning said.

“So we won’t be attacking tomorrow then?”

“Most likely not.”

“Then tell me what you decide, I’m going to bed and I’m going to get some good sleep,” Felix said, “Wake me up when you need me. What rooms do we have?”

“We have a big group, so just about every room up there we booked. The innkeeper was nice and gave us all of them when he saw how large our group was. They really think we’re some sort of savior, but you sure as hell don’t hear me complaining about it!” Arkis laughed as Felix turned away and scanned the interior of the dark room. A lone man sat at the counter, ordering a drink from the innkeeper, who was unenthusiastically washing a mug by hand and attempting to keep his eyes open. At the end of the counter, there was a gap in the wall, and this was where he assumed the stairs to be.

Without a second glance back because of his drooping eyes, Felix made his way to the stairs and then continued up them quickly and loudly.

 

When he woke up the next morning, the sunlight from outside already penetrated the windows and most of the others had already returned downstairs or else dispersed through the village. After stretching for a moment, he pushed himself up out of the rough bed he had been sleeping on and saw the other occupants of the room. Levon, Atticus, and Veruka were sleeping on three other beds scattered throughout the room, and Lucia was asleep near the door, looking as though she hadn’t had the energy to go any further. Looks like someone mixed up the barracks, he thought jokingly. Scarlet and father would snap even over this.

Still stretching his tired muscles out and keeping his eyes squinted because of how bright the light around him was, Felix made his way over to Lucia and then gently shook her awake. Lucia’s eyes opened with a start, and she looked around quickly, apparently unsure of where she was but then after a moment a look of realization came into her eyes and Felix almost laughed at how comical she looked. With heavily lidded eyes, she opened her mouth and asked, “Did I get mixed up?”

“Yeah, just a little bit,” Felix said as he helped her to her feet and pushed open the door.

If Scarlet or any other of their companions were in the hallway by chance, he knew just how bad the situation looked but there were different reasons for not wanting to see anyone. Scarlet would be furious because they appeared to have not followed their rules of different barracks, but he wouldn’t hear the end of it from the others. Already, he could hear a ghostly apparition of Inferno’s voice in his head. “Way to go, man! I didn’t think you’d ever be able to pull that one off!”

He shook his head to rid himself of the voice and asked, “So what happened? How’d you end up in there last night?”

“Well after you decided to unceremoniously leave just after we first arrived here, the rest of us talked to Arkis, Lightning, and Joshua for a while before we decided to head up and by then it was pretty late. I staggered up the stairs after the others, and I could barely keep my eyes open so I just picked a room and got inside, I didn’t bother to look at who was in there, but when I saw that all the beds were taken in here I just figured I’d take the floor… I thought it was the women’s quarters.”

“It’s good to know how masculine we appear to you,” Felix answered jokingly, and Lucia shrugged. “But way to go, even I can usually hold off falling asleep until the timing is right.”

“When would the timing have been right, then?”

“After you found the right place,” Felix pointed out.

“Well nobody’s gonna know about it, right? Scarlet might kill someone; she never seems willing to face something as an honest mistake. With her on your tail, you’re going to be lucky if you ever get any, Felix.”

“It’s good to know I have someone looking out for me, Lucia, but I think I can handle my own ways of getting things. And what is nobody going to know about?”

“I like the way you think,” Lucia answered with a slightly mischievous grin that was a rare sign from her. Felix preceded her down the stairs, doing his best to listen for others that might already have decided to go into the pub early, but he could hear none. This would serve as a blessing and a curse; with nobody, questions might arise about why they were the only people there, while with others it might be asked about why they were together when they stumbled down the stairs. A double-edged sword in most senses of the word, Felix mused to himself.

When he reached the bottom of the stairs, it turned out that he was right; none of the others had made it to the pub yet. A few early-rising drunks were halfheartedly clutching mugs in front of them and wiping sleep from their eyes. The others in the bar appeared to be there not to drink but because it was the only place of meeting that was open so early.

With Lucia, he made his way to one of the empty tables and sat down across from her with thoughts still running through his head. Although she had just woken up, she looked very attractive nonetheless; once, a few years back he had attempted to pursue her but she had spurned his advances by telling him that he was too young. Although he had pretended to listen to her advice, he had not truly and instead simply taken it as a warning that she was not interested in him.

“Felix? Are you with me over there?” She asked, snapping him out of his thoughts. He suddenly realized that he had been staring at her while he was thinking and quickly jerked his head away. She laughed a little and Felix allowed himself a slight smile.

“Sorry about that, I was just thinking…” He answered slightly uncertainly, allowing himself to trail off.

“I really hope that the thoughts you were having were… appropriate,” she responded with another of her usually rare dark grins. Felix couldn’t help but grin back this time.

“Well, now that you mention it,” he answered mysteriously, and she laughed. “But sorry if that bothers you!” He quickly added, hoping that such a simple comment wouldn’t shatter the tender friendship that they had been able to build back up after her rejection of him.

“It’s fine; at least you’re not like some of the others when you do that. You should hear some of the things Robin’s told me when he was drunk!”

“I don’t think I really want to, do I?” Felix asked, and looked towards the stairs at the sound of loud footsteps coming crashing down them. The table that they had made their way to was very close to the stairs. Only a moment later, Levon appeared at the bottom of the steps in his usual attire. He wore white and blue robes as well as a feathered cap and had a knife stuck into his belt. The knife was for use generally in emergencies; he was much more proficient in magic, albeit not as talented as Lightning. His face was sharp and knowledgeable in spite of how young he was.

“I thought I heard you two make your way down here a few minutes ago, and I couldn’t get back to sleep so I figured I’d follow you down.”

“So how have things held up with you guys on your own?” Felix asked. “You left a few months back to aid in a border dispute between two nobles of Elthren… Has anything new come of it since I last saw you?”

“No, just a couple windbags arguing about nothing and deciding to just eliminate each other… Sometimes I really wonder about the intelligence of these nobles, you know? I don’t know about anyone else as dense as them… I mean, who honestly kills over something so trivial as a small bit of land?”

“That’s what you get from nobles.” Lucia said simply.

Felix added, “If not for those bickering idiots, how would we make a lot of our revenue? We rely a lot more on their stupidity than we realize, I think.” For some time, they continued to talk carelessly, but soon everyone had woken up. When everyone had congregated around them, Felix couldn’t help but ask Lightning the question that had been tugging at the edge of his conscience.

“So how was the last job, Lightning? You guys were gone a lot longer than we had thought you would be, it’s a relief that so many of you survived, but… it’ll be hard to forget about those who died.”

“It was a trap,” Lightning said darkly. “Boss told us that it was a big job, but we weren’t prepared for what happened. We scoped it all out, but… The day that we went in to attack, we were ambushed. And you can see the effects of it.”

“Yeah… But I guess it is inevitable that some people will die in our line of work,” Felix said. “So don’t feel bad about it, if you do. You were always more likely to feel guilty than the rest of us, even when you don’t deserve to, so don’t let it haunt you, alright?”

“I try not to, but I can’t help but think that we have a worm in our ranks who told the bandits about our attack… I know it might be hard to believe, but I find it hard to buy into the fact that Levon’s battle plan didn’t work out. His strategies have never failed before. And when I think about having a worm within us, I can’t help but wonder if more of our plans are going to fail because of this same turncoat.”

“I don’t know, but there is a first time for everything, so maybe it was just a fluke. And I hate to dismiss your concern, but… we know just about everyone in our group well, and we’ve saved each other countless times. I doubt that there’s anyone among us willing to betray us.”

“Maybe I’m just paranoid, then, but… watch your back, Felix, alright? I don’t want you dying on me!”

“Yeah, Felix, it wouldn’t be the same without you, y’know?” Lucia added, “So you better stay alive, at least for my sake!”

“Got it, you can count on me,” Felix replied with a grin. “It’ll take more than some traitor to bring me down!”

“As good as that might sound, I think that we have more important things to discuss,” Scarlet said, cutting through their conversation like a hot knife through butter. “Levon is working on a strategy for us to seize the castle, preferably without casualties, and I’d rather you not interrupt his concentration.”

“Why don’t you just have one of those dancers lead us in through the back way like they offered?” Felix asked, looking at Scarlet with something near surprise. The course of action was obvious, especially since, according to Saphir, there were very few, if any, others that knew about it.

“That won’t work to get all of us in. We have to have a small group assault them from the outside to keep them distracted while you sneak inside and attack them there,” Levon said.

“But what about you people on the outside? What about the dragon? How will you survive?” Felix’s voice showed a lot of worry, and he knew that the questions he asked made him sound somewhat immature and childish, but they were all rational concerns. They had come this far together, and Lightning’s group had already suffered enough casualties. Just as Lightning had made him promise to survive, he had promised himself that no one else would die, especially since he cared so much for everyone in the group. The only problem was that he wasn’t in charge of the attack; his father had explicitly put it in control of Scarlet, and any insubordination, warranted or not, would result in a severe punishment.

“I initially hoped for a wooded area to cover us, and without one this will be much more difficult,” Levon admitted, “But I think if we only send our strongest in and keep them armed with bows, we might be able to shoot the dragon out of the sky, and from there take out the rest of the soldiers as we would normally.

“You’re taking quite a gamble with a lot of lives,” Felix noted.

“And I would rather not, but Scarlet was insistent, and she is correct; sending us all in through the back way would inevitably attract attention from their watch, and the location of interest would be put under strict surveillance to make sure that no one else attempted to sneak in. These rebellious troops definitely are a lot more intelligent that most soldiers in Elthren’s army.”

“Who’s going to be where, then?”

“Well, since Scarlet has placed you in charge as second-in-command of this job, Felix, it only makes sense that you will take the group that infiltrate the castle. Scarlet has insisted that she be among those who fight on the field. Deciding who is in what group is part of what is taking so long. But, I am fairly certain that Lightning will be among those on the battlefield, as will I, and Lucia, Inferno, and Joshua will be with you.”

The fact that Scarlet trusted him enough to place him as second-in-command over Arkis or Levon or any other more qualified members of their group made him immensely grateful, and so did the fact that Joshua would be with them. He and Felix had worked together countless times on previous jobs and were frequently sparring partners. The matchup of their brute strength and unrefined skill made for an interesting and constantly changing fight.

Felix opened his mouth to speak, but was at a loss for words. What could he possibly say that would convince Scarlet that it wasn’t a good idea to split up like this? Levon’s calculated reasoning made perfect sense, even to him but he didn’t want to admit it. Levon understood his point of view, he knew, but would follow Scarlet’s order and make the battle plans as she had asked him. It wasn’t that he was weak-willed; he just followed orders when they were given, regardless of his opinions on them. He and Scarlet had probably already argued about it upstairs, or the night before. Felix could only wish that he would someday have such unwavering loyalty and was able to follow orders in spite of the situation; he was too free-thinking and individualistic to do so.

“It’s just one of those things, leave it,” Levon said calmly from where he sat. “You can’t beat her in an argument of logic, she’ll find some way. I completely agree with you, though, if that makes you feel any better.” Felix looked towards Scarlet to see what her response to the remark would be, but she was turned away, speaking with Arkis about something.

 “How can you follow orders like that without a trace of doubt?”

Levon thought for a moment, looking up from the parchment that his quill had been scratching away on and locking eyes with Felix. “I used to be a lot like you, Felix. What has changed since then? Or the question you’re asking, why have I changed from that to the way I am now? It is a long story, one entirely unworthy of telling. Back in my days as a bard, I might be willing to tell it, but not any longer. You have my most sincere apologies.”

“Don’t feel left out, though, Felix, none of the rest of us know about it either. Really does make you wonder just how exciting of a life Levon had before he joined up with us,” Lucia said cheerfully.

“Somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better,” Felix answered with a wry smile. “But I guess that now that you’ve put it that way, I can’t help but wonder…”

“Don’t let it bug you,” Raiku said, clapping a hand on Felix’s shoulder. “He won’t tell you, and it makes it more interesting this way. Now we have to wonder what the real story is, makes the whole thing a lot more dramatic!” He laughed cheerfully.

“Raiku, I almost forgot that you were traveling with us,” Felix said, and Raiku looked slightly taken aback.

“Geez, you can forget about one of your best buds over the course of a few days? That really tells me a lot,” he said sarcastically. “I’m mostly already awake ’cause I heard that we might be invading that damned castle later today. Hopefully if we can take it out today, we can get back to the base sometime soon.”

“You really think we’ll be able to take out an entire squad of Elthrenian troops in a single day?”

“I was thinking that if we snuck into the castle at night, when they’re all asleep we’d be able to kill most of them off before they knew we were there, and then the remainder of us could be on the outside; we’d attack them once they left the protection of the castle, and then they’d be done for. We’d have to wait around for whatever messenger of Elthren to come around and pay us or whatever, but it’ll all work out.”

“That actually sounds like a rather… well thought-out plan,” Felix admitted, though internally he was rather disgusted by the thought of killing people while they slept. He recognized that it might spare the lives of their own men, but that didn’t loosen his resentment of the action. It was a cowardly move, but sometimes cowardly moves needed to be used to win the day.

“Scarlet won’t let it go through, though,” Breeze said in an undertone, obviously hoping that the woman wouldn’t hear her comment. Usually, Scarlet was much more loose and kind, but since their departure for the quest, she had seemed rather uptight with worry.

“I wonder why she’s so worried lately… She’s never been this strict with us before. Maybe it’s just worry about the new job. Going against a dragon rider is enough to worry anyone,” Raiku suggested.

“You’re probably right. We’ll pull through, though, we always find a way.”

“I think that’s the reason that we’re trying to come up with a plan, though,” Breeze said. “So we don’t find a way, we actually can really entirely on our own talent for once.”

“But that’s not quite as fun as just leaving it up to fate,” Felix said jokingly.

“Fate’s what’ll lead to us all ending up dead in the middle of some random battle,” Raiku warned. “I’d rather fight it and live life by my own rules, not the whims of some nonexistent higher power.”

“That was quite the mouthful, especially considering who it was coming from. Want to simplify it down?” Breeze asked.

“I think we should just leave it,” Felix said, and then added, “I mean it’s not every day that Raiku says something that sounds smart.”

“Thanks for that,” Raiku replied sarcastically.

“I’m just giving you crap,” Felix said, trying his best to stifle a yawn that exited his mouth forcefully. He opened his mouth to say something else, but he was cut off before making a single noise.

“Okay, Scarlet, I’ve got this whole thing planned out. Tell me if you have any problems with it. Felix will be led into the castle by Saphir and with him will go Joshua, Lucia, Inferno, Robin and Raiku. Their job will be to kill as many as they can from within when the soldiers begin to strike at us. Lightning and I will be on the battlefield and will act as a decoy. Breeze will try to combat the dragon master with Veruka, unless the damned thing is already dead in which case they will help us. Crystal will stay back and heal those who are injured; Diran will stay with her and protect her from harm. Scarlet, you will be with, Arkis and Atticus, and when Lightning and I are attacked, you should leap in from cover and surprise them. It might not be much compared to some of my other plans, but with our limited number of people it just might work and spare us many casualties.”

“About damn time, let’s hurry up and get out there, finish this thing off,” Inferno said, resting an already-gloved hand on the hilt of his blade.

 

I never thought that passages like this really existed in castles, Felix thought as he followed the dirt-encrusted tunnel behind Saphir, who was crawling ahead of him. Hours had passed since they were last in the town, each one more nerve-wracking than the last. I guess this sure makes our job one hell of a lot easier, though, so I’m not going to be caught complaining about it.

The others were hidden outside the castle, taking cover as best as they could amongst the sparse greenery. Whether or not they had been detected was completely unknown, but the fact that he had not yet heard shouts from outside was a comforting prospect. Of course, they were so deep into the tunnel that he doubted he would be able to hear the clatter even if a war were to break out. The dull noise of knees rubbing against dirt still echoed in his head, even when he stopped moving for a moment to gather his bearings. Saphir had told them not long ago that they were close to the end of the tunnel, and he had to admit that the end couldn’t come soon enough. On the outside, they were probably beginning to wonder what was taking them so long to get inside and start the attack. Will this be over today, or will the fight last longer? We haven’t been out for long, but I’d sure like to get back, it’s just not the same being out on a job. I can never get any rest out of the base…

“Come on, hurry up,” Inferno said from behind him, and Felix realized that in his brief period of thoughts involving when they would return to the base he had stopped moving. Rather than argue the point, which he knew he was in the wrong on, he simply nodded and kept crawling ahead. Saphir had stopped to look back at them when she had heard the voices, and she opened her mouth.

“We’re just about there; then you won’t have to waste any more time in this musty old tunnel.”

“Why was this thing built if it wasn’t going to be used?” Raiku asked. “I mean, at least hide it somewhere where somebody from the outside isn’t just going to accidentally stumble onto it! I mean, every other castle with an emergency exit like this only has it accessible from the inside…”

“My brother and I stumbled onto it in our youth, and at that time it was in much better condition and looked as though it might have been used. Valuables were also stored in here, and from signs that we saw, it appeared that the previous occupant of this place, Vantel Castle, were in business with local bandits.  This was probably used as their primary way of trading without raising suspicion, so it probably wasn’t originally intended as an emergency exit.”

“It doesn’t matter now, we’ve gotta take advantage of it and get out alive. If we keep talking like this, we’ll be caught as soon as we exit the tunnel,” Inferno pointed out. Instantly, all noise in the tunnel seemed to be brought to an instant standstill and was as quiet as a graveyard. To Felix, the increased quietness only seemed to make the limited noise they did make even louder, the sound of knees rubbing against dirt echoing in his ears like drumbeats in the deep now.

A glimmer of light appeared in his eyes, illuminating Saphir. The end of the tunnel was getting ever closer, and he almost thought he felt his heart skip a beat. They were almost out… Almost to freedom… And almost to the newest battle, which he felt more nervous about than he had ever felt in the past. His insides seemed to be contracting anxiously, making this even more uncomfortable for him. Inferno would most likely be the first one to depart from their group; although he was not yet incredibly talented at it, he had the most experience as an assassin out of any of them.

Saphir began to move faster, more anxiously, to make her way through the last stretch of tunnel as soon as possible, and Felix struggled to follow as quietly as possible. It didn’t take long, and all the while the patch of light got larger and larger until finally light flooded around him on all sides, albeit a very dim light that had obviously struggled to find its way through the castle’s walls.

As soon as he exited the tunnel, Felix straightened up and felt his pulse increase radically. He quickly cast his eyes around, and upon clarifying that there were no others in the narrow hallway they stood in, he glanced around for somewhere to hide. The problem with that was very simple, though; they were in a narrow hallway with only two sides, one in and one out. The stones that made the hall were cold and weathered, and there were several windows that were little more than indents in the wall where light shone through. A single torch lit the place, and it was still filled nearly to the brim with oil. That means that this hall is being used… And it also means that they either aren’t going to come through here until it needs to be refilled, or that they lit it so that they can use the light for something they’re doing in here… We better get out, and quick.

Inferno clapped him on the shoulder as he climbed out, and then said, “Well I’ll get to work, shall I? I’ll meet you on the other side!” As Raiku began to pull himself out of the tunnel, Inferno turned and made his way down the hall and away from them.

“So where are we going to from here?” Saphir asked, looking surprised at Inferno’s course of action.

“I think I should be asking that, after all, you know this castle a lot better than I do. We’ll follow him,” Felix answered. “He’ll be clearing the way ahead, and so we’ll stay behind him and back him up if he comes across any groups or in case the bodies are discovered.”

“You act like you’ve done this sort of thing before… Isn’t it just a bit strange?”

“Look, lady, you’re talking to someone who makes a job out of killing people, so don’t ask me whether it’s odd to do my job,” he said with mock sternness, but he hoped that his point still came across.

“So even your hands are stained with the blood of the dead?”

“…I am somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I’ve killed many times in the course of battles. Almost every time it has been in order to protect myself from harm or death, but I still do feel for those that I fell. Now isn’t the time for those kinds of emotions, though. It’s time to finish this job, and then you might be able to persuade me to talk about this again.” He turned away; but he was unable to get rid of the thought that he had spoken much too formally, something he couldn’t stand.

Ahead, he thought he could distinctly hear the sound of metal striking stone, most likely the noise of some soldier as he fell over lifeless and Inferno proceeded past. They swiftly followed, and Felix heard the snick of an arrow as Robin lifted it to his bowstring. Felix reached for his own bow, and drew out an arrow but did not prepare it for a shot yet; he could use a bow, but he was a much more talented swordsman than an archer.

They reached the end of the hall and turned, and Felix was shocked to see the first body of a soldier. The armor of the man was entirely silver, like some type of large shell that had failed to protect his body. The breastplate of the armor was mottled with the dark red of blood, and the sight of the dead body made Felix gag. He had seen his fair share of death, but it did not make seeing things like this any easier.

Quickly, he passed over the body and was certain that behind him he could hear the sound of Saphir retching; she might have recruited their aid, but he thought that when she had agreed to assist them she had not quite realized what she was getting herself into. I guess that just can’t be helped, he thought.

“W-Who are you?”

Damn, already found, Felix thought as he turned around towards the voice. A single guard stood in the hallway that they had just exited, quivering uncomfortably where he stood. A spear was held in one of his hands, and he was quivering in surprise, apparently not expecting to see them there. “We’re here to-”

“You’re some damn sell-swords hired by Elthren, aren’t you?” He asked viciously, and opened his mouth to bellow this out. Instantly, the arrow that Robin had had the time to nock earlier left its string and struck the man in the chest, piercing his leather armor and digging deep into his chest. With a final death rattle, the man fell to the ground, and Felix turned away sadly, doing his best to hide his emotions under a mask of indifference as he had done countless times in the past. The expression of terror at his final moments and the unavoidable way in which Robin had killed him made bile rise in the back of his throat.

As Robin prepared another arrow for a shot in a moment’s notice and Joshua had begun to drag the two bodies into a less obvious spot. Lucia looked rather repulsed by Joshua’s actions, and he could see why. Felix was glad that he didn’t have to do the job. It was disrespectful to the corpses, and on top of that gave off an aura that they were there to do something very sinister, which, in Felix’s opinion, they were not.

“Okay, good work Joshua. We’ll just have to keep moving and hope that they don’t stumble onto any more bodies alright? Or if they do, let’s just hope we’re long gone by the time.” He turned away from them once again and plunged into the depths of interconnecting labyrinths that made up the castle, led the entire way by Saphir, who still claimed that she had traversed the entire length of the castle and knew it as well as the back of her own hand.

She led them for only a brief period of time before they encountered more of Elthren’s deserters, standing with their weapons already drawn in a wide hallway. Most of them looked as young and inexperienced as the soldier that Robin had struck down earlier, but some of the men that stood across from them were obviously much more talented in battle, displayed by the scars that showed through their helms and the dents that covered their weapons.

“So…” One of the men said, and it sounded as though he might have been the leader, at least of this particular group. “You are Elthren’s mercenaries, hm? They thought that we might be killed simply by a small group of ragtag weaklings like you? Hate to disappoint, but there isn’t a chance of that.” Frantic footsteps echoed down the hall and another soldier burst into the hall, this one weaponless.

“Captain! Captain! There are two people outside the castle, putting on some sort of magic show! They look dangerous, though, and after what you said about mercenaries I thought that maybe…”

“Thought you might be able to trick us by hiring some cheap magicians, did you?” The captain asked, “You, go and get some men and go out there and take out those two magicians. Their illusions are to come to an end by the time that I’ve killed these men.”

“Damn,” Inferno said as he looked at the soldier who had just charged in. “I thought I told him to stay quiet!”

“Inferno? When did you get here?” Felix asked incredulously. Up until he had heard the man’s voice in his ear, he had assumed that he was still out assassinating as many of their enemies as possible while doing his best to lie low.

“Ah, you know… I’ve been poking around and just decided that now would be a good time to rejoin this merry little band.”

“Drop your weapons and cease talking at once,” the obvious leader of the soldiers said, stepping forward and drawing a long blade, pointing it at Felix’s chest, albeit from a distance.

Felix, ever the resistant, opened his mouth to refuse, but before a single word came out another, foreign voice cut across him. The voice was deep and refined, but at the same time had hints of malice within it. “Those words should be said to you, not they. Soldiers of Elthren, drop your own weapons if you value your lives.”

Shocked to hear the unexpected noise, especially from an unknown source, he spun around with most of his men and saw a knight striding towards them. The knight was entirely clad in ornate ebon armor darker than night, and a naked blade stood in his hand. A chill filled the room, and even Felix was aware of it; in spite of them being outnumbered, the situation had clearly just turned in their favor entirely because of this mysterious knight.

However, the leader of the rebels was not about to let his goals slip through his fingers so swiftly. “Men of Elthren, stand strong for freedom and rebellion from such a cruel and unforgiving kingdom! The fear that this man gives off is entirely caused by you; ignore it. He is a mortal man, much like you and I! Think of your families and the peace they will live in because of your heroic actions!”

To Felix, the speech didn’t sound very inspiring, but nevertheless the soldiers drew their weapons once more and Felix shook his head. The ebon knight didn’t make a move, but Felix wasn’t waiting for some anonymous fighter to lead the charge; it was his job. Certainly is a weird job in more ways than anyone could have predicted.

The closest man of the enemy group came forward, his sword arm sturdy. On either side of him, Inferno and Raiku quickly engaged themselves in similar battles while Lucia and Joshua double teamed a forth man. Robin shot the arrow he had on his string, and then drew two hunting knives and made his way towards another man, who backed away from him because of the vicious look on his face.

Taking in all these details had detracted from Felix’s attention to his own swordplay. He only noticed at the last second that the other man’s blade was swinging towards his neck, and was barely able to parry it in the moment’s notice that he had. In an angered response, he retaliated with a mighty blow, but the opposing swordsman blocked it with relative ease, responding once again with another swing.

As he turned to avoid the swing, he could not help but notice that the ebon knight still had not made a move to join the battle. He raised his sword to block another blow and shot for a small hole in the swordsman’s defense. The swordsman struggled to block the gap, but the damage had already been done; Felix’s blade punctured deep into his chest, and the man fell to the ground with a gasp. How nice that our little savior knight is too high and mighty to join the battle himself.

The thought flashed through his head as he saw the flash of steel out of the corner of his eye and stepped aside just in time for the weapon to skim the edge of his tunic. Luck I guess… If only I believed in that crap. As the soldier who had thrust the weapon forward tried to pull it back in and prepare for another strike, Felix lifted his own blade and struck the man in the chest with a sickening crunch.

Almost subconsciously, he scanned the enemies for a sign of their leader, who had thus far stayed back, a safe distance away from the battle. Before he was able to locate the man, though, he had to engage an axe wielding soldier. The heavy, mighty blade of the axe struck against his sword, and it took him a great deal of effort to knock the axe carrying soldier back. Luckily, the weight of the weapon that he was carrying prevented the soldier from retaliating, and Felix brought his sword around to kill the third man, quickly leaping forward to eliminate a forth.

He quickly lost track of the battle as he ceased looking specifically for the leader and instead attacked any enemies who dared to come too close to him. Rather than seeing the battle from his own eyes, he seemed to drift outward and watch it from an outsider’s perspective, disgusted by the death that he alone was causing. None stood to live after challenging him, but still none fled. Outside, he was certain that the battle was similarly in their favor; the strength of this unit of Elthrenian soldiers had definitely been exaggerated, unless the dragon rider was still alive.

When finally the last of their enemies had fallen, Felix cleaned his blade on a tunic of one of the fallen and look around; in total he had killed nine men in the course of the battle, a feat he had never accomplished before and hoped that he would not accomplish again. The leader of the rebels who had incited the battle was still alive, but Robin had shot him through the leg to impede his movement, and after briefly attempting to limp away he had collapsed.

The ebon knight that had apparently appeared in their favor had never joined the battle, but as soon as it was done he walked out from the place where he was standing. Although they were both on the same side, Felix felt a chill run down his spine as he looked at the nameless, faceless armor clad knight.

“Your talent with a blade is mighty, but unrefined as of yet. It reminds me heavily of another man that I knew once, long, long ago.” The knight’s voice was still deep and refined, but now Felix felt something else there; perhaps it was grudging respect, or perhaps his gut instinct was right and the knight was sizing him up. The knight’s armored hand remained at his side for nearly a minute, and then he moved it away.

“I never really had much of a teacher; I learned to fight like I do by simply practicing and creating my own style.”

“Do you? Regardless, you possess an unimaginable amount of raw power, I look forward to seeing you continue to grow in your battles,” the knight said. “But for now my business here is done with. The other who is here will handle your pay, until then you might wish to help your companions outside. Leave this traitor where he is, I will handle him when I feel the need to. Until then, I am fairly confident that he won’t be moving anywhere.”

The ebon-clad knight turned and left slowly, the ominous aura that had surrounded him fading away as well. As soon as he was entirely gone, Felix turned to Inferno and asked, “Do you have any idea how many troops will have been sent out to attack Scarlet and the rest of them?”

Inferno, who had been tying a strip of cloth around a wound to stop the flow of blood that came from it, looked up and said, “The man who was sent out was a coward. I saw him lurking through the castle when I was wondering. Rather than taking the designated amount, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got most, if not all, of the other rebels with him. We better find a place where we can see outside and then we’ll be able to figure it out.”

Felix prepared to stride out of the room, but a rattle stopped him and he turned around. “Stop… Stop…” The man collapsed on the ground behind them was wheezing desperately. Felix looked at him emotionlessly.

“You… You are mercenaries, are you not?”

“Yes.” Felix didn’t elaborate on his answer. He had no desire to speak with the rebel, especially considering how degrading and hateful the man had been when he was in control of the situation.

“So… You know nothing, then.” The man rolled over and turned away, gasping in pain from the arrow that was still lodged in his leg.

“What do you mean?” Felix asked, unable to contain his curiosity. “What is there that I know nothing about?”

“It… It does not matter; now leave me to die in peace… Go and save your companions out there or do what you will.” Felix walked to the other side of the rebel, but the man closed his eyes with a look that clearly told him that the matter was sealed. After glancing at the man on the ground for another moment, Felix straightened up and proceeded to lead the others out of the room as he had been doing before.

When they did find a vantage point that they could see the battle from, Felix was shocked by what he saw. Though they were few in number and looking as though they were long ago overwhelmed, the mercenaries were cutting their way through the rebels. Even as Felix watched, both Lightning and Levon cast down another enemy.

He couldn’t be sure, but he could see a muscled man fighting a group of enemies, and he assumed that it was Arkis. Scarlet, easily recognizable by her flaming red hair, was fighting two men at once, overpowering both of them with the spear that she carried. As one of the men briefly fell back, she jabbed him with the lance and he crumpled over.

High above, Felix heard a mighty call and looked up to see Breeze engaged in battle with a large beast, presumably the enemies’ dragon. Although the dragon clearly had a strength advantage among other things, the tactics that she was employing were putting it on the losing side of the battle. Light briefly glanced off a silver surface, and Felix realized that Veruka was far above as well, fighting from Breeze’s back.

Levon was casting away any who came near him, and a single bolt of thunder shot down from the sky, controlled by Lightning. Atticus, the least talented of the three sorcerers, was doing his best to keep pace with Levon and Lightning, but the effects of his magic were much weaker than that of his companions.

Diran and Crystal were standing a small distance from the battle. Diran was leaning on his sword, looking rather uninterested with the battle. The thick armor that covered his body gleamed in the sun. Crystal, however, was wearing no armor and looked rather small, especially in comparison to the man that she was standing next to.

They’ll be able to take care of the remaining men, Felix thought, turning away. We’ll just go and do as Scarlet ordered and look for any stragglers left in the castle. He turned away from the window and alerted the others to his decision, but the same calm and deep voice of the ebon-clad knight echoed through the room. “Don’t look; the castle is empty, that coward took the remainder of the rebels with him when he departed.”

“How do you know? And who are you, anyway?” Felix asked darkly.

“My identity and intents are not for you to know. Now go and allow me to witness more of your swordplay.” Felix opened his mouth to speak, but instead darkness filled his eyes and when he blinked, the next thing that he saw was the battlefield. What… What was that? Just who is that knight?

He glanced around and saw that Lucia and Inferno were also there, and as he watched Raiku and Robin appeared followed closely by Joshua and finally Saphir. Diran and Crystal looked surprised to see them appear out of nowhere, Saphir looked incredulous about everything that had happened; after standing still for a moment, turned and began to walk away from the battle. Apparently the events of the day had been too much for her, or she had fulfilled what she had thought to be her job. Either way, Felix couldn’t deny that he was happy as he saw her go, because she was only a weight in their battles.

“More of them! The mercenaries are trying to ambush us!”One of the soldiers bellowed, and Felix drew his blade in preparation.

Diran lifted his sword up with one hand and leaned it over his shoulder. “So, Felix, you think you’ll be able to take this one? This job isn’t quite as big as I thought it might have been.”

“We’re about to find out how well we’re going to handle,” Felix said offhandedly, lifting his blade up above his head, and then snapping it down as soon as a lance-carrying soldier came into his range. The blade bit deep, cutting through the man’s leather armor and slicing down his stomach. The man behind him was carrying a mace and his armor was much thicker; luckily, this also greatly reduced his speed.

Felix exchanged a few quick swings with the man, and then knocked the mace aside. Before there was any time for the man to raise the mace again, Felix struck, but his blade merely dented the heavy metal of the man’s armor. The strength of the blow sent vibrations down Felix’s blade and he fell back just in time to avoid a heavy swing from the mace. Damn, I really hate these heavily armored soldiers.

Next to him, Diran prepared to help him out, but then was drawn away by a speedy swordsman who was leaping towards Crystal. He didn’t even think; his body reacted for him. He parried a blow from the mace with such power that it knocked the mace from his foe’s hand. Although he knew that the blow would not entirely finish off his enemy, Felix struck the armored man twice, knocking him backwards with the second swipe. Then, without a second thought he leapt towards Crystal, parrying a swing from the swordsman that was about to strike Diran, who was too weighed down by his armor to block it.

Surprise and fear simultaneously crossed the man’s face when he saw that he no longer had an advantage against a heavier, slower foe. Felix didn’t make a reply to the man’s expression, and instead swung towards his head while Diran swung at his legs. Feebly, the soldier raised his blade and parried the blow aimed at his head, but his legs were cut out from underneath him and he let out an agony-filled howl.

“Sorry about that, but there was no other choice; I wish things could have turned out differently,” Felix said, and pulled his blade back to end the man’s painful last moments. The soldier resigned himself to his fate, obviously realizing that going out quickly would be much less painful than laying there and bleeding. He leaned his head forward and Felix allowed Diran to finish the deed, looking away with disgust.

The armored knight, however, had pushed himself back up from the ground, mace in hand again. Diran stepped in front of him and lifted his bloodstained blade up. “Double team him, you think? That should make it easier.”

Felix only grunted and ran forward. The knight swung his mace heavily, and although Felix attempted to parry the weapon, his blade was cast aside and he had to leap out of the way. Didn’t expect that… But I guess I shouldn’t try to use strength against a foe that I can easily run circles around… Use my advantage, don’t but the battle in his favor.

Diran lumbered past him when he stepped back from the armored knight, and the two exchanged a fierce, but slow, volley of attacks. Felix prepared to circle around and deliver what he hoped would be the finishing blow to the knight, but then the knight fell to the ground without him moving at all. Where it had fallen, Inferno now stood with a lazy grin on his face. “Come on, Felix, can’t you at least take out some stupid soldier? These ones are slow and everything!” Jollily, he laughed and then disappeared amidst the many combatants of the battle as though he had never been there.

“Well, Felix, I dunno what you’re going to go and do, but I’ve gotta stay here and watch your sister, so good luck.”

“Thanks. Make sure nothing happens back here, alright?” Without waiting for a response, he ran off into the fray. Although they never stuck together for long, Inferno continually aided him in the battle whenever he was in any kind of trouble, appearing out of nowhere and then disappearing instantly afterwards again. Raiku in turn often needed Felix’s help when he was overcome

The battle lasted much shorter than Felix had thought it would; apparently the rebels had looked much more numerous from their vantage at the castle. Most of them had sustained minor wounds that Crystal was scurrying to heal, and a few of the rebels had surrendered and were handing over their weapons, obviously scared of the few mercenaries who could overwhelm so many of them. Felix cut through the defenses of the final rebel soldier he was fighting and killed the man before looking around at the battlefield. As always the place of the battle, once dotted with peaceful trees and hills, was now smeared in blood and the stench of sweat and metal.

This was not what caught his attention, however. Amidst the shining silver and dull leather of the soldiers was a single man, laying face up in the ground. Felix’s heart plummeted and he sprinted towards the man, worried that what he thought he had seen was actually true. The run took him almost a minute from how far away he was. When he made it to the place, he crouched down next to the body, hoping that the blood obscured the face and was distorting his vision.

“Felix…” The voice was too familiar; despite all of his hopes to the contrary, Arkis was lying on the ground, overwhelmed by the numerous foes that surrounded. His long silver blade had been battered until it smashed, and the shards were scattered around his body. His axe had begun to chip, and some chunks had flaked off, but the remainder of the weapon remained in his hand. In his desperation, he had drawn a short dagger that was whole and clasped protectively to his chest in an obvious attempt to stem the flow of blood that poured out of a gaping wound. “Looks like I screwed this one up, eh? Tell your father… Tell him that I said I was sorry, that it was an honor to be able to serve him…”

With that, he laid back and closed his eyes; for the first time since Felix had seen him, a look of peacefulness took over his face and the wrinkles around his face seemed to smooth as he passed into the void. Even though he had not spoken to him much, Felix could not help but feel hot tears begin to leak out of his eyes as he looked at the body of Arkis.

It seemed like no time had passed when he felt a hand resting upon his shoulder and he looked up to see Scarlet. “It’s fine,” she reassured him, “He’s… He’s at peace now. We have to bury him along with the others, though.”

Felix nodded and stood up, turning around as the ebon-clad knight appeared once again, and a dark aura still surrounded him as it had before. Scarlet gasped and took a step back, obviously surprised by his sudden appearance. “I look forward to watching you progress in your abilities. You remind me of a man I once knew. You have my condolences for your loss, but I assume that it was necessary.”

The offhanded comment about Arkis death infuriated Felix beyond belief, though he did not know exactly why. A flash of rage passed through his mind and he leapt at the knight with his sword drawn, only to be effortlessly knocked backwards and collide painfully with the ground. Though he did not see how the knight had been able to move fast enough to pull it off, he had drawn his sword and effectively disarmed Felix in their brief contact.

“I would watch my temper around the man paying me next time, if you heed my advice,” the knight said, and drew, seemingly from nowhere, a large sack of gold that he tossed on the ground next to Felix. “I’ve added a little to compensate for your loss. Don’t lose your temper again and make me decide to take it back.”

Felix only grunted from the ground, but the knight didn’t seem to care; he sheathed his sword and disappeared just as quickly as he had appeared. With a pained grimace, Felix pushed himself up, off a soldier’s breastplate that he had landed on, reaching for his sword.

“Who was that?” Scarlet asked, looking over at him with a curious and slightly disturbed look on her face. “He didn’t seem to be the friendliest person to be fighting alongside.”

“I don’t know who he is; he was in the castle, he showed up there right before we fought the rebels inside, but he didn’t fight at all himself. He watched our group do the work, and then he… transported us out here somehow, I’m not entirely sure how he managed to pull it off.”

“That’s… Odd,” Scarlet responded. “I wonder who he might be, and why he was here today.”

“From what I’ve gathered, I’m fairly certain that he is one of the generals of Elthren, and one of the most important at that. He was probably sent here by Lonele to give you our payment. I saw him give it to you, and from what I’ve learned of him and his habits it is just like him to appear and act so cryptically before disappearing. Don’t worry about it.” Felix looked up to see Levon standing behind Scarlet, blood running down one of his arms from a shallow but painful-looking wound that Crystal had yet to heal.

“They sent a general?” Scarlet asked. “That’s odd; I don’t see why a small group like us would elicit the attention of a general, especially one who wouldn’t even help us out.”

“He might not have been sent by Prince Aeolus. That man is a known mystery, even to the other generals and nobles of Elthren, and frequently travels and fulfills his own whims, only following the prince’s orders when there is no other choice.”

“So he’s basically a general only in title?”

“In times of peace at least, yes, he is only a general in title. From what I’ve heard otherwise, though, when he gets involved in combat he is nearly unstoppable, and he fights alongside his men religiously. But for all intents and purposes, yes, he is usually a general only in title.”

“Sounds like quite the interesting man, but I still hope we don’t have to run into him again, I personally thought he was a jerk,” Inferno said with a smirk on his face. As Felix turned and saw Inferno walking towards him, he couldn’t help but glance up and see Breeze spiraling down from the sky. Sometime before, presumably while he was speaking with the ebon-clad general, the body of the dragon had fallen from the sky some distance away, and now looked crumpled and weakened, especially when compared to its living glory. It’s a relief that dragons that are ridden are considerably weaker than wild dragons, at least from what I’ve heard.

When Breeze had nearly reached the ground, Veruka leaped from her back. There was a flash of bright light, and where a raven had been flying only a moment before, Breeze now stood on the ground, looking completely normal.

The strangest part about her and Raffin’s transformations was the simple fact that their transformations were much larger than their wild counterparts. This was presumably because it would be difficult for a regularly sized bird or dog to participate in a fight, therefore negating any positive effects of having the form. He had also witnessed, primarily with Raffin, that as he got stronger, he continued to grow in his dog form. When he stopped working out so intensely, he stopped getting larger, but did not shrink at all either. The Anilam certainly are interesting, I wish that I had a chance to meet more of them. Maybe with time, Felix thought as he nodded to Breeze.

“Nice flying up there, I was a little worried for a second that you two might have some difficulty with the dragon.”

“Nah,” Breeze said offhandedly. Her brow was shiny with sweat, and a few beads dripped down her face. She quickly wiped it off, appearing slightly disgusted by it. When she saw Felix’s strange glance, her only comment was, “Very unappealing.” Then, she continued on her previous point, “But I almost felt sorry for that brute of a dragon. It never even stood a shadow of a chance with me and Veruka up there.”

“Good point, I guess it was stupid of me to worry for you, then?”

“No, the warm feelings are appreciated, even if they aren’t needed,” Veruka said. “How fared the battle down here? I hope that brute’s corpse was able to take some of those rebels down with it when it fell.” As Felix realized that it was entirely possible that the dragon might have crushed some of their enemies, he cringed; being smashed by such a large beast would be a very unpleasant way to die. Maybe that’s what they deserve for betraying their kingdom, though. He resolved to ignore the thought; he was being paid to do a job like any mercenary, and it was not his place to complain about it.

“So I’m guessing that now we’re done with our job, we can head out, right?” Aragon asked, not even trying to hide the hopeful look that was plastered onto his face. Now that Felix saw his hope, he couldn’t help but wish that they would be leaving soon as well. After all, they had been paid and finished their job, what reason did they have to stay behind?

“We should get you something to do so you’ll stop complaining,” Robin said. “You know that there’s a treasure map hidden in one of the village’s latrines?”

“Hilarious,” Felix commented dryly. “I’m not that dumb.”

“I suppose we probably should head out soon, though,” Scarlet said, cutting off their chatter. “Commander Gaheris is probably done with his first job by now, which means that he and Aelar will be heading out for their second soon. Raffin and Sieker will almost definitely run into us on our way back, or else Raffin will pick up our scent and tell Sieker that they can turn around. Leaving that drunk, Glenn, in control of our base for too long definitely won’t turn out well.”

“Yeah, remember the one time when him and Lucia had to look after the placer a few months back?” Inferno asked. “We came back, and he’d gotten Lucia to share a few drinks with him and-”

“You better shut up now, or I’ll cut your tongue out,” Lucia interrupted, only half-jokingly. Even Inferno had learned that she could occasionally follow through on her threats, and he didn’t want to be one of the unfortunate examples of this. Still, in spite of the fact that Lucia had stopped him from finishing the tale, Felix knew exactly what he was talking about and his memories painted a vivid picture of what they had walked in on.

“Felix, you have the pay you received from Falkyn, right?”

“What?” Felix asked, snapping out of his thoughts and looking at Levon. “That who gave me?”

“Falkyn. He was the general that you encountered back there. You have the money that he paid you, right?”

“Oh, right, yeah, here it is,” Felix said, and he handed the sack of gold over to Levon.

“We have our payment and even if the villagers want to give their thanks to their heroes, I doubt that any of you really need to hear them.”

“I do,” Diran called out.

“That’s just because you hope that some of the village girls will be willing to do things best left unsaid as their form of thanks. No, Diran, we’re not going to wait for you to get rejected by the village’s population of women again.”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Robin commented, patting his best friend cheerfully on the back. Diran, in spite of the warm gesture, seemed unsure of whether to take the comments as a joke or as a serious attempt to get at him.

“And as such,” Levon continued as though he had not been interrupted from his initial point. “I believe that we should depart as soon as possible, especially considering Scarlet’s new information that the commander is going to be leaving the base soon.”

Following his declaration, they began what was easily the most tiresome, repulsing, and boring job as a mercenary: gathering the bodies of the fallen for either a mass burial or a mass cremation. Generally, they cremated bandits and buried rebels or other, less wicked men than bandits, though it was very rare that they were forced to fight such enemies.

Hours later, as they slowly dragged their way back into town, covered in dirt and mud from the long process of shoveling dirt and burying the bodies, Felix finally realized what had struck him as odd for the duration of their work. His father had never told him about any other job that they had. Was this job that Scarlet had mentioned something that his father had wanted to keep secret, or was it a simple mistake on his part to tell him about it?

Chapter One

December 11, 2008

One

 

Felix pointed his blade forward with a determined expression, locking eyes deliberately with the man who stood in front of him. The man was tall and held a sword in his hand that was pointed forward similarly to Felix’s. He wore loose-fitting clothes but did not look like a poor man, and his graying hair was short and still mostly sandy.  Felix himself could imagine what he looked like; short spiky black hair, blue eyes, a torn blue tunic, white leggings that were in slightly better condition, and well-worn and very well-fitting mud-caked leather boots.

He swung his blade forward and it collided with that of the elder and stronger man’s. His arms, not heavily muscled but incredibly well defined from his years of training and fighting, flashed in front of his eyes, as did the largest cut in his tunic. One of his sleeves had been roughly cut through, but it had not been a mistake; he liked the way the tunic looked this way. The man across from him twirled the blade in his hand around and jabbed forward, almost causing Felix to lose his balance and fall to the ground, but he was able to steady himself.

Just as the man stabbed again, Felix leapt out of the way and attempted to return the swipe, but it was unsuccessful, the blow blocked yet again with overwhelming strength. His father called out loudly, “Come on, boy! I thought you were learning something during these little training sessions of ours!”

Felix ignored the mental jab and charged forward at his father, the wooden sticks they were using bouncing off of each other with a dull clamor, woodchips falling to the ground as they were knocked loose from the ferocity of the battle. There was a load roar nearby, and Felix lost his concentration, leaving an opening in his defenses for his father to strike through, the wooden tip of his blade slicing across Felix’s chest and knocking him back. He saw stars in front of his eyes and felt as though the skin on his chest had been torn off by the sword, but he knew otherwise.

His father cast aside the blade he carried and held his hand out for Felix, who released his own sword and pulled himself to his feet with his father’s help. “I can’t help but wonder why Raffin would interrupt us, work for the day is over…”

Felix shrugged, crouching over with his hands on his knees. Their training session had been going on for over an hour and had encompassed thirteen duals between he and his father, each of which had started differently but had the same end result. Though he had not been able to defeat the older man, he was somewhat proud of his work for the day; he had been able to hold his own, and he was able to see his skill constantly improving by how long he was able to hold his own against his father. Ever since he had been a young child who could hardly lift the stick he fought with, he had wanted to be able to defeat him in battle but had thus far been unsuccessful in spite of his best efforts.

There was another roar, this time much closer, and they both looked towards the noise in time to see a large shaggy black dog charging towards them. The dog was slightly larger than most other similar animals as was the crow that soared along behind it, who’s plumage was darker than night. The reason for both of them being oversized quickly revealed itself, though; as they neared Felix and his father, an aura seemed to surround them both as they both slowly changed back into human forms. The transformation looked exceedingly painful to Felix, but both of them said that it had no feeling.

Raffin was the black dog, who now had changed into the form of a young man. He, like Felix, had spiked hair, but his was a much lighter shade and he wore a red tunic with both sleeves cut off as well as a pair of similarly colored leggings. The crow changed into the form of a woman who had long black hair that was disheveled. Her eyes were a piercing color and as blue as the sea. She wore a red tunic similar to Raffin’s but darker and had light blue loose pants. Her name was Breeze, and both were companions of Felix.

They were members of the ancient Anilam race of shape-shifters. Though the people had long since dwindled from their prime, a few of them still lived around Elthren, his homeland. Most of these Anilam were mistreated and lucky to be given even the most difficult of jobs for the lowest of wages or else forced into slavery; it was debatable as to which of these two was worse, but neither of these was a just punishment for the crimes they did not commit in Felix’s opinion.

According to the information he had heard about the Anilam, they had been framed by the Church of Injelin for being heretics and devil-worshippers, and the blind masses had risen up in their rage and indiscriminately killed the majority of the tribe- men, women, and even children. This had happened many generations prior, but he nevertheless took the lesson of the story to heart; do not blindly follow anyone or anything.

“You were starting to worry us,” Raffin said as he looked between the two of them. “You never told us that you were heading out to train. Old Aelar thought something might have happened to you.”

“He couldn’t come himself?” Felix’s father asked, “Ah, well never mind, we’re all fine, but we’ll head back with you two. Me and Felix are done training for the day, whether he likes it or not. Tomorrow’s supposed to be a rather busy day if my understanding of Sieker’s scheduling is correct, right?”

“I dunno,” Breeze piped up. “Nobody really listens to him all that much, you know? He’s not the most interesting of a person to listen to when he’s talking.”

Sieker, as Felix knew, was a magician in their group and the only person capable of using offensive magic, but they also had two healers whose ability was in magic. Sieker had been a member of their group since only recently when they had decided to assist him in the countryside after finding him being ambushed by a group of Droom, oversized hideous things that were only partially human. Other than an enemy, Felix didn’t know what they were, but he did know that he had only ever encountered them as enemies while on his job as a mercenary, and both times were terrible battles. The second time he had nearly had his leg removed before their sole archer, Robin, had been able to get a clear shot at the beast who was doing this, but he later jokingly regretted the decision to save his younger companion.

“Aye, that might be true at times, but he can also be one of the most fascinating when he needs to be,” his father said. “And even when he might not be the most interesting, the advice and information that he gives us is very valuable and important. There have been plenty of fights that I doubt I would have survived if not for the strategies he outlined beforehand.”

“Well now you’re starting to sound more and more like him, boss… Already I feel like taking a nap!” Raffin laughed, and Gaheris, Felix’s father, nodded.

“Before you pass out we better start making our way back to camp. It might be easy for you two with your natural abilities, but I’m afraid that we’ll probably only end up lagging.”

“Well what do you expect?” Breeze asked, “It’s not really your fault, is it? You just can’t change forms like us!” There was no conceivable way to know of their innate abilities as a Anilam from looking at them; no trace of the crow that Breeze could become or the dog that Raffin could transform into remained.

“You could say that,” Felix answered, “It seems like there aren’t any advantages to not being a Anilam.”

“You shouldn’t talk about that so loudly,” his father cautioned. “If anyone from the village hears, we’ll be in for it, I can assure you. Already the claim that they are apparitions called forth by a summoner in our group is wearing thin.” Their base was located by a village, which, like most villages, still had resentment towards the Anilam for no reason other than the lies spread centuries past by the church of Injelin. If they learned that Anilam lived with them and were employed as mercenaries, the backlash would be terrible and it would only be made worse by the fact that the villagers would most likely settle for nothing less than the ceremonial burning of Anilam, as the church had said was right. To hell with that, Felix thought, if they try to burn either Breeze or Raffin they’ll get my blade!

He did like most of the villagers, but he had only met them sparingly when he had traveled into town, and most of his conversations were simple hellos and goodbyes. Regardless of this, the members of his group who he had lived with for a few years and defended in battle on numerous occasions were much more important to him.

“Got it, boss,” Breeze said, and Felix repeated the line a few seconds later as they exited the small clearing where Felix and his father had been training. Trees hemmed them in on all sides, and a narrow dirt trail ran through the trees and up a long hill. At the top of this hill was a small distance of flat land, and then they arrived at their fort. Breeze, who heartily disliked traversing the hill, quickly shifted forms at the sight of it and began to fly gracefully towards the top while Raffin shook his head with amusement.

“So lazy,” he said with a grin. “We’re mercenaries, Breeze!” He called, raising his voice so she could hear, “We’re supposed to be in good shape, you know!” Shaking his head again, he turned towards Gaheris, “So those jobs for tomorrow, you decided who’s going on what yet?”

“Well… Let’s see, if I remember correctly we only have two jobs, right? One is reports of some bandits and the other is some missing statue of a god we’re supposed to find… Looking for idols and other things like that can be pretty boring, so I’ll take that job with Raiku, Scarlet, and Sieker. The others group will be led by Aelar and everyone else will be with him. You should be able to manage any number of bandits with such a large group, unless I’m much mistaken about your abilities. Actually… leave behind one person to keep an eye on the base, I never feel quite safe leaving the place completely empty. But make sure that you don’t leave Crystal behind; you never know when you’ll need a healer.”

“For her being your daughter you certainly don’t seem to have any qualms about sending her into battle,” Felix noted, and his father looked at him with a keen eye.

“You’re my son and I don’t have any problems about sending you into battle either. Just because she’s your younger sister doesn’t mean that she’s weaker than you. Besides, we need to do it and I know that you’ll do anything in your power to make sure that she doesn’t die or become wounded.”

“I guess I could do that, but I don’t really see why she isn’t expected to have my back like that,” Felix joked. He was beginning to feel the toll of the uphill march on his legs, but he did his best to ignore it and plow on so as to not look weak in comparison to the others. His father walked up the hill as though it were still flat ground, and Raffin slowed down but only marginally compared to how much Felix had; he was barely able to keep up with them. It’s times like this that I really do wish that I could fly, he thought as he picked up his pace again and trying to keep pace with the two people in front of him.

Their conversations had come to a screeching halt by the time they reached the top of the hill, where Breeze was waiting for them, no longer looking like a crow. Felix was panting slightly, and Raffin breathing heavily, but his father still walked normally. Never before had he seen his father tired, or outmatched in a duel regardless of who it had been against which often made Felix wonder how he had become so talented.

“About time you three got up here,” Breeze said, remaining where she was leaning against one of the oldest trees in the woods.

Felix opened his mouth and answered, “Maybe you should walk with us next time if you’ve forgotten why it takes as long as it does.”

“I dunno… That’s not really my type of thing, you know? That hill is way too much of a pain!”

“Then you’re in terrible shape for a mercenary. Our job’s got a lot to do with traversing difficult terrain,” Felix replied off-handedly. He was staring ahead, towards their base, which he could just barely see through the trees. It was less than a half-mile away, and even at a slow pace crossing the distance wouldn’t take them very long.

“Come on, you two,” Raffin said mockingly, “You just met up and you’re already fighting!” He sounded startlingly like a disciplinary figure that Felix had never had: a mother. His father had never told him why, and he had no memories other than the exceptionally vague about her. Even when he did his best to remember everything he could about her, nothing came to his mind other than a vision of a far, looking distant and scattered as he had not seen it for nearly a decade and a half. On top of never telling why, his father also refused to tell them anything about the woman, insisting that it was for the better that they not know. His insistence and short temper at the subject helped even more to increase Felix’s interest in the topic, but about two years prior he had finally given up on harassing his father on the subject.

“Like you have anywhere to be talking from,” Breeze said, “You’re just as bad as both of us together most of the time!”

Raffin grinned and replied, “Most of the time, but not right now, which means that it’s completely fair of me to talk like I am.”

“Up until I,” Gaheris said, “Decide to step in and tell you to can it ’cause I think this whole mini argument you’re having is stupid and boring. At least fight about something that can get me excited and wanting to see what happens next, guys! You disappoint me!” Gaheris laughed and continued to march ahead, Felix close behind him while Raffin and Breeze continued to talk at the rear.

Their base had been strenuously built through the labors of their own group; no external professionals had been contracted for the job, and so it was both excellent because of the effort put into it and simultaneously in bad condition because of their limited knowledge of building. Aelar, his father’s second-in-command, had had some brief experience as a carpenter before becoming a knight, but by the time they had begun to build he had long since forgotten much of what he had once known.

Nevertheless, the place looked more like home to Felix than anywhere else he had ever been, despite the fact that he had only been to a limited number of places. The entire place was split into four sections: the mess hall, the men’s barracks, the women’s barracks, and a nearly-completed forth portion that they didn’t have a use for; it was for this reason that they stopped building the place. A large circular courtyard separated and connected the place, and the only entrance was through a tall wooden gate that was blocked on either side by large boulders, a fortunate natural occurrence.

Robin and Diran, two men who were as close as brothers, stood on either side of the gate. Robin, a professional archer and the best shot Felix had ever seen had his bow leaning up against the gate, an arrow on the string and a short dagger was at his belt. He wore light leather armor over a weather-worn dark green tunic and had long red hair that was pulled back to prevent it from bothering his sight, revealing a sharp face. Diran, on the other hand, wore rather heavy armor and carried a spear in his hand, with a sword resting at his belt. His hair was short, the contrast especially sharp when shown next to his foster brother.

Both of the men stood aside as they saw Felix’s father at the head of the group, and Robin slightly inclined his head. He was a rather sarcastic man for the most part, and he could be irritating at times, but he did respect Gaheris. As far as Felix knew, Gaheris was the only person he respected. Diran, on the other hand, was more of an egalitarian type of fellow, believing that they were all equal for the most part and treating everyone the same for the most part. He had a tendency to think of women as more important than men, and Robin frequently criticized him for being so obsessed with them. On this point at least, Robin was fairly hypocritical; whenever he and Diran went to the local village pub, which they frequented, Diran always complained that Robin would snatch any girls away from him, a source of continued amusement to Felix despite the fact that he liked Diran more.     

“Hey, boss,” Diran said cheerfully as they passed, and in response Gaheris only lightly grunted. Diran nodded to each of the other three in turn as they passed, saying their names aloud in the same short greeting he had given Felix’s father. Gaheris had often said that Robin and Diran could easily be viewed as flip sides of the same coin, which was in part why they were so close: Robin was sarcastic, and could be bitter and unreliable, while Diran was cheerful, optimistic, and always willing to pitch in where possible. Despite his shortcomings, though, Felix still did get along fairly well with Robin and would easily entrust the man with his life.

Felix looked beyond them and around their small base, still fascinated by the simplicity of the place. He was standing on a winding road that led to the three different buildings in the camp, as well as the forth unfinished building. This forth place served as a good hiding spot, when he could get to it in time. He and Inferno had frequently placed different obstacles along the road to the nearby village, Lianli, for a few laughs, and everyone in their group had considered this to be amusing as well.

The previous week, they had gotten someone who had not considered their antics amusing. Inferno had been lucky enough to slip away before he was spotted, but Felix had not been very stealthy and had been found. After sprinting for a small time, his energy began to wane, allowing the man to overcome him. The ensuing incident was funny in retrospect, but because of what had happened during it was not very funny at the time. If it had not been for Robin and Lucia, another of their companions, stepping in, then events would have turned out much differently than they had. As it was, he had been rather disappointed with himself for the past week; not because of what he had done, but because he had lost his head and been unable to outrun the much older man. It had served to show him just how much area he had to improve in his training, and he had already begun to work out much more strenuously.

This unfinished building where he had hoped to hide out also served as the occasional resting spot for a man they knew from his occasional sojourns. He himself was known by a very similar name: Sojourner. He was tall and, although young, he had long ghostly white hair that spilled over his back similar to a woman’s but very masculine at the same time. Three long, pale scars ran on one side of his face, the middle scar the most obvious and the other two intersecting it at different points. The center scar traveled from just above his eyebrow at a slight angle towards his ear until it touched his jawbone. How he had gotten these scars was a mystery to most of them, as was just about everything involving the man. Usually when he visited them, he was not there for very long and spent much of this time shut up in conference with Felix’s father on various issues of importance that they refused to discuss with him.

“There you are!” It was Inferno who called to him, and the man was walking slowly towards them, wearing his ordinary attire. His long red hair was spiky in a sharp contrast to his emerald-green eyes. He was about the same height as Felix but otherwise didn’t look anything like him. A deck of playing cards was in his hands, a hobby he had only recently picked up after learning how to play poker. He was not very talented as of yet at the game, but learned more every time that they traveled to Lianli and he played in the pub there. His losses only affected the gold in his own pockets while his victories tended to prove beneficial to the entire company. “You gonna head out? Me and a couple other people were thinking about going to the pub in town…”

“Sure, why not?” Felix replied, hoping that his father would not step in and stop them from going. Their frequent visits to Lianli were generally pleasant, and as the citizenry there didn’t know of Breeze and Raffin’s true identities, the two Anilam were able to easily go with them as long as they stayed in their human forms. The owners of the pub there, a young couple by the name of Linda and Derlin, were friendly enough. Derlin had even previously served alongside their mercenary group and was a retired knight of Elthren. He had been forced to give up his position as a knight after receiving life-threatening injuries that left him unable to move his arm in certain ways. Not much was known of Linda, who was the quieter of the two, but they had learned that she had come from a small village that had been similar to Lianli before it grew into a bustling trade center, at which time she and Derlin had decided to move on.

Before he realized it, they were walking through the woods along the trail that led to Lianli, Inferno in front of him, Raiku and Breeze trailing behind him. Raiku had only joined them two years ago, and he and Felix had grown to be close friends. Inferno, Felix, and Raiku formed a nearly inseparable trio of friends. He had long blonde hair and wore a weather-stained black tunic that had faded to a grey color over time. His face was rough and his eyes seemed able to pierce anything easier than even the incredible sword that he carried with him, a weapon that he called the Demon’s Fang, Draconis.

Breeze tagged along with them often as well and her company was good. She and Felix liked to bicker and argue just like he and Crystal did, but at the same time she was a good confidante and gave him good advice on any internal problems he had. These problems varied, but the one that stuck out most in his memory was the first job he had been on. It had been the first time he had killed anything other than an animal, and he had been sick for nearly a week afterward, disgusted by what he had done. Without the advice of Breeze, it would have been difficult for him to recover as quickly as he did. His father’s rough advice that he needed to get used to it had not been very comforting to Felix, but he had nevertheless done his best to take it to heart.

They emerged through the sun-sprinkled dirt ground of the rough trail and into Lianli, and Felix looked around cheerfully at the small town. Although he disagreed with the views of the townspeople on their treatment of the Anilam, he still liked the place and had spent a lot of time there as well. The town was small and a large tree stood in their path, blocking part of the village from sight. In short, though, what they could see was basically a straight road that was made up of houses on either side. At the end of this, the road turned both left and right, and from there delved deeper into the village.

Children were playing in the few streets, and three shops were opened along the road. One was an armory, the second sold various ingredients and the third was inhabited by a traveling farmer who had an abundance of crops for the year. These shops were not very permanent, although the armory and ingredient shop were both usually there. The third stall was usually occupied by a different person every time Felix visited Lianli, and he had grown used to seeing unique objects for sale there. In the past these shops had sold items that included spell books, wands, and even an assorted variety of nasty-looking weapons.

Felix continually turned his head slowly left and right as he proceeded down the town’s soft loamy street. He knew that there was no danger to be found in his immediate vicinity, or hoped so at least, but his instincts as a warrior did not allow him to just be completely at ease. They reached the end of the dirt road, and Inferno pushed open the well-worn wooden door that proclaimed the place to be “The General’s Pub.”

Inside the light immediately grew dim as the door swung shut behind Breeze. Felix looked back instinctively when the darkness first struck, but then he realized it was nothing out of the ordinary. A few torches gaze the place a dim lighting, but the main source of light was a merrily crackling fire that seemed to illuminate most of the pub. Some of the patrons looked moody as they nursed their drinks in different spots of the room, but most of them were merry and some were even singing. As they passed, Felix heard songs of a variety of ancient people, but the only song he was able to clearly discern was the beginning of the Ballad of Ajax, a tragic tale that he had only heard thoroughly a few times.

Rather than lingering, he continued past the drunken singers and towards the fire, more and more light continuing to fill the room. The chilly room continually warmed as they approached the fire, where a few men sat around a table, playing cards aimlessly. One of the men was even missing an eye, and it was next to this man that Inferno took his seat while the rest of them settled at a nearby table that only had one other occupant.

This man was the village’s sole knight that lived there to protect the people, but from what Felix had seen he was not too much use in battle. However, the villagers still liked him to stay because of how jovial he was compared to many other knights. He was a bit of a slacker and drank too much, or at least that was what he was known most for in the village. This was the first time that Felix had run into him while he was drinking.

Almost as soon as they had all sat down, Derlin was at the table with a broad grin, wearing his usual sleeveless and slightly dirty white shirt. His black hair was brushed back, and his skin was very tan from the many years of work he had endured as both a knight and briefly as a mercenary. His arms were heavily muscled and looked to be flexed even when they were at his sides. Cheerfully, he called out, “Felix, Breeze and Raiku! Good to see you!”

Although he had endured many battles and presumably endured many other hardships, he was nevertheless an eternally cheerful man, and Felix could count the number of times he had seen him without a smile on one hand. Whenever they had made the journey to the village on a bad day, he always made the efforts to make the day better and did the same even when they had been having a good day.

“I’m here too, you know,” Inferno said, raising his hands from the table where he was currently tossing a bronze coin. The metallic clink of the metal striking wood sounded, drowned out almost immediately by the multitude of other noises that sounded out through the pub.

“Didn’t notice you there at first!” Derlin said, his booming voice sounding over the rest of the noise in his pub. He nodded to the man, his broad smile still upon his face as he looked at the games of cards that were going on at the table. Then he turned back towards the rest of the group and asked, “So what are you in here for? I certainly doubt you want to watch your friend waste his money! What do you want? Drinks? Food? Tell me and I’ll get it made in a jiffy!” His booming laugh echoed through the room despite the fact that he had not said anything particularly humorous.

“I’ll have some ale, barkeep,” Raiku said, and Felix seconded it, asking for some meat as well while Breeze decided to not order anything. After a few more words about their business in the area and how the rest of the group was doing, he turned and departed, noting as he left that it was strange that Robin wasn’t with them. When Felix told him that Robin had been stuck on guard duty and unable to go with them, Derlin began to laugh as he departed. It was well known why: Robin could be excessive at drink on the weekly outings he took to the pub, always returning to their fort either drunk of with such a headache that he was unable to work the following day.

It was not Derlin who returned with their order but his wife, Linda, instead. She was a tall and slender woman with long brown hair and a kind but tired face, but was nowhere near as cheerful as her husband even though she was still a good person. She looked much more alert and alive than usual as she dropped off their food, but that might have been because it was in the day as opposed to the usually nocturnal visits that they made. After a single humorous attempt to wake up the now-slumbering Glenn, she smiled and returned to the counter with Derlin as they began to enjoy what they had been served, talking amongst themselves.

Inferno had won a few rounds at his table, but his profits weren’t much, especially when compared with what he had been known to make in past winnings. Still, he seemed optimistic as he cast three large gold coins onto the table, and Felix watched the light of the flames reflect off their edges. It was a high bet and Felix couldn’t see what Inferno’s hand was, but he hoped it was good; if he was to lose the three gold coins, he would be hard pressed to even come close to breaking even for the day.

Felix watched as the others at the table conceded and allowed Inferno to take he accumulated money; if he was confident enough in his hand to place such a hefty bet down, none of them were willing to potentially lose money to match it. After tossing a few smaller coins back to the people he had been playing against, Inferno stood and walked towards the other table, where the rest of them sat, taking the seat right next to the still-sleeping Glenn.

With a few shakes, Inferno deduced that Glenn wasn’t to be waking anytime soon and turned to the rest of them. “So, how about that? Conversation over here seemed a little choked, so I decided I’d come over to cheer it up.”

“Thanks for that,” Felix said, “But, hate to be the one to tell you, but we’re not quite that reliant on your presence to be able to talk.”

“Could’ve fooled me. So how’re things holding up over here with the meat and ale? Sounds like a weird combination if you ask me, but Felix, you’ve always been at least a little out of the ordinary.”

“At least you’re honest, I guess…”

“That’s what I’m here for, isn’t it?”

“You’re here for that? I’m here to drink and get some ladies, not be honest,” Robin said as he walked towards them. Felix looked at him for a moment, and then the situation struck him as odd.

“Weren’t you just watching the gate just a little while ago? Why aren’t you there anymore?”

“My cousin decided to take over for me,” Robin said, “Besides, my shift only had about an hour left anyway. Barkeep!” He raised his voice for the last word, and Derlin looked over with another of his booming laugh.

“Should’ve known that you’d be here before long,” he said as he made his way towards them again. “So what do you want?”

Robin grinned and replied, “Ah, you know, the usual. ’Sides, how long did you think they’d be able to keep me away from here?”

“Good point, I had my doubts.” Derlin said as he turned and walked away to prepare Robin’s drink. Felix hastily finished the small remainder of his food and sat back.

Robin eyed him with interest as he finished, and Inferno sat there silently unlike his usual joking self. Raiku and Breeze were still talking quietly, but the abruptly stopped when Robin opened his mouth. “So I doubt you’ve gotten word yet, I’m actually positive you haven’t, but we’ve been lucky enough to pick up a new job tomorrow, and I’m supposed to lead the group. It’s supposed to be a pretty difficult one, that’s what they sent me here for. All of you are gonna be with me, and Lucia and my dear cousin. Oh, yeah, and those guys we sent out a few months back should be getting back here soon, but they’re not gonna be with us.”

“I’m not going with boss tomorrow?” Raiku asked immediately.

“No, I just said everyone here and didn’t mean you,” Robin answered, his tone dripping with sarcasm. “Think a little! Of course you. Actually Gaheris has changed up a bit of tomorrow’s schedule with this new job. Sieker and Raffin are gonna be looking for that missing idol of whatever village, and Gaheris is going with Aelar and everyone else who isn’t going with us. He even wants him,” Robin jerked his thumb at the now-stirring Glenn, “To watch the base.”

“What’s the new job, anyway?”

“A group of deserters from Elthren’s army, we’re supposed to take care of ’em.”

“Why the big deal? That doesn’t sound too difficult.” Inferno was beginning to sound skeptical about the entire story.

Robin frowned and said, “They’ve got themselves a dragon master with them and they outnumber us. Well, the group that we’re going with at least. Boss already sent a message ahead to that group that we sent out about three months ago, and they’re going to meet up with us at the place. They’ll still outnumber us, but a few more people will make it so we’re not quite so outnumbered.” At the end of his words, a cold air seemed to settle over the table and strangle all cheerful thought out of the room. Dragon masters were experienced warriors and were among the few that had been able to form a bond with dragons, mighty and proud creatures that only occasionally deigned to live amongst people. Never before had Felix fought one in battle, but he had heard enough of their valor and strength to know that he didn’t want to see one unless they were fighting for the same side.

Inferno started to laugh, shattering the wall of silence that had begun to form. “You’re joking, aren’t you? Elthren wouldn’t ever send us after a dragon master; they know we probably wouldn’t be able to take it out.”

“Not individually, but as a group we probably can,” Raiku commented, “But the fact that Gaheris thinks that we’ll cope without him shows some confidence in our abilities. We’ll be able to pull it off, I guarantee you.”

“I don’t see why they’d send us out, though,” Felix said, leaning back and tipping his chair backwards on its hind legs. “Their troops would easily be able to handle this problem and keep it a lot quieter that way.”

“They’re not willing to spare any men, though, are they?” Felix turned towards the slightly slurred voice as a drunken man staggered towards them. His dark hair clung together in mats of mud, blocking his eyes from view, and his tunic was so weatherworn and muddy that it was impossible to discern its original color. Nevertheless, the man carried a tall and proud bearing, like that of a noble, in spite of how he looked.

“What do you mean?”

“Haven’t you heard about relations between Elthren and Altaril? Things are getting pretty rocky,” the man said, pausing first to burp and then to crouch over a nearby barrel and hurl. “I’m surprised sell-swords like you haven’t already clustered around the conflict. You’re like vultures, you are, waiting for the first sign to kill whatever you can.”

Doing his best to ignore the undeserved jab, Felix looked at the man uncertainly. He had certainly not heard any whispers of rocky relationships between the two countries, but at the same time he had not been paying close attention. The man seemed honest enough, and he didn’t look familiar so Felix was willing to believe that he had come quite a ways on foot through the wilderness, or was at the very least from a nearby village and might have been sent to pass along the news. Before he was able to formulate his thoughts into a question, however, Raiku voiced it for him, “What proof do you have to prove this?”

“What proof do I need?” The man retorted, “Can’t say I’m really surprised that some backwater hick town like this hasn’t gotten word yet.” He had been pulling out a chair from a nearby table to sit down and talk to him, but after he said these words he seemed to realized this would not be welcome; with a grunt he pushed the chair back in and slumped back away, his drink sloshing around cheerfully in his mug in contrast to the man’s negative personality.

“So how about that?” Inferno asked, looking around at them all in turn, “Elthren’s hiring us to go after the group because war with Altaril is looming and they don’t want to look weak to their enemies. Now it makes a bit more sense, I’d have to say. Never would’ve thought… We could be heroes if we played our cards right.”

Robin seemed to have a different view on the advantages. “Think of all the money we can make off this sucker. We’d get enough gold for me to get a decent place to settle down and live in peace; almost like a noble but not bound to some stuffy windbag that sits on a faraway throne!”

“We don’t even know whether or not it’s true yet. It could just be a lie, and judging from the looks of that guy I wouldn’t place much credence to his story. Either way, we don’t want a war, I’d rather stick with the minor skirmishes that we’re already used to,” Felix said.

“Eh… Now I’m having difficulty deciding, but that’s a good point,” Inferno said, his uncertainty evident on his face.

“I think either way has benefits and disadvantages, so either outcome could turn out well for us if we use what we have properly,” Raiku said mystically.

Breeze seemed unsure on her decision. “I don’t particularly like fighting, but I do see the advantages of this war. It does seem just a little odd how abruptly things have changed, doesn’t it? I never thought that I’d see Elthren in a war, especially in our lifetime!”

“If you guys decide not to take our share of the profits from this thing, I might have to leave his jolly group behind, that’s too good to miss out on.”

“You’d probably have quite the hard time of it on your own. It’d be a lot more difficult for you to get a job there without all of us there behind you,” Raiku pointed out.

“Yeah, good point I guess, but I don’t like to admit it. Either way, you guys should’ve been there to see the beauty that came in for help with the problems with the soldiers. She wasn’t a lord or a noble lady or concubine or anything, either, so you should see Diran right now! Still, can’t blame him.” Robin laughed cheerfully as walked to them and sat Robin’s recently ordered drink on the table with a nod. Robin casually flicked him two silver coins, a slight overpayment that Derlin accepted.

“Not too often we get that lucky,” Inferno said, “Usually it’s just pissed off guys that come to ask us for help, and that definitely isn’t a very good visual. Maybe that’s why we’re so good at what we do; a lot of it is basically letting go of pent up aggression and seeing guys all the time definitely will get you annoyed.”

“Thanks for that,” Breeze said sarcastically. Although she was a woman, she nonetheless had spent a lot of time around a group of men and as is natural had grown much stronger and tougher about the kinds of issues, although she had not yet come to agree with their views on them. Robin and Diran were the two she clashed with most often because of their generally rough views and the way that they both spoke of women.

“How far away is the place we’re going?” Raiku asked.

“Probably a few days ride from here, but not too sure. It’s not going to be a single-day job, though, I can tell you that. We’re going to need all the help we can get here, but at least we have a few healers that’ll be able to help us out. Lightning is with the other group that’s going to meet up with us there.”

“What’re they going to do if they get there before us?”

“I’d just assume that they’d hide out and make sure that they aren’t attacks prematurely. That’s what I’d do at least. If they’re attacked before we get there… then they’re going to have a difficult time but if they’ve fortified their position enough before they’re attacked they’ll probably be fine.”

“Okay, what about if we get there before they do?” Felix asked half-jokingly.

“If that happens, we might as well commit suicide rather than be killed painfully. The soldiers will probably want to capture us and torture us about who we are, why we were sent… Those kinds of things, and I’d much rather not have to endure it.”

“Well where are we going? That might help us to plan ahead for what we’ll be encountering,” Raiku observed, looking at Robin in surprise; surely he must have already thought of this.

“I left boss to do that, I’m terrible with maps. Either way, even if there’s a castle or anything in the area they’ve probably already seized it, and if not we wouldn’t be able to hold it down anyway. Hopefully it’ll be a wooded area, that’ll be the easiest way for us to win, but I guess we’ll just leave it up to fate, eh?” He drew his mug to his mouth and downed the remainder of the liquid inside.

“No reason to worry about what isn’t here yet, we’ll deal with it when it comes to it. Besides, we’ll be able to pull it off, we always have been so what’s the big difference now?” Inferno said.

“There is none,” Felix answered, “We’re going to pull this job off like every other one and make one hell of a lot of gold off the deal!”

“And then strike it rich with this war that’s starting up, too, don’t forget that,” Robin said as he waved his hands around to flag either Derlin or Linda over. After a brief pause they made their way and Robin ordered another drink. As Linda walked away and a few of the more risk-taking patrons wolf-whistled, Robin turned towards Felix and said, “Oh, yeah, almost forgot, but your old man wants to see you right now. Better get going if you don’t want to piss him off too bad!”

“Thanks for that,” Felix dryly replied as he stood up and began to walk away from the table. Inferno stood up and followed after him, but Raiku and Breeze remained where they were, still talking to Robin. Shading his eyes from the harsh light that greeted him as soon as he stepped out of the pub, he began to make his way back towards their base, glancing at the streets where children still played, ignoring their mothers who chased after them trying to call them back for food or a warmer tunic.

“So how about this new job, huh? A dragon master against us,” Inferno asked him as they fell into step.

“Didn’t Veruka used to be a dragon master? I thought he told us that once that he was,” Felix said. Veruka was one of the men that they assumed to be traveling with the other group; he would be meeting up with them as long as he had not been wounded in their time away. He was about six years older than Felix was and had only joined their group a little over a year ago, making him one of their newest members.

“I wouldn’t be surprised, he is a bit rough but overall he gives off the vibe that he was a knight of some sort or another at one point in time, and it would explain his vicious fighting skills.” According to tales they heard, many people became much more crude and vicious when they fought alongside a dragon because of the unmatched raw primal strength of them.

“Maybe he’ll be able to take that guy out, or at least be able to help us a bit, you know? I think we’ll stand a pretty good chance as long as the damn thing isn’t old enough to breathe fire… If we’re that unlucky, then… Well, whatever fictional gods there are hate us and we’ll only be alive if fate decides to do one hell of a lot more than just smile upon us.”

“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see when the time comes, what else can we do until then? Nothing worth worrying about or we won’t be able to enjoy what we have now,” Felix answered. “Besides, we easily outnumber the thing, and isn’t Lightning talented the most talented of us in terms of magic? She might be able to bring the thing down without much effort.”

“She is the strongest of us all, even among the other spell-casters in our group, but that doesn’t mean it will be an easy fight.”

“Did you follow me just to whine about this upcoming fight, or do you have something interesting to say, Inferno?” Felix asked, not unkindly.

“Oh, yeah, I don’t really have much to say. I’m coming back to pack because the last time I went out my blade broke on me, so I was almost killed by some brigand who thought he’d be able to take me out easily.”

“What happened in the end?”

“I think Sieker took him out for me while I was busy dodging around with my stump-sword, but it did teach me a valuable lesson,” he said with a laugh. Felix cheerfully laughed with him, not entirely because of the story but mostly because he wanted to distract his mind from their rapidly approaching new job. Most of the way back, they were silent and Felix didn’t attempt to change this. The two of them were usually rather talkative, but neither of them showed any interest in talking.

Scarlet, Robin’s cousin was waiting at the gate when they arrived. She was older than Robin, and had long fiery hair as well. Light armor covered her body, but she looked at them kindly as they approached. Rumor was that she was one of the first members to join up with his father, and her loyalty towards him was unwavering and strong.

“Is Robin really at the pub already?” She asked them as she stepped aside to allow them through. Diran stood on the other side of the gate, leaning against the gate with his eyes closed in a feeble attempt at sleep. When Felix nodded, she slowly shook her head. “I should’ve known better than to let him off early, but I guess he is my only remaining family member…”

“Ah, well, what can you do? Just remember next time,” Felix said as he walked past her and into the fort, following the narrow dirt trail that led from the gate and into their courtyard. Once there, he headed towards the men’s barracks, a large building that rested between the mess hall and the women’s barracks, across from the incomplete building that occasionally served as a shelter for travelers in the area.

Inferno walked ahead of him as he took a brief glance around the base. The area between the buildings was filled by a few tall trees that had been in the area long before they had moved in. In actuality, their base was little more than a quickly-constructed fort in a heavily wooded area, and they relied heavily on these woods for protection, which they didn’t fail to provide. The trees that surrounded these areas were so packed together that it was nigh impossible to navigate through them, and even if one was able to get through the noise made would alert them. Despite this, they had recently erected gates around this to prevent people from getting in; these gates, unlike the main gate, could not be opened.

Felix pushed the door to the men’s barracks open and stepped in, disappointed as he felt the heat of the sun immediately evaporate and leave him feeling cold. There were two doors, one in front of him and the other to his left. This door to his left led to his father’s study, where his father and others often worked on battle plans and other such things that did not interest him. Instead of entering this dull room, he walked straight ahead and pushed open the door that Inferno had already gone through, looking around the dim room that he called his home.

 

-I know it’s not great, but I’m trying to build it up a bit, could you tell me where a need for improvement is most necessary?

One of my issues is the uncertainty of the names; I like Raiku, and Felix is pretty good, but Inferno might fit but doesn’t sound right, I dunno why… Any feedback or comments on where this could be improved are appreciated, though, and thank you for reading!

Prologue

December 7, 2008

Prologue

 

Cloaked in both cloth and shadows, Drago walked hastily down the abandoned side alley, kicking the beggars that dotted his path out of his way. Moonlight shone down on him brightly, and Drago pulled the hood tighter around his head, hoping to keep his identity hidden from those around him, at least until he had completed the following confrontation. One of the more gutsy beggars hobbled towards him and held out a nearly empty wooden bowl, wordlessly asking for any coins. Irritated and unimpressed by the fool, he shoved him away and walked past. The hand that he had not used drifted casually towards his belt and gripped the hilt of his sword.

Soon, the alley came to an end and he emerged into a larger main street that was deserted. As he stepped into the street, a cat ran across the dirt street, its eyes glinting menacingly in the near-darkness. His eyes darted towards the animal when it first appeared, but then he looked away and focused on analyzing his surroundings.

“Come out, come out! You cannot hide from me!” In the silence of the night, his voice reverberated around loudly. For several long minutes, nothing happened, but he was prepared to wait. After fifteen minutes, he prepared himself to walk away, turning his back on the wide road. “Fools!” He cried, “You think to surprise me by hiding in the shadows like the cowards you are, but you fool no one!”

Hatred coated every word he said, thicker and more deadly than poison. Laughing, Drago prepared himself to disappear, wishing that this fight had been more straightforward, or at least fought. Suddenly, a burst of flames filled the night like an explosion. Quickly, Drago spun around in time to feel his cloak being roughly grabbed by another man who was garbed in a long robe similar to his own that disguised his identity. A trail of flames followed behind the man.

Behind this flaming man was a third, who was also hiding his identity behind a cloak, apparently unaware that Drago already knew their identities. An ornate broadsword that looked unfit for combat rested in the third man’s hand, and he was tapping the jagged edge of the blade against the ground restlessly. “Now tell us,” the man who had grabbed him growled, “Who you are. Maybe then, I will consider sparing you.”

“Consider it? I believe that my identity is my last bargaining chip,” he replied. “Who knows? It might just help me out a bit for once.”

“Does this have any connection to your ‘god-like’ abilities?” The third man asked sarcastically, “Because god or not, your identity isn’t going to save you here! It’s time to answer my questions!” The man who had a grip on his cloak shoved him forward and a sword appeared from nowhere in his hand. With deliberate slowness, Drago leaped back and pulled the sword from his own side. Gleaming slightly in the moonlight, Drago raised his twisted sword and pointed it at the two men. Instantly, the man who had grabbed him rushed forward, and the two of them exchanged a brief volley of blows.

Then, he knocked the man backwards and kicked him over before stepping over him to the third man, who had now prepared himself for battle. “You’re still not as foolish as the other one, but that won’t save either of you. As soon as you’re both down…” Smiling wickedly, he drew a single finger from his spare hand across his neck to signify death. The man who stood across from him seemed unfazed by the claim. He merely tightened his grip on the ornate blade and jumped forward. The duo exchanged a much shorter duel, and then he knocked this man to the ground as well. “Damn, does your group have any strong fighters in it? I must say, I really am not impressed with you two, I had hoped that you had improved since our last few fights…”

The first man to fall raised himself, though, and brought his sword back up. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard this line from you before,” he coldly stated, “Now come on, let’s finish this!” By now, the second man he had knocked down, who he thought had been knocked unconscious, stood up and raised his blade, pointing its elegant tip at him.

“Very well, but be prepared. You are going to your death.” The two men both attacked him simultaneously, but he was expecting this. Try as he might, though, he could not knock both of the fighters back at once. Metal met metal continuously, and then separated, leaving showers of sparks in the night. From their last fight, the two had definitely increased in their abilities. Figures, I did defeat them easily. Now it looks like they might be an interesting challenge!

This challenge dragged on much longer than he had hoped. Soon, the duo began to overpower him, and they showed no signs of weakening in their assault. If it continued… Then he, Drago, would have to call upon magic to defeat them.

There was a noise of metal scraping against the ground, almost unable to be heard, but all three of them seemed to have heard it, cutting their fight off instantly; it was unmistakable that there was a large group heading their way, most likely from the castle. There was a strange splashing noise, like water striking the rock roads, and he spun around. Walking towards them was a woman who was wearing a sleeveless shirt and had shoulder-length hair that had its color hidden by the darkness.

“Why are you still here, Drago?”

“…You? Why are you here? You should be gone! I captured you again already and sent you back, damn you!” Drago spun around towards the woman and raised his blade, but she raised her own hand and a sword appeared in her hand, looking from a distance like it was made of ice. Drago exchanged a few swings with her, and then he was knocked back, his sword clattering away from him.

“Don’t you see or has he already blinded you, Drago? You are going to be killed!” She placed one of her feet onto his chest to hold him down, and Drago looked up at her, wishing that things could have turned out differently. If only she did not keep getting into his way and interfering with the workings of their group…

“I’m not going to be killed, I can just get out of here.” As he had expected, she had not seen the obvious answer to this question. His ability to disappear and reappear at will was equal to even that of his leader’s, or nearly was.

“You really don’t see anything, do you? He brought you into our group as a pawn! He thinks you’ve outlived your purpose and sent you here to be killed; he didn’t think you’d stand a chance! To make sure you didn’t get out, he even tipped off the guard to your presence and told them that you’re dangerous, they’re coming here now!” Drago looked up at her with surprise, and then back at his two enemies who were looking at him with their weapons drawn and held at the ready.

Pushing himself up from the ground, he allowed his hood to fall off and was delighted when he heard both of the men gasp, and one of them call out angrily, “You!”

“Come on, Drago, we don’t have time!”

Drago looked between the two, unable to choose what to do. Should he follow the woman he had so often chased down and flee the group that he owed his allegiance to, or fight his two enemies to the death and be captured by the guards of the town?

The metal footsteps got ever closer, making irritating ringing noises in his ears. The first of the soldiers walked into his vision, and he made up his mind, turning towards his companion. “Okay, let’s get the hell out of here!”

A third companion for his enemies walked into the alley as well, a woman wearing a white dress with a drawn blade. One of the cloaked men raised his arms and pointed it at the other, a ball of flames shooting out of his palm and striking the other on the chest as he spluttered incoherent words with unknown meanings. Drago, on the other hand turned towards the woman who stood not far from him and slowly felt himself being pulled bodily away from the place, still wondering what had happened and what had gone wrong…

Why had he been betrayed by his own superior?

 

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December 7, 2008

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