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!

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2 Responses to “Chapter One”

  1. theunhappycamper said

    I like it, keep up the good work. 🙂

  2. rocketone said

    HMMMMMM, I really wish I had time to read it more

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