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Original Work The Lashival Trilogy - Book 3- The Revelation

Discussion in 'Fanfics and Stories' started by riki, Sep 23, 2015.

  1. riki

    riki Short and Sweet

    伝説メンバー / Densetsu / Legendary Member

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    Just like for The Enigma, this is the placeholder. The only difference is that I don't have a set amount of chapters since I'm not quite sure how long the book will be so I'm just going to wing it like I did for the first book. :sweatbunny

    So far, I only have the title for the first three chapters up, but more will be added later. ^^

    Previous books: The Ilmarians | The Enigma
    Chapters will be updated monthly.


    The exciting conclusion of The Lashival Trilogy! For centuries, Kejuta has relentlessly stopped at nothing to prevent the Lashival from awakening his devastating powers. Despite her efforts, she still hasn't found a way to stop his rebirth numerous times. but refused to give up. She will find a way to get rid of Samara's biggest threat in the world no matter what!

    However, not all of her colleagues share her sentiment. The newly-named Ilmarian of Souls, Shintra, has long desired to capture the
    Lashival and forced him into his servitude. In order to do that, he has been slowly building up his forces of Dalenthi to find and locate his predecessors' ultimate weapon as well as challenge Kejuta and seize leadership from her. After several years of biding his time, he has decided now is the time to begin the next phase of his scheme. Unbeknownst to both of them, another Ilmarian is making a bold move as well...

    And through it all, an unaware
    Lashival lived a typical, normal life until a chance encounter...

    Table of Content
     
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2017
    gnut, Darky and kira like this.
  2. riki

    riki Short and Sweet

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    Prologue: Sowing the Seeds of Chaos

    Farth 12, 2584

    “You must one of those Dalenthi! You’re trying to get more people become possessed!”

    “No, I’m not! I’m just a simple traveling merchant selling my wares.”

    “Yeah right! I betcha those so-called ‘wares’ have Duermons waiting inside them. Come on, boys! We have to teach this Duermon a lesson about messing with us.”

    “What? No, if you destroy my goods, my livelihood will be ruined! Please just let me go! I am but a simple man, who is working so hard to earn a living. I promise that I will not set foot in your village.”

    “Too late, Duermon. You picked the wrong village to mess with, and now you’re going to pay the price.”

    “Nooooo!”



    “Wait, Jarkfi Gerrod! I don’t understand why I’m being exiled.”

    “It’s simple, Liyana. We believe that you may be a Dalenthi so you have to go.”

    “But that doesn’t make any sense! Wouldn’t one of the wards detect me if I am?”

    “You of all people should know that the exorcists are still trying to figure out a way to detect that new type of Duermon. Until then, anyone who we suspect to be a Dalenthi will be exiled.”

    “Why am I being suspected then?”

    “Someone noticed that you were acting suspiciously and therefore, reported it to us.”

    “Then who accused me? Was it Tellia?”

    “You know that we can’t disclose it.”

    “It was she, wasn’t she? Everyone knows how much she hates me! I wouldn’t put it by her to do something like that. Where’s her proof?”

    “That’s enough, Liyana! You delayed the inevitable long enough. You have tried my patience; you should be grateful that we only decided to exile you instead of killing you right here. Either leave now or face the consequences!”



    “There they are! After them! Stop those Dalenthi before they escape!”

    “Dammit, they found us. Euny, grab the children and run! I’m going to try to delay them.”

    “No, Paqes! I’?m not going to leave you to die!”

    “We have no choice! Our children need someone to take care of them. This is for their sake. I’ll always love you, Euny – don’t you ever forget that.”

    “But!”

    “Just go and don’t stop no matter what happens to me!”

    “Ugh, what’s a mess!” Kejuta groaned as she watched the scenes from the celuiquore. The Ilmarian of Fate toyed with the Chains of Destinies that were wrapped around her fingers as she turned to the three colleagues who were with her in Welvaria. “So many innocent people’s lives being destroyed by baseless accusations!”

    “I know,” Marika commiserated. “Ever since words spread about the Dalenthi, a few people see an opportunity to get rid of their enemies. They can accuse their business competitors or love rivals with ease and don’t care about the consequences of their actions.” The Ilmarian of Worlds sighed. “Sometimes I wondered if it was a good idea to reveal the existence of Dalenthi to the world.”

    “But if we didn’t, then they would have easily spread their numbers without anyone knowing. With people aware of them, they are more cautious now,” Brenton objected but added, “Although it’s tragic about what’s happening at the moment. If only we can figure out a way to detect them…”

    “I know, but I still hate to see how the world is coming apart because of it.”

    “Rest assured, Marika, I’m trying my best to stop that from happening,” Shintra announced. Turning to Kejuta, the new Ilmarian of Souls continued, “I managed to save some of those innocent people by ‘persuading’ their accusers to denounce their claims. Unfortunately, there are so many cases that I can’t stop all of them.”

    “It’s better than nothing. You have been a great help during this trying time,” she acknowledged.

    “It’s all thanks to the celuiquore. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to reach so many people at once.” He glanced thoughtfully at the foggy liquid. “I still find it extraordinary that such a thing exists!”

    Kejuta shifted her feet uncomfortably. Even though the Duermon has proven himself, she still has a lingering doubt about him. Her gut instinct told her that she shouldn’t place full trust in Shintra, which was why she secretly monitored him once in a while by checking random people’s Chains of Destinies to see if there was a sudden change in behavior. However, she didn’t find anything to cause alarm… yet anyway. “I’m sure people are appreciative for your help,” she said instead. She hesitated before she asked, “Does it bother you that people thanked the All-Mother instead of you afterward?”

    After knowing the Duermon for a while now, she knew that he enjoyed being the center of attention. That was why she was slightly curious about whether or not he felt slighted. At first, the Ilmarian of Souls didn’t answer before he finally answered, “It does a little bit, but I think it’s for the best. If people know about my power, I’m sure they would be terrified that such a being with that ability exists. Besides, I find working in the shadows to be more fitting for my role.”

    She nodded. It seemed that he had matured significantly from the time they first met. The Ilmarian of Fate was about to ask him another question when a gateway abruptly appeared and a clearly aggravated Aundra emerged from it. “Grrr! I need a drink,” she grumbled as she flicked her hand and flopped down on one of the benches. Soon a glass of wine showed up right in her hand, and she began to gulp it down.

    Kejuta and the others gave each other sideway glances. “Another rough day?” Marika inquired. After words spread about the existence of the Dalenthi, the world leaders set up periodic emergency meetings in order to figure out how to solve that crisis. For the past year, Aundra has been busy collaborating with them. Nevertheless, it has been quite stressful according to her. Based on her current reaction, it was another exhausting day for her.

    “Uh huh,” the Ilmarian of Magic confirmed, gulping down another glass. “Those damned leaders kept demanding answers about the Dalenthi threat as well as nagging me to find a way to detect them. Dammit, just because I’m the goddess of magic doesn’t mean that I can create new magic out of thin air! I just store them; they are the one who supposed to discover them, not me.”

    The other Ilmarians looked at her sympathetically. Out of all the Ilmarians, only Aundra has continued to make herself public; the rest had opted not to do so because they wanted to roam Samara incognito. The public only needed to know that they exist, not their appearances were their opinion. To be honest, Kejuta didn’t understand why Aundra wanted to continue to reveal herself. After all, she has been the target of assassins (the so-called “God Killers”) sent by the King of Anka numerous times and besieged by people begging for her aid. She once asked her about it, but the Ilmarian of Magic just shrugged. Perhaps like Shintra, she didn’t mind the attention.

    Speaking of which, Aundra continued her rant. “Poor Livian is so stressed out by it that she probably retired as my ambassador within a month of so. Luckily, I have Chiara in the wings, and she’s taking things in stride. But still!” She placed her glass down before she rubbed her forehead. “Can anything else go possibly wrong? I swear I think this is a test on whether or not I can handle this type of situation.”

    Standing up, she muttered, “Anyway, sorry about that. I just needed to vent my frustration. I’m heading back to my room to relax for a bit. If you need me for anything, just send me a message.” With that said, she opened up a portal to her private quarters and headed out without saying another word.

    No one spoke as they watched the Ilmarian of Magic leave and disappeared from view. If Kejuta recalled correctly, Brenton had told her that Aundra usually goes to her room to calm down. “To meditate,” was his exact words. Maybe she should do the same sometimes. She understood how her friend was feeling and wished she could find a solution to help alleviate her aggravation.

    “I have to agree with her,” Brenton said. “I wonder if our predecessors is testing us to see if we can handle a quandary like they might face.”

    “Perhaps, but I highly doubt that they have to deal an issue like the Dalenthi or the Lashival, and we know what happened to them when they tried to stop the latter,” Shintra retorted.

    Everyone grew silent as they were reminded about the Lashival, the only being who can kill them. Within a few days, he was going to be reborn into the world again, and there was nothing they could do about it. To be honest, she still hasn’t figured out how he could do it. Who has the power to kill a god with such ease? Despite everyone’s efforts, they still haven’t figured out how to defeat him once and for all. The last time, she tried a theory that having mortals kill him to be the solution, but that was proven to be wrong.

    Finally, Marika said softly, “He’s right, you know. We also have to deal with the Lashival. What should we do?”

    Kejuta didn’t answer at first because she was lost in thoughts. Although she can manipulate almost everyone’s Chains of Destinies, only one still evaded her – the Lashival’s. His Chain lay within her reach, but alas, remained intangible to her touch. Her deceased colleague’s words rang in her head. “You must chain the beast,” Resphyr, the Ilmarian of Dreams, had told her. But how? She had pondered that question so many restless nights and still hadn’t figured out the answer to that riddle.

    “We won’t have to worry too much about the Lashival for the time being since he hasn’t been born yet. Besides, we have the twins to keep a watch for him when he does show up. Until then, we can continue our effort to stop the spread of the Dalenthi. By the way, were you able to locate any of your former followers using the celuiquore?” she asked Shintra. That was what she was planning to ask him before she was interrupted by Aundra’s sudden arrival.

    “Not really,” he replied, shaking his head. “It’s as we figured; they used the human part of their souls to camouflage their identities. Perhaps your children learn anything new from the Kasama’s soul?”

    “They’re still studying it, but they told me that they’re making some progress albeit slowly.” She sighed. “For now, I guess we just have to depend on Alethea to locate them. I hate to burden her as already is. She hasn’t had a break for the past year, and I’m sure she’s exhausted.”

    Marika surmised, “I assume that her power has been effective in finding them then?”

    The Ilmarian of Fate nodded. “She has encountered a few of them, and they had put up a fight from what she’s written to me.”

    “Then we should do our upmost effort to find a way to help her,” Shintra said with a determined look in his eyes. “Alethea shouldn’t have the sole responsibility in locating and killing them.”

    “And I’m sure she would be pleased with your enthusiasm,” she said dryly. Everyone knew that the Aerian doesn’t want to anything to do with him because of what he did to her. She refused to acknowledge him and whenever he came into the same room as she, she would either move far away from him or leave altogether. The Duermon must have gotten that hint too because he had stopped sending his messenger birds to her according to what the Ilmarian of Truth has written to her recently. Alethea must have been relieved by that.

    She continued, “But you’re right that we need to help her, and we can’t do that just by standing here. I’m going to check with Adia and Pen to see if they learn anything new. If they do, I’ll let everyone knows in the next meeting.”

    “And we’ll do the same,” Brenton promised, and the others assented.

    “Until then,” she said as she left to go to Valendor.

    After lingering around in Welvaria for a little longer, Shintra excused himself and headed straight to his private world. To the unseeing eyes, many people would believe that his room was just a library full of books and décor. He had arranged the books based on topic and height to make the room aesthetically pleasing. However, one book seemed out of place; not only was it between two tall books, its binding didn’t have a title either. If anyone noticed it, then he or she may know that something seemed off. Luckily, he had a lot of books so none of his visitors has spotted that indiscretion.

    He ambled over to it and pulled on it, revealing a hidden passage. Then he proceeded to go through and arrived in another room, where Balster and Lunes were waiting for him. “Welcome back,” his second-in-command greeted him. “You must be in a good mood.”

    Shintra was confused at first until it dawned on him that he was humming rather jovially. Heh, he wasn’t even aware that he was doing that. “I supposed so,” he replied with a chuckle. “It’s probably because those other Ilmarians still aren’t aware of my true intentions for them. They still are focused on stopping the Dalenthi predicament and the Lashival to pay close attention to me. And how’s things on your end?”

    “Going well,” was his response. “More Dalenthi are being created, and we’re gathering more people to our cause each day. The Ruschabels continued to train their bodies so that they are fit enough for us to possess.”

    “That’s good. And what’s about you, Lunes?”

    “The same goes on my end,” Lunes answered. “Your concubines are producing more children to add to your army. At the moment, five of your women are pregnant; one of which is expecting triplets, I believe.”

    The Ilmarian of Souls smiled at that news. “Excellent! Keep up the good work, the both of you.”

    “And my daughter? Do you have any new information about her?” the elderly Dalenthi questioned. Every day, she has inquired about Alethea (or Ressi, as he and his followers still called the Aerian) because she fretted about her well-being.

    “Balster has some people keeping tabs on her,” he informed her. “Don’t worry, Lunes. Ressi is doing fine though she still fights on the wrong side. According to what Kejuta reported, she continued to hunt down our people by using her ability to detect lies against them.”

    Lunes scowled and muttered at that news. No doubt she wasn’t happy that her adopted daughter was killing their people. Nevertheless, she said bluntly, “As long as she’s well, that’s all I need to hear, but I rather have her fighting for us, not against us.”

    “Rest assured, I’m doing the best of my ability to bring her back.” Not to mention, he still needed to punish her for what she did. Just thinking about it reminded him of the stab in the chest that she’d given him, which caused him to wince. “Until then, we just have to be patient.”

    Balster cleared his throat. “Speaking of being patient, the men are getting restless. They are eager to strike down your enemies and bring them to their knees. They’re fit and ready for battle whenever you’re ready to strike. Just give us the words,” he declared.

    However, Shintra shook his head. “Patience, Balster. We’re not ready to strike just yet. There are a few things that I still need to do first beforehand.” He was amused by the disappointed look on Balster’s face. Ever since his second-in-command possessed Zentran’s tormenter, he has become somewhat obsessed with fighting the Ilmarian of Seasons. It seemed that a little part of Puloog’s personality has made an impact on the Dalenthi. He continued, “But I think we’re ready for the next step of my plan.”

    That news caused his second-in-command to grin widely.

    ---------- Post added at 12:23 AM ---------- Previous post was at 10:35 PM ----------

    An Encounter in the Woods

    Toov 22, 2593

    Corwin Rasson listened quietly as he hid in his secret hiding place, but the only sounds he heard was the animals that lived in the Marden Forest. So far, so good. Nevertheless, just to be sure, he strained his ears again. After all, he didn’t want to be caught by the Ankan soldiers. Even though many people have lived freely in these woods, King Asyras Rothlem had claimed the forest to be his property long ago, and anyone who dared trespass it would be severely punished.
    To be honest, he still didn’t fully understand why the king would make that declaration. The forest people still lived there without fear of reprisals even though they were technically “trespassing”. Not to mention, King Asyras nor his descendants ever stepped foot inside the Marden Forest. Why would he claim it if he won’t ever use it? He once asked his brother that question, but he just told him it’s because powerful people do weird things sometimes, which really didn’t answer his question. But then, he never really gives good answers. Nevertheless, his brother warned him to never venture out to the Marden Forest no matter what.

    Despite his brother’s warning, Corwin still snuck to the forest every now and then. He couldn’t help himself; it was so tranquil just being there. The fresh air… the chirping of the birds and insects… the vibrant colors of the flowers and plants… He thought to himself that those were the reasons why visiting the forest was so much better than staying in that stuffy old house. Why should he be bored while waiting for his brother to come home from work when he can go outside and explore?

    Besides, he made sure to be discreet whenever he goes. He would be extra vigilant as he scanned the area for soldiers and listened carefully for any sudden noise. When he does hear anyone nearby, he quickly scurries to his hiding place, which was a large hole in a tree that was covered with vines, and waits until the danger passes. Likewise, he lingers close to the edge of the forest in order not to get lost. After all, the Marden Forest is like a labyrinth especially for those who never have been there before. By sticking to those stringent rules he imposed on himself, he hasn’t been caught so far.

    After staying in the same position for what seemed to be an eternity, he decided to have enough and tried to stand up to stretch. Unfortunately for him, his legs had fallen asleep. Sighing irritably, he began to rub his legs when he heard shouting nearby.

    “Stop! Stay where you are!”

    “She’s getting away!”

    Corwin’s ears perked up. It appeared that a group of Ankan soldiers has caught someone trespassing, and based on their shouts, they’re nearby. Sure enough, he could hear the sounds of thundering footsteps that seemed to shake the ground as they chased whoever it was. Hmm… it would appear that they were getting closer to his location. Even though he was slightly scared that he might be caught, a part of him was somewhat curious so he peeked through the opening in the vines.

    Imagine his surprise when suddenly a girl fell with a thud right in front of his hiding place. Wincing, she rubbed her sore bottom. “Dammit…” she grumbled. Intrigued, he studied the interloper. Just like him and other people who live in the continent of Enkrum, she has tan skin, brown eyes, and short, brown hair. She wore a dark brown tunic with orange trimmings and brown leggings with matching sandals. A simple orange headband kept her hair out of her eyes. The only thing strange about her was a single ray of light that seemed to descend from the sky and immerse her with its strong light. It reminded him of the sunlight, but that didn’t make any sense at all; the weather was cloudy, and no sun was peeping through the clouds. Nevertheless, Corwin thought she was pretty.

    Just then, he heard the soldiers’ shouts and knew that he has to help her. Otherwise, he couldn’t live with himself if he sat there and did nothing. “Psst! Over here!” he hissed. Startled, the girl glanced around to determine the location of his voice, but she couldn’t find him so he added, “Right in front of you!”

    She turned her head toward him, and their eyes met. “There is enough room for you to hide in here. Hurry!” he told her. However, she just sat there as if she was stunned that he was right in front of her the whole time. “What are you doing? You don’t want to get caught, do you?”

    Without any more hesitation, she followed his directions and crawled through the opening. As soon as she went through and got comfortable, he quickly let go of the vines and scooted to join her. The whole time, she stared at him, flummoxed. Most likely she was trying to figure out what he looked like in the dim light.

    No sooner did he sit down, the soldiers arrived. Through the vines, he could see them standing around as they scanned the area for her. Their grayish green uniforms designated them as the King’s forest patrol. “Where did she go?” he heard one soldier asked.

    “It looks like we’ve lost her, sir,” another soldier replied.

    Corwin heard the first soldier, whom he assumed to be the squad leader, cursed. Turning to one of his men, he demanded, “Are you sure you saw her go this way, Ingrex?”

    “I’m sure, sir,” Ingrex answered as he meekly averted his eyes from his commander’s glare. “I saw her heading to this area. She probably wasn’t paying attention to where she was going because she fell over the small ledge right above us.”

    “Then where the hell did she go!?”

    Another soldier took a step forward. “Maybe she’s hiding somewhere, sir. After all, there are several places in this forest where people can hide.”

    His commander rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “You do have a good point there. Okay, listen up, everyone! Search through the area! Our little ‘friend’ must be around here somewhere!”

    A lump appeared in Corwin’s throat. If those soldiers found their location… Already he could see them starting to search the area. What should he do? He caught a glimpse of the woman muttering something underneath her breath; her lips moved slightly as she stared intently outside. He stared at her curiously as he wondered what she was doing. Was she a spell caster?

    He got his answer soon enough. Suddenly, he heard her cussing, but her voice sounded far away. The soldiers must have heard it too because they stood, erect, as they turned toward the direction of her voice. “Do you hear that?” one of them finally asked.

    “Yeah,” the captain answered. “It looks like she’s farther than we thought.”

    “Should we stop our search here then?”

    “What do you think? Of course! The more we procrastinate, the more likely she’ll get away! Now stop yapping and let’s go!”

    The soldiers nodded as they proceeded to follow their commander’s lead as he led them through the thick forest until they were out of sight. Nevertheless, Corwin and his guest remained still and silent just in case those soldiers weren’t fooled by that trick. After a few more minutes, they finally relaxed and exhaled with relief. He opened his mouth to tell her that he thought it was safe when she said bluntly, “It’s safe to come out now.”

    Before he could even blink, she was already crawling through the entrance. Shaking his head, he just followed behind her. Whoever she is, she’s one odd girl. By the time he got out, she was already stretching and wiping the dirt off her clothes. “Hey, you should be more careful! What if they were still lurking around here? Don’t you know who they are? Those are King Elyas’s personal soldiers! If they catch you, you’ll never be seen again!” he admonished her.

    “I’m fully aware of who they are, and I was being careful. I knew for sure that they were long gone. That’s why I knew that it was safe to come out. Besides, I should be asking that same question. Why are you even here if you know that it wasn’t…” she said bluntly as she turned to give him a reproachful look. She abruptly shut her mouth and stared at him, terrified, like he was some sort of dangerous monster; her face turned slightly pale as the blood drained from her face. Corwin noted to himself that her body seemed to tense up, and she was backing away from him slowly.

    Trying to relieve the tension, he quickly added, “If you’re afraid that I’ll hand you over to them, I promise I won’t. And to answer your question, I just wanted some fresh air.” He noticed that she was still cautious so he offered his hand toward her. “My name is Corwin Rasson. What’s yours?” She stared at his hand for the longest time so he impatiently said, “Don’t worry. You won’t get shocked if you shake my hand, you know.”

    The woman shook her head as if realizing what she was doing and slowly shake his hand. “My name is…Priya Soltan,” she finally mustered.

    “Nice to meet you, Priya,” he smiled. “What are you doing here anyway? It’s not safe to be wandering around these parts, you know. Especially with those guards roaming about.”

    “I was… Someone sent me a message to come here to check up on something, but…” She hesitated and looked around, unsure. “When I did, I was suddenly ambushed by those men. Luckily, I was able to make a getaway though they were closing in on me fast.”

    “Then whoever send you that message must have been sending you to a trap!” Corwin deduced. “It was a good thing that I was here to save you then. Otherwise, you’ll be a captive by now!”

    Priya looked at him, stumped. “That doesn’t make sense. The person who sent me the message is always reliable and has good judgment. I trust her completely, and I know that she would never do such a thing.”

    “Then maybe she makes a mistake? I mean, nobody’s perfect, right?”

    “I supposed so,” she muttered mostly to herself and looked toward the direction of the guards. She then crossed her arms and tapped her fingers while she looked down to the ground, lost in her thoughts.

    Corwin watched for a moment before he finally asked, “Are you worried that they will be back soon?” She looked up at him and shook her head. “Are you lost then? You were running away from those men so you probably didn’t pay attention to where you were going.”

    “A little bit. I’ve never been in this area,” she admitted.
    “So you are lost then?” he surmised. An idea suddenly popped inside his head, which caused him to jump excitedly.

    “I know! Then why don’t you stay with me at my place for a while? No one would ever think of looking you there! Since you’re not from these parts, you need a place to stay especially with those soldiers looking for you.”

    She didn’t answer at first. Instead, Priya just stared at him and pondered his suggestion. Again with that strange look. That was starting to bug him, to be honest. At last, she said, “I don’t know. Are you sure you don’t mind?”

    “Not at all!” he said vehemently. “It’s just my brother and me; I’m sure he wouldn’t mind having you around.”

    “You’re sure?” Priya gave him a dubious look like she knew that he was lying about it. His brother always hated it whenever he brings something home without asking. However, he maintained his composure.

    “I’m positive,” he reassured her with a nonchalant wave of his hand. “Besides, it would make things interesting at home. Based on how those soldiers were after you, I bet you probably have some exciting stories to tell us. Now come on! We better head home before those soldiers realized that they’ve been had! Besides, my brother is about to head home from work so I have to be home before he gets there.”

    Without waiting for her decision, he grabbed her hand and dragged her along as he dashed back home. He could hear her startled yelp but ignored it. Something in his head told him that there was something special about Priya. Little did he know how true his instinct was – for this encounter would lead to several life-changing chains of events that not only impact him but the entire world itself.
     
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2016
  3. riki

    riki Short and Sweet

    伝説メンバー / Densetsu / Legendary Member

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    Chapter 02: A Change in Plan

    As soon as Noeth Rasson arrived home from work, he knew something was amiss. First of all, the house was quiet. Too quiet. Feeling uneasy, he shut the door and called out, “Hello? Corwin, I’m home!” Silence. “Are you hiding from me again?” Still silence. Sighing, he picked up his work supplies and began his search around the house.

    After searching through every room thoroughly, Noeth had to accept the fact that his little brother had done it again – he had snuck out to the Marden Forest despite his warning not to do so. He just shook his head as he put away his belongings and changed out of his work clothes. Then he put on a red shirt with traditional Ankan design, a black belt, a pair of white pants, and matching red boots. While he was washing his face, he examined his reflection in the water.

    He has a square face with strong cheekbones and a narrow nose. Brown eyes stared back at him as he fixed his hair – well, tried, that is. His cowlick stubbornly wanted to stick out no matter how hard he tried to comb it down. After several attempts, he has to admit defeat. He just has to accept the fact that his cowlick won the battle again.

    Sighing, Noeth went to the kitchen to get dinner started. Hmm… what should they eat today? He checked the cupboards and saw that there were some leftover bread, a couple of eggs, and butter. Not to mention, there were some vegetables in the root cellar. Maybe dinner should be boiled eggs, bread, and turnip greens. That sounds fulfilling. Having made that decision, he started to work.

    He was chopping the turnip greens when he heard the front door creak. Noeth immediately stopped what he was doing and strained his ears to hear his brother’s approaching footsteps. “Psst, I think it’s safe to come in!” he heard Corwin hissed. “It looks like my brother is still at work, but you have to stay quiet. Mrs. Birtens doesn’t like having unexpected ‘guests’.”

    Guests? Don’t tell me that he brought another wild animal home, he groaned to himself as he walked to the kitchen doorway, which faced the front door. Noeth immediately saw his brother standing with his back toward him; Corwin was too busy coaxing whatever he brought home to come in. Leaning against the threshold, he said aloud, “Don’t tell me that you venture out to the Marden Forest again, Corwin!” At the sound of his voice, his brother jumped and spurned around to find him giving him a stern look. “Do you even remember what I told you? It’s not safe to go there with those forest patrols guarding the area and especially with your condit-”

    He stopped abruptly when he suddenly noticed that Corwin wasn’t alone. His focus was now on the woman who has entered the room.

    She looked to be around the same age as he, and she was slightly shorter than he. Short, brown hair edged her heart-shaped face. The mysterious inconnu wore a simple tunic and leggings as well as slippers. However, that wasn’t what stopped him from scolding his brother. For some odd reason, something about her was familiar though he has no recollection of ever meeting her before. She must have the same reaction because she was staring at him inquisitively with her wide, brown eyes.

    Both of them didn’t realize that they were staring at each other until Corwin asked, “Do you know each other?”

    That was when he realized that he’s been staring at her the whole time. “No, I don’t think so,” he said, shaking his head. She did the same as well. “Who is she anyway? And how do you bump into her?”

    After they shut the door and settled down in the kitchen eating area, Corwin took a deep breath and began his story. “Her name is Priya Soltan, and…” Noeth could only listen to his long explanation with amazement. Being chased by the forest patrols? King Elyas was interested in her? Finally, Corwin said, “…and that how’s it happened. What do you say, Noeth? Can she stay with us until it’s safe for her to return home?”

    Noeth didn’t answer at first. Usually, he likes to think about what he has heard before he makes a response. At last, he combed his fingers through his hair and said, “So you’re telling me that she was being pursued by the king’s soldiers for some apparent reasons?” His baby brother nodded. “Do you even know why?” Corwin thought for a moment before sheepishly shaking his head so he turned his attention to Priya. “So why are they chasing you anyway?”

    “I don’t know,” she admitted.

    He highly doubted it. If the soldiers were interested in her, that would mean only one thing. Noeth gave her a dubious look, but she refused to look away from him. She continued to stare straight into his eyes with a determined look. However, he didn’t press her on the issue; if she wants to tell, she will when the time is right. Instead, he turned his attention back to his brother.

    “I know that you’re trying to help, but what if she’s a dangerous criminal? We don’t want the soldiers breathing down our necks if they know we’re harboring a fugit-”

    BANG! BANG! BANG! Everyone jumped when they heard the loud banging on the door. “Ankan soldiers! Open up!” a man bellowed. Noeth cursed underneath his breath. Just his luck! Corwin and Priya looked at him uncertainly as the knocks continued. Knowing that he better obey the soldier’s command, he quickly got out of his seat and rushed to open the door. Immediately, he was shoved out of the way as seven soldiers barged into the room. One of them stepped forward and gestured to the three of them. “All right, I want you all to line up and no false move! I want no one out of my sight. Do you understand?” he barked.

    They nodded and did as they were told. “What is the meaning of this?” Noeth ventured carefully. He didn’t want to anger the soldiers by appearing to be defiant. “Why are you here? We have done nothing wrong!”

    “Not that we have found… yet anyway,” the squad leader retorted. “And to answer your question, we’re looking for someone. Now I want to see your papers! Where are they?”

    He knew immediately what the soldier was requesting – official papers that proved that they were legal citizens of Anka. “They’re in the bedroom. Let me go get it,” Noeth informed him. The man gruffly nodded, allowing him to go get them. Another soldier followed him as he walked into the room that he shared with his brother. The whole time, the soldier watched him as he went to the dresser and retrieved the important documents; Noeth could feel the man’s piercing eyes on his back. As soon as he got the papers, he waved them to show that he got them so they proceeded to head back to the front.

    When they got back, the commander immediately snatched the papers from his hands and skimmed through them. Without saying a word, he then handed the papers back to Noeth. “I see that they have their papers, but where’s yours?” he demanded as he eyed Priya suspiciously.

    A startled Priya looked at him before she disclosed, “I don’t have one.” Shit! He has completely forgotten that she probably wouldn’t have one. As soon as she said those words, the Ankan soldiers began to gang up on her. From the corner of his eyes, Noeth caught a glimpse of Corwin’s staring pleadingly at him, which caused him to sigh inwardly. Even though his brother does give him a headache once in a while, Noeth still couldn’t refuse to say no to him.

    Stepping forward, he said aloud, “It’s because she just moves in with us.” Everyone stopped and stared at him incredulously. “She’s one of the forest people whom I used to know long ago. I asked her if she could stay here to keep an eye on my brother while I’m at work.” He then added, “If I remember correctly, King Elyas has decreed that any forest people who decide to move into Anka will have a certain amount of days to register as a citizen.”

    “The Forest Citizenry Decree. I forgot about that bloody thing,” the guard mumbled. Studying Priya carefully, he continued, “You just arrived here today, right?” She nodded. “Then you’ll have a week to register. If not, then we’re coming back to arrest you. Do you understand? Bleh, come on, men! This was a waste of time. Let’s get out of this dump and search elsewhere!”
    As the Ankan soldiers stomped away, Noeth and the others breathed a sigh of relief. They managed to trick the guards without their realizing it. However, their celebration didn’t last long when the commander halted. “Oh, before I forget…” he began as he slowly tilted his head toward them and smiled. “Welcome to Anka, girl. You’re going to love it here.”

    Then, without saying another word, he nodded his head and walked out of the door, slamming it with a loud bang. At first, no one dared speak or move lest the soldiers were still lingering behind the shut door. Finally, after a few minutes, everyone relaxed. It seemed that the Ankan guards were no longer around. “That was close,” Noeth breathed.

    “You can say that again! That was the scariest moment in my life!” Corwin agreed as he plopped onto a chair. “I thought for sure we would get arrested.”

    “We probably would if it wasn’t for your brother’s fast thinking.” Priya gave Noeth a grateful look. “Thank you. If it wasn’t for you, who knows what would happen to me?”

    “It was nothing,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. “I only did it or otherwise, I would never hear the end of it from Corwin.”

    His young brother perked up and straightened up in his chair. “Wait, are you saying that…?”

    He could only exhale slowly as he combed his fingers through his hair. “Well, I did tell those guards that she’ll be living with us for a while so I guess she can stay. Anyway, I better show you your room.”

    “Priya” followed Noeth as he led her to her room in complete silence. She was too busy looking around the quaint home so she could make a mental note of the setup. Based on what she’s seen so far, their house only has a gathering area, a kitchen, and foyer on the first floor while the second floor has a washroom and the bedrooms. “Here it is. This will be your room until we figure things out,” Noeth declared as he opened the door and motioned her to come in.

    “Are you sure? I don’t want to burden you by staying in your room,” she protested. Along the way, she noted to herself that there was one other bedroom.

    “Don’t worry about it. Corwin and I’ve been sharing a room for a while now so no one is using this one,” he reassured her. “Besides, I would be a horrible host if I force you to sleep in the living room.”

    “Well, if you insist…”

    Noeth smiled as she walked into the room. “I tried to clean it up once in a while so it should be livable though a little dusty. Anyway, make yourself comfortable. If you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen.”

    As soon as he shut the door, she began to perambulate it as she inspected her temporarily living arrangement. It has a simple layout: a bed on the one side of the wall, a desk facing the window, and a small dresser next to the bed. Looking out of the window, she could see the people going about their business below. Not a bad view. She can at least observe any suspicious activity. Not to mention, the window was wide enough that she could sneak out if she likes.

    Sitting down on the bed, she pondered her next move. As if knowing what she was thinking, she heard a slight cough in her head. “So what are you going to do now, Thea? Or should I call you, ‘Priya’ now?”

    Priya – or rather, Alethea – thought for a moment. “Send Kejuta my report so far. I need to tell her that I’ve safely arrived in Anka or she would worry half to death. You know how she is, Argus.”

    “Yeah, but you nearly got captured by those soldiers. Honestly, I don’t know what that woman was thinking! Sending you to that dangerous place,” Argus grumbled.

    The Ilmarian of Truth has to smile. Despite the fact that she was an Aerian while he was a Duermon, he always thought about her well-being. However, he didn’t need to fret. During the ensuing chase, she managed to change her appearance so those soldiers would be looking for the wrong person. Over the years, she has grown quite protean with her disguises that she could simply think of a look and changed immediately. Likewise, she has become quick on her feet in making a background story for each of her guises – with a little help from Argus.

    “It was probably an honest mistake. I’m sure she didn’t expect those guards to be there. Besides, because of it, I bumped into you-know-who,” she pointed out.

    “The Lashival… Who would have thought you would encounter him like that?” the Possessor Duermon muttered. “You’re telling Kej about him, right?”

    She took a deep breath and nodded. “Of course. She needs to know about him.”

    “Are you going to tell her that you will kill him?” he pressed on.

    The Ilmarian of Truth didn’t answer at first, but, at last, she said, “Yeah, I’ll tell her that, too. I’ll eliminate the threat tonight."

    “So tell us about yourself, Priya,” Noeth said as he jabbed his fork into his turnip greens.

    Priya looked at him thoughtfully. “And what do you want to know?”

    “You know, the usual stuff – family, friends, hobbies, and whatnot.”

    “Yea, lich do ya haf ‘ny brofers or sifers?” Corwin interrupted as he shoved a piece of bread into his mouth.

    “Chew and swallow your food first, Cor. I don’t want you to choke,” Noeth scolded. His embarrassed brother gulped his food down. “Sorry about that. We usually have good manners around here.” Upon hearing that, Corwin stuck his tongue out at him, which caused Priya to laugh.

    “That’s okay. I don’t mind,” she said with a chuckle. “I think it makes dinner more relaxing. And to answer your question, I’m an only child so no brothers or sisters sadly.”

    “What’s about your parents? I’m sure they’re worried about you,” Noeth pointed out.

    “My parents…” She hesitated before she continued, “They died a long time ago. I’ve been living on my own ever since.”

    “I’m sorry to hear that.”

    “It’s all right. I got used to it,” she answered though there was a hint of sadness in her eyes. Noeth gave her a sympathetic look but didn’t pry since she probably didn’t want to talk about it. Losing parents are tough; he knew that experience firsthand.

    Instead, he said, “So why were you in the forest anyway? Cor mentioned that someone ask you to go there.”

    “My colleague wanted me to check up on something, but I guess she wasn’t aware of the soldiers patrolling nearby. She would probably send me elsewhere if she has known,” she replied.

    He gave her a curious look. Something told him that she was hiding something from them, but what? He has an inkling, but before he could say anything, his brother blurted out, “It was a good thing I found you first then! Otherwise, you’ll be a prisoner! Right, Noeth?”

    “Right,” he assented. “You can stay here as long as you like though I think Cor would like you to stay here forever, knowing him.”

    “Are you sure? I don’t want to burden you,” she wondered. “At least, let me pay you back somehow.”

    “Well, I think I know how you can repay us,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. “Can you keep an eye on Cor while I’m at work? I’ve mostly gone most of the day so there is no one around to watch him. It should be fine since I think Cor has taken a likening to you. Does that sound good to you?”

    “I guess,” she conceded as she looked at his brother thoughtfully. “What do you do anyway?”

    “I work in construction,” Noeth explained. “The pay isn’t great, but it’s enough to pay the rent.”

    “Yeah, Noeth told me that this is one of the better places to live too!” Corwin interjected. “Although Mrs. Birten, the landlady, can be grouchy at times.”

    “That’s because you cause too much trouble for her,” he pointed out, giving his brother another stern look. In return, Corwin gave him an innocuous look. Nevertheless, Corwin did have a point; the neighborhood they’re in was considered one of the safer one in Kengen District, which was also known as the “poor district” compared to the Merrium District, where the wealthy reside. “But I think that will change since Priya is here with us. I know she’ll make sure that you won’t sneak out.”

    “I’ll make sure to watch him like a hawk,” she teased.

    However, Corwin didn’t seem to mind at all. No doubt he was happy that he has someone to keep him company. “So when will she register then?” he wondered.

    “Tomorrow,” Noeth determined. “It’s too late so the government offices will be closed. Besides, it’s too dangerous at night especially for her.” She gave him a puzzled look so he explained, “There are a few prowlers around the area who search for young girls and force them to work at the brothels.”

    “Oh, I didn’t know that,” she said, stunned. “That sounds horrible!”

    “It is,” he agreed. “That’s why I’d recommend staying indoors especially late at nights.”

    “I will,” she promised before she stifled a yawn. “Sorry, but I guess I’m feeling exhausted after today.”

    “You should get some rest then,” he suggested. “Don’t worry about the dishes; it’s Corwin’s job anyway.”

    “Yeah, I’ll take care of it!” Corwin piped up and stood up. He quickly gathered the empty plates and utensils before stacking them. “Just go to bed, and we’ll see you in the morning.”

    Nodding, she stood up and stretched. “If you insist… Thank you for the meal. It was very delicious. Anyway, good night.” With that said, she waved goodnight and headed straight upstairs.

    The two Rasson brothers continued their chores in silence as they listened to the sounds of Priya’s footsteps and the closing of the door before they began talking again. “Whelps, today was an interesting day,” Noeth finally declared.

    Corwin felt relieved. It looked like his brother wasn’t too upset with him about bringing Priya home. “Do you think she’ll like it here?” he wondered. During dinner, he began to worry that she may change her mind after tonight. She probably thought he was gross especially when he talked with his mouth open!

    “I think she will,” Noeth reassured him. “She didn’t seem too grossed out with your behavior at dinner.”

    “Shut up!” he said, scowling. “So what do you think?”

    His brother didn’t answer as he pondered. Unlike him, Noeth likes to think things through. “She seems nice, but I think we’ll get along once I get to learn more about her,” was all he said. In other words, he still doesn’t trust her so Corwin felt obliged to defend her.

    “She looked a little sad when she said that her parents were dead,” he mentioned. He recalled seeing a hint of sadness in her eyes when she told them that fact. It reminded him of their situation a little bit except he has Noeth to keep him company.

    His brother must have figured out what he was thinking because he said, “At least I have you around though you can be a pain in the butt sometimes "with the stunts you pulled.”

    Corwin grinned, but his face dropped. “You don’t mind that I brought her home, right?” he asked worriedly.

    “I’m still a little upset with you,” Noeth sighed. “You should have asked me first before you brought her home, but what’s done is done.” Despite his assurance, Corwin couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty. He probably caused his brother unnecessary stress, but he couldn’t stand there and do nothing! Otherwise, he couldn’t live with himself.

    “Do you think she’ll like it here?” he asked instead.

    “Who knows? What? Are you hoping that she’ll stay here?” his brother ribbed.

    “Maybe,” he replied with a sly look in his eyes, which caused Noeth to laugh.

    “We’ll see, Cor. Anyway, we better finish cleaning up or we won’t have time for your lessons.”

    Corwin scowled. Since they couldn’t afford to pay for schooling, his brother has to homeschool him. The lessons were usually after dinners. “Oh, come on, Noeth! Can we skip them for once? It’s been a crazy day, remember?” he begged.

    “No can do. Just because you brought an unexpected guest home doesn’t mean you have a day off,” Noeth said simply as he carried the dishes into the kitchen. Corwin was about to open his mouth to protest but thought better of it. Knowing his brother, the more he protests, the more works he’ll get. Sighing, he followed his brother into the kitchen to start washing the dishes.

    It was late at night when she decided to do the deed. By now, the two Rasson brothers should be asleep in bed. Not to mention, she needed to prep herself. For the past few hours, she has been lying on her bed and staring at the ceiling as she listened her hosts walked up the stairs and went into their bedrooms. Taking a deep breath, Alethea finally sat up and stretched before she crept toward the door. She might as well as get it over with. Then she discreetly opened the door and snuck into the hallway.

    Finding their bedroom was easy to see even though it was dark; it was located slightly across from hers. When she reached their room’s door, she halted. “What are you waiting for?” Argus hissed in her ear.

    “I have to make sure both of them are asleep,” she replied. “I can’t kill him if his brother is awake.”

    “You should have killed him from the very beginning. Then you wouldn’t be in this mess,” he grumbled.

    Alethea hated to admit it, but he has a point. She should have killed the Lashival as soon as she recognized him, but for some reason, she didn’t. Maybe it was the shock of meeting him face-to-face or the fact he saved her life twice. “I know that I messed up, Argus. You don’t have to remind me,” she said curtly. “Anyway, I’m going to fix it right now.”

    Without further delay, she opened the door and went into the room. As she closed the door, leaving it slightly ajar, she waited for her eyes to readjust to her new surroundings. The Rasson brothers’ room was a tad bigger than hers but has a similar arrangement. Their beds were placed on either side of the only window in the room. A rectangular dresser was placed between them; mementos were scattered on top of the dresser. However, she didn’t pay any mind to them since her focus was on the bed to the left.

    The Lashival was still fast asleep with his back toward her as Alethea walked quietly to his bedside. When she reached the side of his bed, she stopped and stared down at him. He looked so peaceful and harmless while he slept. Who would have thought a child could be so dangerous? Once again, she hesitated. “What are you doing? Just get it over with,” Argus nearly screamed.

    She ignored him. Instead, she stood there as she continued to look at her target and gulped nervously. Meanwhile, his brother, unaware of the danger close by, continued to slumber while she debated with herself. True, she has killed people before, but they were possessed, which was her job anyway. But to kill a child? That was unfathomable. It was supposed to be simple; she would quietly sneak into the Lashival’s room to kill him before she disappeared to continue her mission under another guise. If she only has no trouble like Torryn or Weiss, then perhaps she would have an easier time.

    Finally, she built up enough courage to perform the feat. With the wave of her hand, Alethea summoned the moonlight and created a snickersnee with it. Lifting the weapon over her head, she was about to plunge the weapon down toward the Lashival’s chest when a messenger bird suddenly appeared through the window. Bewildered, she watched as it fluttered onto the bed and lay out its simple and concise message:

    Spare him for now. Do your best to keep him safe no matter what until further notice.

    At first, Alethea gawked at the letter before she quickly perused it twice just to make sure she read the message correctly. “Are you reading what I’m reading?” she asked Argus.

    The Parasitic Duermon nodded. “Yes, I did. I guess she wants to spare his life for some odd reason.”

    “I’m sure she has her reasons.” She recalled how Kejuta sent mortals to kill the Lashival the last time so she figured it was another one of her theory though she couldn’t fathom what it could be.

    “So what are you going to do now?”

    The Ilmarian of Truth dissipated her weapon and answered, “Going back to bed. If she wants me to keep an eye on the Lashival, then that’ll be my job.” Then she slowly tiptoed back to the door and headed back to her room to rest.
     
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  4. riki

    riki Short and Sweet

    伝説メンバー / Densetsu / Legendary Member

    Mangahelper

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    Merry Christmas! :confetti

    Here is Chapter 3~




    Chapter 03: Brewing Troubles

    Keju 24, 2594

    “Can I please get this?” Corwin begged as he held out a small bag of cookies.

    Priya gave him a sideway glance. “Didn’t Noeth tell you not to eat any more sweets? You got a bellyache last time.”

    “Yeah, but that’s because I ate way too fast. Come on, let me have it! I’ve been good today so this should be my reward, right?”

    “I don’t know. It’s close to dinner so I don’t want you to ruin your appetite,” she replied.

    “Then I promise that I won’t eat too much,” he insisted. “So can I have this?”

    Before she could answer, the storekeeper, Mrs. Wilphen, asked, “Will that be all?”

    Priya looked at Corwin one last time, and he gave her a pleading look, which caused her to sigh. “I would like to buy this as well,” she said as she grabbed the bag of cookies from his hand and placed it on the counter. He beamed at her so she muttered, “Let’s keep this a secret from Noeth, okay?”

    “Okie dokie!” he promised.

    The shop owner just smiled as she handed the goods to Priya. “Thank you for your business. Please come again.”

    “We will. Take care, Mrs. Wilphen,” Priya said. She then handed the bag of cookies to Corwin while she grabbed the rest of the groceries before they left the counter.

    As they headed toward the exit, Mrs. Wilphen shouted, “Oh, don’t forget to tell your brother to get a new prescription for your medicine, Corwin!”

    “I won’t!” he shouted back, waving goodbye to her as he dashed through the door.

    As they walked down the cobblestone streets, Corwin, who was munching his newly-acquired snack, was in a good mood that he skipped down the street. Not even the scrutinizing glances of the prostitutes, who stood at their brothel’s door, nor of their pimps bothered him. First, the sun was shining in that crisp, autumn day. Second, he got to eat his favorite treat. Mrs. Wilphen made the best brown sugar cookies in his opinion. Third, he hasn’t had a headache for a couple of months now, which was a record. Lastly, Priya was still living with them. Speaking of which, he turned his attention to her. “So what are we going to do next?” he wondered, offering her his bag of cookies.

    “Probably head home to get ready for dinner,” she replied as she picked a cookie and nibbled it. Despite her early reluctance, Corwin has a hunch that she would let him have the treat since she also loves the confection. “We still need to finish your lessons for the day now that I think about it.”

    He groaned and stopped gamboling to stare at her incredulously. “Still? Why can’t we have a day off for once? I never got to do anything fun!”

    “Simple. Noeth asked me to keep an eye on you to make sure you don’t get into any trouble, and knowing you, you’ll be up to no good if I let you have a break. Besides, I don’t want you to grow up to be an idiot,” she said with a smile.

    He tempted to retort that maybe he wants to be an idiot but thought better of it. Knowing Priya, she’ll double the lessons for tomorrow. Even though she was nice, she was a strict teacher. Not to mention, it may ruin the surprise that he and his brother was planning for her. Nevertheless, it would be nice to do something out of the ordinary once in awhile. The same old routine was making him bored out of his mind. That was when an idea popped into his head.

    “All right,” he grumbled, but he then looked at her with a mischievous gleam in his eye, which caused her to look at him suspiciously. Before she could do or say anything, he shouted, “But first… Race ya home!”

    Then ignoring Priya’s shout, Corwin made a dash for it. He ran around the startled passersby, who angrily shouted at him, but he didn’t care. He was having fun, and that was all that matters at the moment. Just for kicks, he decided to take a new route home so he sprinted down a side street. Besides, he wasn’t too worry about getting lost since he knew the in-and-out of the city. Even if he did, he was sure that Priya was following behind him since she was probably worried about losing him.

    As he entered another block, he turned around just to make sure and confirmed his hunch – she still was chasing after him. She was only a meter or so away from him; the grocery bags swung wildly back and forth in her hands as she continued to yell at him to stop. However, Corwin had to admit that he was impressed that she has caught up to him so fast. Who would have thought she was a fast runner? “Try to catch me!” he taunted as he stepped onto the cobblestone street.

    Just then, he heard someone on his left shouted, which surprised him and caused him to halt. Looking toward the direction of the shout, he noticed a carriage, which was pulled by four white horses, charging straight toward him. Eight carriage dogs followed beside it as they barked and bayed. The coachman continued to shout at him to get out of the way, but for some odd reason, his feet stayed frozen in place in the middle of the street.

    “Corwin!” he heard Priya screamed just before he felt someone yanked him back toward the sidewalk. Just in time because the horses sped past by him; he could see the whites of their eye as they did. The thunderous stomp of their hooves matched in time with the thumping of his heart, which he thought would beat out of his chest. Gasping, he looked up to see a concerned Priya staring down at him. “Are you all right?”

    Still shaken up, he gulped and just nodded. Priya’s face softened a little bit as she hugged him to comfort him, but as she let go, her expression quickly became upset once more. “What were you thinking running like that?” she berated. “I thought for sure that you were going to die out there! What were you thinking!?”

    Seeing her distressed made him feel guilty. He had caused her unnecessary stress because of his foolish actions, and that wasn’t his intention at all. Before he could apologize to her, a shrill voice spoke up first, “You almost damage my carriage and scare my horses, boy! I demand an apology.”

    As soon as Corwin heard that voice, he became pale because he immediately recognized it. Peering up, he confirmed his fear when he saw who was peering out the carriage window. It was Lady Rasbeth all right; he knew her face from anywhere. Hazel eyes that gleamed with fury stared down at them, and her narrow nose pointed slightly upward; it was probably that way because she always looked down on the people. Her rosy brown, thin lips curled up in a sneer. Her long, red-brown hair was pinned up in the latest Ankan fashion: braided and bunched up like a beehive. The tiny gems that adorned her hair reminded him of tiny bees – dangerous bees. Based on his observation, he determined that she was wearing an ivory dress with rosy flowers embroidered in it.

    The noblewoman continued to glare down at Priya and him; if look could kill, they would be dead many times over. She must have ordered the coachman to stop the carriage so she could make an example out of him. Perhaps she’d order her dogs, who sat patiently in front of the carriage, to tear him from limb to limb. Frightened, he clung tightly to Priya and looked down to the ground. Corwin thought his friend would do the same, but he heard her shouted back, “He almost dies, and all you care about is your stupid carriage!? Don’t you have any empathy?”

    That surprised him so much that he looked askance at her. She didn’t notice because her fury was focused on Lady Rasbeth instead. Didn’t she know who Lady Rasbeth was? He thought Priya would act servile like he, but then he had forgotten that she didn’t know with whom she dealing. Her angry outburst must have caught the bystanders’ attention because all of a sudden, a crowd surrounded them. No doubt they were hoping to see an entertaining show.

    The noblewoman must have been astounded as well because her mouth dropped, but she recovered quickly. She jeered, “He almost dies because he ran right in front of my carriage, which has the right of way. He only has himself to blame for his…”

    That was when she finally noticed him. She stared at him with astonishment before she looked at him with a kind face. “Hello, boy. I didn’t recognize you until now,” she said in a sickeningly sweet voice. “Do you remember me?” He gulped as he nodded slowly. Who couldn’t forget her? She seemed pleased with his response because she continued, “And how is your brother doing?”

    “He’s fine,” he mumbled, making sure to avoid her gaze.

    However, she didn’t notice. “That’s good to hear. Is he still working for that construction company?” He nodded. “I see. Have he considered my offer then?” she asked eagerly.

    Corwin wanted to tell her that his brother had told him he would rather die than accepts her offer but didn’t; Lady Rasbeth was known to be very volatile. “He’s still thinking about it,” he fibbed.

    She perked up when he said that. “I hope to hear from him soon,” she chirped. “By the way, who is that whelp next to you?”

    He gazed up at Priya, who refused to leave her eyes off of Lady Rasbeth, and mumbled, “She’s Priya.”

    “Priya, huh? And how do you know her?” she demanded.

    He hesitated. If he told her who Priya was, who knows how she would react? Before he could say another lie, Priya answered for him. “I’m a childhood friend of his brother,” she informed the noblewoman. “Noeth asked me to stay with them so I can help take care of his brother while he’s at work.”

    Dread slowly filled Corwin; he knew that Priya has written her own death sentence without realizing it. Sure enough, as soon as Lady Rasbeth heard those words, her face darkened. “Is that so?” she growled. Her eyes were lit with a cool fire as she regarded her in a new light. “Well then, Priya, do you know who I am?” His friend shook her head, which caused Lady Rasbeth to sneer. “Figures. You peasants don’t recognize a superior being even if she’s right in front of you. Tell her, boy, who I am since she doesn’t seem to know her place.”

    Gulping, the young boy glanced up at Priya, who was now looking down at him. “That’s Lady Rasbeth,” he explained. “She’s King Elyas Rothlem’s niece.”

    A look of shocked realization appeared on Priya’s face as she looked back at the noblewoman. That must please Lady Rasbeth because she wore a smug expression on her face. “Now do you know who I am?” she mocked. “I should punish you for your cheeky attitude, but I’ll let it slide for now. I’m already late for my appointment, and I don’t want to waste any more time. Be grateful for my benevolence, or otherwise, you’ll be dead right there in the spot. Now then, driver, let’s go! The stench is overwhelming.”

    The coachman nodded and flicked the reins, urging the horses to go. As the carriage slowly moved, Lady Rasbeth stuck her head out the window and smiled at Corwin. “Oh, tell your brother that I say hello and I hope to hear from him soon!” she called, waving her hand. Then, with one last withering glare at Priya, she sat back inside the carriage as it disappeared from view.

    As soon as Corwin heard that voice, he became pale because he immediately recognized it. Peering up, he confirmed his fear when he saw who was peering out the carriage window. It was Lady Rasbeth all right; he knew her face from anywhere. Hazel eyes that gleamed with fury stared down at them, and her narrow nose pointed slightly upward; it was probably that way because she always looked down on the people. Her rosy brown, thin lips curled up in a sneer. Her long, red-brown hair was pinned up in the latest Ankan fashion: braided and bunched up like a beehive. The tiny gems that adorned her hair reminded him of tiny bees – dangerous bees. Based on his observation, he determined that she was wearing an ivory dress with rosy flowers embroidered in it.

    The noblewoman continued to glare down at Priya and him; if look could kill, they would be dead many times over. She must have ordered the coachman to stop the carriage so she could make an example out of him. Perhaps she’d order her dogs, who sat patiently in front of the carriage, to tear him from limb to limb. Frightened, he clung tightly to Priya and looked down to the ground. Corwin thought his friend would do the same, but he heard her shouted back, “He almost dies, and all you care about is your stupid carriage!? Don’t you have any empathy?”

    That surprised him so much that he looked askance at her. She didn’t notice because her fury was focused on Lady Rasbeth instead. Didn’t she know who Lady Rasbeth was? He thought Priya would act servile like he, but then he had forgotten that she didn’t know with whom she dealing. Her angry outburst must have caught the bystanders’ attention because all of a sudden, a crowd surrounded them. No doubt they were hoping to see an entertaining show.

    The noblewoman must have been astounded as well because her mouth dropped, but she recovered quickly. She jeered, “He almost dies because he ran right in front of my carriage, which has the right of way. He only has himself to blame for his…”

    That was when she finally noticed him. She stared at him with astonishment before she looked at him with a kind face. “Hello, boy. I didn’t recognize you until now,” she said in a sickeningly sweet voice. “Do you remember me?” He gulped as he nodded slowly. Who couldn’t forget her? She seemed pleased with his response because she continued, “And how is your brother doing?”

    “He’s fine,” he mumbled, making sure to avoid her gaze.

    However, she didn’t notice. “That’s good to hear. Is he still working for that construction company?” He nodded. “I see. Have he considered my offer then?” she asked eagerly.

    Corwin wanted to tell her that his brother had told him he would rather die than accepts her offer but didn’t; Lady Rasbeth was known to be very volatile. “He’s still thinking about it,” he fibbed.

    She perked up when he said that. “I hope to hear from him soon,” she chirped. “By the way, who is that whelp next to you?”

    He gazed up at Priya, who refused to leave her eyes off of Lady Rasbeth, and mumbled, “She’s Priya.”

    “Priya, huh? And how do you know her?” she demanded.

    He hesitated. If he told her who Priya was, who knows how she would react? Before he could say another lie, Priya answered for him. “I’m a childhood friend of his brother,” she informed the noblewoman. “Noeth asked me to stay with them so I can help take care of his brother while he’s at work.”

    Dread slowly filled Corwin; he knew that Priya has written her own death sentence without realizing it. Sure enough, as soon as Lady Rasbeth heard those words, her face darkened. “Is that so?” she growled. Her eyes were lit with a cool fire as she regarded her in a new light. “Well then, Priya, do you know who I am?” His friend shook her head, which caused Lady Rasbeth to sneer. “Figures. You peasants don’t recognize a superior being even if she’s right in front of you. Tell her, boy, who I am since she doesn’t seem to know her place.”

    Gulping, the young boy glanced up at Priya, who was now looking down at him. “That’s Lady Rasbeth,” he explained. “She’s King Elyas Rothlem’s niece.”

    A look of shocked realization appeared on Priya’s face as she looked back at the noblewoman. That must please Lady Rasbeth because she wore a smug expression on her face. “Now do you know who I am?” she mocked. “I should punish you for your cheeky attitude, but I’ll let it slide for now. I’m already late for my appointment, and I don’t want to waste any more time. Be grateful for my benevolence, or otherwise, you’ll be dead right there in the spot. Now then, driver, let’s go! The stench is overwhelming.”

    The coachman nodded and flicked the reins, urging the horses to go. As the carriage slowly moved, Lady Rasbeth stuck her head out the window and smiled at Corwin. “Oh, tell your brother that I say hello and I hope to hear from him soon!” she called, waving her hand. Then, with one last withering glare at Priya, she sat back inside the carriage as it disappeared from view.

    Priya seemed surprised by that revelation so he explained, “You know that medicine I have to take every day? Noeth probably told you, but it’s because I sometimes get these terrible headaches. They started happening six years ago. I would just be climbing up a tree when WHAM! It happened. The next thing I remember, I would on the ground with my head in my hands. Another time, I would wake up crying from my sleep because my head hurt so badly. My mom would come in and cradle me until the pain stopped.

    “At first, my parents thought it was temporarily, but my headache continued so they tried some home remedies. They worked at first, but then my headache began to get worse. I would have one or two every day, but none of their medicines worked anymore. Mom and Dad must be desperate because they suddenly decided that we’re going to move into the city. They figured that maybe there is a doctor who can figures out what to do.”

    “And they did, right?” Priya surmised. “You haven’t had a headache that often anymore.”

    He nodded. “Yeah, but…” Corwin took a deep breath. “Remember the old saying, ‘Only the weak lives in Anka’? Does that mean I’m weak? Because of me, my family were forced to move here. If it wasn’t for me, Mom and Dad would still be around, and maybe they’ll still be living with Noeth in the Marden Forest since they won’t have to be forced to move here. Then he wouldn’t have to work so hard. Then maybe Lady Rasbeth wouldn’t know that he exists, and then we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

    “She did seem to recognize you and ask about Noeth,” she commented, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. “How did you meet her anyway?”

    “It was a little over two years ago,” he began and shuddered. It still gave him the shivers just thinking about it. “I was bored one day so I decided to visit Noeth at his workplace. He told me that they were renovating the city hall, which was supposed to be very fancy schmancy, and I wanted to check it out. Anyway, when I arrived there, there was already a huge crowd gathered. I didn’t think much of it since I figure that they were curious too.

    “The crowd was chattering about something, but I really didn’t pay much attention to what they’re saying. I was only hoping to catch a glimpse of my brother so I can say hi to him. Since I was in the back, I have to squeeze my way through to the front. In my rush, I must have accidentally tripped over someone’s foot and stumbled. I panicked and quickly grabbed the person in front of me so I wouldn’t fall. I must have startled her because she yelped so loudly. I felt bad about it and went to apologize when I realized who I bumped into.”
    “Let me guess; it was Lady Rasbeth,” Priya deduced.

    Corwin nodded. “She was furious that I dare touch her and claimed that her dress was ruined by my grubby hands. She then ordered her guards to seize me and as punishment, I was going to get whipped. I pleaded with her and say, telling that it was an accident when the soldiers grabbing my arms roughly and forced me on my knees. I was still begging when they began to whup me with a stick.” He shivered, recalling the sharp stings where they hit him; his back and bottom ached just thinking about it. “I was screaming and hollering in pain, but Lady Rasbeth didn’t care. She told her men to continue my punishment until she was satisfied, which wouldn’t be anytime soon. The whole time, the crowd just watched in silence and didn’t dare do anything even when I begged them for help.”

    She looked at him, dismayed. “They didn’t do anything? At all?”

    “No, but I didn’t blame them. They were terrified of Lady Rasbeth and dare not do anything unless they want her anger go to them instead,” he explained.

    “But still…” she grumbled, shaking her head. “So what happened next? I highly doubt that she decided to let you go so soon.”

    “That was when Noeth arrived. He must have heard my screams or one of his coworkers told him about my plight. I remembered wanting to pass out when I heard him shouting at Lady Rasbeth to leave me alone and that I was only a kid. I then felt some pushing and shoving before I felt someone cradling me. I opened my eyes to see Noeth glaring at Lady Rasbeth and her men as he held me protectively. I was so glad to see him, but I thought for sure that he was going to get killed for defying her. Instead, Lady Rasbeth just stared at him before she offered him a job as her personal servant.”

    “Wait, she did what!?”

    “I know! I think everyone including my brother was stunned when they heard it,” he noted. “She then said that he was ‘quite handsome for a peasant’ and that he deserves to work for a better employer. That was when I realized that she was smitten by him. Otherwise, he would have been a dead man.”

    “What did he say?”

    “Nothing at first. I think he was debating about it because he asked her about me. He wanted to know what would happen to me first. And you know what she said? She told him to let me rot in the streets where I belonged. Well, that pissed Noeth off so much that he flat out refused.”

    “I take it that Lady Rasbeth didn’t take it well?”

    Corwin nodded. “Uh huh. She was blubbering because no one ever said ‘no’ to her before. She demanded to know why so he explained that he’s not going to abandon his baby brother for a chance of a better life. I think that was when she noticed that we both looked alike and she quickly extended her offer to include me as well. She promised that both of us will be well-taken care of for the rest of our lives. However, Noeth still refused and declared that he’ll never accept anything from her. He also told her not to bother us again. Then he told me that we were going home so we left.”

    Priya crossed her arms thoughtfully. “So that’s how you knew Lady Rasbeth… I bet a lot of people thought he was crazy for declining her proposal.”

    “Uh huh.” He nodded. “They kept asking him what he was thinking because he was turning down a rare opportunity. I also asked him why, and he told me that I’m the only family he has left, which was why he didn’t want to leave me. Even if I wasn’t around, he would still refuse to work for her since she’s a mean-spirited woman.”

    “Noeth seems like the type to do that. He always dotes on you. So what happened next?” Priya wondered.

    “Well, for the next few weeks, Lady Rasbeth kept sending gifts to our home, but Noeth just ignored them or tossed them in the trash. She even sent the best doctors to treatments injuries, but Noeth refused to let them see me. I asked why and he told me that the medicine that Mrs. Birten gave me works fine. Besides, he didn’t want to feel obligated to her. Some of my brother’s co-workers warned him that she was lingering around the work area so he decided to stay home until she gave up. To be honest, I think he also wanted to keep an eye on me because I was so jumpy afterward. I remembered praying to the All-Mother the entire time because I was afraid that she would have soldiers storm into the house and take my brother away, but I guess I worried for nothing.

    “After a month or so, everything went back to normal. I guess Lady Rasbeth either gave up, or she lost interest after awhile. Either way, everyone mostly forgot about it, and we just continue like nothing happened – until today.” He stared down miserably at his shoes. “Because of me, Lady Rasbeth recognized me and now she’s after my brother again. Not to mention, you too.”

    “Me? What on earth for?” she wondered.

    “It’s because she found out that you’re staying with us!” he exclaimed. “She views you as a rival.”

    His friend looked at him, mystified, before she guffawed, “Wait, she thinks I’m dating your brother?”

    “Of course, she does! Don’t laugh! I’m being serious!” Corwin looked at her indignantly. “That’s Lady Rasbeth, the king’s niece. Did you see the way she looked at you? She wants to kill you!”

    “I’m aware of it, but I highly doubt she wants to kill me just because I talked back to her,” Priya said, bemused.

    “But she’s notorious for her cruelty especially to anyone who defy her! You should hear stories of what she did to some people just because they looked at her funny,” he shouted. Why wasn’t she concerned about her safety like he was? Doesn’t she know with whom she dealing?

    She paused for a moment as she studied him. Finally, she said, “If she wants to kill me that badly, then she would have to try her hardest. I won’t die without putting up a fight. Besides, I’m a big girl, and I know how to take care of myself so you don’t have to worry about a thing. Even if something terrible happens to me, I promise that I’ll find a way back to you, safe and sound.” Smiling, she ruffled his hair and stood up. “Anyway, it’s getting dark. We should be getting home or else Noeth is going to wonder what happens to us.”

    Taking her hand, they began their walk home. As they strolled down the streets, Corwin tightened his grip on Priya’s hand and leaned closer to her. Despite her reassurance, he still felt a slight unease. Knowing Lady Rasbeth, she is planning something terrible to get back at Priya. Something in his guts told him that.

    “Thanks for the delicious meal!” Noeth said as he patted his stomach.

    Priya smiled as she glanced over at Corwin. “You should thank Corwin as well. He was a good assistant in the kitchen.”

    “Yeah, because of me, Priya didn’t burn the house down!” his brother quipped.

    Priya’s smile turned into a frown. “Not that again! That happened months ago!” she groaned. “First of all, I didn’t burn the house down. Second, I only accidentally burned the bread. Third, it was because you distracted me when you decided to climb the tree outside the window.”

    “But you almost did,” he pointed out.

    She sighed and looked at Noeth exasperatedly. “I will never live that down, won’t I?”

    “‘Fraid not,” he told her and chuckled. She stared at him in disbelief before she joined in his laughter.

    “I guess I did it to myself,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Well, now that the fun is over, I should get started washing the dishes.”

    As she was about to stand up, Corwin gave Noeth a sideway glance and gestured him to initiate their surprise. Nodding, he held up his hand and said, “Wait! Before you get up, Cor and I have something to ask you.” She looked at them, puzzled, but she sat back down again. “After several days of discussion, we wanted to know if you ca-”

    “If you can stay with us!” Corwin blurted out. His eyes twinkled with excitement as he bounced on his seat.

    Noeth just smiled; his brother was so eager ever since they made that decision to tell her the news. “So what do you say? Would you like to live with us?”

    He would have thought she would be thrilled by the news, but she has a conflicted look on her face instead. Priya stared at both of them for the longest time before she answered, “I would love to, but…” Her voice faltered. She abruptly stood up and bustled into the kitchen with the dirty dishes in her hands without saying another word.

    Noeth and Corwin looked at each other in absolute silence until finally, the latter said, “I guess she doesn’t want to stay with us.”

    He looked at his little brother sympathetically; Corwin seemed glum by her reaction. “I think she does, Cor,” he told his brother, patting his hand, “but she has some things to figure out.”

    “Like what?” He demanded as he stared at the kitchen. They could hear the clanging of the dishes as Priya began to wash them. “She told us that she’s an orphan so she doesn’t have any family. Doesn’t she like us?”

    “I think so.”

    “But why? Is it because of what happened today?” Corwin wondered.

    He didn’t answer at first; he has a feeling why, but he didn’t want to be the one to say. “No, I don’t think it’s because of what happened today. It’s more complicated,” Noeth finally said. Standing up, he patted his brother on the back. “I’ll go talk to her. Right now, you have some words you need to practice.”

    Noeth overheard Corwin grumbled as he stomped up the stairs and shook his head. His brother always hated spelling. Still shaking his head, he went to the kitchen, where he found Priya still at the sink. He walked up right next to her and asked, “Mind if I help?” Usually, he couldn’t startle her, but this time, she jumped slightly at the sound of his voice. It was probably because she was lost in thoughts. Nevertheless, she nodded as she handed him a towel so he could dry the clean dishes. They worked in silence until he said, “Hey, sorry for springing that on you suddenly. It’s just that… You’ve been living with us for almost a year now, and you’ve been such a great help especially with Cor. Both of us enjoy having you around so we thought it would be nice if you stay.”

    “You don’t have to apologize. It was a nice gesture,” Priya insisted. “Corwin is upset, huh?”

    “A little. He thinks it may be his fault, and you don’t want to stay because of him,” he told her.

    “That’s silly! I already told him that I’m not mad at him.” She became silent before she said, “He thinks that you hate him sometimes, you know.”

    “What? Why would he think that?” he asked in disbelief.

    “Well, he told me that if it wasn’t for him and his medical condition, you would probably still be living in the Marden Forest. He also implied that you blame him for your parents’ deaths.” He tensed slightly when he heard that. It has been a long time since their deaths, and he didn’t like to dwell on it. She must have noticed how tense he was because she apologized, “Sorry if I hit a touchy subject.”

    “It’s all right. No need to apologize,” he reassured her and took a deep breath. How should he begin? “Corwin was a surprise baby. I was ten years old when my parents announced the news; I was upset at first because I didn’t want a sibling, but that changed on the day he was born.

    “We were about to head out to celebrate the Yuzema Festival when my mom suddenly went into labor. I remembered feeling terrified as my dad tried to help her deliver the baby. I asked him if I should get the midwife, but he yelled at me to stay put before he pushed out of the room. My mom seemed to be in so much pain that I thought she was going to die. The whole time, I prayed to the All-Mother to spare my mother and the baby’s lives. Suddenly, I heard nothing but silence. In fact, I thought she was dead due to how eerie quiet it was. That was when my father came out of the room and asked if I want to see my new baby brother.

    “I nodded and walked into the room to find my mom in bed. She was cradling Corwin and When she saw me, she smiled and asked me if I want to hold him. I didn’t want to, but seeing her face, I agreed. I was so nervous when she handed him to be because I was afraid to drop him. While I was holding him, my mom told me that he has my dad’s eyes and her mouth; she also asked me if I thought he was adorable. To be honest, I thought he was an ugly baby; he was all wrinkly, and his hair was slick and wet. But when he looked up at me, I fell in love with the little guy instantly that I told her yes.

    “That was when I heard my father asked me to keep Corwin’s birth a secret; if anyone asks, I should tell them that he was born the next day. I asked him why, and he told me it’s because Cor was born on the Yuzema Festival. He explained to me that there are some people are superstitious about that sort of thing and they might hurt Cor so that’s why he’s asking me to lie. I told him that I understand and promised to keep it a secret.

    “Everything continued as normal afterward until one day, Cor kept getting these terrible headaches. I bet he told you all about it so I’ll skip that part. Anyway, when my parents told me the news that we’re moving to Anka, I was upset about it since I knew that we’re going to lose the free life that we have. They must have sensed my unhappiness because they promised me that it was only temporarily until they can figure out what’s wrong with Cor. Of course, I knew that they were lying; once you register as a citizen of Anka, there’s no turning back.

    “Anyway, I grinned and bear it for their sakes. I knew they only did it because of Cor’s condition, and I wanted him to get better too. The next day, we packed up our things and headed to the capital. The move wasn’t that bad, and I got used to living in the city even though I can’t go around freely anymore. The best part was that the doctor figured out how to cure Corwin’s headaches so he was feeling much better. Everyone was in a good mood just like we’re back in the forest – until one day.

    “We were about to sit down for dinner when Corwin suddenly collapsed on the floor. He was writhing in agony. Panicked, we immediately gave him his medicine, but after a few minutes, he was still in pain. That was when my parents decided they needed to get the doctor. They told me to keep an eye on Cor while they go out to retrieve him since they thought it would be risky to take Corwin with them. I agreed and watched them left the house. While I was waiting, I kept myself busy by tending to Cor, who seemed to be getting better. However, I started to get worried when I noticed that my parents hadn’t come back yet. I remembered thinking that it was getting dark and that they should’ve been back by now when I heard a knock on the door.

    “I thought it was strange that my parents didn’t just open the door but thought it could be the doctor. I rushed over and opened the door to find Mrs. Birten and the police waiting outside. Confused, I asked them what’s wrong, and Mrs. Birten started crying her heart out. She began to blubber about something, but I couldn’t understand her at all. Finally, the officer interrupted her, telling her that he’ll tell me the news. Worried, I asked him what happened, and he informed me that my parents were killed in an accident. A carriage carrying a shipment of elemental stones careened out of control and crashed into a crowd of people, injuring many and killing a few. Unfortunately, my parents were ones of the fatalities. At first, I thought he was joking, but he confirmed it – my parents are dead. He asked me if I could come with him to the morgue to identify them. Stunned, I agreed, but then I remembered about Corwin. Luckily, Mrs. Birten said that she would keep a watch on him while I was away.

    “On the way there, I was thinking was that there was no way my parents were dead and praying for good news. The officer must have been mistaken, and they were actually alive. Everything would be okay, and we could continue our lives as normal. Unfortunately, my wishful thinking was proven to be wrong. As soon as the coroner showed me the bodies, I knew it was true – my parents were dead and Corwin and I were now orphaned. After I confirmed their identities, I asked if I could head home since my brother was waiting for me. The officer said it was all right and offered to walk me home, but I declined. I told him that I’ll be fine and headed on my way before he could stop me.

    “I barely remembered what happened afterward; to be honest, I was probably in a daze, but somehow I managed to get home. I was trembling all over and could barely walk when I entered the house. Mrs. Birten immediately rushed over and asked me if it was true that my parents were dead. I confirmed it, and she hugged me, telling me that she’s sorry about it. Numb, I asked her how Corwin was doing, and she told me that he was asleep. She then added that she hasn’t told Corwin the news yet. I thanked her since I felt obliged to be the one to deliver the bad news and told her that she should get some rest. She agreed and told me that if I need anything, I can stop by her place. I thanked her again as I watched her leave.”

    “For the rest of the night, I just sat in the kitchen. I should have gone to bed, but my mind was in a whirl. All I was thinking was now that our parents were dead, what would happen to Cor and me? How were we going to make ends meet? Should I quit school and try to find a job? I was starting to blank out when I heard footsteps. I turned around to see Corwin at the kitchen door. He must have woken up because he was yawning and rubbing his eyes. Anyway, he asked me why I was still up, and I told him that I couldn’t sleep. Then he asked me if our parents were back yet. As soon as he asked that, I dreaded telling the news. I mean, how can you explain to a six years old that he won’t see his parents ever again?

    “I didn’t answer him at first, but I knew I have to do it. After taking a deep breath, I explained to him that our parents won’t be back because they were in an accident. When he heard that, Corwin asked if they were dead, and I just nodded. He immediately asked the very same questions that were in my head. What will happen to us? Will we be put in an orphanage and separated? Stuff like that. I tried to answer his questions the best I can, but even I didn’t have all of the answers. I think he knew that I was stressed because he walked up to me and patted me on the back, telling me that everything was going to be all right.

    Noeth took a deep breath as he readied himself for the hardest part of his story. “Well, I snapped. Maybe it’s because of the dawning realization that I am now the breadwinner or the fear of the unknown; it could be my resentment about the whole thing, but that’s still no excuse for what happened next. I slapped his hand away from me and stood up, cursing him. I told him that it was his fault that our parents were dead. If it wasn’t for him, our parents would still be alive, and we would be still living in the Marden Forest. I also called him a ‘cursed child’, revealing the truth about his birthdate.” He shuddered as he wiped his face with his hand. “I said so many terrible things to him that night, but the worst thing I ever told him was that I hated him and that I wished he was never born.

    “As soon as I said those hateful words, I knew I messed up. The way Cor stared at me with those wide eyes; you would have thought I was some sort of monster. I tried to apologize, but he ran out of the room before I could stop him. The next thing I heard was the front door opening and slamming shut; I immediately knew that Cor has run out the house. Cursing, I dashed after him, but by the time I entered the street, he already disappeared out of sight. For the rest of the night, I wandered the streets to look for him. I shouted his name and went to all of his favorite spots with no luck. The whole time, I was berating myself for being a terrible brother and losing the only family member I have left in this world.

    “Just when I was about to give up, I found him. He was sitting on a bench in the local park and staring at the stars. I was so relieved that he was okay that I ran up to him and hugged him. I told him that he shouldn’t have scared me like that and that I looked everywhere for him. Cor didn’t say anything at first, but finally, he asked me if it was really true that he was really cursed. I told him that it wasn’t true, but he reminded me of what I told him. I apologized, telling him that I said some stupid things because I was scared and I didn’t mean what I said. Then I told him that we’re family and that we need each other. I think he understood because he hugged me in return and asked if we can go home. As I carried him home, I promised myself that I would never say those terrible things ever again.”

    “Ever since then, I tried my best to show him that I’ll be there for him. I know that he can be a handful and I let him get away with things sometimes, but… Whenever I remember all those hateful things I told him, I just feel guilty though I guess he still thinks I blame him for everything.” He sighed and looked at Priya straight in the eye. “Do you see why Corwin wants you to stay so badly? He worries that if you said no, it would be his fault again especially after what happened today with Lady Rasbeth.”

    “I think I know what you mean. Corwin was worried about her afterward.” She blushed as she looked down at the sink. “To be honest, I enjoy living with both of you. I mean, you’re a family that I never have, but… There is something I have to figure out.”

    That was when he decided to confront her. Taking a deep breath, he announced, “I know about your secret.”

    She froze and looked at him, stunned. That definitely confirmed his suspicions. Finally, she ventured, “What secret?”

    “I know that you’re one of the members.” Her apprehension transformed into confusion so he clarified, “The resistance, right? You’re a part of them; that’s why the soldiers are after you.”

    Priya stared at him for a moment before she looked relieved. Shaking her head, she informed him, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I’m not a part of the resistance.”

    “It’s all right. I won’t tell anyone and blow your cover,” he reassured her before he lowered his voice. “Just promise me that you won’t hurt Corwin. He really likes you, and I would hate to see him devastated if anything ever happens to you.”

    She didn’t say anything at first, but finally, she said, “I can’t promise you that, but I can tell you that I will never do anything to hurt you on purpose.”

    “I know that. You don’t seem to be that type of person.”

    “You think so?” Priya gave him a small smile. “Just give me time to think about it, okay?”

    “That’s fine. No pressure,” he reassured her.

    “Thanks,” she said and cleared her throat. “Anyway, it’s been a long day; I think I’ll head to bed early.”

    Noeth nodded. “Go ahead. I’ll take care of Corwin’s lessons tonight so get some rest.”

    “All right. Well, good night,” she said as she headed upstairs.

    “Good night,” he replied, watching her go. He listened as he heard her shut her bedroom door before he proceeded to follow her upstairs.

    As soon as Alethea closed the door, she leaned against it and sighed. Today was a rough day, to say lightly! Nevertheless, she smiled. They want her to be a part of their family! It was a touching gesture that she never expected. A low growl ruined her reverie. “Don’t forget why you’re here,” Argue reminded her. “You’re not supposed to be here to play house.”

    “I know, Argus. Jeez, you don’t to be a grouch about it,”
    she snapped back but smiled. “Although it’s nice just to relax for once.”

    Ever since the Ilmarians became aware of the existence of the Dalenthi, she worked her butt off to get rid of the threat and hasn’t had a break since. Argus grumbled about it, but she pointed out to him that the sooner they prevent the spread of Dalenthi, the better. However, she had to admit that the Parasitic Duermon has a point – Kejuta hasn’t asked her if she wanted to rest for a bit, which would’ve been nice.

    Speaking of which, she hasn’t heard from the Ilmarian of Fate after she received the order to spare the Lashival. Not that she didn’t mind, of course. Her current mission was a nice change of scenery, in her opinion. It was nice to “play house” as Argus put it. Doing chores and running errands were vastly different from chasing Dalenthi. Not to mention, this was the first time she felt this content for a long time. The last time she felt that way was when…

    She squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head vigorously. No, she won’t dwell too much on the past! Her time with the Duermons was a lie; she only learned the truth after Kej forced Shintra to reverse the spell he placed on her. Nevertheless, there was a small part of her that missed that time. Well, a silver.

    “Yeah, but don’t forget why you’re here,” he reminded her. “The way you’re acting, you took a liking to the Lashival. I don’t know how you’re supposed to kill him when the time comes if you’re feeling attached.”

    “That’s not true! When the time comes, I’ll be ready,” she argued and exhaled deeply. “And while I’m waiting, we have another mission, remember?”

    During her time with the Rassons, she continued her hunt for Dalenthi, which occurred late at night until the early morning. Walking toward the window, she opened it and scanned the area below. The streets were mostly quiet except for a few stragglers, which was good since she was about to head out.

    “Just be careful, okay? These Ankans especially the soldiers are vicious,”
    Argus warned.

    “I will,” she replied as she closes her eyes to alter her design into that of an elderly beggar. She had heeded Noeth’s warning and made sure her disguise was something inconspicuous. With her disguise completed, she leapt out the window and began her nightly hunt.
    --- Double Post Merged, Jan 25, 2016, Original Post Date: Dec 25, 2015 ---
    Chapter 04: The Yuzema Festival

    Farth 26, 2594

    “Please stop! I don’t want to die!”

    Corwin woke up with a start. Panting, he forced himself to calm down. What kind of dream was that? He couldn’t recall much except someone (a girl, perhaps?) was screaming at him. What was she screaming about anyway? Whether it was, it scared him enough to wake him up from his sleep. He rankled his brain as he tried to remember but gave up. Oh well, he sure it wasn’t important.

    Besides, today was the Yuzema Festival. Looking at the window from his bed, Corwin had to smile. The sun was out, and there were no clouds in the sky. It was a perfect day for the Yuzema Festival. Not to mention…

    Leaping from his bed, he got ready for the day. Based on the noises below, Noeth and Priya were already up, which wasn’t surprising. They’re usually up by the time he wakes up. Corwin felt bad about it sometimes, but he figured if they wanted him to be up, one of them would have poked him by now. After he finished changing his clothes and making his bed, he headed downstairs.

    The first person he saw was Priya, who was making breakfast. “Morning!” he said as he headed into the kitchen. He looked around the room and noticed that his brother wasn’t around. Huh, he shouldn’t be at work since everyone has a day off today due to the special occasion. “Where’s Noeth by the way?”

    “Out to get some last minute supplies. He should be back soon,” she replied. She gestured to the dishes so he went to set the table. “Ready for today?”

    Corwin grinned. “Uh huh. I can’t wait to see my parents again; I got a lot of things to tell them!”

    “Oh? Like what?” she asked, amused.

    “Well… You, of course,” he said and began listing them on his fingers. “Oh, then there are the adventures I have, all the things I learned, and every embarrassing thing that Noeth did.”

    “Then it will take you a long time to tell them everything especially the last part.”

    “Uh huh.” Since he finished setting the table, he walked up next to her. Leaning forward, he whispered, “Hey, do you want to hear a secret?” She arched her eyebrow. “You know how Noeth and I told you that my birthday is tomorrow? Well, it’s actually today!”

    “Huh, is that so?” Corwin frowned by Priya’s nonchalant reaction. He would think that she would be amazed to hear that news since no one else he knows was born on that day. Most likely Noeth told her, which annoyed him. After all, shouldn’t he be the one to tell her his big secret?

    Nevertheless, he pretended that it didn’t bug him. “Yeah, Noeth thinks that I’m the only one who’s born today. Isn’t that neat? But don’t tell anyone about it, okay? Apparently, some people think it’s bad luck to be born on the Yuzema Festival.”

    “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone,” she promised.

    He stared at her before he held out his pinky. “Pinky swear?”

    Priya just smiled and bent down so she would be at his eye level. “Pinky swear,” she said as she joined her pinky with his.

    Corwin beamed, but his smile faltered at a sudden thought. “Hey, Priya? Do you think I’m cursed?”

    She stared at him for what seemed like an eternity, which caused him to wonder if she actually believed it was true. However, her face softened, and without saying a word, she hugged him. It surprised him at first since he didn’t expect that, but he relaxed as he hugged her back in return. Noeth had told him to give Priya some time to think about their proposal, but Corwin has high hope. Maybe just maybe they can convince her to stay.

    Just then, they heard the door creaked open, which caused the two of them to quickly let go. “I’m home!” Noeth announced as he stepped into the house. “Sorry, I’m late. It was crazy in the shops today; I guess I wasn’t the only last-minute shopper.”

    “Don’t worry about it,” Priya reassured him with a smile. “Besides, you’re not late at all; you arrive just in time for breakfast. The foods are ready so let’s eat before they get cold.”

    After they finished breakfast and cleared the table, they began their preparations for the Yuzema Festival. “First, you need to bundle the holly branches and winter berries together. Then, you used that red ribbon to tie them together. Oh, don’t forget to thread the mementos through the ribbon beforehand; otherwise, it would make it harder for Mom and Dad to locate us.” Noeth watched with amusement as Corwin instructed Priya, who seemed to follow his directions rather intently, on how to make a Remembrance Bouquet.

    “Never make one before?” he finally asked.

    She stopped what she was doing and looked at him sheepishly. “No, this is my first time, to be exact,” she admitted.

    His brother stared at her, shocked. “You’ve never made it before? Not even for your family?” His eyes widened with sudden realization. “Then you’ve never met them?”

    “Well, that’s going to change,” Noeth interjected and turned his attention to Priya. “We got some extra supplies so we can make some bouquets for your parents too. Do you have any mementos from them?”

    She shook her head. “It’s all right. I barely remember them anyway since they passed away when I was young,” she reassured them.

    “But still! I know! Why don’t you come with us when we see our parents?” Corwin looked at him pleadingly. “Can she?”

    “Of course, she can,” he replied though he had a hunch that she was lying about her parents. Even though she denied it, he still believed that she’s a member of the resistance, and her background story was just a ruse.

    “I don’t know; I don’t want to intrude…” she began.

    “It’s fine. You’re not intruding if we invited you,” he pointed out. “Besides, our parents may encounter yours in Valendor. If so, maybe you can be reunited with your family.”

    “Yeah, that would be a great idea!” Corwin agreed. “Don’t you think so, Priya?”

    “Yeah, I guess,” she mumbled.

    Sensing her unease, Noeth reached over and squeezed her hand. “I’m sure it will be fine.” She just gave him a small smile as her answer so he decided to cheer her up. “Now that I think about it, this would be the first time you’ll celebrate the Yuzema Festival here so you wouldn’t know about the festivities.”

    “Festivities?”

    “Oh yeah, I forgot about that!” Corwin exclaimed. His eyes twinkled with excitement. “There is a whole week of fun activities starting today.”

    Noeth nodded. “Today, everyone will head to the Marverin River, where they meet their loved ones who passed away. Afterward, the festivities will begin. There will be a carnival held on the streets so there will be a lot of vendors and games. A traveling acting troupe will also be there, and their performance is held outdoors though it’s usually packed whenever Cor and I attend.”

    Priya gave them an odd look. “You people seem to have a lot of fun for a solemn holiday.”

    “Well, it is called the Yuzema Festival. We’re honoring the dead, but at the same time, we’re celebrating the living. Besides, this is the only week where everyone can relax and forget about their troubles, which is why it’s a popular holiday over here.” He paused for a moment. “Except for the last day. On that day, all festivities will shut down so that everyone can go to the Coliseum.”

    “Yeah, we just stay home on that day,” Corwin noted with a grimace. “Noeth said that it’s too barbaric, and I don’t need to see people killing each other.”

    “I don’t blame him. I don’t see why people think it’s fun to watch people kill each other – criminal or not,” she agreed.

    “Anyway, it’s going to be fun even without going to the Coliseum,” Noeth reassured her. “We will make sure your first Yuzema Festival will be one that you’ll never forget.”

    They left their house close to midnight and joined the procession of people walking down the streets. Along the way, more people rushed over to join them as they headed to the Marverin River. Even though it seemed disorganized, everyone knew where to go. In the front of the line were the church head officials, who led the procession. Next came the royal family and behind them were the nobility. Afterward, the military officials and their families followed behind as well as the merchants and their loved ones. The clergy and their families came next, and lastly, the poor held up the end of the line. Ankan soldiers lined up on either side to ensure that no one dare to cause trouble though it was unlikely. Everyone knew better than to make a scene.

    As they trudged down the road, Corwin stifled a yawn. Even though he took a nap beforehand, he still felt a bit groggy. On the other hand, his brother and Priya seemed to be alert. Unlike him, they walked without stumbling or yawning. How could be they wide awake even though they didn’t nap like he? As he headed back to bed, he saw that they were chatting as they finished cleaning up. By the time he woke up, he could still hear their lively conversation through the open bedroom door.

    “Do you want me to hold the Remembrance Bouquets for you?” A startled Corwin jerked up to see Noeth looking at him. Next to him, Priya looked at him, concerned but at the same time, amused. Oh man, he must have dozed off again!

    Embarrassed, he shook his head. “No, I got them,” he insisted and tightened his grip.

    “Are you sure?” Corwin nodded so his brother shrugged. “Okay then, if you say so.”

    They didn’t talk much after that although all around them, they could hear people murmur to each other. Mothers would soothe their fussy babies while the men made some idle talk. Corwin could hear some kids whine once in awhile, but they stopped when their parents scolded them. Every now and then, someone would cough, but other than that, it was mostly quiet. That was the part that Corwin hated the most; the dead air drove him crazy. It would make the walk less boring, in his opinion.

    After they walked through the last street, they exited the city and followed the path alongside the Marverin River. As soon as they did, a hushed silence filled the air The only sounds they could hear were the sound of the flowing river and dry leaves crunching underneath their feet. Everyone wore a solemn expression and stared straight ahead. Not even the nocturnal animals dare make a sound. It was as if every living creatures knew that something marvelous was going to happen today.

    They continued to walk in silence until they reached the mouth of the Marverin River. There, the Yuzema Tribe awaited them. From his viewpoint, Corwin could see them standing patiently near the bay; their torches blazed like the sun itself. Corwin has always found them to be fascinating. Unlike their Ankan brethren, who has tan skin and brunette hair, they have pale skin, and their heads shaven. Red intricate markings were tattooed all over their bodies. Not to mention, they still continued to hunt and gather foods from the land like their ancestors before them even though they now live a permanent village with modern advances.

    When the start of the procession was within a short distance, the tribe leaders walked over to greet them. While that happened, Corwin mused to himself on how that meeting didn’t happen over a hundred year ago. Back then, one of King Elyas’s ancestors suddenly decided to cancel the Yuzema Festival for some strange reason (Noeth had told him it’s was rumored that the king wanted to become immortal and thought it was a good idea to lure the God of the Dead to the land of the living by canceling the event). However, the blackmail backfired. Instead of leaving Valendor to confront the king, the God of the Dead showed his displeasure by afflicting the royal family with various diseases. Because of that, the king immediately reinstated the holiday, and the royalty suffered no more afterward. His brother called it poetic justice, and he had to agree with that assessment.

    After a brief salutation, the Ankan church officials gave them an offering a wreath made out of pine branches, winter berries, and white winter roses to appease the God of the Dead, Pendance. The Yuzema tribe leaders accepted it and returned to the edge of the river. Once there, they gently placed the offering on a small raft before placing a lit candle in the middle. Then they push it away from the shore, allowing the raft to drift toward the mouth of the river, which was an enormous cave that was mostly submerged underwater. As soon as they sent the offering adrift, other members of the tribe ambled over to the edge of the river and placed paper boats, which have small candles, onto the water before sending them on their way.

    During that time, no one dared move or speak lest they ruined the ceremony. As Corwin watched quietly, he thought about his lessons. If he remembered correctly, it was rumored that the cave is the entrance to the underworld, which was why the Yuzema Tribe sent the boats toward that direction. Everyone still watched in complete silence as the boats floated toward the mouth of the cave before disappearing from sight; likewise, the light from the flickering candles, which illuminated the cave walls, slowly faded away and left the cave back in darkness again. However, that didn’t last long.

    A pale blue light appeared from inside the cave. Before long, the cave wall was engulfed by the luminous light. In the meantime, everyone waited with bated anticipation for they knew what was coming next. They didn’t have to wait long as what – or rather, who – emerged from the cave. Soon, the spirits of their loved ones appeared and began their journey to the shore. They were transparent blue and radiated a soothing glow. Their feet barely touched the surface of the water and only left slight ripples. Their faces showed contentment and joy as they rejoiced seeing their loved ones again. When the people on the shore saw them, they began to cheer, and some even dashed into the river impatiently to search for their loved ones. It was as if a spell was broken, and everyone has become lively once more. The Yuzema Festival has officially begun.

    As Corwin observed the scene, he felt a strong grip on his shoulder and looked up to see Noeth staring at him. “Keep an eye out, Cor,” his brother told him. “Mom and Dad are here somewhere.”

    “Uh huh.” He gripped the Remembrance Bouquet tightly as he scanned the crowd. Without it, it would make it harder for their parents to locate them especially if he loses the memento, which was his parents’ wedding bands. Priya had made sure to tie the ribbon with a taut knot, but he still was nervous that their memento may somehow find a way to get lost. All around him, everyone seemed to have no issue finding their deceased loved ones, and he started to worry. Corwin knew that those who have committed grave crimes were forbidden from participating from the festivities, but he highly doubted that his parents were criminals. After all, he and Noeth saw them last year. Not to mention, he didn’t think they were reborn into the world so soon.

    Just as he was about to lose hope, he saw them from the corner of his eyes. Aneka and Wilbrim Rasson looked the same as he last remembered them. His mother was a slightly plump woman, who wore her hair in a tight bun; crow’s nest surrounded her kind eyes. She had on a simple dress that covered her feet and an apron. On the other hand, his father was a slender man with a slick back hair and trimmed bread; his forehead was creased with wrinkles. He wore an Ankan pattern shirt, trousers, and boots. Strolling up to his brother and him, his parents smiled and waved.

    As soon as he spotted them, Corwin dashed over to them. Behind him, he could hear his brother running after him to catch up. “Mom! Dad!” he shouted as he hugged them. Even though they were ghosts, he could still touch them as if they were still alive. It was a strange sensation, to say the least. He heard footsteps behind him and knew that his brother just arrived.

    Unlike him, Noeth was more composed. “Mom. Dad,” he said, smiling, as he embraced them. “How are you?”

    “We’re doing well, but we missed you two very much! Let your dear mother have a good look at you.” She beamed with pride after she examined them. “Look how much they’ve grown from the last time, Wilbrim!”

    “Corwin is almost up to my chest now. Next time, we’ll see you, Cor, you’ll probably reach my chin,” their father noted. “Anyway, how are you boys doing?”

    “Fine,” Noeth replied. “I’m still with the construction company, and I got a small raise, which helps with the rent. As for Corwin, he’s his usual self.”

    “You mean causing trouble wherever he goes?” Wilbrim quipped.

    “Hey!” he interjected and elbowed his father, who just ruffled his hair.

    Noeth chuckled. “Other than that, it’s just same old, same old.”

    He stared at his brother with disbelief. “Is that all you’re going to tell him? Why don’t you tell him that my headaches no longer bother me as much or about… Wait – where’s Priya?”

    In his excitement, he had forgotten about her. Frantic, he searched the crowd to no avail. She was nowhere in sight. His older brother must have known how upset he was because he said, “Cheer up, Cor. She probably found her family and is spending time with them.”

    “I guess.” Nevertheless, he was disappointed. He wanted his parents to meet her so badly.

    Their parents glanced at each other. “Who’s Priya?” Aneka finally inquired.

    “Oh, just a girl who’s currently staying with us,” Noeth answered matter-of-factly.

    “And how old is she?”

    His brother shifted his feet. “I guess she’s around my age.”

    “I see…” Their mother’s eyes twinkled as she coyly asked, “And does she have a boyfriend?”

    “Mom!”

    “What? I’m just curious about your little gal friend,” their mother replied with an innocent look on her face. “Well, does she?”

    Noeth scowled. “I don’t know. She most likely does.”

    “You didn’t bother to ask her?” their father chimed in. “I thought I raised you better, Noeth.”

    “Not you too!” he groaned, slapping his forehead.

    “What? Your mother and I want what’s best for you, son.”

    “Not to mention, it would be nice to have some grandchildren,” Aneka added. “You’re not getting younger, you know.”

    “But-”

    “Your mother is right,” Wilbrim interrupted. “Besides, I’m sure Corwin wouldn’t mind. Isn’t that right, Cor?”

    He thought for a moment. From the corner of his eyes, he caught Noeth mouthing to him to say no, which gave him a devilish thought. “Hmm… I think it’s a good idea,” he began, “especially since they already act like a couple.”

    As soon as he said that, Noeth growled, “Why you little pipsqueak!” and tried to grab him. Luckily, he was faster and ducked before he hid behind their parents, who just chuckled. “Don’t give them ideas, Cor!”

    “Now, now, Noeth, don’t bully your brother,” their mother chided though there was a mischievous twinkle in her eyes. “Well then, why don’t you tell us more about this Priya girl?”

    As Corwin watched while his brother tried his best to avoid answering their parents’ onslaught of questions, he pondered their suggestion. Now that he thought about it, it would be nice if Priya and Noeth did date. Then she could stay, and they could officially be a family.

    As soon as the sun began to rise, everyone knew that it was time for the spirits to return to Valendor so they immediately said their goodbyes. “Bye, Mom! Bye, Dad!” Corwin shouted, waving his hand like crazy.

    “We’ll see you next year!” Noeth called out as he watched their parents headed back inside the cave.

    “Take care, you two!” their father yelled back.

    Their mother added, “And don’t forgot about the grandchildren, Noeth!”

    Before he could retort that Priya wasn’t his girlfriend, they disappeared into the cave. Sighing, he turned to Corwin and said, “Come on. Let’s go home.” On their journey back into the city, he regretted telling his parents about Priya since it would mean that he’ll never hear the end of it.

    His brother must have known how he felt because he asked, “Are you mad at me for telling Mom and Dad about Priya?”

    “No, I’m not. They’re bound to find out anyway,” he replied, shaking his head.

    “Oh.” Corwin became quiet, which meant that he was lost in thoughts. Finally, he ventured, “Do you like her?”

    Noeth hesitated before he answered, “I guess. I mean, if I didn’t, she wouldn’t stay with us, right?”

    “Makes sense,” Corwin agreed, “but do you like her as a friend or…?”

    He groaned, “Not you too! Listen, just because Mom wants to play matchmaker, doesn’t mean that you sh-”

    “Should what?” Noeth looked up to find Priya walking toward them. She stopped right in front of them and gave them an inquisitive look.

    “It’s nothing,” he replied. “Anyway, where were you? We couldn’t find you anywhere!”

    “Were you spending time with your family?” Corwin wondered. “Is that why we couldn’t find you?”

    She shook her head. “No, I didn’t find them so I just spend time alone in the woods until it was over.”

    “If you couldn’t find them, you could have spent time with us. We did invite you to meet our parents, remember? ” Noeth reminded her. “Cor was disappointed because he wanted you to meet our parents so badly, you know.”

    Turning her attention to his younger brother, she asked him, “You were?” He nodded. “Sorry,” she apologized. “I know that I promised, but my nerves go the best of me. I was worried about making a bad impression that I chickened out. I’ll make it up to you, okay?”

    Corwin thought for a moment. “Can it be anything?”

    “Anything you want; just name it.”

    “Well…” A sly look appeared on his face. “Do you like Noeth?”

    A confused Priya, who didn’t expect that request, replied. “Of course. Why do you ask?”

    Instead of answering, he continued, “Do you like him as a friend?” Still baffled, she nodded slowly. Even though she wasn’t sure where the questioning was heading, Noeth knew. His damned brother was trying to hook them up!

    Before Corwin could say another word, Noeth quickly covered his mouth and announced, “We should hurry back home and rest. Otherwise, we won’t have enough energy to enjoy the festival.”

    Then, without any further ado, he grabbed Corwin by the hand and dragged him away while Priya followed behind him. Along the way, he growled underneath his breath, “Don’t even think about it, Cor! I know what you’re planning, and it’s not going to work.”

    “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” his brother replied, but Noeth gave him a withering glare. “Oh, all right. I’ll stop only if you promise you’ll buy me some candied apples at the festival tonight.”

    “Fine,” he relented. He turned around to see Priya watching them with a suspicious look on her face. No doubt, she figured that they were up to something so he better distracted her. “Anyway, what do you think of your first Yuzema Festival?”

    “It was interesting,” she answered. “Everyone looks so happy spending times with their loved ones. How was yours?”

    “It was fine though it would be better if you were there.”

    She frowned. “You’re still trying to guilt trip me! Look, I already apolo-” She paused when she heard someone shouting. On the side of the pathway, a few priests were trying to persuade the wearied passersby to go to attend church.

    “Don’t forget afterward is the Mass of the Dead!” they shouted to everyone who passed. “Church service begins in an hour!”

    Most people ignored them. However, a few, especially the poor, would sneer as they trudged by the imploring priests, “Why should we? The All-Mother and her children don’t care about us!”

    As they walked by the clergymen, Noeth noticed that Priya was becoming clearly upset. “Hey, don’t mind them,” he whispered.

    “But still!” she grumbled and shook her head. “You’re right. I shouldn’t be aggravated by their behavior, but I just don’t understand how they blame her.”

    He shrugged. “It’s because they’re upset because they felt that the All-Mother has ignored them in their time of needs especially with how corrupt the government is.” She didn’t seem pleased with his answer but didn’t say anything more about the subject.

    On the other hand, Corwin glanced back at the priests before he asked, “In Doran, people go to church before the Yuzema Festival begin, right?”

    “I guess,” Noeth said. “I’m sure other countries celebrate the holiday differently.”

    Corwin rolled his eyes. “I know that! I also know that in Sendoa, families would set up an altar for their loved ones while Ishara would launch fireworks. Thyrcans have a bonfire to celebrate the Yuzema Festival.”

    “Really now? And who told you that?”

    His brother tilted his head toward Priya. “She did; that was one of my lessons.”

    That definitely roused the older Rasson brother’s suspicions. How in Samara could a forest girl know anything about other world cultures? Even he didn’t learn those sorts of things when he went to school. Before he could pester her about it, he noticed a crowd was gathering around their house. What was going on now? Feeling uneasy, he led the others to find out.

    Pushing to the front of the murmuring crowd, Noeth found a visibly shaken Mrs. Birten standing near the front steps. Two uniformed men guarded the front entrance to prevent anyone from entering their home. At first, he thought the house got burglarized while they were away, and the landlady has alerted the police to investigate until further inspection, he realized that the men were wearing military uniforms. “What’s going on, Mrs. Birten?” he asked, rushing toward her. “Why are they here?”

    She looked at him, distressed, and explained, “They claimed that someone tipped them off about suspicious activity in your house, but I told them that they must get it wrong. There’s no way you would do anything illegal. You three are the best ten-”

    All of a sudden, another soldier, whom he assumed to be the one in charge, appeared right before them. “Are they the ones living here?” he demanded, eying the three of them.

    “Y-y-yes,” their landlady answered, “but I’m telling you they’re good kids, and you got this all wr-”

    “We’ll see about it. If they are ‘good kids’, then we won’t find anything, eh?” he snapped.

    Aggravated by the officer’s contemptuous attitude, Noeth confronted him. “Listen, just because you’re a soldier doesn’t mean you should treat her like that! Like she said, we have never caused any trouble and disobey any laws. You have no proof of it!”

    The officer glowered at him as he walked toward him so they could glare at each other eye-to-eye. Noeth could feel either Corwin or Priya grabbing his arm to pull him away, but he refused to budge; he won’t be intimidated. “And who are you to tell me what to do?”

    Before he could make a retort, a soldier, carrying a thin stack of documents, emerged from the house. “Sir, we found this hidden in one of the drawers,” he informed his colleague as he handed the papers to him.

    The officer didn’t speak a word as he scanned through the papers. Based on his reaction, it was bad, which meant only one thing. Finally, he asked, “Where did you find this?”

    “In the bedroom, sir,” the man replied. “The one on the right side of the hall.”

    Nodding, the officer turned his attention to Noeth and the others. He then asked, “Whose bedroom is that?”

    A hushed silence filled the air as everyone waited for someone to reply, but none of them spoke. Noeth felt his stomach sank because he knew that answer. Dammit, he warned Priya not to endanger his family with her actions! Now they’re in this mess! He caught a quick glimpse of her staring at the soldier with uncertainty. The soldier glared at them and repeated, “Are you deaf? I asked you who was staying in the bedroom to the right?”

    No one spoke at first until Priya raised her hand slightly. “That’s my room, but those aren’t my papers. I’ve never seen them before.”

    “Is that so?” the officer sneered and motioned his comrades. “Maybe you’ll remember after we interrogate you back in prison. Seize her.”

    “I don’t understand. Why are you taking me away?” she demanded. “I did nothing wrong!”

    “Of course, you’ll deny any wrongdoing, but we know your secret, resistance member!” was his curt reply. A loud murmur emerged from the crowd as they began to gossip about the startling revelation while a stunned Priya could only gape.

    She quickly regained her composure. “You’re lying. You set me up!” she accused him.

    “Shut up, traitor!” he growled and gave her a backhanded slap across her face before she could react. “Don’t try to weasel your way out of this. We know that you’re a member of the resistance, and don’t you dare deny it!”

    “But I’m not…” Priya gave Noeth a pleading look. “You got to believe me. I’m not a part of the resistance.”

    He didn’t say anything because to be honest, he didn’t believe her. The evidence was enough to confirm his suspicions, and he was peeved that she brought trouble to his family – intentional or not. On the other hand, Corwin was protesting, “Priya is not a traitor! She would never do anything like that! Right, Noeth?”

    “Is that what you believe, boy? Then she did a great job fooling you though it looked like your brother seems to see past her charade,” the officer scoffed.

    As they went over to capture her, Noeth felt his brother tugging his sleeves. “Do something, Noeth!” he begged. “They’re taking her away.”

    He wanted to tell his brother that there was nothing he could do, and even if he does figure out a way, it was impossible. How could he – a mere civilian – manage to convince those men that Priya was innocent? When he was about to tell his brother that, he saw the pitiful look in his brother’s eyes and knew that he had to do something. Just as the soldiers were about to approach Priya, he shouted, “Wait! She’s telling the truth. I was the one who hid the papers in that room.”

    The officer stared at him in disbelief. “What did you just say?”

    He opened his mouth to respond but shut it again. All around him, everyone wore a stunned expression on their faces after his declaration. To be honest, he was shocked himself. He has no idea why he said that, but he knew that he has to save Priya somehow. After all, she probably won’t survive long in an Ankan prison, but he has a higher chance.

    Taking a deep breath, he ignored his brother’s horrified stare and continued his lie. “I said that those are my papers,” he repeated.

    “And you’re saying you hid them in her room?”

    He nodded. “I did. I didn’t want my brother to accidentally find out what I was planning and put him in harm’s way. I figured hiding the papers in her room would be a good idea since she doesn’t really use all of the drawers of her dresser so she wouldn’t notice. I guess I didn’t pick a good hiding spot since you managed to find them.”

    “And when did you get these papers?”

    “Today. That’s why those papers look brand-new. I pretended to get some last-minute supplies while Priya and my brother stayed at home to get ready, but I met up with a few co-conspirators instead. Then, while everyone was busy with preparation, I hid the papers in her room. I didn’t have time to read them so I was planning to go over the plans after the Yuzema Festival.” He then added for good measure, “If you don’t believe me, ask the neighbors or Mrs. Birten. They can confirm that they saw me leaving the house and that they saw Priya inside the entire time.”

    He waited for the officer’s reply, but the man remained silent as he glared angrily at Noeth. The Ankan soldier knew that he was lying, but he couldn’t call him out because if he does, then the crowd would suspect something was up since he refused to accept the supposed confession. The officer’s eyes darted back and forth as if he knew that his plot was ruined by Noeth’s intervention. No doubt he didn’t expect that outcome.

    Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the soldier ordered, “Men, arrest him. The girl is free to go.”

    “But, sir-” one of the men began.

    “You heard what I said! She is free to go,” he snapped. His face turned bright red as he continue to stare down at Noeth. “This boy confessed to the crime – right in front of everyone, I must add so I want you to place him under our custody. Do you understand or do I have to spell it out to you?”

    Without another word, the soldiers hastily turned their attention away from Priya and rushed over to him. They pulled him away from the crowd and seized him (rather roughly, in his opinion) by the arms as they handcuffed him. “Noeth!” Corwin shouted; his eyes were full of panic.

    “It’ll be okay, Cor. Just stay out of trouble while I’m gone,” he reassured him and gave him a weak smile because he knew that was a lie. He then glanced over at Priya, who has a disbelieving look on her face. “Take care of him, okay?”

    “Noeth, you don’t-” she began as she walked toward him, but the soldiers blocked her way. They gave her stern look and shook their heads, indicating that wasn’t a wise choice. Then they pushed through the crowd as they led him to the prison wagon. Along the way, Noeth could hear the people murmured to each other and felt their eyes staring at him though he tried his best to ignore them by keeping his eyes downcast. They probably were thinking how a good man like him would risk everything for something so stupid. Heh, that was his exact thought at the moment.

    He felt somewhat relieved when they finally reached the wagon; at least, he could be left alone away from the crowd though the destination wouldn’t be appealing. After they forced him inside, he looked back to find Corwin and Priya standing in front of the crowd. His brother tried to show a brave face though he was trembling, but the other seemed guilt-stricken because she knew that he was taking the blame for her. As the wagon drove away, he reassured them one last time, “Don’t worry! I’ll figure something out!”

    They didn’t seem reassured at all, and he didn’t blame them. Even he didn’t know how he was going to get out of this conundrum.
    --- Double Post Merged, Feb 25, 2016 ---
    I intended to make the chapter a little longer, but I then decided to put the next part to the next chapter instead




    Chapter 05: The Coliseum

    Toov 6, 2594

    Noeth shifted his body as he tried to find another comfortable position once again to no avail. But then, sleeping on a hard cot wasn’t an ideal bed. Shivering, he wrapped his arms around his body since the thin blanket given to him wasn’t much help. Unfortunately, the damp prison cell did nothing to ease his discomfort. His quarter was cramp with barely any walking room, and the only light, which wasn’t much, came from the tiny window. The only good thing was that the ceiling was high enough because otherwise, he would have to hunch his back. Every now and then, he could hear water dripping from the ceiling. Another prisoner would cough or snort once in awhile, but none spoke. Not that he blamed them; he wasn’t in a talkative mood either. As he lay there, he wondered how he got himself into this dire predicament.

    Why on Samara did he take the blame for her? Was it because he didn’t want to see Corwin be upset? Or was it…? He grind his teeth. That damned Priya! It was all her fault! He should have been outside joining in the revelry instead of being stuck in this prison! By now, he and his brother would have been eating greasy food and enjoying the spectacle. Instead, he stuck here with no light or warmth. Not to mention, the lack of sleep he had due to the fact the guards would check the cells every hour by shining a light into the tiny room. Now that he thought more about it, he realized that this was the second time he saved her hide. If he ever found a way to get out of here, he’s going to make sure to tell her that she owed him big ti-

    “Oy, boy!” Startled, he looked up to see one of the prison guards in front of his cell. “You got a visitor!”

    A visitor? He sat up immediately and rushed over to the door. To be honest, he had given up hope of anyone visiting him since no one came for the last few days. It was as if he was forgotten. Most likely it was his brother; Priya probably figured that he was mad at her. A part of him felt disappointed by that. It would be nice to see her even if she seemed to cause him trouble. Imagine his dismay to find it was Lady Rasbeth standing there.

    She wore a light gray dress and black boots; he could tell since she pulled her skirt up slightly (most likely, she didn’t want the hem of her dress to get dirty). A dark maroon cape adorned her shoulder. Even though she wore a hood to cover her head, he knew it was her. “Hello,” she said in a saccharine voice. “Surprise to see me?”

    “You can say that,” he mumbled underneath his breath. Raising his voice, he continued, "Why are you here anyway?”

    Lady Rasbeth just laughed as she removed her hood. Her hair seemed to cascade down onto her shoulders. “Always to the point. That’s what I like about you,” she purred. “Your name’s Noeth, right? Anyway, I heard what happened to you and wanted to help you get out of your predicament.”

    Noeth narrowed his eyes. “How?”

    “By getting the charges against you dropped.”

    “And how are you going to do that?” he asked dryly. “The soldiers found documents proving that I was planning to overthrow the government. That’s enough evidence to convict me, and there’s no way no one would believe I’m innocent otherwise.”

    “Don’t be naïve, Noeth. I am the king’s niece so I’ll always find a way.” Clearing her throat, she added him, “Of course, there is a catch – in order for my plan to work, you have to agree to my conditions.”

    He didn’t like the sound of that, but he decided to humor her. If she wanted to help him, he might as well find out why. “And what are your conditions?”

    She smiled. “Oh, you don’t have to sound that worried; it’s not that bad. First, you must agree to work for me. Second, you must never leave my palace unless you have my permission. Lastly, you must promise that you will never make contact your brother or that girl ever again. You can’t visit nor send messages to them. Now then, will you accept my terms?”

    Noeth could scarcely believe what he has heard. He figured she wanted him to work for her due to his past encounter but to control his every movement? That’s insane! Stepping away from the door, he shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I have to decline.”

    In return, she appeared baffled by his refusal. “But why?” she sputtered. “Isn’t my offer good enough? You’ll no longer be a criminal and be well taken care of! If it’s about your brother, you don’t have to worry about him anymore. That wench could take care of him now.

    “Corwin is my family, and family don’t abandon each other no matter what.”

    “Fine. He can come along with you, and I’ll make sure the both of you will be under my protection. That girl has to stay behind, though; I don’t want her anywhere near you.”

    He shook his head once again. “No deal. Priya is a friend, and I don’t abandon them either.” Noeth took a deep breath and shrugged. “Besides, I’ve never seen Corwin seems so happy until he met her, and I guess I feel the same way about her too.”

    She could only look at him incredulously. “I still don’t understand why you won’t take this opportunity to get out of this wretched place.”

    “That’s the reason. You don’t understand,” he countered. “By accepting your offer, I’ll still be living like a prisoner. I have no free will to do whatever I want. You dictate to me what you want me to do, and I have no say in anything. At least here, I know that I am a prisoner and I have some freedom even it’s not much. Now, get out! I don’t want to see you ever again!”

    Disgusted, he turned away from her and headed back to his bed. At that moment, he didn’t care that he slighted her; he just wanted to be alone with his thoughts. He barely took one step when he heard Lady Rasbeth announced, “I thought it was quite noble of you to sacrifice yourself to save that wench. You didn’t have to do that, but you did. It surprised me when I found out, but then, I should have known you’re the type of man to do that.”

    “What did you just say!?” Noeth spun around so fast that he almost tripped over his feet. Did she just…?

    The king’s niece was still looking at him. Her eyes seemed to gleam as she eyed him like a hawk that has cornered its prey. Instead of answering his question, she said, “Once I found out that girl was living with you, I knew that I have to get rid of her. Otherwise, I won’t have a chance of having you, and I knew just how.”

    “Wait, are you saying that…” His voice trailed off as it dawned on him what she was implying. “Then those papers-!”

    “Were planted by the soldiers themselves,” she finished and smiled. “The only problem was finding the right time to implement the plans. All three of you have to be away and no one else was around to notice anything suspicious. But when? That was when it dawned on me. I knew the perfect opportunity – the Yuzema Festival. Everyone would be gone at that times. They would be too busy with their families to pay any attention to what was happening inside the city. During that time, I could have some soldiers sneak back into Sollum early and enter your house to search for proof of that girl’s crime. With that decided, I enacted my plans. It would have worked if it hasn’t been for your meddling; with the evidence, no one would be the wiser then and believe she was guilty.”

    Noeth could feel the blood drain from his face. “If what you’re saying is true, then that would mean Priya was never a member of the resistance.”

    She barked out a boisterous laugh, which surprised him. “The resistance!?” she exclaimed. “Of course, she isn’t! The so-called resistance doesn’t exist!”

    “What!?” Now it was his turn to be flabbergast. “B-b-but I thought-”

    The noblewoman smirked. “There is no such thing as a resistance group trying to overthrow the government. My uncle only made up that bullshit in order to lure out any potential instigators as well as get rid of any rivals to the throne. It seems that his plan works because we have gotten rid of several rabble-rousers already with no one knowing the truth. You peasants are so gullible, now that I think about it. You believe everything that we fed you without thinking for yourselves I guess what my uncle said was true – you lot need us to hold our hands and guide you. Otherwise, you would be lost without us.”

    “Why you little-” Vivid, Noeth stormed back to the prison door and stretched his arm out to try to grab her, but Lady Rasbeth simply took a step back to avoid his reach. How dare she and her family toy with the very people they supposed to govern and protect!?

    “What’s wrong? Did I insult you for telling the truth?” she mocked. “You thought that wench was a resistance member, didn’t you? You even said that yourself just a few minutes ago so you can’t deny it. In fact, I heard from the soldiers that you didn’t say anything when she denied being one. You thought she was lying; the only one who believed her was your brother. Tsk, tsk. Must feel awful for not believing them, huh? Too bad you can’t apologize them since they are preoccupied at the moment.”

    “If you dare lay one finger on them, I’ll-” he snarled.

    “You’ll what? You can’t do anything in that prison cell. Besides, why should I allow my clean fingers touch filth like that?” she taunted. Seeing how quiet he became, she sneered as she put her hood back on and motioned the guard that she was ready to leave.

    Noeth could only watch quietly and fume as she strolled down the hall toward the exit before she abruptly stopped. Even though he wanted to throttle her, he knew that she has a point – he was powerless inside his prison cell. There was nothing he could do to prevent her from ordering her goons to harm Cor and Priya. Likewise, he hated to admit that she was right about the fact that he was madder at himself for doubting Priya. She kept telling him that she wasn’t a member of the resistance, but he still didn’t believe her. Dammit, he should have trusted her, but now it was too late. She probably views him as a jerk. He would.

    The king’s niece was at dungeon door when she abruptly turned around to look at him one last time. She then added, “Oh, don’t expect any more visitors. Your brother and your friend are under house arrest. Do you actually think your stunt protected them? No, as soon as I found out, I immediately ordered the guards to stay with them and make sure they can’t even step out of the house. But I promise you that, but I make sure you’ll regret not taking my offer. You’re going to suffer so dearly that you’ll wish that you’re dead once I’m through with you.”

    Then she left without saying another word, leaving Noeth alone in the dark.

    Toov 7, 2594

    On the last day of the festivities, every shops and venue were shut down so people can head over to the coliseum to watch the spectacle of prisoners killing or maiming each other. As the crowd rushed over to the entrance of the stone ovoid building, Noeth could hear their boisterous shouts above him. Based on the noise, it seemed that everyone (peasants and nobles) was attending the event. Currently, he was in the fitting room where he was supposed to receive his armor and weapon as preparation for his big fight. Since he was supposedly a traitor of the government, he was immediately sentenced to fight in the coliseum until he is dead.

    “Hmm… I think this may fit you,” Gavyern, the man in charge of the gladiators, said as he handed him a breastplate.

    Noeth made a face. The armor was merely a thin plate of steel and has a lot of dents – it won’t provide him enough protection. “Is that all you have?” he asked. “This won’t protect me at all!”

    The old man scowled at him. “Listen, buddy. They don’t give me much equipment so you’ll have to make do with the things I have here,” he snapped. “So it either wears that old thing or nothing at all.”

    “Okay, okay. I got it.” Noeth quickly strapped on the breastplate and adjusted it so it wouldn’t tangle on his body. Besides that armor, he also has greaves to protect his legs. Other than that, he was on his own. He stared nervously toward the doorway that would lead him to the battleground. How was he going to survive the upcoming fight?

    Gavyern must have felt some pity for him because his wrinkly face, which reminded him of a bulldog, softened suddenly. “You know, I may have something now that I think about it,” he told Noeth and bend down to retrieve a buckler shield. Handing to him, the old man coughed. “Hey, this may not be much, but this will help a little.”

    “It does. Thank you,” Noeth replied and took the shield. It was light but sturdy, which made him feel slightly better of his chances.

    “Now that’s decided, let’s see what weapon you should get. Never fight before, right? Then I would recommend a sword since it’s easy to handle. Hmm… What sword would be perfect for you?” He scanned through the weaponry before he chose an estoc. “I think this will do. Careful now! Don’t want you to drop it on your foot accidentally!”

    He heeded his advice and gingerly grabbed the sword by the hilt before he examined his new weapon. Based on the scratches, it has seen a lot of battles. Hopefully, this one won’t be its last. Just then, he heard the door creaked open and looked up to see the guards standing at the door.

    “Looks like you’re up, boy,” Gavyern stated.

    Noeth gulped and nodded. “Looks that way.”

    As he was about to head out, the old man gave him an encouraging smile. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. Since you’re a rookie, they usually give you an easy opponent to go against first.”

    “I hope so,” he muttered underneath his breath.

    “Now entering the coliseum… Prisoner 2650!” As soon as Noeth heard the announcer called out his number, he rushed down the tunnel. The blinding light was the first thing to greet him as he entered the arena. The next thing that welcomed him was the roar of the obnoxious crowd. He could feel their excitement as they stomped their feet and yelled. A few jeered, and he heard the word “Traitor” several times though he tuned them out. He was focused on another task.

    Scanning through the packed coliseum, he searched for his brother and Priya. Even though he highly doubted that they would want to watch a gruesome spectacle, a part of him hoped that they would be there. Not to watch him die per se, but maybe to cheer him on. Nevertheless, he didn’t see them. Not that he blamed them. If he were in their position, he couldn’t bare to watch someone they loved die in a brutal sport.

    On the other hand, he easily spotted Lady Rasbeth, who was sitting in the box seat along with her family and other nobility. Next to her was King Elyas, who was easily recognizable due to his extravagant crown. She wore a blood-red satin dress with lots of frills and ribbons that it seemed to overwhelm her body. Her hair was in a topknot, which was adorned with gold chains with pearls. She was fanning herself when she noticed that he was looking at her. Recognition appeared on her face before she leaned over and whispered something in her uncle’s ear.

    Rubbing his graying beard, the portly man nodded and raised his hand to silence the crowd, who became hushed. As a tradition, he’d be the one in charge of the proceedings today. “People of Anka, I welcome you to the last day of the festivities!” he declared. “I hope you all enjoyed yourselves so far. Before we begin, would the prisoner please step forward?” Feeling suddenly uneasy, Noeth obliged. His instinct told him that something odd was going on here. If King Elyas knew about his wariness, he didn’t show it. “Now then, Prisoner 2650, are you ready to entertain us?”

    “I am.” What else could he say? No thanks, I rather stay in my prison cell and lie on my bed, alone with my thoughts.

    The king beamed. “I’m glad to hear your enthusiasm. The crowd will surely enjoy your upcoming battle then. But before we officially begin, I have some special guests who are dying to see you.”

    “Let go of me!” As soon as Noeth heard that voice, his heart stopped. What was his brother doing here? Looking toward his right, he could see soldiers dragging two familiar individuals as they struggled to break free from their grasps on a stone platform fifty meters above him. Corwin and Priya didn’t look like they were beaten up, but they appeared to be haggard. Their hair was unkempt, and their clothes were wrinkly and full of tears.

    “Corwin! Priya!” he shouted in disbelief and dashed over to them. When they heard his voice, they stopped fighting and looked down at him, wearing the same expression. All around him, the crowd murmured as they wondered this unexpected event. Noeth then turned his attention to the king. Furious, he demanded, “What is the meaning of this!? Why are they being restrained as if they’re prisoners? They did nothing wrong to be treated this way!”

    “On the contrary, we have everything to believe that either one or both of them was involved with the plot in some manner,” the king disputed. He placed his hands on his robust belly as he gave Noeth a toothy grin. Since Lady Rasbeth was the one who framed him, he most likely knew the truth as well. “Besides, I thought it would be nice to see you three bid farewell one last time in case you die today. It’s the only thoughtful gesture I could think of to give you, traitor.”

    “Noeth!” Corwin cried out as he tried to lean forward, but the guards prevented him. A mixture of relief and dread was on his face. Noeth wanted so desperately to reach out to him – to tell him to be strong.

    “Noeth, are you all right?” Priya shouted. Unlike his brother, she seemed to be calm though there was a hint of anxiety in her voice.

    “I’m all right,” he replied. “What’s about you guys? You didn’t get hurt, did you?”

    “No, we’re fine. They didn’t hurt us,” she assured him.

    He breathed a sigh of relief. At least, they weren’t harmed – not much, anyway. “Listen, Priya, I’m sorry for doubting you! I should have known better.”

    “It’s okay! You don’t have to apologize,” she replied, shaking her head. “I would probably think the same if I were in your position.”

    He nodded; he should have known that she wouldn’t be mad at him. Nevertheless, he still felt like he owed her somehow. That was his payment for ever doubting her. Before he could say another word, he heard King Elyas exclaimed, “Oh, what a touching reunion! It warms your hearts, doesn’t it?”

    Noeth then turned his attention back to him. “Let them go! It’s me you wanted; they don’t need to suffer because of my action!”

    Instead of answering him, the king just smiled. “Prisoner 2650, answer this question: who do you want to spare from this bloodshed?”

    Noeth looked at him, baffled. “Wait, what are you asking me to do?”

    “I’m asking you which one do you want to save from your upcoming battle?” King Elyas leaned forward; a cruel glint was in his eyes. “Since it was your choice that caused grief for your loved ones, then perhaps it will be fitting for you to decide who you want to unburden from further suffering. In another word, who do you love more – your brother or that girl?”

    --- Double Post Merged, Mar 26, 2016 ---
    Chapter 06: A Startling Reveal

    At first, Noeth couldn’t speak. Why did King Elyas want him to choose either Corwin or Priya? All around him, the crowd seemed to share his sentiment.

    “What kind of cruel game is this: having him pick which one to watch him die?”

    “This is messed up even for me!”

    “I heard a rumor that the boy rejected Lady Rasbeth’s advances. Maybe this is his punishment.”

    “What? He did that? What kind of idiot is he?”

    “I don’t blame him one bit! Working for Lady Rasbeth would be torturous in my opinion.”

    Noeth frowned as he glimpsed over to Lady Rasbeth. Her face was expressionless, but her eyes betrayed her true feelings – she was enjoying watching him squirm. He grind his teeth. There was no way he’s going to give her that satisfaction! Either way, it’s an easy decision for him; of course, he wouldn’t want his little brother to watch his fight. He was just a kid and surely couldn’t handle the bloodshed.

    Just as he was about to open his mouth, he shut it abruptly when a thought occurred to him. What if this was a trick question? Instead of sparing Corwin, what if he was actually picking him to suffer? Knowing King Elyas, he would be like his niece and do something cruel like that. But then, what if he was really going to spare the person he named? He eyed the royal family with hopes that they may show hints, but neither the king nor Lady Rasbeth’s faces betrayed their intentions. Seeing that he still was silent, the crowd began to murmur once more.

    “Why is he just standing there?”

    “Maybe it’s because he has no idea who to pick.”

    “Who do you think he’ll pick?”

    “Isn’t it obvious? He’ll pick his brother. After all, blood is thicker than water!”

    “Nah, I bet he picks the girl; it’s hard to find a pretty girl.”

    “What? Where are you looking? You can always find one at one of those brothels!”

    “Then why is he not saying anything?”

    He clenched his fists. How couldn’t they understand his dilemma? He wanted to tune them out so he could focus on his next move when he heard Priya shouted, “Noeth, wait!” He turned his attention to her. She has an anxious look on her face. “Before you make your decision, I have to tell you something.” Taking a deep breath, she placed her hands on her stomach and continued, “I’m pregnant.”

    The whole coliseum was in an uproar. She, pregnant? Corwin stared at her, stunned. No doubt he was wondering if that was true and if so, when did they do it? The crowd began to jeer. It was obvious to them that she was lying in order to save her own hide. How cowardly of her! On the other hand, Noeth felt grateful. He knew why she made that claim; somehow she knew the reason he didn’t say a word so she decided to help him make a decision. Sure enough, it worked. As soon as Lady Rasbeth heard that announcement, her face distorted in rage. Jolting up from her chair, she pointed at Priya and shrieked, “She’ll be the one! I want her to suffer first!”

    The guards nodded solemnly and took his brother back inside while they dragged Priya, who didn’t bother to struggle, to a pole, which was waist high and has a chain attached to it. Once there, they handcuffed her before they departed. The whole time, the crowd continued to boo her and sneer. Even though Priya seemed composed, Noeth could tell that she was feeling unease. Her eyes had that familiar faraway look like she usually does whenever she seemed troubled. He wanted to say something to her to assuage her –no, to thank her –, but no words came out of his mouth when he opened it.

    Once that was settled, King Elyas cleared his throat. The crowd became quiet as they waited for his next announcement. “And now, let’s see who Prisoner 2650’s competitor will be! Guards, bring him in! ” The next thing Noeth heard was a creaking sound as the gate slowly opened. Everyone strained their necks to see who would come out of that darkened tunnel. Finally, in what seemed like an eternity, he emerged. When the audience saw who he was, they gasped. Even Noeth’s face turned pale once he saw whom he’s going up against.

    Although he may seem like an unassuming man, Irvex Stieg was a notorious criminal who spread fear and terror throughout the capital before he was captured four years ago. He killed with no discretion – women, children, men, wealthy, poor, soldiers, civilians, etc.; he didn’t care as long as he got to kill anyone. No one dared step outside while he was loose; even the soldiers who patrolled the city were nervous and sometimes attacked innocent bystanders who looked suspicious. That tension lasted for over a year when they finally caught him by mere chance.

    Apparently, he attacked one of the prostitutes who was roaming the street, but she managed to scream, alerting the authority. He tried to flee, but the woman (either due to bravery or recklessness) managed to injure him by stabbing him in the leg. That hindered his escape and helped the police to capture the elusive killer. After a quick and speedy trial, the judge sentenced him to fight in the Coliseum, which didn’t make a lot of sense to people. Why in Samara would anyone sentence a bloodthirsty killer to fight to the death? It would be his dream comes true!

    Just thinking about it caused Noeth to gulp and take a step back. Irvex currently stood haughtily in front of Noeth and eyed him as if sizing him up. No doubt he probably thought Noeth was a weak opponent since he lacked experience in that sort of thing. How was he supposed to beat that guy especially one who enjoys killing for a living!? It was a good thing Corwin wasn’t here to watch because knowing Irvex, he would butcher him.

    “So you’re my competitor for today, huh?” Irvex said, breaking the silence.

    At first, Noeth blinked before he responded, “Yeah, I am.”

    “First time, right? Just try to relax and don’t overthink about it.”

    “I’ll try not to,” he replied drily. For a killer, Irvex seemed so jovial. He was nothing how Noeth imagined him to be; he was like a type of guy whom he would enjoy hanging out in the pub after work. Maybe that’s why he eluded the authority so easily.

    That was when he noticed that his opponent wasn’t wearing any armor; the only defense he has was a shield. Maybe to make it fairer for him, the people in charge decided not allowed Irvex to have any armor. As if that would give him any advantage, of course. If Irvex noticed too, he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he mentioned, “I heard what you did, and I thought that was very noble of you. Noble but stupid.”

    “You don’t have to remind me,” he muttered just as someone banged the gong, indicating that the battle was about to begin.

    “Fighters, take your position!” King Elyas shouted.

    “Well, I guess we should head out now,” Irvex said before he walked away. “It was nice talking to you. I’ll try to make sure your death is short and swift.”

    “Thank, I guess?” Noeth shook his head and went to the opposite direction. As he was on his way, he looked back at Priya. She was looking at him encouragingly though there was fear in her eyes. He nodded at her, and she returned it with a small smile. Seeing that made feel him a little better of his chances. Even if he has a slim chance of defeating Irvex, he knew that at least one person watching the upcoming battle believes him.

    “Prisoners 2513 and 2650, are you ready?” the King asked. He and Irvex raised a sword and mace respectively to acknowledge that they were. “Excellent! Remember that you have a crowd to entertain so make sure to keep this battle exciting, all right? Now, let the battle begin!”

    Before he could even react, Irvex struck first. “Argh!” he screamed, charging straight at Noeth. Alarmed, Noeth jumped out of the way barely in time just as Irvex swung his mace down at him. Boom! Noeth could only gape at the dent on the dirt ground. What kind of monster was his opponent!? He stared with bewilderment at Irvex, who didn’t seem pleased that his attack didn’t hit him. His eyes, which was friendly before the match, was full of rage. It was as if he was a different person.

    Lifting up his mace, Irvex glared at him and launched another attack. This time, Noeth didn’t have time to dodge so he held up his shield to lessen the impact. Wham! Just as Gavyern has promised, the shield was sturdy enough to stop the blow. Nevertheless, he could still feel the impact; his left arm tingled from the shock of the hit. This is bad. I got to get out of here, he thought and scrambled out of the way. If he didn’t, he would surely die in the next attack. His opponent must have sensed his panic because Irvex didn’t bother to chase him; he simply ambled over to him like a cat stalking a mouse.

    Meanwhile, the audience roared with approval at the sight. “Get him! Don’t let him get away!” they cheered. Whatever sympathy they had for him, it dissipated once the fight began. Like Irvex, they wanted blood to be shed, and it didn’t matter whose just as long as someone dies for their entertainment. On the other hand, he saw Priya screaming at him, but he couldn’t hear what she said due to the deafening crowd. He also caught a glimpse of Lady Rasbeth and her uncle looking on with delight in their eyes. They were enjoying this, that’s for sure.

    Something snapped inside him. No, he won’t die like a coward; he won’t give them that pleasure. If he dies, he might as well die fighting. Noeth stopped and turned around to face Irvex, who seemed rather surprised by the sudden change. However, his opponent recovered quickly and charged. Now was his chance! As soon as Irvex was within arm-length, Noeth stepped out of the way, spun around, and swung his sword with all his might. The crowd cheered when his sword made a gash across Irvex’ back, which caused him to stumble. At first, Noeth was stunned that his trick work but that quickly changed to relief. He actually did it! He managed to injure Irvex! Before he could celebrate, an agonizing scream pierced the festive atmosphere.

    The crowd became quiet as everyone looked around. Who just screamed? It wasn’t Irvex because it sounded like a woman. Could it be from outside? Did a hapless woman get attacked outside the Coliseum while everyone was too busy watching the spectacle? All of a sudden, someone in the crowd stood up, pointed at a direction, and shouted, “Look!”

    They turned toward where his finger was pointing and stared in stunned silence. Priya was on her arms and knees as she gasped for air; the back of her shirt was bloodied, and blood was dripping onto the stone floor. The crowd murmured to each other as they pondered how and when she got injured. No soldiers were near her, and no weapon was nearby so she couldn’t do it to herself. As they discern this strange situation, a person spotted something. “Wait a minute, doesn’t her wound looks similar to Irvex’s?” he wondered aloud.

    As soon as he said that, the crowd realized that it was true – it does look like the same injury as that vicious killer’s. Their eyes turned toward Irvex, who was getting up gingerly, and what they saw flabbergasted them. His wound has disappeared! The deep gash that Noeth gave him was no longer there; it was as if he didn’t get injured at all! The only proof that he did get wounded was the blood streak on his back. What in Samara was going on?

    “It’s transference magic.” At the sound of her voice, the crowd turned their attention to Lady Rasbeth. Her eyes appeared to gloat as she continued, “The royal magicians have recently discovered a new form of magic, in which a person’s injuries can be transferred to someone else. In order to test it, we decided to implement it here. Based on what happened, it appears that it works.”

    A bewildered Noeth walked over to the box seat. “Wait, are you saying that whatever injury I inflict on him will be transferred to Priya?”

    “Correct.” She bared her teeth; her eyes twinkled with sadistic glee. “So whatever you do to him, you will do to her. Of course, there is a way around it if you want to defeat him. Do you want to hear it?” She replied without giving him a chance to speak. “You have to kill her first; then you’ll be able to wound him once more, but are you willing to do that? Or perhaps should you let yourself die so you won’t have to kill her? I wonder…”

    Upon hearing those words, the audience began to stir. Transference magic? That’s too barbaric even for them! They were only interested in watching criminals fight to the death – not seeing innocent people get killed due to association. They looked at Priya with pity. To be a victim of that cruel magic was harsh! Even Irvex seemed to lose his bloodlust. Looking down at his body, he mumbled, “No wonder they insisted on casting magic on me before the battle.”

    Noeth stared at him. “You didn’t know?”

    Irvex shook his head with disgust. “No, they just told me that they’re going to place a magic array on my body to fortify my defense. If I have known about this, I wouldn’t…” He stared intently at Noeth. “Listen, I enjoy killing, but it’s not the same if I don’t get to kill someone with my own two hands. I feel cheated if you know what I mean.”
    Noeth just nodded though he wasn’t really paying any attention to what Irvex was saying. Instead, he was staring at Priya and thinking about what he had learned. So what Irvex was claiming was true, then most likely she was standing on a magic circle that has the same array like the one they put on Irvex’s body. Then the reason they chained her was not to force her to watch him fight but to make sure she couldn’t…

    He tightened his grip on his sword. Dammit! This was what Lady Rasbeth was scheming the entire time! She said that she was going to make him suffer, and she has found the perfect way to do it. With that transference magic activated, she was going to force him to kill his loved ones without bloodying her hands. And the worst part? This time, he couldn’t save Priya, and she knew it.

    Her uncle raised his hand. “No more time for delay! Let the battle commence again!” he proclaimed. Neither Noeth nor Irvex dared move; they stared with uncertainty at each other, which displeased the king. “If none of you are willing, then perhaps this will motivate you. You all will be executed immediately if you don’t start fighting soon. But then, it wouldn’t affect you, now would it, Prisoner 2513? That girl will die in your stead instead, which would make Prisoner 2650’s death rather pointless. Of course, once she’s dead, we can execute you with no issues at all. I think the choice is obvious then.”

    When Irvex heard those words, he lifted his weapon and looked at Noeth with a grim expression. “Sorry, but looks like I don’t have a choice. I don’t want to die a pathetic death like that. Don’t hold it personally, okay?” Then he charged at Noeth before he could say anything. Realizing that he didn’t have time to get out of the way, Noeth quickly held out his shield prepared himself for the impact. BANG! He grunted when Irvex’s mace bashed onto his shield and pushed back. Annoyed, he then was about to strike back when he abruptly remembered Lady Rasbeth’s revelation. If he injures Irvex, then he would hurt Priya instead. From the corner of his eyes, he could see her still panting and writhing in pain, and he knew that he couldn’t do that to her again. Seeing his hesitation, Irvex did a quick counterattack.

    Noeth cried out as he felt the mace hit his left shoulder, which caused him to drop his shield. Staggering back, he held his wound and cursed underneath his breath. Dammit, he was careless! Now he’s without his shield, which was his best defense. Seeing an opportunity, Irvex launched another attack. This time, Noeth managed to get out of the way. Undeterred, his opponent kept swinging his mace. Whenever that happened, he would dodge. There were a few times when he could have easily injured Irvex, but he didn’t dare. Nevertheless, he knew he has to do something. This game of cat-and-mouse won’t continue forever – one of them will die. Unfortunately for him, he’s the one to decide.

    All around him, there was an eerie silence. The once rambunctious crowd no longer cheered. They knew this fight was wrong and condoned it by remaining quiet. The only ones who seemed to enjoy the spectacle were the royal family especially Lady Rasbeth. She squealed and clapped with delight whenever he almost got hit. Seeing her enjoying herself infuriated Noeth, but there was nothing he could do about it. Right now, he needed to focus on surviving and figuring out how to save both himself and Priya.

    “Noeth, it’s all right.” At the sound of Priya’s voice, everyone froze and turned to look at her. She was standing unsteadily as the blood continued to pour out of her wound. However, she ignored her wound and stared evenly at Noeth. “I want you to defeat him and not worry about me. I won’t hold it against you.”

    When he heard her said those words, he was stunned, but he quickly recovered. Not caring that he left himself open, he rushed by Irvex and stopped right below Priya. “Are you nut?” he exclaimed. “If I do that, I’ll kill you! I won’t let you die just because of my stubbornness!”

    “And I won’t let you die just because you want to sacrifice yourself for my sake!” she shouted back. Her face softened. “Besides, Corwin needs his big brother around so fight for him. Everything will turn out fine, I promise.”

    “But!”

    “Just do it! If you don’t, I won’t ever forgive you.” She glared at him, defiant as if daring him to protest. Seeing that he has no choice, he nodded reluctantly and turned his attention back at Irvex, who stood watching their conversation.

    Ignoring the pang in his left shoulder, he raised his sword to show that he’s ready to fight once more. “Ready?” Irvex asked.

    Noeth nodded and silently made a promise to himself. He was going to fight not just for his brother, but for himself and Priya as well. “Ready.”

    Without another word, they continued their fight. Irvex immediately went on the offensive and lunged straight at him. He then swung his mace, which left himself to be opened to a counterattack. It was what Noeth has anticipated; his opponent wanted to win so badly that he didn’t care about his own well-being. As soon as he did, Noeth waited until the last minute and ducked before he stabbed him in the abdomen. Behind him, he heard Priya screamed but didn’t falter this time. If he did, he would lose his advantage so he continued his assault before Irvex could recover.

    As he slashed Irvex’s chest, his competitor seemed stunned and tried to hit Noeth again. Noeth immediately saw and quickly struck first, which forced his competitor to be on defense. Noeth laughed bitterly to himself as he knew the reason for Irvex’s befuddled look. It appeared that Irvex used his reputation as a serial killer to scare his previous opponents to easy victories, but when it failed with him, he didn’t know how to react. Usually, Irvex was on the winning side so he didn’t know how to react to being on the losing side. However, Noeth knew that he shouldn’t be cocky. Sooner or later, Irvex will recover, and when he does, he will fight with more viciousness so he needed to end it quickly.

    I’m sorry, Priya. Screaming, he used all of his might and thrust his sword straight into Irvex’s heart. Behind him, he could hear Priya’s lifeless body thumped hard onto the stone floor.

    At first, no one in the Coliseum spoke a word as they realized what he has done. He did it. He actually sacrificed that girl in order to get around the transference magic that was cast on Irvex. Now he could finish the fight and become the new reigning champion. That thought must have displeased Lady Rasbeth, who was hoping to see Noeth suffer a little longer. How dare that wrench give him permission to kill her! Standing up abruptly, she screamed, “This fight isn’t over just yet! Bring his brother in! He’ll be the next replacement!”

    Corwin looked at the guards with surprise when they suddenly came into his cell and seized him without warning. “Where are you taking me? Where is my brother? Priya?” he demanded, but the guards didn’t answer any of his questions. Instead, they led him through the familiar tunnel back to the Coliseum. He gulped, wondering why they were bringing him back there. Did Noeth die in battle?

    As they came closer to the exit, he heard his brother’s voice, which filled him with relief. At least, Noeth was still alive. “Leave him out of this! You already won, Lady Rasbeth!” Corwin became confused and frightened. Wait, what was going on? Did she decide to force him to watch Noeth fight along with Priya? And why was it so quiet? Earlier, the arena was so boisterous that he could hardly hear himself think. Now he could probably hear a pin drop.

    He got his answer when he entered the Coliseum. The first thing he saw was his brother standing beneath the box seat and pleading with King Elyas; his opponent was just standing as if unsure of what to do. All around him, the crowd just sat there and looked on. Where was Priya? He scanned the area and his heart dropped when he saw her lying in a pool of blood a few meters away. How did it happen?

    Perturbed, he called out the only person he trusts. “Noeth!”

    When he heard his name, his brother stopped arguing and looked at him with horror. “Corwin!” he shouted.

    On the other hand, Lady Rasbeth looked pleased. “Guards, remove the body and chain him up.”

    The soldiers obliged and dragged him over to where Priya’s body lie. Corwin became horrified as he slowly comprehended what was happening. Whatever that contraption was, it was somehow responsible for his friend’s death. “No, let me go!” he yelled, kicking and struggling. When that didn’t work, he dragged his feet to delay the guards, but the men just grunted as they forced him up and continued on their way.

    Meanwhile, Noeth began pleading with King Elyas and Lady Rasbeth again, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. His brother could only watch helplessly as the soldiers arrived at their destination. Corwin recoiled back; he has never seen a dead body up close before, and he was sickened by the sight. Her body was covered with blood, and her skin was losing its rosy color. At least, her eyes were closed or otherwise, he would be more crept out. While two soldiers restrained him, the other one walked over to Priya’s body to remove it. During that time, Corwin begged, “Please don’t. Please don’t.”

    They ignored him as the soldier began to remove the shackles from Priya’s cold hands. When he was finished, he looked up and ordered, “Bring him over.”

    That was when it happened. Corwin could barely recall what he witnessed next, but all he knew that it was miraculous. The soldier, who held Priya up the entire time, was gesturing to his comrades to hurry when all of sudden, Priya grabbed his wrist. Startled, he yelped, but before he reacts, she placed her free hand on his stomach and blasted him with something, knocking him out cold. When he saw it, he was amazed but scared. Did Priya fake her death or something evil befell on her? As she slowly stood up, an unsure Corwin asked, “Priya?”

    She turned to look at him, and a flash of recognition appeared in her eyes. “Corwin, it’s all right,” she reassured him. “I’m alive.”

    The crowd went into an uproar. She was alive the entire time? Corwin could see their stunned reaction clearly on their faces. Likewise, Noeth seemed relieved to see her alive. The only one who didn’t seem satisfied was Lady Rasbeth. She stomped her feet as she screamed, “You told me that the transference magic would work! She should have been dead! Why is she still alive?I want her dead! Kill her!”

    As soon as the guards heard her orders, they immediately rushed over with their weapons drawn. Before they reached her, Priya simply lifted her hand and the floor in front of her exploded, sending them flying. The Coliseum became uproarious once more, and Corwin didn’t blame them. Was Priya a magic user? When Lady Rasbeth saw it, she became furious and yelled, “Stop her! Don’t let her escape!”

    As the soldiers began pouring into the arena, Priya ran over to him. “Hold on,” she told Corwin as she hugged him tightly and jumped over the ledge without giving him any time to prepare. He could only squeeze his eyes shut as he waited for the impact.

    While they were falling, he could hear Lady Rasbeth scream, “Shoot them!” Great, either they’re going to die from either being shot down by arrows or crashing onto the ground below. Which one was worst? He could hear the soldiers launch their arrows so he said a silent prayer to the All-Mother. Please let this be a quick death, he thought.

    However, nothing happened. The whole time, he was expecting some arrows to pierce his body or, at least, hit the ground by now. Did they die already and were already in Valendor without his knowing it? Confused, he finally opened his eyes and found himself surrounded by feathers. Underneath his feet, ceraphilis flowers were blooming; their soft glow seemed to warm his body. It seemed that the All-Mother has heard his prayers after all and sent her blessings. He stared in awe at the sight before he realized that the person holding him wasn’t Priya – it was someone he didn’t recognize at all.

    Unlike his friend, the woman standing in front of him has pale skin and cerulean blue eyes. Likewise, her hair was white and long while Priya’s was brown and short. She wore a cream short dress, a navy blue duster with gold trimming, and dark blue knee-length boots; a white-and-blue headband and simple blue necklace adorned her hair and neck respectively. “Are you all right?” she asked worriedly as she began to unfurl her wings.

    Corwin nodded. Even though he didn’t know who she was, somehow he knew that the person standing in front of him was Priya but in her true form. “You’re Priya, aren’t you?” he asked. She nodded. He breathed, “You’re an Aerian, and you’ve been hiding in plain sight the whole time.”

    --- Double Post Merged, Apr 12, 2016 ---
    Chapter 07: A Sign

    No one spoke at all since they were still trying to fathom what they have witnessed. The last thing they saw was Priya grabbing Corwin and embracing him as she jumped off the ledge with him before the Ankan soldiers could surround them. As they were plummeting to the ground below, Lady Rasbeth had ordered the men to shot them down with arrows. The crowd could only watch with bated breath as the archers released the arrows at the free falling Priya and Corwin. Just when the projectiles were about to hit them, something strange occurred.

    Priya’s body began to shimmer and became engulfed in a mixture of light and shadow. Her appearance began to change; her dark tan skin turned beige as she became taller and slender. Her clothes, torn and bloodied, disappeared and were replaced with ones that seemed to be made for a goddess. Then wings burst out of her back before they wrapped around the Corwin. When the arrows struck, a magical shield appeared in front of the two, causing the projectiles to bounce off and landed on the ground below instead. While that was happening, Priya then flapped her wings to slow down the descent and gently landed on the ground. As she knelt down, she covered Corwin once more as if to comfort him and at the same time, to protect him from any incoming attacks, which didn’t come; the Ankan soldiers were still stunned at what they saw.

    However, that wasn’t the biggest surprise. When she spread out her wings, she revealed that she and Corwin were standing on a small patch of ceraphilis flowers. The wounds on her body were no longer there since the rare flowers have healed her. No one spoke a word as they marveled at the sight. Not only there was an Aerian, whose race was thought to be extinct centuries ago, standing before them, she was also immortal! That was until King Elyas stood up excitedly and said what everyone was thinking. “A goddess! A goddess has finally decided to appear here!” he gasped as he stared hungrily at her. “At last, I can fulfill my ancestor’s dream of becoming immortal and ruling Anka for all eternity!”

    “Seize her! Don’t let her escape!” he ordered. As soon as he said those words, Noeth noticed that Priya stood up, erect, as she stared down at the king. With one hand still on Corwin, she lifted her other hand and summoned a blue metallic wing-tipped spear. At the same time, gold armor appeared, emerging from inside her body. Noeth felt his skin crawl when he saw her helmet; the visor seemed to have over hundred red eyes that move around freely.

    King Elyas must have felt unease as well because he suddenly added, “Any gladiator who helps with the capture of the goddess will have his prison sentence commuted!”

    Crap! Noeth turned his attention toward Irvex, who was staring at Priya with awe. What was he going to do? Knowing Irvex, he would gladly try to capture her so he could get out of prison and be free to kill again. Not to mention, he probably would enjoy the challenge of fighting an immortal. Noeth knew that he could not let that happen; even though his shoulder was still injured, he’ll have to stop him no matter what! Just as he was about to move toward Priya and his brother, Irvex raised his mace and shouted, “It’s a sign! The All-Mother has sent one of her children to show us that she hasn’t forgotten about us! She has heard about our plight and sent us our deliverance!”

    The crowd began to stir at his words. While the aristocrats looked at each other fearfully, the poor glanced at each other with hope. What Irvex was saying must be true! After all, the goddess did live among them for over a year so she would have known about the terrible treatment that they received. Not to mention, she saved Corwin before he could suffer from that horrid transference magic. The All-Mother must have finally heard their prayers and sent the Aerian to be her messenger. And her message? She has enough of their mistreatment and given them permission to rectify their current condition.

    A crescendo of discontentment slowly rose up from the audience, causing the king and his royal family to turn pale. Realizing that he has a situation, King Elyas quickly changed his orders to palliate the crowd. “Guards, restore order!” he shouted. “Kill anyone who dare to disobey!”

    While few of the soldiers complied, the rest hesitated for a moment as they looked at each other with uncertainty. After a brief moment, they seemed to reach a consensus because they nodded before they stood there, unmoved. Furious by their disobedience, the king screamed to his generals, “Do something with your men! I didn’t pick you to lead my army just to have them refuse to follow a simple command! If you can’t even control your men, then perhaps I should promote someone else to your job and have you executed for your ineptitude!”

    Not wanting to lose their positions and their lives, his generals jolted up their seats and yelled, “Do as His Majesty said! If not, you’ll face severe punishment for insubordination!” Nevertheless, the soldiers still refused to budge, and Noeth knew why. The majority of them came from the Kengen District and only joined the military to better their lives even if it’s just a little. Nevertheless, their treatment wasn’t that great still from what he heard; their commanders would give special preference to those of a higher status by giving them better foods and supplies, which would cause resentment. Not to mention, the people who were being defiant were their family and friends.

    Seeing the soldiers’ disobedience gave the fed up crowd the motivation that they needed. With a thunderous roar, they began their advance to the box seats and assaulted any soldiers who tried to stop them; some of the rebellious soldiers even helped out too. At the same time, Irvex charged at any of the foolish soldiers who tried to stop him as he went to join the rebellious crowd. Noeth suddenly heard a shout and saw other gladiators storming from the tunnels to join the fray. Gavyern was with them as well, and he was carrying weapons with him. The old man tossed them to the crowd before retreating to get more armaments.

    Meanwhile, the aristocracy was panicking. A few of the smart ones managed to flee the coliseum before the crowd revolted, but for the others, it was too late. Instead, they scurried around as they searched for anything to block the entrance or to defend themselves. They ruefully cursed themselves for leaving their weapons at home. After all, they were expected to be protected by the very soldiers who were now leading the revolt against them. Their only hope was their loyal bodyguards, who were few in numbers.

    Amidst the chaos, Noeth was attempting to reunite with his brother and Priya as he tried not to get caught up in the fighting when he felt someone grabbed his arm. “We need to get out of here,” Priya, who now returned to her familiar form, hissed.

    He searched around and quickly found an exit. “Over there,” he said, pointing to a nearby tunnel. She nodded, and they sprinted there. Along the way, a few of the guards tried to prevent their escape, but that didn’t last long. Either the other prisoners would attack them, or Priya sent them flying by blasting them with her magic. As they were about to reach their destination, Noeth heard a familiar shriek and looked up at the box seat.

    Lady Rasbeth was surrounded by a group of peasants, who bear their makeshift weapons at her. The once proud and haughty noblewoman has a look of terror as she feebly backed away from the angry crowd. “Please spare me!” she implored as she bowed her head timidly. “I’ll give you anything! Money… Jewelry… Anything you want! You name it, you have it! I promise as the member of the roy- ACK!”

    All of sudden, she clutched her chest and collapsed on the ground. “That served her right,” Priya said aloud as she looked away and went inside the tunnel. Hurrying behind her, Noeth noticed that she has a satisfied expression and has a hunch that she was the culprit to Lady Rasbeth’s abrupt outburst. However, he decided not to pester her about it just in case she wanted to use it against him. Not to mention, that smug look of hers somewhat unnerved him.

    Instead, he demanded, “So when were you going to tell us about your secret?”

    “Now it’s not the time,” she snapped as she turned a corner. Nevertheless, he did hear her mutter underneath her breath as she shook her head, “Kej is going to kill me! How am I going to explain this to her?”

    They ran in complete silence afterward until finally, Corwin looked at him and asked, “Do you know where we’re going?”

    “Not really,” he admitted. He was so worried about avoiding the fighting that he wasn’t paying attention to where they were heading. “Either we’re heading toward the exit or going further inside the coliseum.”

    His brother’s face dropped. “In other words, we’re lost.”

    “I wish you wouldn’t put it that way,” Noeth replied, exasperated though he hated to admit that Cor was right. It seemed that they were going down the same passageways. For all he knows, they may be trapped in this labyrinth forever.

    “It’ll be alright. We’ll get out of here one way or another,” Priya reassured them. Noeth frowned at her vague answer, but she didn’t seem to notice as she continued to lead the way. They continued running when they reached an intersection and stopped. Pointing at the two paths, she asked, “Which way should we go?”

    He hesitated before he answered, “The right.”

    She nodded and proceeded down the right path. As they hurried down the hallway, Noeth began to fret that he made the wrong choice. The slope was going downward, and the light was getting dimmer due to the lack of windows. The others must have the same feeling because Corwin suggested, “Maybe we should head back.”

    Just as he was about to agree, Noeth suddenly heard shouting behind him. Dammit, it seemed that the soldiers loyal to the king were tracking them down. “Looks like we have no choice!” he grumbled as they scurried down the path. Hopefully, there was another hallway along the way. Alas, there was none; it was only a linear path to who-knows-where. Dread filled him as he began to worry that he has led them to a place, where they would be cornered and trapped.

    His fear was confirmed when they reached a dead end. There were no more exits except for a door, which has dried blood around the edges, on the wall. Frantic, Noeth pulled it open and glanced down. It appeared that it was a chute that led to darkness, but he wasn’t sure where it would lead. The only thing he could see was complete darkness. “Looks like we have no choice,” he informed the others grimly.

    Corwin peeked through the door and grimaced. “What is this used for anyway?”

    “They probably use it to get rid of the corpses. It would explain the wide hallway and the lack of stairs. They would drag the stretchers with the dead bodies down here before they dump them through the chute.”

    “Oh.” His brother’s face turned pale as he shuddered. “Are you sure we have no choice but to go down there?”

    “Afraid so, Cor,” Noeth replied.

    “I have a better way,” Priya piped up and reached into her pocket. She held up a small ring with two sharp points. “We can use this to escape.”

    Noeth arched his eyebrow as he eyed it dubiously. “And how are we supposed to fit in that thing?”

    She smiled. “You’ll see, but you need to be quiet so I can focus.” Then, without another word, she closed her eyes and started on her task. Her forehead was so scrunched up from being so engrossed in her task that Noeth was tempted to laugh but didn’t. This wasn’t a laughing matter at the moment, and they have to depend on her for their very lives.

    As they waited, Noeth and his brother kept glancing behind them nervously as they wait for Priya to perform her miracle, which was hopefully soon. They haven’t heard anyone coming their way yet, but they knew sooner or later, their pursuers would find their location. “I’m cold,” Corwin suddenly complained as he crossed his arms. Now that he thought about it, his brother was right. It was somewhat chilly in here; the air was damp and a cool breeze was coming from the chute.

    Noeth gave him a sympathetic look as he patted his shoulders. “We’ll get out of here soon. Priya is doing her best so be patient a little longer, okay?”

    His brother nodded unhappily and was about to open his mouth when they abruptly heard shouting. Before long, they could see a glow from a lantern getting larger and larger as their pursuers quickly closed the gap. Dammit, this wasn’t good!

    Next to him, he heard Priya cursed as she jabbed the ring’s needlepoint on her finger, covered the ring with her blood, and tossed it in the air. Noeth and his brother’s mouths dropped when the ring began to expand. Who would have thought that thing exists? The gods have so many incredible things! As soon as it was big enough, Priya gestured to them. “Get in!”

    Grabbing Corwin’s hand, he approached the portal and frowned at what he saw on the other side. Turning his head, he asked her incredulously, “Are you kidding me!? You want us to go there!”

    “Look, we don’t have a choice. It’s either here or being captured by those goons,” she retorted. “Take your pick.”

    “Can’t you do it again and pick someplace better?” he wondered. “I mean, anyplace is better than the one you choose.”

    She shook her head. “No time. Either we go now or-” The goddess stopped when she heard someone’s hollering close by. This time, they could see silhouettes on the wall as the soldiers draw near them. Swearing underneath her breath, she continued, “We need to go now, and you’re coming whether you like it or not.”

    Before he could protest, she pushed him toward the exit, which caused him to stumble, before she followed suit. Besides him, Corwin yelped with surprise as they fell through the gateway. The only thing Noeth could do was close his eyes and braced for the impact.
    --- Double Post Merged, May 1, 2016 ---
    Sorry for the delay. Work has been keeping me busy.




    Chapter 08: Into the Frozen Tundra

    Corwin has no idea what just happened. One moment, he, Noeth, and Priya were in the Coliseum; the next, he landed with a thud into a thick layer of something icy cold. He was still figuring it out when he felt someone grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked him up. “Are you all right, Cor?” his brother asked.

    “I think so.” He paused and looked around his environment. It was difficult though due to the blistering winds that scattered the falling snowflakes this way and that. Not to mention, it was foggy, which caused Corwin to squint his eyes to see better. Despite his trouble, he could discern one obvious thing – snow was everywhere; it covered everything that it seemed to be no end in sight. In fact, the snow was high as his waist! Looking at his brother, he wondered, “Where are we?”

    “We’re in Fravashi,” Priya revealed as she walked (or rather stomped because of the height of the snow) over to them. She halted for a moment and bent over to pick up something before, she joined them. “Is everyone all right?”

    Instead of answering, Noeth screamed, “Are you kidding me!? We’re in fucking Fravashi!? Out of all the places you could have chosen to escape, you picked this place!”

    “Hey, it’s not entirely my fault! I was thinking of a place until I heard someone complaining that he was cold so then I could only think of Fravashi,” she snapped back. “Besides, you should be glad that I was able to open a way to escape in time. Otherwise, we would have been prisoners by now!”

    “So instead of being killed or captured by those guards, we’re going to freeze to death!”

    Priya’s face flushed with anger. “Oh, stop being melodramatic, Noeth! It’s not that cold. Besides, I told you that it was an accident. You know, I was planning to use the needle ring to send us to another place, but maybe I should let you stay here instead!”

    “Good! I’m sure the next place you’ll send will be a volcano, and we’ll burn to death!”

    “You’re such an ingrate, you know that! I hope you’ll rot in hell, Noeth Rasson!”

    As the two continued to argue, Corwin could only helplessly watch. He’s tried to stop them, but they ignored him completely It was as if he wasn’t there at all. He sighed. Apparently, he was all but forgotten for the moment. Shaking his head, he decided to tune them out and looked around the area again. At least, it was much better than them arguing. Nevertheless, it didn’t help with the frigid temperature, which caused his teeth to chatter. Just think of a nice, warm fire, he told himself as he crossed his arms to keep warm. No, a bonfire. And you’re going to drink hot apple cider.

    It helped a little, and he didn’t feel as cold like before. Still shivering, he was about to close his eyes and reminisced of another warm thing when something caught his eyes. Far in the distant, he spotted something bright coming their way. Corwin squinted his eyes as he stepped toward it. The light was getting larger and larger, and he was able to discern a shape. Could it be…?

    Excited, he rushed back to his brother and Priya, who were still arguing. “This is your fault that we’re in this mess!” Noeth accused the goddess, who seemed peeved.

    “Excuse me? How is this my fault!? I don’t recall ever asking you to save me,” she countered.

    Corwin shook his head and huffed loudly. Jeez, when will they ever stop? Tapping their elbows, he interrupted them, “Hey, guys! Guys!”

    “WHAT!?” they both screamed as they glared down at him.

    Corwin gulped and took a step back. Their faces were terrifying! Pointing behind him, he informed them, “I think someone’s coming this way.”

    Noeth turned to look at the direction where his brother pointed and rubbed his eyes again before he looked once more. It seemed that Corwin was telling the truth. There was something heading their way. If so, then… His decision now determined so he started toward the object. Since he didn’t need his sword anymore, he dropped it. “Where are you going?” he heard Priya demanded.

    “To get help,” he replied without bothering to glance back. “I rather chance it with them than with you at the moment. Come on, Cor. If you want to come, go ahead; see if I care.”

    He thought he heard her cuss but choose to ignore it. Right now, he wanted to focus his energy in prodding through the thick snow, which was quickly draining him, and ignoring the throbbing pain from his left shoulder. Not to mention, he was still peeved at her for keeping her identity a secret. Besides, something told him that she was going to follow them anyway. Sure enough, he heard footsteps behind him.

    No one spoke the whole time. They were too focused on catching up with the moving object to make any small talk. Along the way, Noeth’s armor started to bother him since it chafed against his injury so he unbuckled it before casting it aside. That reminded him that he could have used those ceraphilis flowers to heal his sore body before they fled the Coliseum. He would have asked Priya if she could release more of those healing flowers but didn’t. He didn’t want to grovel and beg for her help especially after arguing with her – goddess or not!

    As they came closer to the object, Noeth could perceive that it was a carriage, which has runners instead of wheels to travel on the heavy snow, drawn by several huge deer with curved antlers as tall as he and began to wave his arms like crazy. “Hey! Over here!” he bellowed, dashing toward it. Just seeing it reinvigorated him. Next to him, he heard Corwin doing the same.

    However, the carriage continued on its journey, which caused Noeth to worry. Perhaps whoever was riding in it couldn’t hear or see them due to the deafening winds. With that thought in mind, he screamed louder as he continued to wave his arms and run. Nevertheless, it kept moving, but he refused to give up. He has almost reached the road so he still has a chance. At the last minute’s effort, he stepped onto the road – right in front of the carriage. Hopefully, the driver could see him because otherwise, he’s going to get trampled by those deer.

    His gamble paid off because all of a sudden, the carriage stopped abruptly as the driver cursed aloud. Inside the carriage, a man and a woman yelped with surprise. The driver scowled at Noeth as he leaned back and shouted, “Is everyone all right?”

    The door swung opened, and a young man with platinum hair and bright blue eyes came out. He dressed in a bright yellow coat that nearly blinded Noeth, gray pants, a fur cape, and fur-lining boots came out; a leather scabbard hung from his belt. “We’re all right; we’re just startled by the sudden stop. What the hell happened?”

    “This,” the older man grunted, pointing an accusing finger at Noeth and the others, who arrived to stand next to him. “That idiot just stepped right in front of the laissaviks, which nearly spooked them. It was a good thing I spotted him on time or otherwise, he would be flat as a pancake by now!”

    The other man studied them before he spoke. “What are you three doing here in the middle of nowhere?”

    “Uh… well, you see…” Noeth’s mind drew a blank. Shit, he has totally forgotten about that fact! How was he going to explain that they teleported there through some magic portal? There was no way those men would believe him! Nevertheless, he has to say something soon because they seemed rather irritated at the moment. Their arms were crossed as they tapped their feet as they waited for his answer. “We were fishing when the snow arrived suddenly. We were trying to head back to camp, but we must have gotten lost.”

    “You went fishing wearing that?” the Fravashian asked, pointing at their clothes. Noeth glanced down and saw his point. All of them were wearing short-sleeve shirts and moccasins – not the perfect attire for the Fravashian winter.

    “We lost our coats and boots along the way. We got overheated and took them off. I know, stupid of us,” he replied hastily. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Priya gave him a withering look like she thought his explanation was stupid. It was, but that was all he could think of in the spur of the moment. Besides, she wasn’t helping him at all so she shouldn’t be so judgmental!

    “I see, but where are your fishing gears? I don’t see them with you. Are you going to tell me that you lost those too?” he pointed out as he arched his eyebrows quizzically. Noeth could only sheepishly nod, which caused their potential savior to frown. “And let me guess, you want a ride with us to the nearest town?”

    “If you don’t mind,” Noeth replied.

    The man let out a boisterous laugh. “I’m afraid not,” he answered and drew out his sword. Next to him, the driver did the same.

    A surprised Noeth raised his hands as he tried to ease the tension. “Whoa, you don’t have to be so rash! If you don’t want to give us a ride, you can just say so.”

    “And risk having you follow us? I think not, assassins!” the man scoffed, brandishing his weapon.

    “Assassins!?” Noeth bristled at that accusation. “Just because we’re Ankans doesn’t mean we’re-”

    Just then, the carriage door swung open again, and a woman with lilac hair that cascaded down her shoulders peeked out. She wore an ivory dress and pale blue coat with swirl design made out of silver thread and fur lining. Ivory boots lined with gray fur peeked from the hem of her dress, and a pendant necklace dangled from her neck. “Is everything all right, Mavick?” she called out.

    “It’s all right, Lady Chiara!” Mavick called back, waving her back inside. “Just some scoundrels trying to delay us from reaching Lord Callivion’s manor!”

    Lady Chiara? Noeth’s mouth dropped. Next to him, he heard Priya mumbled something underneath her mouth while Corwin gasped. No wonder that jerk thought they were assassins!? He must have believed that they were trying to hitch a ride to kill Kreesia’s ambassador.

    “Scoundrels?” Chiara blinked with confusion as she turned her attention toward them. Her eyes especially lingered at Corwin before she looked back at her riding companion. “I doubt they mean any trouble. They seemed rather cold, and I assume they only want shelter. I think we should give them a ride to the nearest town at least.”

    “Absolutely not! They could be assassins or even Dalenthi for all we know!” the Fravashian declared vehemently. “I can’t risk having you get killed while you’re visiting our great country. Lady Aundra would be furious if anything happens to you! That’s why I insisted on having more bodyguards for you, but you refused. Now look what happened!”

    The ambassador looked at him calmly. “My life isn’t in danger, Mavick, and I can take care of myself. Besides, the God Killers are only after my employer, not me. These people don’t even look like assassins. Even if they were, we would have been dead by now. Believe me, I’ve been in life-and-death situations before so I know from experiences. As for them being Dalenthi, Lady Aundra has given me her protection so I’ll be safe from them.”

    “But-!”

    That was when Priya intervened. Pushing her way forward, she bowed her head toward Chiara.”If I may, but I have a message for you,” she began. Before the ambassador could open her mouth, she delivered her message. “Talen sends his regards and hopes all is well.”

    “Talen?” Chiara muttered as if she was trying to remember where she heard that name. All of a sudden, her eyes widened with recognition as she stared at Priya. Touching Mavick’s shoulder, she said, “It’s all right, Mavick. We can trust them. They don’t mean any harm. They can join us since these people are going to my guests.”

    As soon as Noeth heard the news, he immediately stared at Priya, who just smiled back at him. Who would have thought that she would be the one who saved their butts after that early fiasco? But then, he should have known that that the ambassador would recognize her since she’s a goddess, and they probably met somewhere. On the other hand, Mavick looked scandalized. “Are you insane, Lady Chiara? We don’t even know who they are or their intentions! I refuse to allow them to ride with us!”

    “And then I refuse to see King Regen,” she replied with a thin smile and crossed her arms. “I’ll head back to Kreesia and inform Lady Aundra about our host’s inhospitality. Once I do, I’m sure your king would be displeased to find out that you hinder the growing relationship between our countries.”

    When she made that threat, the Fravashian’s face turned pale. No doubt he didn’t want to be blamed for this mishap. “All right, they can come with us,” he conceded. “However, they’ll be your responsibility while they’re with us.”

    The ambassador of Kreesia smiled approvingly. “I’m glad that you see things my way, and don’t worry. I’ll make sure they’re well-taken care of. If you’re still concern about my safety, then you can inspect them for weapons before they enter the carriage. I’ll watch to make sure everything go smoothly”

    Mavick could only scowl and gestured at them. “Raise your hands and don’t move. If you make even the slightest movement, I’ll have Valion strike you dead. Got it?” Noeth and the others nodded and did as they were instructed. As the Fravashian patted down his body for any hidden weapon, Noeth was relieved that he dropped his armor and sword earlier. Otherwise, it would be troublesome.

    The search was going well until Mavick tapped his injured left shoulder. As soon as he touched it, Noeth flinched, which caught the Fravashian’s attention. “What’s the matter?” He frowned so Noeth pulled his collar, revealing his bruised shoulder. The bright red spot, which was starting to turn black and blue, covered most of his upper arm.

    “That’s a nasty bruise,” Valion commented. “How did that happen?”

    Corwin looked at him, horrified. “Did you get it when you were-” Luckily, he quickly stopped himself and quieted down once he remembered where they were.

    “I remember now. We were hiking when you accidentally slipped on some ice and fell,” Priya finished. She looked apologetically at Noeth, who was fixing his shirt. “I forgot about your injury. If I remember, then I would have done something to assuage it.”

    “It’s all right,” he reassured her. He grinned to show that he was fine and that he didn’t fault her. Now that he wasn’t stressed out, he felt terrible for yelling at her earlier. tAfter all, she did help them escape and hitch a ride to safety. “It doesn’t really hurt. Just a bit sore, that’s all.” She just looked at him and shook her head though she did smile. Noeth felt a sense of relief. It seemed that all was forgiven between them.

    “Don’t worry about a thing. I can heal him once they’re done with their body search,” Chiara promised. He nodded his head with gratitude as he let Mavick continued his inspection. Once everyone was checked, she asked, “Are you satisfied now?”

    The Fravashian didn’t answer her question. Instead, he said stiffly, “Please wait inside the carriage, Lady Chiara. We don’t want you to have a cold; your guests can join you. Come on, Valion! We need to tend to the laissaviks; they’re probably still spooked by what happened.” He was about to walk away when he abruptly spun around and gestured at the three Ankans especially Noeth threateningly. “If you even touch one hair of the ambassador, I’ll make sure you pay for it.”

    Noeth just nodded though he wanted to say something acerbic back. He was still irked that the man implied that they were assassins. He has known that Ankans got a bad reputation due to their past, but it bugged him especially when he experienced firsthand. Instead, he headed inside the carriage along with the others.

    It was a spacious carriage, which was not surprising since this was made for the upper class. There were cushioned seats on either side of the door so that passengers could face each other; lap robes were placed on top. On each corner of the wall, lanterns filled with fire elemental stones, which made the interior warm and toasty.

    After a brief introduction, Chiara pointed to the seat facing the back and instructed, “Have a seat. Once you’re settled in, I can inspect your injury and heal it.”

    They complied and sat down; Noeth sat in the middle with Priya on his left and Corwin on his right. After they placed the thick blanket on their lap, the ambassador knelt down and checked his injured shoulder. He winced slightly as she pulled his shirt and placed her hand on his shoulder. She then muttered something underneath her breath. The next thing Noeth felt was a warm tingle on his shoulder so he glanced down to find the bruise was slowly diminishing. He could only stare in awe as the contusion faded away until it finally disappeared.

    “How does it feel now?” Chiara asked as she stood up.

    He rotated his shoulder for a bit. “Much better. Thank you and sorry for the hassle, Lady Chiara,” Noeth apologized while she sat down across from them. “We didn’t mean any trouble.”

    “It’s fine, and you don’t have to be formal with me. Just call me Chiara,” she assured him. She turned and smiled at Priya as if seeing an old friend again. “Although you have to thank Alethea. If it wasn’t for her, you would have a more difficult time getting help.”

    “Alethea? Wait, Priya Soltan isn’t your real name?” Corwin realized, staring at the Aerian.

    She nodded. “Priya is just a name for this disguise. Just like Talen was another alias for another of my disguise.”

    “Then what should we call you? Lady Alethea or Priya?”

    “You can still call me Priya when I’m in this disguise. I only go by Alethea when I’m in my real form. Otherwise, it would be confusing especially if I’m in another of my disguises,” she explained, shrugging. “And you don’t have to be formal with me either.”

    Noeth nodded. That made sense though it was going to take him awhile to call her by her real name. He was used to her alias. “Now that you’ve mentioned it, how did you two meet?”

    This time, the ambassador answered. “We met in the Loredan Desert.”

    “The Loredan Desert?” Corwin stared at Alethea and Chiara in awe. “Why in Samara were you there?”

    “Have you heard of the Velscendus Cult?” Noeth and his brother nodded. Of course, they remembered that crazed cult. It was an influential and powerful group led by a charismatic leader only known as the Kasama. From the rumors he heard, a group of Bartheomos managed somehow to defeat the cult, which was discovered to be a front for the Dalenthi, somewhere in Isha. Noeth felt pity for the people foolish enough to join the cult only to discover the promise of a better life was to be host to the Duermons. In fact, several Ankans joined the cult to escape the hardships of living in Anka. Who know what happened to them?

    That was when it dawned on him. “Wait a minute! Were both of you involved in the battle in the desert?”

    Both of them nodded. “My colleagues helped Bartheomos and Chiara defeat them,” the Aerian answered. “Because of them, we got rid of that threat once and for all.”

    “You helped out as well, Lady Alethea!” Chiara protested. “You shouldn’t sell yourself short!”

    Alethea shook her head and replied drily, “I was dead for the majority of the battle so I wouldn’t be sure I was useful.”

    “Nonsense! Because of you, we knew where to find the cult. You also provide us information about the cult that we wouldn’t otherwise know. Not to mention, the spell you cast on us before the battle prevented Armita from being under her sister imposter’s spell! I would say you did help.”

    Corwin looked at Alethea curiously. “You were with the Velscendus Cult? Why?”

    “I was sent to investigate their intentions,” she replied. “I infiltrated the group as a young boy named Talen and stayed with them for over a year. To be honest, I was surprised to bump into you and the others.”

    And look at what happened. We bumped into each other again,” Chiara said with a smile. “It must be fate that we meet here.”

    “Speaking of which, why were you in the desert?” Noeth interrupted. That question was nagging him for awhile. “It makes sense why Pri- Alethea was there, but not you.”

    “My friends and I were searching for… Someone when we run into each other,” the ambassador replied.

    “And did you find him?”

    She nodded but stared at Corwin sadly for some odd reason. Alethea suddenly became quiet as she looked away. “We did, but unfortunately, he died saving a friend’s life.”

    Seeing their strange reactions, Noeth became curious and was about to ask her more about that person when they heard the door clicked open. “It looked like Mavick is done inspecting the laissaviks,” Chiara commented and winked at Alethea. “We can catch up later. Until then, let’s just relax and enjoy the warm ride.”

    --- Double Post Merged, Jun 4, 2016 ---
    Chapter 09: Catching Up

    After Mavick settled in, he knocked on the wall to inform the driver to start the carriage. During the journey, Chiara was making small talk with Priya (even though he just learned that her real name was Alethea, he still planned to call her by that name since she would always be “Priya” to him) and Noeth. After a while, Mavick began to loosen up and joined in the conversation. Their chat was mostly mundane, which was fine with Corwin. After the terrible ordeal, he was exhausted and just wanted to sleep. It also helped that the heat of the fire elemental stones made the carriage feel cozy. Before he knew it, he leaned his head on his brother’s shoulder and closed his eyes.

    Maybe it was due to his encounter with the Kreesian ambassador and Priya, but he has another one of his strange dreams. In it, he met a much young Chiara, who was with three other people. A large dog with brown fur was with them too. He was talking with the ambassador and her friends when it abruptly skipped ahead. The next thing he dreamed was seeing a bloodied Priya in her Aerian form. She was staring at him with a defiant but frightened look in her eyes. Next to him, someone was urging him to kill her. He didn’t remember what happened next because he fell into a deep sleep. As a matter of fact, he was still fast asleep when they arrived at their destination that he didn’t feel Noeth carried him inside Lord Cavallion’s manor and into their room.

    Alethea stared at the fire burning in the fireplace. She was currently in the parlor room, which connected her room and the Rasson brothers’. She hasn’t seen the two after they arrived at Lord Cavallion’s manor; most likely, they were resting from the journey. Not that she mind. After what happened today, she just wanted to be left alone with her thoughts. Or tried, at least. “Kejuta is going to be furious with you,” a disapproving Argus admonished her. “How are you going to explain what happened in Sollum to her now?”

    She cringed. Not only did she leave Anka a mess, she revealed herself in front of everyone. Once the words spread, everyone in the whole world would now know that an Aerian still exists in the world, and she can hide among them. Knowing the Sendoan government, this news would surely reinvigorate their flagging effort to find her. Most likely, they will set a high bounty for her capture. Now she has to worry about the Dalenthi and potential bounty hunters eager for the handsome reward.

    “I’ll think of something,” she finally replied, though, in actuality, she has no idea how to explain it to the Ilmarian of Fate. She could only imagine how vivid Kejuta was and dread to receive the messenger bird that she knew would be coming anytime soon. Knowing Kej, she would launch a diatribe, berating her for her recklessness.

    The creaking of the door behind her followed by approaching footsteps disrupted her train of thoughts. Before she could even ask, Argus spoke, “It’s Chiara.”

    The Ilmarian of Truth relaxed and said aloud, “Couldn’t sleep, Chiara?”

    As soon as she said those words, the footsteps stopped for a moment before they continued again. “How did you know it’s me?” the Kreesian asked, impressed. She wore a pale green nightgown with ruffles.

    “It’s part of my powers. It always me to spot any threats before they can strike,” Alethea lied. When Kejuta sent her to form a partnership with Argus, the Ilmarian of Fate had instructed her that under no circumstances do she reveal that the Parasitic Duermon is currently residing inside her. She wasn’t sure why but figured it was because he didn’t want anyone to know that he’s alive and well; he had mentioned about his past and how people would harass him, which drove him to solitude.

    “That’s very impressive! Aundra told me a little bit about your powers, but she never mentioned that one to me,” Chiara replied. “And to answer your earlier question, no. I figured that you were though and decided to keep you company – if you don’t mind, of course.”

    “Not at all,” Alethea told her and gestured her to sit down.

    “So how are they doing?” Chiara asked as she sat down.

    The Aerian didn’t have to ask whom Chiara was asking. “They’re fast asleep,” she answered. “Not that I blame them. I would be exhausted too after today!”

    “What happened? There has to be a reason why you were in the middle of nowhere.” Alethea hesitated so the Kreesian added, “Don’t worry. I have soundproof the room so no one could eavesdrop on our conversation.”

    Nevertheless, she still wasn’t eager to divulge her secret. “Let’s just say that you’ll be very busy for the next few months,” she finally said and quickly changed the subject. “Anyway, how’s being the ambassador of Kreesia?”

    Chiara’s eyes lit up. “It’s wonderful! I got to meet a lot of amazing people and learn their cultures. Not to mention, I help Lady Aundra and Kreesia become more influential in the world although it can be stressful at times dealing with misunderstanding and stubborn politicians. Other than that, I enjoy it.”

    “That’s good to hear,” Alethea said with a smile. “You must be quite busy then.”

    “You can say that,” she replied, smiling wearily.

    “Then you probably haven’t seen Talic and the others, I assume?”

    The Kreesian nodded. “All of us are busy doing our own things, but we tried to keep in contact with messenger birds. In fact, I got some a few weeks ago. Do you want to know how they’re doing?”

    “Of course,” the Ilmarian of Truth answered.

    “Well, where should I begin?” Chiara mused. “I’ll start with Talic and Armita. I’m sure you heard that they’re married now and have a little girl named Olena, who is so adorable by the way! She just turns two a month ago, and I heard that there was a big celebration. Anyway, both of them are now trainers at the Eirenerdian branch of Bartheomos though Armita is currently working part-time so she could raise their daughter until she’s old enough.”

    Alethea chuckled, “I bet Olena is being spoiled by them.”

    “Actually no. From what Talic told me, Armita’s father is the one who spoils her. According to him, General Karis Culao would dote on Olena and give her presents every time he and his wife visit. He also said that Armita is somewhat peeved about it and complains that her father has nothing better to do after his retirement though Talic believes that she really doesn’t mind at all,” she replied. “I have a feeling that Ithani’s death has a dramatic effect on Karis. Talic wrote in one of his letters that his father-in-law seems more mellow and relaxed afterward though he has aged drastically. I think having lost his daughter made him realize that he should appreciate his loved ones and show them how much he loves them.”

    Alethea nodded. If she remembered correctly, Armita originally joined Bartheomos to find her wayward sister, who tragically had become a Dalenthi. With no other choice, Armita had to kill her baby sister in order to save her from damnation. She could only fathom how the former commander of the Isharan army must felt after learning about his youngest daughter’s death. True, she lost her family when Shintra caused the death of her people, but she felt no familial bond toward them due to her kidnapping. Even though she discovered the truth of her heritage, she still has no connection with them even though she tried to rebuild their relationship to no avail. That was why she begrudged the Duermon for what he did to her; he took her away from her people and made her feel lost ever since.

    She cleared her throat. No, she shouldn’t dwell too much on her past. What’s done was done. “So how’s Cuzo? I bet he’s a good babysitter for little Olena.” The Ilmarian of Truth could imagine the Kallian wolf guarding the young Nagoma child and watching her every step. He was always protective of Talic so he would probably do the same for his daughter.

    “Uh… Well…” Chiara hesitated before she continued, “Talic told me that Cuzo died a year ago due to old age. He said that everyone was saddened by his death and that there was a huge funeral for him. However, Lord Lanskas found out and gave him a new Kallian wolf pup. I don’t know its name, but I heard that Olena and the new puppy are inseparable.”

    “That’s good. I’m sure they’ll make a perfect pair,” the Aerian chuckled. “And how’s about the others?”

    “Tristé is back guarding the Idilirian royal family. She wrote that the whole country is busy hunting down the Dalenthi so she rarely has time to relax. Not to mention, she didn’t attend Talic and Armita’s wedding though being a Possessor Duermon may be a reason for her absence. She really doesn’t say much in her letters although she keeps pestering me about Owain, which is strange because she didn’t bother the others about him.”

    “Oh? What does she say?” Alethea wondered.

    “She wants to know my opinions of him. Like in one of her letters, she said that he was growing a beard and asked me for my opinion. I told her that it makes him seem more rugged so she would leave me alone. She even asked if either Owain or I plan to see each other. I told her that both of us are preoccupied with our jobs so we probably won’t. I asked her why, but she just complains that the both of us are ‘married to our work’. I asked Owain about it, but he only told me to ignore her.”

    As soon as Argus heard that, he chuckled and shook his head. “That Tristé! Always trying to play matchmaker, but always failing at it! She should learn not to meddle in other people’s business.”

    Alethea smiled at the Parasitic Duermon’s comment. He would know about Tristé’s habit since they used to work in the palace together. “So have you and Owain been corresponding to each other?”

    Chiara nodded. “We have. In fact, he’s the one who writes to me the most and provides me with all the updates the past few months. According to him, his sister has become a leading expert on Duermon possession and is often sought by the Sendoan government for her knowledge. Apparently, Adalynn and Tristé still keep in touch; Tristé even invited her to Idilyras under the royal family’s protection though I’m not sure if Adalynn has taken the offer.

    “As for Owain, he now leads his own team although he complains that it’s not the same without Talic and Armita. He told me that he misses the adventures they had especially the last one.” The Kreesian ambassador paused for a moment as a faraway look appeared on her face. Finally, she confessed, “To be honest, I feel the same way. I miss the camaraderie, and I’m sure everyone else does too even though none voices it. Sometimes, I wish we can just drop what we’re doing and meet up for one more adventure.”

    Alethea didn’t say a word as she watched Chiara stared wistfully at the fire. She knew that feeling very well though she never expresses it. She didn’t want her colleagues to believe that she’s a quitter after all. The Kreesian didn’t seem to notice that she wasn’t speaking because she then shook her head and sighed. “But that’s just wishful thinking. We have different priorities now and can’t just abandon our duties because we feel like it. Anyway, enough about me. So how have you been? Lady Aundra told me that you’ve been tasked with hunting down the Dalenthi.”

    Alethea exhaled ruefully. “You can say that. I’ve been doing it for a while now, but I’m taking a break at the moment. Right now, I have to focus on another mission.”

    “Is that why you were with the Rasson brothers?” Chiara wondered. Her expression softened as she whispered, “That boy… He’s the Lashival, isn’t he? He looks exactly like Bobbas except younger. Lady Aundra confided to me afterward that we failed our mission and that he was reborn into the world once again. However, I never expect to see him again so soon.”

    The Aerian hesitated before she confirmed the Kreesian’s suspicion. “You’re right. He’s the Lashival. I accidentally encountered him while on my original mission, and I’m now keeping an eye on him for now per Kejuta’s orders.” A sudden thought occurred to her. “Wait, Aundra didn’t tell you?”

    “No, she didn’t, which is strange since she keeps me up-to-date about him. Not to mention, she said that she’s one of Lady Kejuta’s advisors so she should know about it,” Chiara answered.

    “Huh, that’s strange all right. I don’t know why she wouldn’t tell you.”

    “Maybe Lady Kejuta decided to give you a secret mission and didn’t want anyone else to know about it,” she suggested.

    “Maybe.” Nevertheless, Alethea was mystified. It didn’t make any sense! Why would Kej keep the other Ilmarians in the dark. That sounded unlike her since she wouldn’t want to endanger another Ilmarian especially if it involved the Lashival, the only known being able to kill an immortal. She would always have at least one other Ilmarian know about it too just in case something terrible happens. That was what she did when she decided to have mortals kill the Lashival the last time.

    Chiara probably didn’t notice her troubled face because she yawned as she stood up. “It’s getting late and I should go to bed,” she said, stretching her arms. “I have a big meeting tomorrow so I don’t want to be unprepared.”

    “Go ahead. I don’t want you to stay awake on my account,” Alethea replied.

    The ambassador nodded. She was about to leave when she abruptly stopped and turned around. “Will you be heading to bed soon too?”

    “In a little bit,” she answered, shaking her head. “I need some time to myself.”

    “Alright. Well, good night, Alethea.”

    “Good night.” The Ilmarian of Truth watched Chiara left the room before she turned her attention back to the fireplace. Several thoughts filled her mind; most of them were the fact that Aundra (and most likely, the others) weren’t aware of her current mission. Now that she thought about it, Kejuta hasn’t written to her since she ordered her to spare the Lashival. At first, she thought nothing about it, but now she thought about it, it was unlike the Ilmarian of Fate. Usually, Kejuta would pester her weekly to make sure that she was safe, which irked the Aerian to no end, but now? Nothing.

    “Something’s bothering you?” Argus asked.

    She nodded. “It’s what Chiara just told me. I don’t understand why Kej wouldn’t tell anyone else about the Lashival. It sounds unlike her at all. You know how she can be a worrywart.”

    “Chiara could be right about her deciding to make this mission be a clandestine one. Maybe she knew how the others reacted the last time and didn’t want to deal with it again,” Argus suggested. “Remember how the twins threw a tantrum?”

    Based on what she read from Hessin’s letter after the Ilmarian of Fate made that announcement, the Ilmarians of Judgement threw a fit while a few others were reluctant to support that idea. “Could be.” However, a lingering doubt filled her mind. Something didn’t add up, and that’s going to bug her to no end.
    --- Double Post Merged, Jul 9, 2016 ---
    Chapter 10: Reminiscence

    Toov 8, 2594

    “So why were you in Anka anyway?” Alethea, who was staring outside the window, glanced up at Noeth, who looked at her curiously. He was meaning to ask her that question as soon as he discovered her secret but couldn’t find the right time to ask until after breakfast. By then, they were left by themselves by the manor staff, who was busy with their duties. They were spending their time in the parlor while they waited for Chiara to return from her meeting so they know what will happen to them. Although, based on what he overheard from the staff, they would most likely be stuck at the manor for a while since a blizzard was heading their way.

    They had planned to go outside to play in the snow, but a snowstorm showed up so they had to stay inside to wait it out. Even though Lord Cavallion gave them permission to roam freely around his home, they decided just to stay in their guest rooms for the time being. Despite the Kreesian ambassador’s claim that they were her guests, a few of the manor staff still eyed them suspiciously. Noeth didn’t realize how badly Ankans were viewed in the world until he saw it firsthand. He knew that they have a bad reputation as being assassins, but he didn’t expect to be treated as such.

    “I was hunting down Dalenthi,” she replied. “For the past few years, I was sent to various places around the world to search for them and destroy them before they cause any mischief.”

    “But when you arrived at Anka, you bumped into trouble,” he surmised. “You probably didn’t expect to run into the Marden Forest Patrol, right?”

    She nodded. “Pretty much. Imagine my surprise to find those soldiers shouting at me to surrender as I was wandering through the forest.”

    “Then it’s a good thing that I found you, huh?” Corwin piped up. “If it wasn’t for me, you would be a prisoner instead.”

    “You can say that.” She paused before she added, “Although, because of me, you are in this mess. I caused you two so much trouble.”

    “Don’t feel bad! If it weren’t for you, both Cor and I would still stay in Anka,” Noeth disputed. “Not to mention, because of your actions, Anka will probably be in a better place now.”

    “If you say so.”

    Noeth could see that she was being fretful; most likely, it was because she felt guilty for accidentally causing chaos back in his homeland. “So what are you going to do?”

    “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Right now, my priority is you. Knowing the Ankan government, they are going after you because of me. I need to find a safe place where no one can find you. When I do, I’ll probably continue my original mission.”

    “You don’t need to do that,” he protested. “Cor and I can figure out where to go. You don’t need to burden yourself with us.”

    “I insist. Besides, let this be my way of thanking you for everything that you did for me.”

    Noeth sighed. It was a lost cause to convince her otherwise. Since living with Alethea, he knew how stubborn she could get. “All right. Just make sure that we’re not staying in some weird place, all right?”

    “I’ll try not to,” she chuckled.

    “Will you come visit us?” Corwin wondered. A worried expression was on his face.

    She paused for a moment before she nodded. “Of course. I’ll have to check up on you to make sure everything’s all right.”

    “Promise?” his brother asked.

    “I promise,” she promised and then added, “After all, both of you are special to me.”

    Corwin beamed. “Hear that, Noeth? She thinks I’m special.”

    “Yeah, you are,” Noeth agreed. “A special kind of being a pain in the butt sometimes. No, scratch that; you’re a pain all of the times.”

    “Hey!”

    All of a sudden, Alethea started to giggle. “I’m sorry, but this reminds me of all the times we spent together.”

    “It does, doesn’t it?” Noeth had to admit what she was saying was true. It was like before – they would be relaxing at home after a long day. He would be teasing his little brother while Priya would just shake her head. They would gather at the table and talk about their day. Or Corwin would pester her to give him less homework and she would refuse, at first, though she would relent at the end. A thought occurred to him. His smile faltered. “I guess we won’t be able to go back home, huh?”

    “I’m afraid not. It would be too dangerous to risk it,” she replied, shaking her head.

    “I thought so,” he sighed. Even though it wasn’t the best place to live, it was still home. After all, that was where Cor and he spent most of their lives so a lot of memories were made there.

    Silence filled the room until Corwin ventured, “Hey, Priya, what was your family like?”

    “My family?” She blinked. “Well, besides my parents, I have an older sister named Cyline and a younger brother named Arren.”

    “What were they like?”

    “Umm… Cyline can be bossy at times but well-meaning. On the other hand, Arren was a happy baby according to my parents, but I’m not sure what he was like afterward.”

    Corwin’s eyes widened. “You don’t know?”

    “I began my training just before he was born,” she explained. “As soon an Aerian turns seventy-five years old, he began his training to become the protector of the human race.”

    “But you couldn’t visit your family?” Corwin asked incredulously.

    “No, not really. Once you are separated from your family, the people in your barrack are considered to be your new family. The only time you are allowed to see them is after you passed your training, which takes a century or so. Even then, it would only be for a day.”

    “Oh, I see. So what kind of training do you do?”

    “My training didn’t go far so I wouldn’t…” Her voice faltered, and a faraway look appeared in her eyes as she looked away.

    Noeth cleared his throat. “Hey, Cor, I think that’s enough,” he told his brother softly. No doubt the death of her people still lingered in her mind. Corwin opened his mouth to protest, but he wisely closed it when he saw the stern look. He glanced out the window and noticed that it stopped snowing. “It looks like we can go outside now.”

    Corwin jumped excitedly and sprinted toward the window. “Look at that snow! Do you think we can build the biggest snowman?”

    “I think we can, but we better hurry or someone else may beat us to it,” Noeth teased.

    “There’s no way I won’t let them! I’ll grab our things!” Before anyone else can say a word, Corwin immediately rushed out the door and disappeared.

    Noeth chuckled before he turned his attention to Alethea. “Are you going to join us?”

    She shook her head. “I need some time to myself right now. Maybe a little bit.”

    “All right. See you in a bit then.” As he was about to walk out the door, he glanced back to find the Aerian staring out the window once more.

    Alethea observed from the window as the Rasson brothers played in the snow. “Miss me!” Corwin crowed as he dodged a snowball and pelted his brother with one of his own.

    “I’ll get you for that!” Noeth growled and charged at him. Before his brother could react, he tackled him into the snow. Howl of laughter filled the air as they wrestled in the snow.

    Seeing them play reminded the Ilmarian of Truth of her childhood as her mind drifted back to the times when everything seemed carefree and simple. Memories flooded her mind as she remembered playing in her home and exploring Idilarys. Having her lessons with Lunes and learning how to fight from Balster. She was in the middle of her daydream when someone’s clearing his throat disrupted her reverie. I see that I finally got your attention,” Argus grumbled.

    She blushed. “Sorry, Argus. I was lost in thoughts. What do you want to talk about?”

    Instead of answering her question, he accused her, “You were thinking about your past, weren’t you?”

    “No, I wasn’t! I was just thinking about something else,” she replied rather hastily. “Besides, why do you think that?”

    “It’s because you became quiet and ignored me after that boy asked you about your past. So why didn’t you tell him the truth?” Alethea cringed at Argus’s question. She has a hunch that the Duermon would be bugging her about it.

    “Truth about what?” she asked, pretending to be dumb.

    She heard the Duermon snort. “You know what I’m talking about. The fact that you don’t know anything about Aerian customs since you were raised with Duermons.”

    What was this? An interrogation? She answered curtly, “And that’s why I don’t want them to know.”

    “So? I’m sure they would understand.”

    “And reveal to them how pathetic I was?” she retorted.

    Argus grumbled underneath his breath (something about “Aerian pride”), but before she confronted him about it, he admonished, “You’re not pathetic, Thea, and you know that. It’s not your fault that you were under that bastard’s influence.” He exhaled deeply. “And based on what you told me about your past, you didn’t have a terrible childhood growing up.”

    “True, but…” She squeezed her eyes shut as more memories of her childhood emerged from the deepest part of her mind. In all of them, she was happy and carefree. “It was based on lies. None of those Duermons really care for me; they just viewed me as a pawn for their ‘master’s’ scheme.”

    “But you turn out fine despite your upbringing so maybe they did a decent job with you, right?” he pointed out. “You’re a kind woman who is loyal to her friends and cares about the world’s well-being.”

    The Ilmarian of Truth couldn’t help but smile. “I guess you do have a point.”

    “Of course, I do. I have good judgment after all,” Argus boasted. She could imagine him grinning widely to display his rows of teeth.

    Shaking her head, she glanced out the window. From her viewpoint, she could see the two Rasson brothers still playing in the snow. “So are you going to answer my question?”

    “Have you heard anything from Kejuta yet?”

    “No, I haven’t, which I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not,” she replied.

    “She’s probably still busy with Anka to write to you,” Argus guessed. “Maybe you should write to her first and explain what happened? It might help lessen her fury with you.”

    “I guess I should,” she sighed, “though I doubt it would help that much. I’ll write to her as soon as we leave here since I don’t want Chiara to get involved in this either.”

    The Parasitic Duermon nodded with approval. “I’ll make sure to remind you. And what are you going to do with the Lashival and his brother?”

    “What I told them earlier; I’m going to hide them somewhere and check on them once in awhile. If he ever goes rogue, I’ll do the job,” she answered.

    “You know that his brother won’t forgive you when you do,” Argus pointed out.

    “I know, but that’s the risk I have to take.” Even though she tried to act nonchalant about it, she dreaded seeing Noeth’s reaction if she kills his brother. She would hate to see him suffer because of her.

    Not wanting to think about it, she abruptly stood up and headed toward the door. “And where are you going?” the Duermon wondered.

    “Outside. I did promise them that I’ll go outside to play with them,” she reminded him as she set out to her room to grab her coat.

    Toov 18, 2594

    “Are you sure you got everything?” Alethea asked Noeth as he placed their belongings inside the carriage trunk.

    “Yep, I’m sure. Cor and I rechecked the room just to be sure,” he replied. “And you?” She nodded. “Then we should be ready to go!”

    “You seem eager to get out of this place,” she commented.

    He scratched his head. “Well, I’m grateful for Lord Cavallion’s hospitality, but…” He lowered his voice. “Let’s just say that I’ll be glad to get out of these awful clothes.”

    The Aerian did a look over and had to agree. The bright color clothes that the Fravashian lord gave them were garish. Not to mention, the building, which was a bright orange, matched with the flashy colors. She has heard that the people of Fravashi love sunny colors, but this was ridiculous in her opinion. “I don’t know. That fiery red goes well with your skin tone,” she teased.

    He started to scowl but smirked instead. “I guess it does though I think that pastel purple looks better on you.”

    “Are you flirting with me?” she asked, raising her eyebrow.

    He leaned closer to her. “I should be the one asking that question since you started it first.”

    Alethea crossed her arms and smiled. “Just because I complimented your clothes doesn’t mean that I was flirting.”

    “Oh, get a room, you two,” Argus grumbled. “If you are going to flirt with him right now, you better give me a heads-up so I can take a nap and avoid this mushiness.”

    Alethea’s face turned a bright red when she heard the Duermon’s words. “Aw, jeez, I didn’t know that you gods can get embarrassed that easily,” Noeth kidded.

    “I’m not embarrassed by your teasing! It was-” Luckily, she stopped herself before she accidentally revealed that she has a Duermon residing inside her. Nevertheless, she didn’t know why she was acting that way, but for some reason, she felt more… comfortable around him. When she first met Noeth, she felt a strange nostalgic feeling around him like she met him somewhere before, but she couldn’t figure out why. It has been nagging her ever since.

    “Am I interrupting something?” Startled, both of them looked to find Chiara and Corwin standing at the door. The ambassador and the Lashival have a smug expression on their faces.

    “No, not really. We were just finishing up packing,” she lied though she felt her face was on fire. Next to her, Noeth coughed as he pretended to straighten up their possessions. “Are you seeing us off, Chiara?”

    The ambassador nodded. “That and I just wanted to make sure you got your itinerary before you leave.”

    “We did. According to Lord Cavallion, we’re be heading to Doranian border since that’s the closest.” Alethea then added, “He was also generous to give us enough supplies for the journey so if you do see him again before you go, please give him our thanks.”

    “I will,” Chiara promised.

    “And what is your plan?”

    “I’ll be heading to the capital so I’ll be going in the opposite direction. My journey will definitely longer than yours, that’s for sure.” She hesitated for a moment. “Can I talk to you privately for a moment?”

    “Sure.” Alethea has a hunch it was about the Lashival. She glanced at the Rasson brothers, but they didn’t seem to suspect anything; they were busy looking over the checklist to make sure they didn’t forget anything. Most likely, they believed they were discussing godly business, which was somewhat true.

    As soon as they were out of hearing distance, Chiara began, “I hope you don’t mind, but I informed Lady Aundra that I met you on my way to Lanes. Don’t worry! I didn’t tell her about you-know-who.”

    The Ilmarian of Truth thought for a moment. “It should be fine,” she reassured the Kreesian. “I sent a messenger bird to Kej telling her where we were heading, but I’m sure she would be too busy to respond. Having Aundra knows my whereabouts is probably a good idea so they know that I’m safe.”

    “That’s good to hear,” Chiara said, breathing a sigh of relief. “I was a little worried that I overstep my bounds.” Just then, another carriage pulled up right next to theirs. “Oh, it seems that Mavick got the carriage ready. I better check on them to see if we’re ready to go. Take care, Alethea, and may you have a safe journey!”

    “You too, Chiara. I hope your meeting with the king goes well,” she said before she headed back.

    As soon as she reached the Rasson brothers, Noeth asked, “Finished with official business?” She nodded. “Great! Then let’s go!”

    The ride was a definitely bustling one. Corwin spoke animatedly about the fun they had during their stay while they listened. Then he and his brother asked her about Doran so she answered the best she could. Before long, the two Ankans were discussing amongst themselves on what they were going to do first once they reach their destination. Amongst the din, Alethea glanced back to see that Chiara’s carriage was behind them. Even though she doubted the ambassador could see her, she waved farewell through the window as they went their separate ways.
    --- Double Post Merged, Jul 29, 2016 ---
    Chapter 11: Crackling Thunder

    Anth 8, 2595

    The city of Regan was bustling with life as everyone went about on their business. “Food for sale! Freshly made!” a group of children cried out to passersby. “Money is used to help the children living in the Abeynet Orphanage!”

    “Do you want to buy food from them?” Noeth asked, pointing at the kids.

    “Sure,” she agreed. After all, they came from the same place like Lanskas, a former priest and the Ilmarian of Beasts.

    As they approached the orphans, they smiled eagerly at the new customers. “Sister Reythe! Customers!” they shouted to a nearby nun.

    When she heard the children, the elderly woman wearing the traditional maroon tunic and veil began to walk over to them but stopped abruptly as she stared at them especially at Alethea as if taken aback. Nevertheless, she quickly recovered. Most likely, she was surprised to see Ankans since not a lot live in the area. “Hello! What can we get you?” she greeted though she kept staring at them with her penetrating eyes.

    “Let’s see…” Noeth glanced at the menu and pointed at some items. “Do you think these would be okay, Priya?”

    She looked at where he was pointing. “Sounds good to me.”

    “All right then.” He turned his attention back to the children. “We would like three honey-fried chicken legs and three bowls of rice porridge please.”

    “That’ll be one silver coin and three copper coins,” the nun informed them, to which Alethea handed her the money. “Thank you. Your meal will be ready shortly.”

    As soon as she said that, the children immediately went to work as they prepared their foods. While some poured the rice porridge into three small porcelain bowls and added seasonings, the others got the chicken legs ready. After coating the chicken leg with a batter, they placed the chicken legs into the fryer to cook. When the meat was done, the older children removed them out of the fryer and dipped them in a honey glaze before wrapping the paper around the bones. Then they placed the chicken on small plates and set the foods on a large tray. Just as they placed the chicken legs onto the tray, the other children placed the bowls of rice porridge and spoons next to the meat.

    Handing the tray to Noeth, Sister Reythe announced, “Food’s ready! I hope you’ll enjoy your meal and thank you for helping the Abeynet Orphanage!”

    “Thanks! We will.” Noeth nodded as they went on their way. As they were walking away, Alethea felt someone was watching them so she glanced back and noticed that the sister was pointing at them and whispering something to one of the orphans, who nodded and hurried back to the orphanage. Huh, that’s weird, she thought but dismissed it as nothing. Nevertheless, she made a mental note to keep an eye on anything suspicious.

    Along the way, the whiff of the hot meals floated in the air. “Smell good!” Noeth commented.

    “It does. We better hurry back before the food will get cold.” Her mouth was watering just at the sight. It has been a while since they’ve eaten hot food. During their trip, all they ate was meat jerky and hardtacks so the first thing they did after they arrived at the border town was to find edible foods. While she and Noeth set out to find an affordable place, Corwin was saving their spot. Argus wasn’t pleased about it, but she pointed out that she needed nourishment. Otherwise, she won’t be able to provide enough sustenance for him.

    A short while later, they could see Corwin sitting on small cobblestone wall. He was keeping himself occupied by looking around at the people strolling by. As soon as he saw them, he waved to them; a big grin was on his face. “Finally! I’m starving!” he proclaimed once they arrived.

    “Geez, we were only gone for a few minutes,” Noeth retorted, shaking his head, as he placed the tray down and began to hand out the foods. Alethea just smiled, amused by the brothers’ conversation. In spite of everything that happened, they still act the same. “Anyway, let’s eat.”

    Corwin nibbled on his chicken leg as he watched the passersby. From what he’s seen so far, there were a small number of beggars begging for alms and one or two families here and there, but other than that, the majority of the people in Doran were nuns, priests, or at least, training to be one. A few have children, who were probably orphans, following them likes ducklings. Watching them walk by, he thought to himself that he could have been one of those children if his brother hasn’t agreed to take care of him. He was lucky.

    He glanced over to Noeth and Priya, who were eating their meals in silence. Most likely, they were deep in thoughts on what to do next. “Hey, Priya?” She looked up at him with a wondering look on her face. “Since you’re immortal, you know the other gods, right?”

    She nodded. “That’s right.”

    “So what are they like?”

    “Well…” The goddess thought for a moment. “They’re nice, I guess. I really don’t spend much time with them due to my duty, but I can tell you that Kejuta tends to worry a lot. But then, she has the weight of the world on her shoulders so I don’t blame her.”

    “Do you get along with each other?”

    The goddess shrugged. “We act like a typical family. I mean, most of us get along with each other though there is a few disagreement every now and then. Although there are a few who can’t stand each other.”

    “Oh? Like who?” he inquired. He would have thought all of the gods would have gotten along with each other. Noeth must have the same thought as well because he leaned closer to her with a curious look on his face.

    “Oh, the God of Justice and the twin Gods of Retribution. It’s because of some past history from what I gathered.”

    “Now that I think about it, how come we never heard of you before? There is nothing about you in any of the text,” Noeth wondered aloud. “Not to mention, what is your power anyway? You can disguise yourself and do those weird light explosions. And what you did to Lady Rasbeth anyway?”

    Instead of answering, Priya just smiled and asked, “Have you heard the story of ‘The Three Judges’?”

    “Of course, yeah! Who haven’t heard of that story?” His brother blinked before his eyes widened with realization. “Wait a minute! Your power involves whether or not someone is telling the truth. Right?”

    “That’s right,” she confirmed. “I have the ability to determine if you’re lying to me. Whenever someone tells a lie, a ‘thread’ appears and when I yank or cut it, I inflict pain on that person, which is what I did to Lady Rasbeth.”

    Corwin winced. “That sounds painful.”

    “Then you should make sure not to tell a lie in front of me then,” she warned though there was a bemused twinkle in her eyes when she said that.

    “But I thought the Three Judges were human,” Noeth commented.

    “Not quite,” she replied, shaking her head, “although I wonder if having the Gods of Retribution be twins was intentional so my identity would be hidden.”

    “Speaking of which, how many of you gods are out there anyway?” Corwin asked.

    Priya hesitated. “I’m afraid that I’m not at liberty to say. Some of us… prefer to stay in the shadows.”

    He nodded. It made sense, he guessed. If Priya had revealed herself earlier, it would be harder for her to do her job. “So what is like to be immortal anyway? I bet it must be fun to live forever and do whatever you want whenever you feel like it!”

    Utterly complete silence filled the air, which made him wonder if he said something wrong. Priya just stared at him as if he were some strange beast before she finally shook her head. “No, it’s not that grand as you make it sounds. Just because I’m immortal doesn’t mean I can freely do whatever I want. Being a god means that I have a responsibility to make sure that everyone in Samara is safe so I don’t have time to relax,” she replied bluntly.

    “Oh… I never thought of that,” he admitted. Now that he thought about it, Priya seemed rather tense lately. “Being a god sucks then, huh?”

    Her face softened. “No, that wasn’t what I meant,” she said, sighing. “It’s just-”

    BOOM! Startled, everyone jumped up slightly and looked up at the sky. “Was that thunder?” Noeth pondered.

    Everyone else must have thought the same because they were asking the same question. “Are we expecting a storm?” someone asked.

    “But there’s no clouds in the sky! And it’s sunny!” her companion exclaimed.

    “Strange,” another muttered. “I know that the weather is little warmer than usual today, but it shouldn’t be warm enough to have a thunderstorm, right?”

    “You haven’t heard the old wives’ tale then. If there’s a thunderstorm in the winter, we should expect snow in seven days,” his friend commented.

    While everyone else was perturbed, Noeth noticed that Alethea was grimacing. “I have to go,” she announced as she stood up and began to leave.

    “Wait! Shouldn’t we come with you?” he asked as he was about to stand up to follow her. Besides him, Corwin placed his mostly empty bowl onto the tray and began to follow suit.

    “It’s fine,” she reassured them. “It shouldn’t take too long so stay here. Just finish your meal and wait for me to come back, okay?”

    Seeing that she was being stubborn, he could only sigh. “All right,” he said, nodding. “Just be careful, okay?”

    She just nodded and dogtrotted away. He watched her until she disappeared from view before he sat back down again. His brother looked at him, confused. “Why aren’t we going after her?” he asked.

    “Because she asked us not to,” he replied as he picked up his bowl and scooped up a spoonful of the rice porridge. “She’s probably doing her godly duties and doesn’t want us to get in the way.”

    Or she’s meeting with another god,” Corwin countered. His eyes lit up with excitement. “I bet it’s the God of Storms! The thunder right now was probably his calling card, telling her that he wants to meet up with her. Come on! I bet we can catch up with her if we’re fast enough.”

    Noeth looked at him, dismayed. “Cor, she doesn’t-” However, his words fell on deaf ears. Before he could stop him, Corwin already sprinted after the goddess. Sighing, he placed his bowl next to him and chased after his brother.

    As soon as Alethea was a certain distance from the Rasson brothers, she slowed down her pace and took her time. “You’re dilly-dallying,” Argus accused her. She didn’t bother to answer because she knew that he was saying the truth. She wasn’t eager to see her colleague.

    Out of all the Ilmarians who came to see her, it has to be Zentran. Kejuta’s not being there was understandable since she was most likely still busy fixing her mess, but Zen!? Why has it to be him? If it were Marika, Hessin, or anyone else, it would be tolerable. Knowing Zen, he would berate her and lecture her on how she endangered herself even though she’s capable of taking care of herself. Not to mention, he would go on another lecture on how an Aerian supposed to act despite the fact he isn’t one.

    Just as she was thinking that, she saw him. Of course, it was easy for her to spot him since he stood out like a sore thumb because he’s the only Sendoan around. He was standing under the large statue of a heavily-pregnant Kejuta (probably with Pendance) with Adia clutching her mother’s dress shyly as she stayed close to her. Her face was anxious as if she worried about the future of her children. That statute bemused her for its inaccuracies. First, whoever sculpted it made Kejuta too skinny and tall; her face was an oval-shaped instead of a round shape. Not to mention, they made Adia look like a three years old instead of seven, which was around the time that she became immortal.

    The burly Ilmarian of Seasons wore a sleeveless green vest with brown buckles, brown pants, and dark brown boots. His bronze gauntlets, which belonged to his predecessor, gleamed a dull light from the sunlight. His arms were crossed, and a scowl was on his face as he glowered at the passing Doranians as if daring them to approach. His foul mood dampened the amiable atmosphere that the passersby scurried away after one glance at him. Alethea didn’t blame them; hell, she wanted to do the same at that very moment.

    BOOM! She flinched hearing that cacophonous sound. “You better go see him. He’s getting impatient.” Argus then added, “I know that you don’t want to see him, but you might as well get it over with,”

    She nodded and quickly ducked into an alleyway to change her disguise, transfiguring herself from an Ankan into a young Doranian nun. Taking a deep breath, she pulled her now ash-blond hair behind her ears and stepped right back into the crowded town square. “Wish me luck,” she mumbled as she headed toward her comrade.

    Zen, who has the same expression on his face, was still standing at the same place where she last saw him. Walking close to him, she leaned over and muttered, “I’m here, Zen, so you can stop now.”

    The Ilmarian of Seasons just grunted and walked away without saying a word. Alethea stared at him incredulously before she chased after him. Usually, he would ask her if she was all right, but today, nothing. Was he that furious with her? She wanted to explain herself right there, but she thought better of it. Based on how tense he was, he would most likely explode and make a scene.

    They continued to walk without speaking to each other as they walked outside the city and into the woods. When they were a great distance away from the city, she decided to break the silence. “Listen, Zen, I know that I messed up, but let me expl-” she began.

    He abruptly spun around and glared at her, which caused her to take a step back; his face was now full of fury. “What the hell were you thinking!?” he bellowed. “Do you expect us to trust you after what you did!?”

    The Ilmarian of Truth winced in spite of herself. “I didn’t mean to reveal myself. You have to believe me.”

    “Believe you? After you lied to Kejuta and everyone else? Then, after being caught, refuse to reply to any of our messenger birds?” he retorted. “It was a good thing Chiara wrote to Aundra that she saw you and told her where you were heading. Otherwise, we would never have found you!”

    Lying to Kejuta? The Aerian gave him a confused look. “What are you talking about?” she demanded. “I never lied to her, and I did tell her where I was heading! She knew that I was in Doran.”

    Zentran glowered at her. “Don’t act dumb, Thea. You know what I’m talking about. Telling Kejuta that you were in Bisaha when you were actually in Anka! Why were you there anyway? Don’t you remember how Aundra and Kej told us not to venture over there due to the Godkillers and that obsessed king?”

    She gaped at him before she regained her composure. “I went to Anka because Kejuta told me to go there. I have no idea where you got that notion that I was in Bisaha, but I never received that order,” she countered. All of a sudden, a thought popped into her head. “In fact, I still got that letter!”

    With a wave of her hand, she retrieved the messenger bird and handed it to him. He took it and began to read. As he scrutinized what was written, his eyes widened with confusion before he reread the letter. Then his eyes narrowed as he perused it once again. After a few more minutes, Alethea demanded, “Well? Isn’t that her messenger bird?”

    Instead of answering, he asked softly, “When did you get that letter?”

    “Almost two years ago. Why?” she asked.

    He looked at her grimly before he answered, “Kejuta never sent you this letter. This letter is a fake.”
    --- Double Post Merged, Aug 25, 2016 ---
    Chapter 12: Fake

    Alethea felt like Zentran had punched her in the stomach. Fake? How could that messenger bird be fake? “It can’t be fake. That’s Kejuta’s handwriting,” she insisted.

    “It does look like Kej’s, but I’m telling you that she didn’t send this. Someone forged her handwriting,” the Ilmarian of Seasons told her. “You were supposed to be at Llinos around that time.”

    “You must be mistaken. I was never in Llinos!”

    “No, I’m not. I was with Kej when she got your message that you just arrived there,” he replied, shaking his head. “Now that I think about it, have you ever received any messenger birds from me?”

    “No, not recently; the only messenger birds I got was from Kej. Why?” However, she has a hunch on what her colleague was implying and was already dreading what he was going to say next.

    “Well, I sent you some for the past few years, and you supposedly replied to me.” Zen then waved his hand and produced a messenger bird. “In fact, I got one right here. This was from a couple months ago. Tell me if you’re the one who wrote this or not.”

    She took the messenger bird from his hand and read its content:

    I’m doing fine so you don’t have to worry about me. Like I told Marika before, I need to focus on hunting down the Dalenthi before they can cause any more trouble so I can’t afford to take a break.

    The Ilmarian of Truth stared at the letter in shock. It couldn’t be!? That was her handwriting, and it did look like something she would have written except she never wrote that letter. Nevertheless, it would explain why the Ilmarian of Fate didn’t let her rest one single bit. Looking at Zen with disbelief, she told him, “I didn’t write this. Someone else did!”

    “That’s what I thought,” he said. “Now do you believe me? Someone must have pretended to be Kejuta and tricked you into thinking it was her. That same person did the same thing with us by pretending to be you too. And who knows how long this has been going on!”

    Alethea’s hand began to tremble as she gripped Zentran’s messenger bird. Does it mean that she was following an imposter’s orders the entire time? The blood from her face drained at the sudden realization. “Wait, if that’s true, then-”

    “Priya!” Her heart stopped as she slowly turned around to see Corwin, who was grinning from ear-to-ear, sprinting toward her – unaware of the danger he was about to face.

    Corwin wanted to laugh. Even though Priya had a head start, he still managed to find her. She probably thought she could evade him by changing her disguise, but what she didn’t know was that he could still track her down with that ray of light engulfing her like a halo. Bet she didn’t expect that! However, that ray of light intrigued him. When he first saw it, he was confused on why it only appeared over Priya. That was until he discovered her secret identity. His hunch was confirmed when he saw another ray of light beaming down on Priya’s Sendoan companion, whom he suspected to be the God of Storms.

    “Hey, Priya!” he continued to shout as he waved his arms and continued sprinting toward the two gods. He could now see them clearly standing amidst the trees. Both of the gods were facing each other; Priya’s back was toward Corwin while the God of Storms was facing toward him. As soon as she heard his voice, Priya immediately swung her head toward the direction of his voice. He laughed again as he suddenly leaped right in front of her.

    Beaming, he declared, “I bet you didn’t expect me to find you, huh?” However, his smile faltered when he noticed the reactions on the two gods’ reactions. Priya’s face has a sheer look of horror while the God of Storms stared at him, stunned. “What? Did I do something wrong?”

    The Sendoan’s expression suddenly darkened. Stepping in front of Priya, he put on an offensive stance and growled, “Stand behind me, Thea! I’ll take care of him,”

    “Zen, wait! You don’t under-” Before Priya could finish her sentence, the God of Storms moved his right arm forward, launching a lightning bolt toward him. A bewildered Corwin could only stand there, frozen to the spot, as it headed toward him. As the lightning bolt crept closer to him, it suddenly dawned on him why Priya changed her disguise to meet her colleague. It wasn’t so that he wouldn’t be able to find her, it was to prevent the God of Storms from finding him. Now he was going to die, and there was nothing he could do about it.

    As soon as Zen hurled the lightning bolt, Alethea made a drastic move. Flying over him, she rushed over to Corwin. She has to stop this somehow, or otherwise, she couldn’t live with herself. Just as the lightning bolt was about to hit him, she landed right in front of the lightning’s path and unfurled her wings, activating the barrier just in time. The hairs on her arms raised due to the intense electric atmosphere, but her barrier managed to stop the blast much to her relief. Behind her, she could hear Corwin whispered in awe, “Priya…”

    On the other hand, Zen was bewildered. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Thea!?” the Ilmarian of Seasons demanded.

    “I could ask you the same question,” Argus grumbled. Alethea didn’t answer because, to be honest, even she was baffled by her action. Why on Samara did she go out of her way to save the Lashival even though she now knew that the order to spare him was false? It was as if her body sprung into action without her thinking about it.

    Nevertheless, she was still determined to defend Corwin even though she wasn’t exactly sure of the reason. Folding her wings behind her back, she looked at her colleague straight in the eyes and began, “Zen, you got to listen to me. He isn’t as dangerous as we thought.”

    “Not dangerous!?” Zen stared at her incredulously as he waggled his finger at Corwin. “Haven’t you forgotten what he did to Resphyr?”

    “I know, but…” The Ilmarian of Truth took a deep breath. “I don’t know how to explain it, but he’s different from back then. I know this sounds crazy, but I think we shouldn’t kill him.”

    Zentran stared at her as if this was the first time he’s ever seen her because he composed himself. Staring hard at her, he screamed, “Don’t kill him? He’s the Lashival for crying out loud! Kej has ordered us to kill him on sight no matter what, remember? Now get out of the way and let me finish the job!”

    Alethea shook her head. “I won’t let you kill him,” she declared as she summoned Aerius’s Spear. “If you want to kill him, you have to go through me.”

    “Don’t be stupid, Thea! He almost killed you the last time we fought him; you barely survived by the skin of your teeth,” her colleague growled.

    “I know what I’m doing, and I refuse to let you lay one finger on him.” She wanted to tell him how the Lashival in his past life refused to kill her when he had the chance, but she knew that Zen wasn’t going to believe her. He was being obstinate although she was acting the same like him at the moment. She was going to protect Corwin no matter what; not even Zen could stop her. “Argus?”

    “Yeah, yeah, but I have a bad feeling about this,” the Parasitic Duermon muttered as he formed her armor.

    “You’re serious, aren’t you?” Zen’s eyes widened with disbelief when he saw her armor emerging out of her body before he quickly recovered as he became serious. “Fine, have it your way, but don’t expect me to go easy on you.”

    “I should say the same to you too,” she retorted as she aimed her spear at him. In spite of her calm exterior, she was inwardly panicking. How did it come down to this? Fighting with Zen over the Lashival’s life? By going against him, does that mean she’s betraying her friends? If so, then she would definitely face some sort of punishment from Kejuta for her insubordination, which was probably having her powers sealed – permanently.

    At first, no one dared to move. She and Zen just stared down at each other as they waited to see who would strike first. Most likely, he was reluctant like she was about this confrontation. Maybe he doesn’t want to fight me because of my heritage, she thought, recalling how obsessed he was about her Aerian culture. Just as she was thinking that, he abruptly struck.

    Without any warning, he sent forth a blast of air straight at her. Startled, she barely managed to place her wings in front of her to shield herself. Behind her, she heard Corwin shouted, “Priya!”

    Hearing his concern touched her. Even after hearing the terrible things Zen said about him, Corwin still worried about her safety. “I’m all right!” she reassured him as she sent out several light daggers flying toward Zen, who was forced to dodge. “Just stay right behind me no matter what. Understood?”

    He didn’t respond though she could hear him move closer to her. Good, at least she knew that he’s safe… For now. Meanwhile, the Ilmarian of Seasons continued his onslaught. One after another, he would send another blast of wind toward her, which caused her to go on the defensive. During his attack, he would move clockwise before suddenly changing direction as he tried to find a way around her barrier, but she would follow his movement.

    She grind her teeth as she braced for another attack. Her knees buckled slightly as a blustery wind struck her barrier; her legs were getting tired from moving back and forth. During that time, she could hear Corwin’s feet shuffling as he diligently moved behind her. Dammit, not only she couldn’t make a single counterattack, she would be too exhausted to make a decent defense at this rate.

    Zen must have come to that conclusion as well because he suddenly changed tactic. Instead of sending a gust toward her, he slammed his fist hard on the ground, causing it crack and tremble. She and Corwin yelped as they tried to maintain their balance to no avail. However, that wasn’t the worst part; the aftershock caused her to stumble onto the ground, leaving Corwin wide open to attack. “Now I got you!” the Ilmarian of Seasons exclaimed as he prepared to launch another attack.

    Shit, this wasn’t good. Alethea knew she had to do something quick or otherwise, Corwin would be toast. Raising her hand, she quickly activated a light mine underneath Zen’s feet; the sudden bright light alerted him to the danger, which made him realize his predicament. “Dammit!” he cursed as he jumped out of the way of the explosion. The Aerian smiled. Due to her intrusion, he didn’t have time to attack, and she’s going to make sure he doesn’t have another chance.

    “Find a place to hide!” she ordered Corwin as she spread out her wings and charged toward Zen. Before he could react, she slammed into his body.

    “Oomph!” He staggered back but he recovered quickly. When she tried to lunge her spear at him, he managed to block it with his gauntlets. Clang! “Stop it, Thea! You don’t know what you’re doing!” he shouted as he pushed her back before throwing a punch at her.

    “I know very well what I’m doing!” she answered as she dodged his fist and swung her spear in return. Once again, he stopped her strike and proceeded to make a counterattack. Shoving her weapon aside, he launched hailstones at her, forcing her to retreat into the air.

    “Don’t think you can get away that easily!” He gestured his hand and soon, a torrent of rain poured down on her, dowsing her wings. Crap! Now that her wings were drenched, she could no longer fly. With no other choice, she flew down to the ground as she launched light mines at Zen, forcing him to run.

    He was distracted by her attack that he didn’t see her coming at him. With a swift kick, she kneed him. His eyes widened with astonishment as he collapsed to his knees. Before he could get a chance to stand up, she placed her spear near his face. “It’s over, Zen. Give up or else!”

    The Ilmarian of Seasons wiped his mouth and glanced at her. “Do you really think this is over? What are you going to do now? Run away with the Lashival to the ends of the earth? Sooner or later, we both know his powers are going to awaken eventually, and he will kill you even if it wasn’t intentional. Or Kej would have every Ilmarians track you down until they find you, and you know how determined she can be. I bet you didn’t think about that, huh? So what are you going to do?”

    Alethea hesitated. She hated to admit it, but he did have a point. She would be on the run for the rest of her life; the other Ilmarians will hunt her down until they catch her. Unless, of course, Corwin kills her. Seeing an opportunity, he seized the point of her spear and electrocuted it. Alethea could feel the electricity entering her body through her weapon; her entire body felt like a thousand needles were pricking her. Screaming, she dropped her weapon as she held her hands, which was still tingling. “Thea!” Argus shouted. At the same time, she thought she heard Corwin screamed her name or at least, her alias, Priya, but she wasn’t sure.

    Zentran, on the other hand, didn’t seem that concerned. Standing up unsteadily, he grabbed her by the shoulders and stared down hard at her. “Now are you going to stop this ridiculousness? I still don’t understand why you’re so adamant in saving him, but this needs to end.”

    She glowered at him. “You can’t kill him, Zen! I won’t let you,” she told him.

    He sighed. “I figured you were going to say that.” All of a sudden, she felt her body tingling once more and realized what he was planning to do so she began to struggle to break free. “Sorry, Thea, but you left me no choice. Look, this is going to hurt me more than it’ll hurt you. By the time you wake up, you’ll be back in Welvaria, and the Lashival will be dealt with.”

    “Zen, don’t-!” She couldn’t finish her sentence when suddenly, they heard an agonizing scream. She and Zen froze and turned around to find Corwin standing in the clearing and clutching his head. His face was scrunched up as tears were rolling down his cheeks. Pushing Zen’s hands aside, she stood up and staggered toward him. “Corwin, what’s wrong?”

    “My head!” he moaned as he fell to his knees.

    He’s having one of his headaches, she realized. Dammit, we forgot his medicine back in Anka. Still moving toward him, she called out, “It’ll be alright, Cor! I’ll be right there!”

    “Thea, don’t!” She halted and looked at Zen, who looked terrified. The expression on his face unnerved her. She has never seen him that alarmed. “I think his powers are about to awake-!”

    Just then, the earth below them was thrown asunder as Corwin let out a deafening shriek. Both Ilmarians tried their best to stay on their feet, but the force of the quake was too much; Zen tumbled onto the ground while Alethea was forced to take to the air once more. Looking down at the scene, she could barely comprehend the destruction below her. “This is bad. This is very bad,” Argus repeated.

    Enormous cracks appeared on the earth as trees swayed and threaten to topple over. Terrified animals tried to flee from the devastation. Even though she was safe in the sky, the air felt stagnant and suffocating. On the other hand, Corwin seemed unaware of the damage around him; likewise, the area around him was still intact. Meanwhile, the Ilmarian of Seasons was trying to regain his balance as he tried to target Corwin but to no avail. Watching her colleague struggle, Alethea has a horrifying realization. I’m the only one who can stop him, she thought. However, she wavered at that decision. Was she really prepared to do the deed?

    Crack! A towering fir tree fell and almost hit Zen. “Dammit, Thea! Don’t just stand there! Do something!” he yelled as he looked up at her.

    “He’s right, you know. You have to do something,” Argus agreed. “Otherwise, there will be no Samara left to protect.”

    Seeing that she has no other choice, she tightened her grip on the spear and hurled herself toward Corwin. Adrenaline rushed through her body as she sped down at him. He still has his head in his hands so he wasn’t aware of the incoming danger. When she was a meter or so away from him, she apologized, “I’m sorry, Corwin.”

    That was when she heard a familiar voice shouting, “Cor! Thea!” She glanced up to find Noeth standing (or rather leaning against a tree) at the edge of the clearing. Dammit, why was he here now? The Ilmarian of Truth would have halted the attack, but it was too late; her momentum has already carried her so it was too late to stop it. It looked like Noeth was going to watch her kill his baby brother, the only remaining family he has left. And he’s going to hate me for it, she thought bitterly.

    Ignoring Noeth’s screams to stop, she continued her assault. Aiming at Corwin’s chest, she thrust her spear and was horrified at what happened next. As the spear came close to him, it abruptly changed direction. Instead of piercing him in the chest, the spear landed hard on the ground next to him. As Alethea stared down at her weapon, she recalled the story that Argus told her so long ago. He said that Aerius’s Spear was made to protect the user’s loved ones, and it would never harm them, which would also explain why she didn’t want to hurt Corwin. It looked like the story was true – she no longer can kill him with that spear no matter how hard she tries.
    --- Double Post Merged, Sep 9, 2016 ---
    Chapter 13: The Truth

    Corwin didn’t know what happened. One moment, he saw Priya was getting electrocuted by the God of Storms when he suddenly had a pounding headache; the next, Priya was standing right in front of him with a horrified look on her face. The hundred red-colored eyes on her visor stared hard at him, which made him shiver. Sometimes he believes those eyes were alive. “Priya, what’s wrong?” he wondered.

    Before she could answer, Noeth stormed out of nowhere and demanded, “Why in hell were you trying to kill my brother?”

    Kill him? A confused Corwin glanced down and noticed her spear stabbed to the ground next to him. Did Priya really try to kill him? He wanted to ask her, but her attention was on his brother. Her face was pale as she apprehensively stepped back. “Noeth, let me explain…” she spluttered as her armor slowly merged back inside her body.

    “Explain!?” Corwin winced as if he was the one getting scolded. Noeth’s face was flushed red with fury as he confronted the goddess. Man, he has never seen his brother that vivid before! “How can you justify committing murder?”

    She didn’t respond so Corwin walked up to her and tugged on her sleeve. “Priya, is it true? Is it true that you tried to kill me?” he asked. She remained silent and looked away from him with her eyes downcast. He felt a lump in his throat and gulped. “But why? I don’t understand…”

    “I want to know too,” his brother huffed.

    “It’s because he’s dangerous.” Noeth and he looked up to see the God of Storms walking toward them as he ducked under a branch from a fallen pine tree. His eyes were focused on Corwin.

    Noeth stared incredulously at the approaching god. “Dangerous? How could my brother be dangerous? He can barely hurt a fly!”

    The black-haired god let out a laugh. “Look around you!” he exclaimed, raising his hands to point at the damage. “Who do you think did this? If you think it was either Thea or me, you’re dead wrong.”

    “There’s no way Cor can do this! None of us can use magic at all!” his brother protested. Looking at the fallen trees and the split earth, Corwin has to agree. He couldn’t fathom how he could have done it either. Nevertheless, he recalled the blackout and wondered if the god was telling the truth. Just thinking about it caused his head to throb.

    The God of Storms (Zentran, was it?) looked impatiently at Noeth. “I don’t care if you don’t believe me. Your brother is a threat, and I intend to get rid of him so stand aside unless you want to get hurt in the process!”

    Noeth glared indignantly back as he stood right in front of Corwin and scoffed, “There’s no way I’m going to move and let you kill my baby brother! If you want to kill him so badly, you have to kill me as well!”

    Upon seeing his brother did that, Corwin couldn’t help but beamed with pride. Noeth wasn’t going to let anyone bully him – god or not. Zen narrowed his eyes, but nevertheless, lifted his right hand. “Don’t say I warn you,” he growled as sparks began to emit from his gauntlet.

    Frightened, Corwin latched onto the back of his brother’s shirt and squeezed his eyes shut as he waited for the impact. Hopefully, death would be swift and painless. “Zen, wait!” He opened his eyes and saw Priya looking imploringly at her colleague. She glanced wearily at Corwin before she pleaded, “They need to know the truth. They need to understand why we have to do it.”

    Zen stared at her for what seemed like an eternity before he sighed. “All right,” he acknowledged, lowering his hand. Corwin breathed a sigh of relief, and he was sure Noeth did the same too. It seemed that Priya has a way with the god. The God of Storms crossed his arm as he walked over to her. “So where should we start?”

    Corwin could only listen with amazement. Apparently, there was another set of gods before Priya and Zentran who created the world (“the true creators” as the former put it). They used to rule Samara until their creations rebelled. The Caeculum War, which lasted for over 100 years, ended when the gods, desperate to end the war, decided to make an ultimate weapon to defeat their recalcitrant handiworks. That weapon was the Lashival – him.

    Unfortunately for his creators, he went berserk. Not only did he decimate the earth, he also found a way to kill the gods themselves. But, before he could destroy Samara, the dying gods managed to seal him inside the earth. Then they passed on their immortality and abilities to a few selected mortals to ensure that Samara will continue to thrive. “After all, the world needs the gods’ blood in order to survive,” Zen explained.

    The Ilmarians, which they called themselves, woke up to their new godly status and abilities when they died. When all of them were awaken, they gathered together to determine how they should take of the world. What they didn’t know was that the meeting place was the exact spot where the Lashival was sealed, and that very moment, he was trying to break free.

    They heard him, of course. Upon finding him, they helped him get out – not realizing that they were freeing their predecessors’ killer. And how did he repay them? By killing one of their colleagues, Resphyr, the Ilmarian of Dreams. “We didn’t realize it at first,” Priya said as Zen shook his head. “We thought that since we’re immortal, we couldn’t die, but we were wrong.”

    Then he proceeded to try to kill them too, but they managed to hold him off. “Barely, I must add. By the teeth of our skin,” the God of Storms grumbled. Nevertheless, they managed to kill him and thought that they got rid of him until the God of the Dead and the Goddess of Life noticed something. The Lashival’s soul was still alive and managed to find a way to be reborn once more.

    Because of the possibility of his destructive powers may wake up again, the All-Mother decided to get rid of the threat. In order to do so, she and the other Ilmarians have kept a lookout for his reincarnation and once they found him, kill him. “And that was what we were doing for several centuries now,” Priya concluded. “In fact, you're the tenth reincarnation.”

    “Now do you understand why we have to do it?” her colleague asked. Even though his face was expressionless, his eyes were ice cold as he stared at the two Rasson brothers.

    Corwin gazed up at his brother, who seemed to be in deep thoughts. Noeth didn’t say a word as he processed what he just heard. Finally, he looked up and answered, “I understand your reasons, but I still don’t see why you have to kill my brother. Is killing him the only option?”

    “Believe me, we’re not eager to do this,” Zen replied, “but we have no choice. It’s either saving the world or endangering it. What do you think we’re going to choose?”

    “My brother isn’t dangerous! I mean…” Noeth gestured at Priya. “She stayed with us for over a year now, and nothing happened! My brother never tried to kill her – not once! Isn’t that right, Thea?”

    The Aerian’s face turned pale as she looked at the ground. On the other hand, the other god glared at him. “Leave her out of this! It has nothing to do with her,” he growled, placing his hand on her shoulder protectively. “It doesn’t matter what happened the last two years; your brother is a potential menace, and I intend to get rid of him.” He took a deep breath as he crossed his arms again. “Anyway, I’ll let you say your goodbyes so you better be quick before I change my mind.”

    At first, Noeth just stared at the God of Storms before he turned to look at Corwin. “Come on, Cor,” he said, walking away in a huff. “Let’s say our goodbyes. Since they are so eager to kill you, we don’t want to offend them by being so slow.”

    Zen watched them walk away and shook his head. What a mess! he thought. First, the forged messenger birds, and now this! He kept an eye on the two Ankans when they stopped a short distance to talk. During that time, he noticed that the oldest brother kept sneaking glares at him, but he pretended not to notice. Heh, he was probably offended by Zen’s attitude. Even though the Ilmarian of Seasons hated to be so cold, he had no choice. It was the Lashival after all. He just couldn’t leave it to chance that the monster may release mayhem again. Not even the fact that he has a brother could change his mind. Maybe he could ask Aundra to wipe out the Lashival’s brother’s memories so he would forget the whole thing.

    With that decided, he turned his attention to Alethea. “Hey, Thea, do you want me to-” he began but stopped.

    The Ilmarian of Truth was slightly trembling, and her skin was still pale. She’s probably still shaken up by all of this, he realized. After all, she just found out that she was tricked into believing that she was following Kej’s orders. Not to mention… Even though he has heard the legend about Aerius’s Spear, he didn’t expect to see the weapon in action. Who would have thought it would automatically shift its course to avoid killing the Lashival? Now she can no longer kill him with that spear, and most likely, she wouldn’t be willing to use her powers either to do the deed based on how she was willing to protect him. Either way, it looked like she’s in no condition to perform her duties.

    However, that wasn’t what caught his interest. She has a guilty expression on her face as she stared at the two brothers, especially the older one. A thought occurred to him. Could it be that she has developed feelings for him? He recalled how she kept making glances at the Lashival’s brother when they were explaining their reasons. A pang of jealousy hit him, but he quickly composed himself. No, now wasn’t the time to be petty. He gently touched her shoulder, which gave her a start. “Hey, are you all right?”

    She nodded though he knew that she was lying. Glancing back at the two, she said, “I should talk to them. Maybe I can…”

    “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” he interrupted, grabbing her hand before she could walk away. The way the older brother was glaring at them, it would probably lead to a huge outburst if she did try to come over. She was about to protest, but she wisely nodded and stayed put. Nevertheless, she kept giving quick glimpses. Zentran sighed inwardly. It looked like Aundra may have to mindwipe her memories as well. Of course, she would have to remove the Gods’ Blessing, which prevented anyone from exploiting them, first.

    Anyhow, he has to find a way to keep her preoccupied. “We need to determine when those false orders begin. Let’s look over all of your correspondence and see if there are any discrepancies. Once we notice anything, we’ll know when the deception occurred.”

    Thankfully, his plan worked. Alethea nodded and handed him all of her messenger birds. They pored through them closely until they finally found the answer. “Twelve years! I’ve been following someone’s else orders for twelve years,” the Aerian uttered in disbelief. Zen voiced her sentiment too. Who would have thought that the ruse lasted that long? Disbelief quickly changed into disgust. “How can I be so stupid? I should have known something was up when Kej suddenly went overzealous about hunting down the Dalenthi. I should have questioned her about it instead of blindly following orders.”

    “Don’t beat yourself over it! You’re not the only one who was tricked. I was fooled, too; hell, even Kej and the others were deceived,” he replied. If she received those false messenger birds for that long, would that mean the others have too? At this rate, it’s going to take a long time to sort out which messenger birds were real or fake. “Anyway, we need to figure out who the culprit is and his intentions.”

    “It’s Shintra. It has to be him,” she immediately declared.

    Zen raised his eyebrows. “Shintra? I know you hate his guts, but how can it be him?”

    “It has to be him. He’s the type to do something like this,” she insisted. She shook her head and cursed underneath her breath. “Dammit, I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to make him an Ilmarian. Why didn’t I listen to my gut instinct?”

    “Don’t be ridiculous, Thea! It can’t be him. First of all, how was he able to read the others’ messenger birds to you when they were all individually encrypted? There’s no way he knows each and every encryption,” he pointed out.
    “Maybe he found a way. He may have figured out the encryption from the others’ messenger birds, and then copied them before sending them out.”

    “That may be true, but how would he figure out yours then? You never respond to any of his messenger birds.”

    “I don’t know, but I’m sure he found a way!” She gave him an adamant look. “I don’t care what you think. You don’t know what he’s like, Zen. Once he has something, he doesn’t like to lose it. Since I’m no longer under his influence, he probably wants to make me suffer instead.”

    He looked at her sympathetically. “Listen, I understand why you want to accuse him because of his past wrongs, and-”

    “Don’t give me the crap about understanding! You weren’t manipulated by him for several centuries so you don’t know what it’s like!” she snapped and huffed as she crossed her arms. “I don’t understand why you’re defending him.”

    “I’m not taking his side; I just can’t figure out how he’s able to send those forged letters as you claimed,” he replied calmly. “Trust me, I don’t care much for him either, but I’m being reasonable. Besides, it can be someone else.”

    “Like who?” she demanded.

    “I don’t know. The Velscendus Cult perhaps. You were with them last so maybe they’re the culprit.”

    “But I wasn’t able to open messenger birds when I was with them, remember? They watched me like a hawk so I couldn’t find any place and time to read them.” She stared hard at him as if she was challenging him. “I know it’s him, and nothing will convince me otherwise.”

    “If you say so,” the Ilmarian of Seasons said with a shrug. She was being stubborn so it was pointless to persuade her otherwise. “Anyway, I think it’s time that we-”

    BOOM! All of a sudden, an explosion erupted close by them. “What the-?” Startled, Zen was about to look around for the cause when he felt Thea, who has her armor back on, pushed him down.

    “Get down!” she shouted, wrapping her wings around him. It was in the nick of time because another explosion struck her barrier instead of them. Opening up her wings, she asked, “Are you all right?”

    “Yeah,” he replied as he stood up and scanned the area. “What was that?”

    He got his answer immediately. A horde of people emerged from the forest, charging toward them; their eyes glowed a fiery red. “Dammit, Dalenthi!” he cursed as he went into battle mode. His fight with Thea as well as the Lashival’s temporary loss of control must have attracted them. Now it looked like they have to deal with those Duermons.

    Without any hesitation, he struck them with a gust of wind, sweeping them off their feet. Next to him, he saw his comrade activated light mines. However, the Dalenthi didn’t seem to be deterred by their attacks as they continued to rush at them.The worst part was that it never seemed to end. Zen grind his teeth. This was similar to the time when he and the other Ilmarians battle in the Loredan Desert; they were hopelessly outnumbered and outmatched. The only difference was that it’s two against at least a hundred.

    “Thea, I think we need to retreat and regr-” He stopped short when he noticed that she has stopped fighting and staring off into the distance. Wondering what she was looking, he followed her gaze, and his heart stopped. While they were distracted by the Dalenthi, the Lashival and his brother were fleeing into the dense woodland. Shit, they were using the battle in order to get away!

    “Noeth…” she whispered as she took a step forward and opened up her wings.

    “Thea, wait!” he screamed, but it was too late. Before he could reach her, she launched herself into the air and chased after them. The Ilmarian of Seasons was about to give chase, but the Dalenthi blocked his way, leaving him no choice but to battle. He could only watch hopelessly as Alethea disappeared from his view as she flew into the forest.

    As Noeth dragged him by the arm, Corwin tripped over a tree root and fell hard to the ground. “Come on, Cor!” his brother urged. “We need to get as far away from them as we can!”

    He nodded as he stood up and wiped the dirt off his pants. “Is it really okay to leave like that?” he asked, glancing back. The sounds of explosions still filled the air albeit a bit muffled due to the trees.

    “Why not?” his brother snorted. “They want to kill you. Why should we stand there and wait for them to do that?”

    “But what’s about Priya?”

    “To hell with her!” Noeth spat. Corwin noticed that he didn’t even bother to look back as he kept moving forward. “She lied to us, Cor. She pretended to care about us just to stab us in the back. I don’t care if we ever see her again! Why do you ask anyway?”

    “Nothing,” he lied. Noeth stared at him for a moment before he looked away and continued to fume. Corwin watched in silence as he followed his brother. To be honest, he didn’t know what exactly he feels. He felt… Sad, he guessed. Yes, he was hurt that Priya wasn't forthcoming with them and that she tried to kill him. On the other hand, he saw how guilt-stricken she was afterward, and she did defend him from the God of Storms. He wanted to tell him that, but knowing Noeth, it would fall on deaf ears.

    Besides, there was something else that was bothering him. “Hey, Noeth, am I really a cursed child?”

    His older brother halted and finally turned around to stared at him. Finally, he answered, “No, Cor, you’re not a cursed child. I don’t care or believe what those two said about you. You’re not a monster – you’re my baby brother, and that’s all that matters.”

    Corwin’s eyes began to water so he quickly wiped them away. He didn’t want Noeth to see him crying right now. “Where are we going to go anyway?”

    “I’m not sure, but definitely someplace far away from here. We’ll think about that later. Right now, we need to focus on getting out of here so let get going before-”

    Crash! Corwin yelped as three Dalenthi suddenly appeared in front of them. “Going somewhere, Lashival?” one of them sneered, brandishing his mace. The others snickered as they too drew out their weapons.

    “Cor, stay behind me!” Noeth ordered, placing himself in front of him. Corwin clutched the back of his brother’s shirt as he wondered how his brother was going to protect him without any weapon. The Dalenthi didn’t seem bothered by his brother’s action because they advanced toward them, forcing them back.

    Just as Corwin was about to lose hope, a light array appeared below the Dalenthi before it exploded, decimating them into smithereens. A familiar voice called out, “Are you all right?”

    Looking up, Corwin found Priya flying above them as she slowly landed right in front of them. Her armor returned back inside her body as she looked worriedly at them. Boy, was he glad to see her! “Yeah, thanks to you!” he exclaimed, beaming. She looked taken aback by his reaction, but she returned his smile.

    His brother, on the other hand, seemed displeased by her appearance. “Why are you here?” he demanded. “Have you caused enough trouble for us already?”

    Her smile faltered. “Noeth, I didn’t mean to hurt you and your brother,” she began.

    “But you lied to us!”

    “I didn’t lie to you,” she replied briskly. “I just withheld some information.”

    “And when were you going to tell us that my brother is a threat to the world?” he countered.

    Priya hesitated. “I wasn’t going to tell you because I wasn’t sure how you would react,” she finally admitted. “Believe me, I do care about the both of you. I would never hurt Corwin unless I have no choice.”

    “No choice!? Don’t give me that bull crap!” Noeth bellowed. “I had a hunch that I shouldn’t trust you, and I should have listened to it! Because of you, Cor and I are now homeless! We’re far away from our home and in some foreign country! Now we have to deal with your kind plus those Dalenthi!”

    “Noeth…” she started to say, but he cut her off.

    “Don’t talk to me! In fact, just go away! I don’t want to ever see you again!” he screamed.

    At first, Priya looked as if she was about to leave when she suddenly changed her mind. “I’m not leaving, Noeth Rasson,” she told him. “Yes, I messed up. Yes, I didn’t tell you the whole truth for staying with you, but I’m not going to let you leave here. I’m staying with you whether you like it or not!”

    “You’re such a stubborn little prick, you know that,” Noeth growled.

    “Oh, the same goes to you too!” she retorted. “You refuse to listen to reasons and always jump to conclusions. Not to mention, ungrateful!”

    “Really now? At least, I didn’t try to murder someone just because I was afraid of what may happen.”

    Corwin could only look at the two of them helplessly. Why must they be fighting again? “Guys…”

    However, no one paid attention to him. “Like I said earlier, I had no choice. Your brother was losing control so it’s either killing him or letting the whole world die!” the goddess shouted.

    “Maybe it’s your fault that he lost control. You know, I just realized that he didn’t have that problem until after you butt into our lives,” his brother said.

    “And what are you implying?”

    “You guys…” Corwin repeated, but they continued to ignore him much to his annoyance. It was like the time they were lost in that snowstorm in Fravashi; the two argued while pretending that he wasn’t there. Just seeing them argue caused his head to throb once again.

    “I’m saying that you’re the one who causing all the trouble,” Noeth implied. “And the sooner you leave, the better off we are.”

    Priya rolled her eyes. “Oh, really? And what would have happened right now if I didn’t stop those Dalenthi from capturing you?”

    Corwin had enough. Before Noeth could reply, he screamed, “Stop fighting!”

    As soon as he said that, something pellicular happened. He felt something inside him consumed him as if it was taking away his sense of being. It was a strange sensation; it was electrifying and intoxicating, but at the same time, petrifying and debilitating. His soul felt it was on fire, and his head felt like it was going to explode. The strange thing was that he wasn’t in pain at all. Instead, he felt… Nothing. He didn’t know what happened when he suddenly heard Noeth shouted, “Watch out!”

    Opening his eyes, he could only watch in horror as a ball of multicolored lights struck Noeth, who was shielding a startled Priya, from the attack. As soon as that blast hit him, his brother collapsed on top of the goddess. “Noeth? Noeth!” she screamed as she pushed him off of her, rolled him onto his back, and shook his shoulders to try to wake him up. However, his brother remained unconscious.

    Corwin felt a lump in his throat while Priya continued to shout out his brother’s name and shake his shoulders to no avail. Did he accidentally kill his brother? Was he truly cursed to cause pain and suffering to his loved ones? As he was thinking that, his brother began to stir. Upon seeing that he was alive, a relieved Corwin rushed over to him. Thanks the gods, he’s alive! “Noeth, are you all right?” he asked.

    Groaning, Noeth gingerly sat up as he rubbed his head. “I think so,” he mumbled, “although my head feels like someone pounded a sledgehammer on it.”

    “You should rest for a bit,” Priya suggested. “You did bear the brunt of the attack after all.”

    “Yeah, you’re right. Maybe I should…” Noeth abruptly stopped as he stared at her funny as if this was the first time he saw her.

    She looked at him, confused. “Noeth, what is it?”

    He didn’t answer at first as he squinted his eyes. “Ressi? Is that you?” he finally asked.

    Ressi? Now it was Corwin’s turn to be baffled. Who’s Ressi? Was that one of Priya’s previous disguises? On the other hand, the Aerian looked stunned. “That name… H-how do you know that name? No one else but my colleagues knows about it,” she stammered, taking a step back.

    However, his brother continued to be persistent. “Don’t you remember me? You promised to meet me at our secret hiding place so I can introduce you to your people.”

    “Secret hiding place? Meeting my people?” Priya’s eyes widened with aghast realization. “Don’t tell me… Dalin!?”
    --- Double Post Merged, Sep 25, 2016 ---
    Chapter 14: Sudden Disappearances

    Anth 22, 2595

    “Thank you for your charity, Father. I don’t know how the orphanage would survive without your support,” the nun said, bowing her head.

    Lanskas smiled. It was nice when people believe that he was an ordinary priest, not god. “It’s nothing, Sister. I just want to ensure that these children are taken care of.”

    “But still! Your donation has far surpassed others’! Are you sure you want to donate this much?” she inquired.

    “Of course,” he replied as his eyes wandered around the place. Even though it has been several centuries since he last stood there, Abeynet Orphanage still looked the same to him – the chapel in the center of the building, the classrooms on the right, and the dormitories on the left. True, they have new accommodations and amenities, but it still felt like home to him. As he ambled down the hall, he could see children playing in the courtyard as they screamed and laughed happily. In one of the rooms, he could see another group of children reciting their lessons as one of the priests listened and nodded with approval. Seeing this made him feel nostalgic. “This was my home after all.”

    The sister arched her eyebrow. “You used to live here then, Father?” He nodded. She sighed and shook her head as she opened the front door. “I see, but you’re still far more generous for your own good.”

    “I’ll take that as a compliment then.” The Ilmarian of Beasts was about to leave when he thought of something. “Oh, before I forget, have you seen any Ankans recently?”

    “Ankans? How could I forget? They were here on the same day of that terrible earthquake! Praise the gods that no one was terribly hurt!”

    He perked up. “Do you remember what they look like?”

    “Of course I do! There are rarely any Ankans in this part.” The nun then added, “They were a young couple. He was about this high and has short brown hair while she was slightly shorter than he and has a short hair that reached to her shoulders. Both were wearing those atrocious Fravashian clothing so I assume they were from that area. They came by my stand and ordered some meals. They were very polite and seemed nice. Why? Are they in trouble?”

    That must have been Thea’s disguise, Lanskas realized. “No, they’re not in trouble, but they may be in danger,” he reassured her.

    “I see. If that’s so, then I better alert the others as well. I’ll let you know if we encounter them again,” she promised.

    “Thank you,” the former priest said and bowed his head. “Oh, tell the children that I said hello.”

    “Will do. Take care, Father!” she replied as she saw him off. Lanskas waved goodbye as he walked down the steps. Even though the nun promised to keep an eye out, he highly doubted that she would see them again. Knowing Thea, she would change her disguise. As for the Lashival and his brother…

    The cooing of the dusk dove caught his attention. Gazing up at a nearby tree, he spotted his feathered friend and smiled. It seemed that she found out some information. He gave a slight nod to the dove before he headed toward the forest.

    Kejuta surveyed the devastation around her and shook her head. All around her were toppled trees, sundered earth, and charred debris that implied that a skirmish had occurred in the area. Who would have thought something like that would happen? Out of habit, she began to fidget with the Chain of Destinies, which allowed her to see and control people’s fates, even though she knew that she wouldn’t have any luck. “It’s my fault,” Zen, who was standing next to her, said. “I shouldn’t have kept my eyes off them.”

    She stopped and stared at the Ilmarian of Seasons. “Don’t blame yourself, Zen,” she reproached him. “You wouldn’t expect to bump into the Lashival or be attacked by those Dalenthi.”

    “I know, but…” He shook his head as he slammed his fists together. In the background, thunder crackled through the air.

    Kejuta watched him for a moment before she looked away. He needed some space so she was going to let him be. To be honest, she didn’t blame him for how he was feeling; she probably would feel the same.

    When she received Zen’s messenger bird after sending him to pick up Alethea, she first expected it to say that they were heading back to Welvaria. Imagine her surprise when she read that they encountered a young Lashival before getting into a battle with some Dalenthi. As soon as she read that, she immediately ordered the other Ilmarians to Doran, where she found a visibly upset Zentran waiting for her. All around him were corpses.

    Before she could even say a word, he immediately blurted out what happened so quickly that she barely comprehended his words. All she got was something about false messenger birds, the Lashival, fighting off some Dalenthi, and Thea’s chasing after the fleeing Lashival and his brother. Nevertheless, she figured something bad must have happened so she had the others search the area to look for their missing colleague and the Lashival. So far, they have found nothing.

    “Any luck?” she asked the other Ilmarians, who were coming back.

    They shook their heads. “Nothing yet,” Hessin replied. His watery summon, Istra, circled around him in her bird form before she perched on his shoulder.”I had Istra search further down, but she didn’t find anything either.”

    “Same for us too,” Torryn said while the others nodded in agreement. “We can’t find them anywhere.”

    Oraji added, “It’s like they have disappeared from the face of the earth!”

    The Ilmarian of Fate frowned. “Are you sure?”

    “We’re positive,” Shintra confirmed. “There is no trace of them anywhere.”

    “I see,” she muttered. Where on Samara could they have gone? “Keep looking,” she instructed the others. “Maybe Thea left a clue on their whereabouts.”

    The twin Ilmarians of Judgement groaned. “Again? We’ve been looking all over the place for a million time now, and we still found nothing,” Torryn complained.

    “I don’t care if this is the million and one times,” she replied firmly. “We’re not going to stop until we fin-”

    Just then, they heard a rustling noise close by. Everyone became alert as they heard unfamiliar voices coming toward them. Could it be more Dalenthi coming to attack? Soon, they got their answer when two boys, who looked to be around twelve years old, emerged from the forest; they were so busy talking to each other to notice that they had company. “I heard that there was a lot of damage in this area, Cirem,” a young boy said excitedly. “I bet we can find some neat things!”

    “Like what?” his friend retorted. “Toppled trees and broken rocks?”

    “I don’t know. Maybe there’s some buried treasure or…” His voice trailed off once he realized that the Ilmarians were standing right in front of them. Confused, he began to ask, “Hey, what are you do-”

    Before he could finish, Shintra lifted his hand and gestured. The two boys’ eyes began to glow, and their mouths gaped in awe. “You didn’t see anyone here,” the Ilmarian of Souls said. “In fact, there is nothing interesting at all. You’re going to be good boys and head back home. Understood?”

    The boys nodded so the Duermon lowered his hand. The glow in their eyes faded as they turned to each other. “Hey, Tavik, it’s getting late. Maybe we should head back before Sister Alythe kills us,” Cirem suggested.

    “Yeah, you’re probably right. Besides, it looks like there’s nothing here but junk,” his friend agreed.

    “See? I told you there was nothing interesting here…” Cirem said as they turned around to head back. They now seemed unaware of the Ilmarians around them as they walked back into the woods.

    No one spoke until they could no longer hear the boys’ voices. Finally, Shintra took a deep breath and exclaimed, “Now then, what were you saying before we were rudely interrupted?”

    Kejuta looked at him blankly before she shook her head. “Sorry, I was distracted,” she apologized and shivered. She still got goosebumps whenever she sees the Duermon’s power in action. It just seemed so… Violating. “Anyway, I think we need to expand the search area.”

    “Why bother?” the Ilmarian of Souls rebuked. “If we can’t find any clues now, we probably won’t find any more clues anyway.”

    “They might have gone further than we have anticipated,” Kejuta explained.

    “I highly doubt that. Unless, of course, the Lashival and his brother managed to somehow to grow wings and fly to parts unknown,” he replied sarcastically.

    She grind her teeth. Why must he always question her? Taking a deep breath, she told him as calmly as she could muster, “That may be true, but we’re not going to abandon Thea no matter what.”

    “And how do we know that she didn’t abandon us?” he countered.

    “He does have a point,” Hessin said quietly. “We haven’t heard from her since the Ankan incident.”

    “Not to mention, Anka is still in disarray,” Marika added.

    Kejuta didn’t answer at first; she hasn’t told anyone about the false messenger birds yet because she didn’t alarm them, and she wanted them to focus on finding their friend. Instead, she answered, “We don’t know about that. Either way, she may be in danger since she may be captured by either the Dalenthi or worst, the Lashival.”

    From the corner of her eyes, she got a glimpse of Zen has a strange look on his face. Suspicion began to grow inside her. Was the Ilmarian of Seasons hiding something from her? She pretended not to notice as she continued, “We’ll search this place one more time. If we don’t find anything else, we’ll head back. Understood?”

    The others mumbled their assent though she thought she heard a hint of dissension from a few of them and went off once more. Everyone, that is, except for Zen. With his shoulder hunched, he shifted his feet uncomfortably. “Hey, Kej, there might be something I didn’t tell you,” he began reluctantly. Just then, a wolf howled close by, which caused him to stop.

    She turned around just in time to see Lanskas emerging from the forest. Two Kallian wolves followed his every footstep. “Got anything?” she asked the Ilmarian of Beasts as soon as he was within calling’s distance. The wolves, who were hoping to get petted, clamored around her and wagged their tails.

    “I think so. I didn’t find any new information from the city, but one of the animals told me something interesting,” he replied.

    Kejuta felt relieved. At least, some good news! “And what is it?”

    He shook his head. “I think it’s best if I show you.”

    While everyone else was still searching the area, Kejuta took Aundra, Marika, and Zen with her as they followed Lanskas. A short while later, they reached their destination. At first, nothing seemed conspicuously out-of-place until she noticed a faded blackened circle on the ground, which she immediately recognized was caused by one of Alethea’s light mines.

    “According to a doe, she was fleeing the area when she saw a flash of light here,” Lanskas explained while she knelt down to examine the circular outline. “As soon as I arrived here, I have the wolves sniff around the area, and they told me that they instantly identified Thea’s scent though there were several other scents as well. Two of them were mostly the Lashival and his brother; as for the rest, most likely, they’re from the Dalenthi.”

    She nodded as she began to fidget with the Chain of Destinies once more. Even though she couldn’t touch the Lashival’s Chain, she hoped to use his brother’s to determine where they went. However, she couldn’t find his no matter how hard she tried.

    Aundra must have figured something was amiss because she asked, “Still nothing?”

    Shaking her head, she replied, “I don’t know why, but I should be able to locate them by using the Lashival’s brother’s Chain. For some reason, it’s not working for me. It has become invisible or something!”

    “Huh, that’s strange indeed,” the Ilmarian of Magic agreed. “It’s too bad that Brenton isn’t here to help. Maybe Historia will be able to help us locate them.”

    “Where is he anyway?”

    “No idea, to be honest. The last time I got a messenger bird from him was four weeks ago.” Aundra then rolled her eyes. “Oh, you know how he is. Once he finds something interesting, it’s hard for you to get his attention.”

    Kejuta had to smile at that comment. The Ilmarian of Time was notorious for that. Turning her attention to Lanskas, she inquired, “Did they follow her scent anywhere else?”

    The Ilmarian of Beasts shook his head. “I’m afraid not. This is the only area they found her scent.”

    “Most likely, she or someone else used her needle ring to escape,” Aundra muttered. “Although I have a bad feeling that it may be the latter. Otherwise, she would have met with us by now.”

    “If that’s so, then they probably forced her to draw her blood because I can’t trace where they may go off to,” Marika said.

    “What should we do then?” Lanskas asked. “We can’t let her be a prisoner by either the Dalenthi or the Lashival! Who know what they’ll do to her?”

    “I think she’ll be fine with the Lashival,” Zentran said abruptly.

    Kejuta and the others looked at him, bewildered. “What do you mean?” she finally questioned.

    “Well, you see…” He scratched his head. “I didn’t tell you the whole thing about what happened. When the Lashival went berserk, Thea went to kill him before he could cause any more damage, but…” He became silent and put his hands inside his pocket.

    “But what, Zen?” she probed impatiently.

    The Ilmarian of Seasons sighed. “She was using Aerius’s Spear, okay?”

    “I don’t see how using her weapon is important.”

    “It is, Kej! Don’t you remember the legend behind that weapon?” he nearly shouted but quickly calmed down. “Anyway, she tried to kill him, but that spear swerved out of the way and missed him completely. I know what I saw, Kej; it was right in front of my eyes.”

    She stared at him incredulously. “What are you saying?”

    “I’m saying that Thea and the Lashival have become close to each other,” he replied. “She was living with his brother and him for over a year now so she doesn’t have the heart to kill him, and I guess the same would go for him too.”

    At first, no one spoke until finally, Marika said, “So what are we going to do now, Kej?”

    She thought for a moment. “We’ll head back for now. Tell the others we’re going back, and there is going to be a meeting. Even though we can’t find Thea, there’s something else we need to discuss. And keep that information a secret for now; we don’t need the others to know about it.” The others nodded and began to deliver her message to their colleagues though none except Zen knew that she was implying about the false messenger birds. As she opened a portal back to Welvaria, she glanced back at the scene around her. “Please be safe, Thea,” she whispered before she stepped inside the portal and waited for the others.
    --- Double Post Merged, Oct 22, 2016 ---
    Sorry for the delay. Having writer's block and a cold can do that. :sweat

    Anyhow...




    Chapter 15: A Ghost from the Past

    Corwin watched his brother intently as they sat by the campfire and waited for Priya’s arrival. The whole time, Noeth would sit quietly although his facial expressions would change. One moment, his eyes would be all buggy-eyed; the next, his face would be scrunched up as he rubbed his temples. Finally, he asked, “Are you all right, Noeth?”

    His brother nodded. “Yeah. I’m just weirded out that I was a girl in my past life.”

    “Oh.” After they fled Doran, his brother was still acting strangely. He would recall something that happened a long time ago but insisted that it happened to him. At first, he and Priya were a little frightened by his erratic behaviors, but she managed to calm down and theorized that he must have accidentally caused Noeth to regain all of the memories of his past lives. Regaining their composure, both of them helped Noeth recalled who he was though it took awhile because he would claim that he was someone else. He was confused afterward until they explained what happened to him.

    At the moment, he was still trying to straighten out the bits of memories – “compartmentalizing” was what he called it. “How’s your compart- or whatchacallit coming along?” Corwin asked.

    “It’s coming along,” Noeth said and sighed.

    “What’s wrong?”

    “It’s nothing, but I just to figure things out. That’s all,” he just said.

    Before he could ask, they heard a rustling noise nearby. “Psst! It’s just me,” Priya hissed before she appeared before them. She was in her Aerian form so that they know that it was really her, not an imposter trying to trick them. For the last few weeks, they had been hiding while she goes out to find them foods and other necessities. At the moment, they were resting in a cave somewhere in Lycia.

    In her arms was a small bundle of clothes. Crouching down, she gently laid the bundle on the ground and untied it, revealing its bundle – a pile of rolls. “I got us some foods so dine in.”

    Hungry, he and his brother reached out and grabbed one to eat. He was surprised to find them still warm and soft as he took a bite. It was buttery and soft that it almost seemed to melt in his mouth. “Where do you get them anyway?” he asked after he swallowed the delicious morsel.

    “There was a house close to here,” she answered as she tore a piece and popped it in her mouth, “and I noticed that there was a delicious smell coming from there so I decided to check it out. Luckily, I found these rolls cooling on the windowsill so I just grabbed them and left.”
    Noeth’s mouth dropped as he stared at her, mortified. “Wait, you stole them?”

    “I didn’t steal them per se. I left some coins for the owners for their trouble,” she said hastily. Her face turned ashen when she realized that she was answering his brother’s question. Standing up abruptly, she announced, “I better look around just in case any Dalenthi shows up. As soon as I come back, we’ll leave to another location.”

    “Thea, wait!” his brother called out as he began to stand up, but she scurried away before he could finish his sentence. Noeth stared at the spot, where she sat before he shook his head and sat back down again.

    Corwin nibbled on his bread before he ventured, “Priya has been acting funny since I accidentally hurt you. She seemed more spooked out whenever she’s around you, and I’m supposed to be the dangerous one. Heck, she would ask me to deliver messages to you. Did you know her from one of your past lives or something?”

    “Yeah, but it’s complicated,” was all his brother said. Now that made Corwin more curious. What kind of history did his brother have with the goddess?

    “Do you want to talk about it?”

    Noeth sighed. “Let’s just say that when I – I mean, Dalin – first met her, she was someone different.”

    “Oh.” He decided not to pester his brother more based on Noeth’s brooding expression. He probably wanted to be left alone. To be honest, Corwin was deep in thoughts as well. Ever since he blasted his brother, he slowly began to accept that Priya and Zen were telling the truth of his existence. Nevertheless, he still had a lot of questions. Why did the gods create him? Did they really intend for him to fight and kill their own creations? How was he able to kill them?

    They ate in silence until Priya came back. “Ready?” she asked.

    “Yeah, we’re ready,” Noeth answered. She nodded and drew out her needle ring to begin the process though Corwin noticed that she avoided making eye contact with Noeth.

    Pricking her finger, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath as she envisioned their new location. Finally, she threw the needle ring in the air and watched it expand. “Let’s go,” she said. He and his brother nodded as they went through the portal.

    Tall rocks with bizarre formations and cliffs surrounded them in their new location. Above them, the stars twinkled and the full moon gleamed in the night sky above them. Corwin looked around at his surroundings with a great curiosity. What was this place? Besides him, he heard Priya gasped. “I don’t understand. I thought I picked a different place,” she stammered. Her eyes were wide with fright as she wandered around the place. “Why here of all places?”

    “What’s wrong?” he asked her, but she seemed not to hear him as she continued to stare so he turned to his brother, who seemed surprised as well. “Why is she upset, Noeth?”

    “It’s because of that.” His brother pointed off to the distance so Corwin looked at where he was pointing. That was when he noticed that a few meters away from him, there’s what appeared to be a cave-in; piles of rocks blocked the narrow entrance. “That is where I – no, Dalin – died.”

    Argus watched quietly as Alethea kept watch. She had been acting strangely ever since she found out that Noeth boy was the reincarnation of her first love. For one, she was all jittery, especially around Noeth. Second, she has become unreasonable. She refused to respond to any of the messenger birds sent her way just in case it was from that imposter; not to mention, they kept changing location every night. Lastly, she has become more distant to everyone including him.

    Finally, he exhaled sharply and asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”

    She shook her head. “No, I’m fine, Argus. Honest.”

    “Don’t lie to me, Thea. I got my nourishment from your soul so I can tell if you’re upset or not, remember? And right now, you’re still shaken up,” he scoffed.

    “Am not!” she protested, but he snorted. “All right, maybe I am. I messed up, Argus. I know that I shouldn’t have run off with them, but I wasn’t thinking.”

    “You can say that again,” he agreed, recalling what happened after that incident. As soon as she discovered that the Lashival’s brother was Dalin, she immediately blurted that they needed to get out of there and used her needle ring to help them escape despite his protests that they should wait for Zentran to arrive. By the time, she realized what she had done, it was too late and now they’ve been on the run ever since.

    “Now I don’t know what to do. I can’t go back to Welvaria and risk losing the Lashival nor I can continue like this. I can’t send a messenger bird either because I might accidentally reveal our location to that imposter,” she griped and sighed. “At this point, I don’t know who to trust anymore. I can’t even trust myself. Look at me! I even messed up with the needle ring! I thought that I was heading to Sabin, but somehow I was thinking about Dalin’s death and got here instead.”

    “Well, you have to trust someone,” Argus commented, “or otherwise, you’ll live your life being paranoid about everything and risk missing a chance for someone to help you.”

    “I know. That’s why I can trust you the most. Out of everyone, you’re the only one who’s been with me so you understand what I’m going through right now. You’re always there for me to support me and help me when times got tough. Remember how the Kasama would torture me to try to bend me to his will and I refused? You were the one who helped me by encouraging me not to give up,” she replied softly. “In fact, you’re like a father to me.”

    The Parasitic Duermon definitely wasn’t expected that. “Thea…” Tears began to well in his eyes so he quickly blinked until they dissipated. Clearing his throat, he then declared, “Then, as your father figure, I think you should talk to him.”

    He didn’t even have to clarify who “him” was since Alethea, whose face became flushed a bright red, blurted, “Really, Argus? Just because I said that you’re like a father doesn’t mean you can tell me what to do!”

    “Why not?” he interjected. “Things have been awkward ever since you found out that he’s your first love’s reincarnation, and it’s been affecting everyone, especially Corwin. Now, I know that there was some history between you two based on what you told me, but you need to work things out with Noeth before it’s too late.”

    She didn’t say anything at first, which caused Argus to wonder if he had pressed too hard on the issue. “I just can’t, Argus,” she finally confessed. “I’m sure he already hates me for trying to kill his brother, and now this happened! What if he doesn’t believe me that I was duped? What if he blames me for his death? He probably despises me.”

    “And what if he doesn’t? I mean, I’m sure he would understand especially after everything he’s seen and heard so far,” he countered.

    “Maybe, but I’m not ready,” she began when they heard a pebble rolling on the ground behind them. Both froze as they realized that someone was sneaking up on them.

    Shit! He was too distracted talking to Thea to keep an eye on their surrounding. Cursing underneath his breath, Argus spun around to discover that the person was Noeth. The young man stared intently at Thea and said with a firm voice, “We need to talk.”

    Noeth waited patiently for Thea, who became pale as a ghost, to reply. To be honest, he was surprised that he was able to sneak up on her since she always seemed to know when someone was right behind her. Was she that distressed by the whole situation? Imagine his relief when she slowly nodded and came down to see him. Well, it was a start. “Let’s go somewhere a little private,” he suggested. “Don’t worry about Cor. He’s asleep, and I made sure to cover up our hiding spot.”

    If that gave her any reassurance, she didn’t show it. She just kept looking ahead with her wide, nervous eyes. He could only sigh and followed her to a secluded location nestled between two boulders, where hopefully no one could see them. No one talked at first so he decided to start the dialogue. “You’ve been avoiding me,” he accused her.

    “I’m not!” she protested, but her voice faltered as she shirked from his disbelieving stare.

    “You’ve been avoiding me ever since you found out that I was Dalin,” he repeated, “and I think I know why. Back then, did you actually love me, or was that a lie?”

    “I did love you, and I still do!” she protested.

    “Then why didn’t you meet up with me? Why did those Duermon goons appear instead? Were you just toying with my emotions and tricking me?” he shouted, recalling Dalin’s confusion and anger as he lay dying alone in the cave. However, he noticed how visibly upset she was and took a deep breath to calm down. Yelling at her wouldn’t help at all; she was already a nervous wreck around him, and he didn’t want to make things worse. Combing his hair with his fingers, he continued in a gentler tone, “Listen, I’m confused about this whole thing, and I need answers. When I (well, my past life) first met you, you called yourself ‘Ressi’ and claimed that you’re a Duermon. Now, you said that your name is Alethea, and you’re a goddess. What’s going on?”

    “I wanted to tell you, but…” She hesitated.“I wasn’t sure how you would react especially since you remembered what happened between us.”

    He placed his hand on her shoulder gently. “You can try. Please, for Dalin’s sake.”

    Thea didn’t say anything at first; instead, she looked at him as if she was struggling on where she should begin. At last, she took a deep breath. “You were right about me not being a Duermon. When I was young, I was kidnapped and had my memories altered so I was raised into believing that I was a Duermon. It wasn’t until after I met Kejuta and the others that I regained my true memories.”

    Noeth gawked at her incredulously. “Wait a minute, you have your memories altered? How? Why?”

    “There was a Duermon who has the ability to do that. He can touch your soul and change it to whatever he deems fit. As for his reason, it was because he discovered that I was immortal and planned to use me for his own purpose. Whenever I got close to the truth, he would wipe my memories so I would continue to be under his control. That was why I didn’t come to see you like I promised. He found out somehow and made sure that I forgot about you.” She looked at him straight in his eyes and pleaded, “You got to believe me, Noeth. I don’t know what lies they told you when you were Dalin, but I never intended to trick you.”

    “No, I believe you. It does make sense why you thought you were a Duermon and why you never knew about your Aerian heritage,” he answered even though he really couldn’t fathom such power could exist in this world. But then, anything was possible, right? “What happened to that Duermon anyway? Did the others find him and get rid of him?”

    She shook her head. “They can’t rid of him – he’s immortal just like me.”

    “What!? He’s a god too?” Noeth exclaimed.

    She nodded. “His name is Shintra, and he is known as the Ilmarian of Souls.”

    “Wait a minute, you said that he’s an Ilmarian! Does that mean that he’s working with you and the others right now!?”

    “Only recently,” she said. “He has to do some penance first to atone what he did to me and the others he exploited. Then they allowed him to officially join them once he has proven himself.”

    “And you let them do that even after what he did to you?”

    A rueful expression appeared on her face. “What choice do I have? He was the reason why we were able to defeat the Velscendus Cult in the first place. Not to mention, he seemed to be reformed so there was nothing I can do. Even if I did, they would probably think I still have a grudge against him.”

    “So they completely trust him?” She shrugged. “Aren’t they worried that he would use his power on them?”

    “No, he shouldn’t be able. Aundra had put a protection spell on us, which prevents us from using our magic against each other,” she reassured him.

    “Oh.” He scratched his head. It was still mind-boggling to him that the gods would still be working with someone who supposedly has that terrifying ability. “So what are you going to do?”

    She blinked. “What do you mean?”

    “I’m asking what is your next move?” Noeth asked.

    “Against him? Nothing unless I have proof.”

    He shook his head and clarified, “No, I mean… about us. What do you want to do?”

    “I don’t know,” she confessed.

    “Well, how do you feel about me?” he asked, hoping that it would help her.

    “I do care about you, but… at the same time, I’m neglecting my duties by staying with you. I should be back in Welvaria with the others and help them.”

    “Who says that you’re neglecting your duties?” The goddess looked at him, confused. “Didn’t you say that you’re supposed to keep an eye on the Lashival? Well, aren’t you doing it right now?”

    “But I’m supposed to kill him! Do you really want me to kill your brother?” Thea asked with disbelief.

    He shook his head. “No, of course not, but think about it. Right now, you’re making sure that Cor won’t go berserk so he won’t accidentally destroy the world, and so far, you’re doing a great job.”

    That pep talk didn’t seem to convince her. “But how do we know that he won’t go berserk again?”

    “We won’t,” he admitted, “but I don’t think he’ll lose control again. I think our presences are helping him somehow; maybe it helps keep him stable because he recognizes us as his family, and he would never intentionally try to hurt us. Speaking of which, remember the offer we gave you back in Anka? About how we want to officially include you as one of the family? Well, that offer still stands. So what do you say?”

    Alethea didn’t answer. At that moment, her head was full of conflicting thoughts. Should she accept his proposal and stay with them? Or should she decline and head back to the others? Her heart wanted to stay, but her head was telling her that she shouldn’t. It wasn’t feasible after all. Where were they going to stay? How were they able to survive without getting caught by either her colleagues or the Dalenthi? Not to mention…

    “But you’re mortal,” she reminded him. “Once you died, I’ll lose you again.” Just thinking about his potential death caused her heart to ache. She would lose him again – just like the last time.

    “I know. That’s why I want you to stay. Then, at least, we spend a lot of time to catch up and be together before I go. Please, Thea.” Noeth took a deep breath and reached out to hold her hands. “I don’t know how to say it, but when I first met you, I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. It was like I knew you even though I’ve never seen you before, but there was something special about you. And now that I got my memories back, I understood why. Listen, Alethea, I don’t care who you are – goddess, Aerian, whatever. I just know that I want to be to with you.”

    Upon hearing that, she knew that he was telling the truth; not even Thread of Lie, which didn’t appear in her hand, was needed. To be honest, she felt a better sense of belonging with the Rasson brothers compared to the other Ilmarians. With the latter, she sensed pity from them even though they tried their best to hide it, but she knew. The sideway glances. The whispers. She hated it though she didn’t voice it – not even to Argus.

    On the other hand, she felt more at ease spending time with the Rasson brothers. They treat her as an equal and didn’t view her any differently. She could be herself. Argus must have a hunch on her decision because he growled, “Don’t do it, Thea. Don’t even think about it.”

    Nevertheless, the Aerian ignored him. After all, this was her life. Squeezing Noeth’s hands, she gave him a small smile. “Noeth, I would lo-” All of a sudden, she had a disquieting feeling like someone was close by.

    Before she could ask the Parasitic Duermon to look around, a spear landed at their feet. “Well, well, well! Looks like we have some unwanted company!” an unfamiliar voice shouted.

    Unnerved, she glanced up in time to see shadowy figures standing on the cliffs above them. Her body tensed as she realized that they were surrounded. Were they Possessor Duermons? But then, if they were, she would have sensed their presence long beforehand. Not to mention the fact, their eyes would be glowing red too. Perhaps they’re Dalenthi? Besides her, Noeth put his arm up in front of her. “Be careful, Thea,” he whispered to her. She nodded as she prepared for a long battle.

    One of the interlopers laughed. “How chivalrous! That human actually believes that he could protect his girlfriend! To think you used to be like that, Mikhail!”

    Mikhail? Alethea’s eyes widened as she immediately recognized that once familiar name. Could it be…? She gently pushed Noeth, who protested, out of the way and stepped out to reveal herself. The crowd stirred when they noticed her white wings, but she wasn’t surprised by their reaction. After all, the Fallen used to be like her until their fall from grace. Ignoring their muttering, she shouted, “Mikhail, is that you? It’s me, Alethea.”

    As soon as she said that, one of them leapt into the air before flew down right in front of her. Despite not seeing him for several centuries, she could still identify Mikail even though the feathers on his wings were now black as the night. He still has his baby face though it was more hardened; he was also muscular in spite of his sinewy body. He wore a dark blue long-sleeved shirt, a gray tunic, black pants, and boots. His black hair, which reached to just below his ears, was pulled back with a dark blue headband as he squinted his brown eyes at her. “Alethea? Is that really you?” he breathed.

    Before she could answer, she heard Noeth, who came right up next to her, asked, “Thea, do you know him?”

    Turning to him, she said uncertainly, “He was my fiancée.”

    --- Double Post Merged, Nov 22, 2016 ---
    Decided to split the next chapter into two. Otherwise, it would be too long




    Chapter 16: Mikhail

    Is. I’m still considered your fiancé,” Mikhail corrected as he walked over to Alethea. Before she could react, he grabbed her by the arms and pulled her into his arms as he hugged her tightly. Noeth immediately grew a disliking of him upon seeing that. He didn’t care who this Mikhail was; Alethea’s fiancé seemed rather forceful to his liking. At that moment, Noeth was tempted to pry the goddess free but he restrained himself. Unlike the Fallen, he wasn’t a prick.

    After what seemed like an eternity, the Fallen finally let her go. “I still can’t believe it's you! Anyway, what happened to you? I thought you were dead when we couldn’t find you after you snuck out of training camp! How did you manage to survive here without getting caught by those Duermons?”

    Alethea hesitated. “It’s a long story, Mikhail,” she began, but he cut her off with a wave of his hand.

    “It’s okay. You can tell me later,” he said flippantly when he suddenly noticed Noeth standing next to her. “Anyway, who’s this?”

    “This? Oh, you mean Noeth.” She nudged him forward and introduced, “Mikhail, this is Noeth; Noeth, Mikhail. Noeth and his brother are traveling with me.”

    “I see…” The Fallen narrowed his eyes. Most likely, he was sizing him up; that was Noeth was doing anyway. Finally, he extended his hand, which he accepted. The Fallen’s grip was rather strong as if he was trying to break his hand. “Noeth, huh? So how do you know Thea?”

    Before any of them could respond, the other Fallen showed up next to them. “Mikhail, you know her?” one of them asked curtly as she pointed at Alethea. Even though Noeth was somewhat miffed that they ignored him, he was a little bit relieved. He could feel the animosity coming from them as they stared at Alethea especially at her wings. No doubt they didn’t like to be reminded of their former lives.

    “Sendiya, this is Alethea, my fiancé, and her companion, Noeth,” Mikhail answered, introducing the both of them to his colleagues. They just gave Noeth a slight nod, but their attention was mostly on the Aerian. “Remember how I told you that she disappeared in Idilarys and we couldn’t find her? Well, it looks like she’s alive and well!”

    Sendiya stared at her before she finally said, “Wait, I don’t understand. I thought you said that she was dead.”

    “I was mistaken. It seems that she was able to survive on her own,” he replied but eyed Alethea curiously, “though I have to admit that I wonder how you were able to evade the Duermons for so long, but that’s okay. I’m sure she’ll tell us all about it once we reach home.”

    That didn’t sit well with Sendiya. “Why would we allow an Aerian stay with us?” she interjected. “I don’t care if she’s your fiancé, Mikhail. She’s an enemy, and I refused to have her around.”

    “It’s because one, she’s my guest, and two, I’m in charge of this squadron so I made the decision. Don’t forget your place, Sendiya!” the Fallen countered. His eyes gleamed dangerously at Sendiya. Her face darkened, but she wisely remained quiet, which satisfied him. Turning his attention to the others, he continued, “Anyone else has issues with her coming with us?” The others shook their heads so he looked at Thea and smiled. “Since that settled, why don’t we head back now?”

    “Are you sure?” she replied, eyeing the other Fallen. “I don’t want to be a nuisance though I’m sure I already am.”

    He chortled. “You’re not being a nuisance. Besides, if anyone has any problem with you, they have to deal with me so come on.” Without another word, he ripped her hand away from Noeth’s and started to drag her, but she remained firm to the ground.

    “Mikhail, I can’t!” she said adamantly, and she pulled herself free from his grasp.

    He stopped and stared at her. “Why not? If you’re worried about the others, don’t. They won’t bother you,” he demanded.

    She glanced over at Noeth. “It’s because I have to be somewhere else.”

    This time, the Fallen stared – no, glared – at him so Noeth did the same. “If you’re concerned about them, they can come along too.” One thing for sure, this Mikhail person was persistent.

    “I don’t know…”

    “I insist!” her fiancé answered and pulled her closer to him, which gave Noeth another reason to hate him. “Listen, Thea. The whole time I thought you were dead and blame myself for not protecting you. I need to know what happened to you.”

    Alethea didn’t respond as she looked down to the ground. Don’t accept. Don’t accept, Noeth prayed, hoping that she could hear his thoughts. At the end, she sighed. “All right,” she relented, “but only for tonight.”

    Noeth scowled. On the other hand, Mikhail appeared pleased. “Great! Now, let’s go find his brother and then we head back to our base. After you.” With that being said, he wrapped his arm around her waist and forced her to lead the way. Still scowling, Noeth hurried after them before he lost track of them while the other Fallen followed behind.

    As they traveled to their hiding spot, Thea glanced back and sheepishly mouthed, “Sorry” to him, but Noeth just smiled wryly. What could he do? What was done was done. Even though he wasn’t happy about the outcome, he figured that she accepted due to feeling obliged to her fiancé. Nevertheless, he had a feeling that nothing good would come out of it.

    Alethea could only shake her head in wonderment. First, Noeth, and now this? If she didn’t know any better, she would have thought Kejuta was pulling a cruel prank on her. “Maybe she is,” Argus commented, which caused her realize that she thought that thought aloud. “It couldn’t be a coincidence that you met people from your past soon after the others.”

    She didn’t reply because, to be honest, she wasn’t sure how to respond. Yes, Kejuta is the Ilmarian of Fate, but it was impossible for her to know that Noeth is Dalin reincarnate or that they would encounter Mikhail, right? But then, maybe it was possible since she really doesn't know the full extent of Kejuta’s abilities.

    “Is everything all right? You’ve been awfully quiet,” Mikhail asked.

    She nodded. “I’m fine. It’s just that… It’s overwhelming.”

    “I understand,” he commiserated. “I’m feeling the same way too. Who would have thought we would meet up like this? It must be fate or something!”

    The Ilmarian of Truth shifted uneasily at that comment. “Where is this ‘home’ anyway? It’s not our old homeland, is it?” she asked, hoping to change the subject.

    Her former fiancé (she didn’t know why he insisted that they were still engaged; didn’t he know that the engagement broke off as soon as he became a Fallen?) barked out a hearty laugh. “Of course not! This is my home now! Besides, no one can live in the Desolated Land, remember?”

    “Oh, right.” She shifted uncomfortably as she remembered how she was indirectly involved with that disaster. “Anyway, what have you been doing these past few years?”

    He shrugged. “Nothing much. Just guarding our territory against Duermons and the likes though we really don’t pick a fight with them since they’re not our enemies anymore now that we don’t have the Aerian Oath to worry about.”

    “I guess that makes sense,” she muttered. “Anyway, are you in charge?”

    He laughed. “I wish! I’m just a squad leader; I work under the Commander. He’s the one who tells us what to do.”

    “The Commander?”

    Mikhail smiled. “Oh, you know him, Thea. You’ve met him before.”

    “I have? Who is he then?” She blinked as she rankled her mind, trying to recall any Aerians who may become a Fallen but to no avail.

    However, her ex-fiancé just shook his head. “Let’s keep it a surprise, shall we?”

    “If you say so.” Nevertheless, that question was going to bother her to no end. She glanced back to check on Noeth, who was walking a few steps behind them. Based on his scowling face, he wasn’t happy about the arrangement. Seeing his expression caused her to feel guilty for forcing him to come along with her. Maybe she should say something to reassure him. Just as she was about to open her mouth, she felt a sharp tug and turned around to see Mikhail giving her a disapproving look.

    “You don’t have to worry about him. No one would dare touch him,” he said, but she knew that wasn’t the reason he kept her from speaking to Noeth. Ever since she introduced the two, there was tension between them as if they both knew that they were a threat. Even though the Ilmarian of Truth knew the real reason behind his action, she didn’t dare confront him about it. Not in front of everyone, at least.

    Instead, she stopped and pointed at a cave, which entrance was covered by rocks and bushes. “His brother should be in here.”

    Mikhail nodded. “Sendiya, grab two other men and get him,” he ordered, but Noeth stepped forward.

    “No, let me get him,” he argued. “He’s probably sleeping right now so he may panic if he wakes up to find a stranger standing above him.”

    The Fallen frowned, but fortunately, nodded his head in agreement so Noeth quickly hurried down to the entrance while the others watched. Alethea noticed that they surrounded the cave like they were making sure to block the Rasson brothers from escaping. At the same time, Mikhail wrapped his arm around her waist and pushed her toward him so that she leaned against his body. As she began to feel uneasy about it, she heard Argus coughed slightly.

    “Man, is your ex-fiancé always this controlling?” he wondered aloud.

    She hesitated. “Not as I remembered. I mean, he was overly protective of me during training but not to this extent. Maybe it’s because we finally bumped into each other.”

    “I hope so” was all the Parasitic Duermon said. She could concur with that statement.

    A few minutes later, they heard footsteps as Noeth and Corwin emerged from the cave. The former guided his younger brother, who was yawning and rubbing his eyes, by the arm. “We’re leaving already, Priya?” he asked, stifling a yawn. That was when he noticed the Fallen surrounding them, which caused his eyes to widen with alarm.

    “Corwin, it’s all right,” she said quickly as she ran up to reassure him. “Some of them are my friends, and we’re staying with them for the night. They won’t hurt us.”

    He stared at her so she wondered if he believed her. However, he just nodded much to her relief. Approaching footsteps told her that Mikhail was coming and sure enough, he was right behind her. He stared at them especially Corwin with a strange gleam in his eyes, which unnerved her. “Now then, shall we head home now?” he asked briskly.

    Along the way, Mikhail motioned one of the Fallen over. “Tell the Commander that we’re coming and that we have some guests with us,” he ordered. His comrade nodded and flew ahead of them.

    As he watched the black-winged angel disappeared from sight, Corwin asked, “Where is your home anyway?”

    “It’s nearby,” Priya’s friend reassured him, “though you probably need some help reaching the entrance.”

    That piqued his curiosity. “Why?”

    “You’ll see,” he replied with a wink.

    Well, that didn’t help him one bit. Now he’s really curious. He turned to his brother. “Where do you think they live?”

    “I don’t know,” he snapped. Corwin had noticed that Noeth was in the bad mood ever since they met the Fallen. The whole time, he kept glaring at Mikhail, who was standing awfully close to Priya. The Fallen would sometimes place his arm around her shoulder as they talked.
    Suspecting something, he asked, “Boy, Mikhail seemed awfully close to Priya, huh?” His brother only grunted. “How does he know her anyway?”

    “Apparently, he’s her fiancé,” Noeth grumbled.

    Corwin’s mouth dropped. “Fiancé? But she never said anything about that before!”

    “Tell me about it,” he muttered as he folded his arms and looked at the ground. Corwin stared at his brother. Was Noeth actually sulking? He’s seen his brother upset before, but not that upset. The last time he was almost that upset was when their parents were still alive. His brother pouted when they refused to let him hang out with his friends after school because he didn’t finish his homework and chores. Seeing his brother in that state seemed so unusual, to say the least.

    “We’re here,” Mikhail suddenly announced.

    Corwin stopped and looked around his surroundings; all he saw was rock walls that towered over them; no sign of doors or anything anywhere. His brother must have been confused as well because he said aloud, “Where? I don’t see any homes.”

    “Not down here,” the Fallen guffawed and pointed upward. “Our home is up there!”

    They followed the direction of his finger and gaped at what they saw. Around 300 meters were gaping holes of various sizes. Most were small enough for someone to peek their head out while others were large enough for someone to enter. Sure enough, Corwin spotted some other Fallen entering and exiting a few of the doorways.

    Looking at Priya’s fiancé, he asked astoundingly, “You guys live here?” The Fallen nodded. “But how are we going to get up there? Noeth and I don’t have wings!”

    “My men can carry you,” he answered and waved his hand. Before Corwin could even blink, he felt someone wrapped their arms around his waist and hoisted him up in the air. From the corner of his eyes, he saw that another Fallen had done same to Noeth while Priya just followed behind them. As they flew toward the Fallen’s home, he glanced down and immediately regretted his decision.

    From his current point of view, the ground below was quite different; it reminded him of patched quilt. The huge boulders appeared to be the size of pebbles while the plateaus looked like raised blocks. In the distance, the river looked like a slithering snake. Looking down, he could see his feet dangling and gulped. Just think – he could easily die if the Fallen accidentally let go of him.

    As if knowing what he was thinking, the Fallen holding him said, “Don’t worry. I have a firm grip on you. I promise that I won’t let you go – as long as you don’t squirm too much, of course.”

    Nodding, he became as still as a rock as they continued their journey. This time, he didn’t dare move a muscle – not even to turn to check on Noeth or Priya. Even though the Fallen tried to be reassuring, Corwin could hear a hint of malice in his voice. Despite the goddess’s assuagement that they were guests of Fallen, he had a nagging feeling that it was anything but.

    --- Double Post Merged, Dec 9, 2016 ---
    Chapter 17: A Fresh Start

    “So what do you think? Not what you expected, huh?” Mikhail asked.

    “You can say that,” Alethea answered, and Noeth had to agree. After landing at one of the hanging doorways, their hosts were giving a tour of their home. To be honest, he thought the Fallen’s home would be cramped and cold so imagine his surprise to discover it was quite the opposite. The corridors were wide enough for everyone to walk through. Even though they were inside the cliff, it was surprisingly warm and toasty; he would have expected it to be chilly due to lack of doors to block the winds.

    Holes large enough for a person to walk through without hitting their heads were carved on the stone walls and lead to more corridors or rooms. For light, they used magic to ignite sticks or scrap papers. Noeth hated to admit it, but the Fallen were rather impressive with their ingenuity though they were still rude nevertheless. The whole time, he noticed that the Fallen passing by would glare at them or sneer.

    They continued their tour when the Fallen, whom Mikhail sent ahead, rushed over to them. “Mikhail! The superiors wish to talk to you.”
    He frowned. “Did they say why?”

    “No, but they said that it was urgent.”

    “They’re probably upset that you brought home some outsiders,” Sendiya gibed as she flipped her cyan hair.

    “I highly doubt it. I’m sure it’s about something else,” he disagreed though he seemed uncertain. “Anyway, we better go. Don’t want to keep them waiting, right?”

    As they continued their walk, Noeth noticed that the Fallen seemed tenser; even though Mikhail kept conversing with Thea, he seemed more agitated. Not that he mind; it was nice to see the Fallen squirm. After a while, they stopped at a doorway. Unlike the rest, this one had a barrier blocking the way. Two Fallen also guarded the door. “Wait here,” Thea’s fiancé told them. “I’ll be back.”

    “All right,” the Aerian replied. They watched as he whispered to one of the guards, who nodded before lowering the barrier. They immediately put it back up, however, as soon as Mikhail walked through the doorway.

    They waited patiently for him to come back, but after awhile, it appeared that it was going to be awhile. Bored, Noeth peeked into one of the rooms and saw some of the Fallen’s children asleep in their bed. However, that wasn’t what surprised him – their wings were white like Thea’s.

    The goddess must have noticed as well because she commented, “I didn’t know your children are Aerians.”

    Sendiya snorted. “Only for a bit. After they finished their lessons, they will become just like us so don’t raise your hope up of not being the last Aerian.”

    “What do you mean?”

    This time, the Fallen smirked. “We trained them to despise humans and our creator for forcing the Aerian Oath on us. As a final test, they have to kill a human in order for their wings to become one of us. If they fail, we kill them.”

    Corwin gasped. “You kill them!? That’s horrible!”

    “Why not?” She shrugged. “They are our enemy, right? You Aerians hunted us down so why shouldn’t we?”

    “That may be true, but we didn’t kill innocent children!” Thea retorted; her eyes flashed with anger as she said it.

    “Look at you! Acting all high and mighty!” Sendiya smiled. “You know, I was like you once, but I changed when I saw the truth about humanity. In fact, I bet you have too though you don’t want to admit it.”
    “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she began, but the Fallen waved her hand flippantly.
    “Oh, you know what I’m saying.” A smug look appeared on the Fallen’s face as she sauntered over to the Aerian. Jabbing her finger on Thea’s chest, she continued, “When I was an Aerian, I noticed how dependent those humans were on us. Always expecting us to protect them from every Duermon attack and then blaming us if we fail. They want us to do everything for them! Haha, they’re so hopeless! Do you know what’s pathetic? Seeing them beg! It’s amazing, to say the least. You should see the look on their face when they realize that I’m not going to save them but ki-”

    She grunted as Noeth grabbed her arm and swung her hard toward the ground. “You take that back!” he snarled. However, she let out a boisterous laugh.

    “And that’s another reason,” she said as she stood up and wiped the dust off her black and blue jumpsuit. Before he could react, she raised her hand and Noeth felt something slammed him hard against the floor, causing him to see stars. Next to him, he heard Corwin and Alethea cried out in alarm as they went over to check on him, which made Sendiya grin widely. “Humans are just as savage as the Duermons. They brutalized their own kind and caused unnecessary conflicts just for their personal gains! And Aerius wanted us to protect them!? I think not!”

    All of a sudden, her light green eyes gleamed excitedly. “After I made that discovery, it was so easy to kill humans without any remorse. It’s refreshing actually – not to worry about breaking the Aerian Oath anymore. Because once you become a Fallen, you are free from that stupid oath. You can do whatever you want without worrying about any reprisals. In fact, you should try it, Aerian.”

    “What are you implying?” Alethea asked. Her voice has a hint of warning as she glared at Sendiya.

    “You know, become a Fallen just like us. Then you won’t be the last Aerian anymore and you can be with your people again. All you need to do is kill one of them to become one of us. Or both if you want. I don’t care,” she explained and tilted her head toward Noeth and Corwin. “Listen, I know it’s uncomfortable, but you’ll get used to it after awhile. So what will it be? Continue to be the only Aerian left in the world or become one of us and be with your people again?”

    “Thea, don’t listen to her!” Noeth began, but she already had her response ready. Without any hesitation, she blasted Sendiya with a light orb attack before she summoned her spear and aimed it at the Fallen’s throat. Around them, the other Fallen shouted with shock and anger.
    A surprised Sendiya croaked as she stared wide-eyed at the blue and gold weapon, “Wait, is that-?”

    However, Thea interrupted her, “That may be true about humanity, but I will continue to protect them no matter what so I’ll never be one of you! And don’t you ever lay a finger on him again!”

    At first, the Fallen gaped at her but she quickly regained her composure. “Or else what? Just because you are Aerius’s successor doesn’t mean you can boss me around!” she challenged.

    This time, it was Alethea’s turn to be stunned. “Wait, how do you know?”

    Before she could respond, they heard Mikhail shouted, “That’s enough, Sendiya!” Startled, everyone turned around to see him standing in front of the doorway; a disapproving look was on his face. He continued, “You of all people should know better. Now get out!”

    Sendiya turned pale but she lifted her head defiantly. “That’s the problem with you, Mikhail. You are still soft,” she retorted as she crossed her arms. “It seemed that a few of your Aerian traits haven’t been completely erased. I wonder how the Commander will feel about that when he finds out.”

    Mikhail’s face darkened as he watched her strutted away. However, he took a deep breath and smiled regretfully at Noeth and the others. “Sorry about that,” he apologized. “Sendiya can be provocative sometimes.”

    “Are you sure it’s only sometimes?” Noeth muttered underneath his breath. Luckily, the Fallen didn’t hear him.

    “Anyway, please come in. My superiors are eager to meet you all,” he said.

    Alethea studied the Fallen standing above her and wondered which one was the Commander. Just as she imagined, they were much older than Mikhail. They have wrinkles on their foreheads and crow’s nest at the corner of their eyes. Their hair has streaks of white, silver, or gray. Robes made with black and red fabric adorned their bodies. All of them wore the same stern expression as they looked down at the Rasson brothers and her; their frowns seemed to be permanently on their faces. Her former fiancé had already made introductions so they were just waiting for their hosts to greet them.

    “Remember your ex-fiancé claimed that you know him,” Argus reminded her. “So do you recognize him from the bunch?”

    She shook her head. “No, I don’t know any of these people.”

    “Then I guess he isn’t here,” he replied.

    Just then, one of the Fallen superiors cleared his throat. “Welcome, humble guests, to our home,” Vemnas said with a booming voice. “Mikhail had told us all about you – especially you, Aerius’s heir.”

    There it was again. How did the Fallen know her secret? ““Thank you for your hospitality. We are grateful that you allow us in your home, but I do have a question. How do you know that I’m Aerius’s heir?” she wondered.

    “Your spear,” another, who was named Kerias, replied bluntly, pointing to her weapon in her hand. “We immediately recognized it as our former creator’s weapon.”

    A third Fallen named Ghent continued, “Before her untimely death, Aerius had foretold that her successor would be given her weapon as proof of her ascension.”

    “And now you appear right before us,” Isanhu added, “though it is a pity that you have no one to command.”

    The Ilmarian of Truth frowned slightly. Even though the Fallen looked at her sympathetically, she knew that they were insincere. She could see the smug look in their eyes as they looked down on her. She didn’t need the Threads of Lies, which appeared in her hand as soon as Isanhu spoke, to tell her that either. However, she knew that it wasn’t a good idea to call them out on it. Right now, she and the others were in their domain so they were at a huge disadvantage. Instead, she inquired, “Mikhail had told me that you have a commander leading you. Is he here?”

    “Unfortunately, no,” the first Fallen answered, shaking his head. “He’s currently preoccupied so he couldn’t be here.”

    “But he did send his regards and apologized for not being able to be here to meet you,” Isanhu interjected. “He also asked that you considered this place your home though you’re forbidden from getting involved with our affairs.”

    “I see,” she answered. For some reason, she felt relieved by that news. Maybe it was because she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing a former friend again. “I’m sorry that we are not able to meet your commander. Please assure him that my friends and I won’t interfere with any of your business. Is there anything else? If so, then we are ready to be shown our quarters. We had an exhausting night so we are eager to go to bed.”

    “Not quite!” Ghent bellowed as he stood up. “We have one concern about you, Aerian. Our creator had stated that all Aerians must hunt down their fallen brethren until none is left. Will you still continue her mission?”

    Alethea noticed that all of the Fallen in the room were gripping their weapons as they waited for her response. Their face wore a threatening expression except for Mikhail’s; he seemed fretful. At the same time, Noeth and Corwin stood nervously as they stared at their hosts. “You better say the right thing,” Argus advised. Otherwise, this will get ugly.”

    “No, I won’t. I have no qualms with you,” she finally said as she shook her head.

    Instead of being pleased, the Fallen narrowed their eyes. “But what about the Aerian Oath?” Kerias pointed out. “Hunting us down is part of that accursed oath. Surely, you must know that you would become one of us if you break it.”

    This time, she pondered for a moment. Should she reveal her secret? Taking a deep breath, she confessed, “Actually, the Aerian Oath had been removed from me so I don’t have to worry about my wings turning black.”

    As she anticipated, that caused an uproar amongst the Fallen. Most of them immediately stood up and shouted down at her while others just sat in their chairs, stunned. “What!? It has been removed?” Vemnas bellowed. “But how?”

    “It must because she became immortal,” Ishanu theorized, studying her with a strange look in her eyes.

    “That must be it,” Ghent agreed, “although I wonder why Aerius would take it away from her only.”

    Alethea remained silent as the Fallen discussed among themselves. She didn’t want to reveal to them that it was actually Shintra – not their creator – who removed the Aerian Oath from her. Just the thought of him made her blood boil.

    “But how do we know that she’s telling the truth?” Kerias interjected. “Maybe she’s lying just to save her hide.”

    “That could be,” Vemnas agreed and turned to Alethea. His green eyes seemed to penetrate to her soul. “If the Aerian Oath was taken away, prove it. Attack one of your companions.”

    She stared at them in utter disbelief. “What? I refuse!”

    “Why not?” Ghent countered. “We’re not asking you to kill them, just hurt them a bit. You’re not worried about your wings becoming black, are you?”

    “Of course not! Noeth and Corwin are my friends so I would never harm them,” she argued. “You’ll just have to take my words on it.”

    She glared at them, challenging them to say another word. If they dared hurt any of the Rasson brothers, she was ready. Her hand gripped the Threads of Lies; one yank and those Fallen would be writhing in pain. “Just give me a signal, and I’ll get your armor out in a jiffy,” Argus growled. “Those pretentious bastards wouldn’t stand a chance.”

    The Fallen superiors just stared at her for a moment before Vemnas said, “That’s all right. We believe you.” The Ilmarian of Truth breathed a sigh of relief. At least there wouldn’t be any bloodshed tonight though she wondered why they had a change of heart until she heard what the Fallen said next. “Our commander told us to be respectful and welcoming to our guests, and we were being rude to you just now. Please accept our apologies.”

    “Apologies accepted,” she replied.

    Their hosts nodded. “Anyway, Mikhail will show you to your quarters. Please enjoy your stay.”

    She bowed her head. “Thank you again for your hospitality. I’ll return the favor to you one day,” she told them. They didn’t respond and only watched in silence as she and Rasson brothers left the room.

    “And here you’ll be staying,” Mikhail announced, gesturing to a doorway. Alethea nodded as she went inside the room. It was a small room with the bare necessities. A pile of blankets was stacked up on a thick layer of dried grass, which served as the bed. A small lantern, which was lit, was a few centimeters away. “Sorry, it isn’t much, but it’s still better than nothing.”
    “It’s all right. It’s still livable,” she reassured him.

    “That’s good to hear,” he said with a smile and shook his head ruefully. “Who would have thought you’d be Aerius’s successor? Is that how you managed to survive for all those years?”

    Not willing to tell the truth, she didn’t say a word but just nodded. The Aerian couldn’t bear to tell him what actually happened to her because it would be too shameful. How would Mikhail react if he found out that she was actually living with Duermons who were grooming her to be their tool? “I really don’t want to talk about it, Mik-”

    Imagine her surprise when her former fiancé abruptly rushed over to her and embraced her. “I’m so sorry, Thea,” he apologized. “I should have been there to protect you. Who knows how long you suffer?”

    “Mikhail…” She gently removed his arms and looked at him sadly. “What happened to you? How did you become a Fallen? The Mikhail I remembered loves humanity!”

    A strange expression appeared on his face. “I did, but…” He turned away from her and looked at the ceiling as he exhaled. “There was an incident. I was patrolling as usual when I noticed a carriage full of humans was in dire need of help so I decided to investigate. Apparently, one of the carriage’s axles broke, and the occupants were trying to fix it. As I went closer, I realized that it was only the driver trying to repair the wagon while his passengers, whom I could tell were very wealthy people, waited impatiently. He must have been too slow to one of the passengers’ likely because he suddenly started berating and beating the poor man. Vivid, I pulled that man aside and asked him why didn’t he help the driver instead of just standing there doing nothing? Do you know what he did? He slapped my hand aside and jeered at me, telling me to mind my own business and continue protecting them from the Duermon threat.

    “Well, I snapped. Before I knew it, I grabbed that man by the front of his fancy shirt and slammed him hard against the side of the carriage. I yelled at him, saying that just because he lives a privileged life doesn’t mean that he’s better than everyone else. The whole time, I repeatedly slammed him against the carriage as I ignored the others’ pleas to stop. I was so furious, Thea! That bastard thought just because he’s a noble, he could treat everybody else like dirt. You got to understand.”

    “I think I do,” she whispered. She could recall seeing humans mistreating each other while undercover. Nevertheless, she was still troubled that her childhood friend would abruptly attack a human. Who would have thought he has a temper? “Did you… kill him?”

    Mikhail shook his head. “No, I didn’t though I wish I did. I only stopped when I heard someone gasped behind me. Startled, I looked back to see everyone was staring at me – no, at my wings. When I saw the horrified expression on their faces, I knew right then and there, I had broken the Aerian Oath. My black wings didn’t have to tell me that. Anyway, I realized that my former comrades would be aware of my fall so I knew that I have to flee. I quickly tossed that ingrate down to the ground and fled to the Idilyrian border. Ever since then, I’ve stayed here with the others.”

    “But how did you know where to find the other Fallen?” she wondered.

    “I don’t really know, to be honest,” he admitted, shrugging. “It’s just… I just knew. I guess we Fallen have some sort of connection so we could find each other.”

    “Oh, I see.” Alethea looked away from him for a moment. Even though she was glad that he was alive, it still saddened her to see him in such state.

    Mikhail must have sensed her unhappiness because he tilted her chin up and smiled. “Hey, cheer up! At least, I’m alive, right? If I didn’t become a Fallen, I’d probably be dead.”

    “True, but…” She looked at him, unsure. “I still can’t imagine you like this! Out of everyone I know, I would never expect you to become a Fallen.”

    “Me either, but I guess fate can be cruel sometimes,” he said ruefully. “Anyway, enough about me! What’s about you? What have you been doing, Aerius’s heir?”

    Her childhood friend looked disappointed, but he said, “All right, but what about those human companions of yours? Why are they traveling with you? Are they gods just like you?”

    “No, they’re regular humans,” she lied. Mikhail didn’t need to know about Corwin being the Lashival. The less he knows, the better. Besides, how would he react if he knew that she harboring the gods’ killer? “However, they’re in danger, which is why I’m traveling with them to protect them.”

    “In danger? From whom?”

    “The Dalenthi,” she informed him. “They’re hunting the brothers down for some reason.”

    “Huh, they must be quite special if the Dalenthi are after them.” Mikhail looked at her thoughtfully. “So you’ve been on the run with them for quite some time now, I presume?”

    She nodded. “Almost a year now.”

    “And what about your fellow gods then? Can’t they help?”

    “They can’t. I have to do this on my own,” the Ilmarian of Truth said, shaking her head. She couldn’t tell him that her colleagues were also hunting Corwin down. It would bring up too many questions.

    “I see…” His eyes suddenly twinkled. “I know! Why don’t you and your companions stay with us?”

    Her mouth dropped. “I beg your pardon?”

    “Well, think about it! No one would ever expect you to be here, right? Besides, we Fallen know how to stay hidden and out of sight. I mean, no one has ever found us after all. I’m sure my commander wouldn’t mind at all.”

    “He does have a point, Thea. No one would think of you hanging around in a place like this, Argus agreed. Alethea scowled. Whose side was the Parasitic Duermon on?

    “I don’t know…” she began, but Mikhail interrupted her.

    “Listen, Thea. All these years, I blamed myself for not being there to help you. I would imagine how frightened you must have been and wish that I would trade places with you. Now that you’re here, I don’t want to lose you again,” he beseeched.

    Alethea stared at him for a moment then sighed. “Let me talk to Noeth and Corwin about it so I can get their input,” she relented, hoping to delay her friend. Knowing Noeth, he would adamantly say a flat-out no. She saw his reaction the entire time she was talking to Mikhail.

    That answer seemed to satisfy him. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. This decision does involve them as well,” he agreed. “I hope you’ll stay, though. We can be together again just like old times. Just imagine – you and me starting a new life together!”

    Alethea’s face dropped. She hated to dampen her ex-fiancé’s joy, but she knew that she needs to tell him. Sooner or later, he would find out, and it might as well come straight from her mouth. “Listen, Mikhail. About us…”

    Noeth looked out at the night sky and sighed. Even though his body felt tired, he couldn’t fall asleep. Corwin, on the other hand, immediately started dozing off as soon as he plopped into bed though he was fretful in his sleep again. In fact, now that he thought about it, his younger brother had been tossing and turning in his bed ever since he found out his true nature. Noeth could only shake his head. Who would have thought this Corwin has the power to kill a god? It’s still hard for him to fathom even though he-

    All of a sudden, he recalled a time helping his father gather the crop when an earthquake occurred without any warning. Due to the tremors, he stumbled onto the ground, but his dad managed to help him get up. His frightened father asked him if he was all right, but he wasn’t paying attention to what he said. Instead, he was staring at the sky, which started to crack.

    He shook his head and rubbed his temples. No! That wasn’t him right now. He was never a farmer nor he saw the sky cracked like that before. My name is Noeth Rasson, and I’d never experienced anything like that in my life, he reminded himself. After repeating that mantra, he felt his nerves calmed down and took a deep breath. Noeth had thought he managed to keep his current identity separated from his past lives, but it appeared that he was mistaken.

    “Are you all right?” He looked up to see a concerned Alethea walking toward him. Just seeing her gave him an ambivalent reaction. After what happened, he wasn’t sure how he feels about her. A part of him still cares for her, but he wasn’t sure if that feeling comes from him or Dalin. At the same time, a pang of sadness was in his heart. She and Mikhail seemed to get along with each other despite not seeing each other for ages. Recalling their conversation dampened his mood even more.

    “Yeah, I’m all right,” he lied before he remembered that she could detect lies and froze, waiting for her to use her magic on him.

    Luckily, she didn’t call him out on it. Instead, she stood next to him and looked at the night sky. “It’s a lovely night tonight,” she commented.
    He stared at her before he nodded. “Yeah, it is.”

    “How’s Corwin doing by the way?”

    “Asleep. I think the excitement of the trip tired him out.”

    “Mm-hm.” She crossed her arms and tilted her head slightly. “Oh, Mikhail offered us a place to stay here.”

    His heart skipped a beat. Gulping, he inquired, “And what did you say?”

    “I told him that I would talk to you about it,” she replied.

    “Okay.” He paused for a moment before he ventured, “And you? Do you want to stay here?”

    “No, not really.” She gave him a funny look. “Why? Did you think I would?”

    His face flushed with embarrassment. “W-w-well, I thought you might,” he stammered, combing his hair with his hand. “I mean, technically, they are your people, and I’m sure that you would like spending time with them.” Especially Mikhail, he thought to himself.

    Alethea shook her head. “Just because they have wings like me doesn’t mean we are the same. Besides…” She exhaled and glanced away. “I want to be with you.”

    His mouth dropped. “Wait, are you sure?”

    “Of course I’m sure!” she exclaimed; her face was a bright red as she spoke. “I thought about it, and I’ve decided to accept your offer.”
    “My offer?” he asked, crossing his arms.

    “Oh, you know what I mean! The one in which you and Corwin ask me to be a part of your family!” she huffed. “Jeez, sometimes I wonder if you’re acting dumb just to irritate me.”

    He chuckled. It was nice to see her lively again after , but there was one nagging question. “But what’s about Mikhail? Aren’t you still engaged to him?”

    “Oh, that.” She cleared her throat as she pulled her hair behind her ear. “Well, I talked to him about it.”

    “And?”

    “I told him that I don’t think we should be engaged anymore. I explained that we are too different and that I don’t have the same feeling toward him like I did before. I just view him as a dear friend – nothing more.”

    “And how did he take it?”

    “Better than I expect it,” she replied. Noeth narrowed his eyes; he has a hunch that Mikhail didn’t readily agree to void the engagement that easily. “Although he made me promise that we stay here a little longer.”

    His face dropped. “Why?”

    “He said that he really wanted me to meet his commander so I have to agree or otherwise, he refuses to break our engagement,” she answered. “To be honest, I think he wanted me to stay here a little longer to spend time with him.”

    “Oh, I see.” Dammit, he was looking forward getting out of this place too! Something about this place gave him the creeps.

    Alethea must have noticed his displeasure because she leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. “I know you don’t like it, but it’s only for a few more days. Besides, that gives us more time to plan where we want to go next.”

    “I know, but…” Noeth scratched his head and relented, “All right, but we’re only staying for a few days – no longer. If his commander doesn’t show up within a week, we’re leaving.”

    She smiled. “Great! I’ll tell Mikhail tomorrow morning then.” Grabbing his hands, she continued, “Just remember it’s just for a short while and then we can start our lives together.”

    “I’ll try,” he promised. She beamed as she kissed him good night before she headed off to her room. As he watched her disappeared down the hall, he noticed that there was someone else hiding in the shadows. He wouldn’t have noticed at first, but he felt a presence, which caused him to look around. Mikhail glared at him; a mixture of hatred and jealousy was on his face.
     
    Last edited: Dec 31, 2016
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  5. Darky

    Darky The Red Spear

    英雄メンバー / Eiyuu Menbaa / Hero Member

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    Do you plan to edit the book in the future (I mean, selling it)?:e3
    It's quite my type, but do you write these stories from your imagination/everyday life?
     
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  6. riki

    riki Short and Sweet

    伝説メンバー / Densetsu / Legendary Member

    Mangahelper

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    Yeah, I'm planning to post the book when finished. I haven't thought of charging for it though.

    I guess it's a mixture of both though it's mostly from my imagination.
    --- Double Post Merged, Jan 1, 2017, Original Post Date: Dec 10, 2016 ---
    Happy New Year! :confetti




    Chapter 18: The Commander of the Fallen

    Anth 25, 2595

    “When are we going to leave?” Corwin asked even though he knew the answer.

    “In a few days,” Priya answered.

    “Yep, we have to endure just for a two more days,” Noeth added and rolled his eyes. Thankfully, none of the nearby Fallen notice, but then their hosts really didn’t pay much attention to them. Most of the times, they pretended that Corwin and the others don’t exist, which he didn't mind. Something about the former Aerians gave him the shivers.

    “Oh.” He must have looked disappointed because she immediately patted his back.

    At the same time, his brother said, “Cheer up, Cor! Once we leave this place, we start a new life together – just the three of us.”

    “I know, but…” He lowered his voice just in case. “I just want to leave this place. It gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

    Priya and Noeth looked at each other. “Hmm… how’s about you help us decide where we should go next?” his brother suggested.

    “That’s right. We need to find a new home,” the goddess agreed. “Remember I can take you anywhere around the world so name the place and I’ll take you there.”

    “Well…” Corwin began. He knew that they were trying to keep him preoccupied, but he didn’t mind. He was just glad that it wasn’t awkward between the two anymore. They must have patched things up while he was asleep because when he woke up, he found Priya and Noeth whispering to each other while holding hands and giving each other a peck on the cheek. When they realized that he’s awake, his brother announced that she agreed to be a part of their family and stay with them. A part of him was curious on how it happened, but he knew better than to ask nosy questions. Besides, he didn’t care as long as everything is peachy.

    “Any place in the world, right?” He repeated. She nodded so he looked at her mischievously. “How’s about Fravashi?”

    Her eyes widened. “Fravashi? Why that of all places?”

    “Because I had so much fun playing in the snow. Not to mention, Noeth looked great wearing that bright red shirt,” he replied.

    Noeth scowled. “Hey!”

    On the other hand, Priya giggled. “He does have a point, Noeth. You did look handsome.”

    “Don’t tell me you want to actually live in Fravashi for that reason,” he groaned though there was a bemused gleam in his eyes.

    “Maybe I do,” he teased but cleared his throat. “Actually, I was thinking if it’s okay if we move back to Anka.” He noticed their strange expression so he clarified, “Not in Sollum! I mean, back home in the Marden Forest.”

    His brother’s face softened. “Oh, Cor…”

    However, he persisted. “No one would find us there, right? Besides, we were so happy living there, weren’t we?”

    “Yes, but…” Noeth glanced over at Priya. “Do you think it would be safe to go there? After all, we have no idea what’s happening in Anka right now.”

    “True, but Corwin does have a point,” she said. “No one would expect us to be there. How’s about this? I can scout the area to find out any information. If it’s still unsafe, we’ll find another place temporarily until the coast is all clear. Sounds good?”

    “Sounds fine with me,” his brother concurred while Corwin nodded empathetically. “But what’s about your responsibilities?”

    “I’ll still perform them,” she answered.

    “And your friends? I’m sure they’re still looking for us.”

    She hesitated. “I’ll message them to tell them that I’m all right.”

    “But how? You told us that someone sent you false messages so how would you know that you’re telling the right person?” Corwin hated to admit it, but Noeth did have a point. There was no way she could use her messenger birds to deliver her message without knowing if she sent it to friend or foe. Even though he was astounded that someone could trick the goddess, he was somewhat relieved. If it wasn’t for that person, Priya might have killed him – though he highly doubts she would base on her nature.

    “I’ll think of something,” she answered though she didn’t seem so sure.

    Noeth nodded as if knowing she wasn’t comfortable talking about that topic. “All right. Anyway, has Mikhail give you any updates about when his commander is coming back?”

    Alethea shook her head. “No, I haven’t really talked to him lately. From what the others told me, he has been busy patrolling the area with his squad.”

    “Busy, huh? Well, he’s over there right now so why don’t we ask him right now?” Noeth asked, gesturing with his head.

    She glanced back at where he was pointing before she hastily looked back. “I don’t think it’s a good idea right now,” she disagreed.

    “Why not?”

    “Maybe it’s because how he glared at you whenever you’re not looking at him,” Argus replied. When the Ilmarian of Truth informed Mikhail that she no longer wishes to be engaged to him, she expected him to demand answers. While he was visibly upset, he said that he understood and implied that he knew that there was something going on between Noeth and her. However, that was when he sprung on her the request that she would stay for a little longer by insisting that the commander was really interested in meeting the last “Aerian” and suggesting that it would be bad manner if she leaves without meeting him. Startled by that abrupt demand, she agreed, but she now has regrets.

    She ignored the Parasitic Duermon’s comment and instead reiterated, “I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

    “And I don’t see why not,” he argued and crossed his arms. “We’ve been stuck here for a few days now without any new information on whether his commander is showing up or not.”

    “I know you’re impatient, but we only have two more days,” she pleaded.

    He snorted, “I know, but it’s getting annoying. You would think he would have the decency to keep us updated.”

    “I can concur with that sentiment. Being around these Fallen is making my skin crawl,” Argus agreed. Alethea hated to admit it, but she had the same feeling as well. Something about this place is setting off alarm bells in her head though she couldn’t put a finger on it. However, she dismissed it by rationalizing that it was because she’s currently staying with a group of former Aerians, who supposed to be her one-time enemy. Nevertheless, something told her that she should leave now and forget about keeping her promise.

    Corwin’s tapping her arm interrupted her train of thoughts. “Hey, Mikhail is coming over here,” he informed her, which caused her to look up. Sure enough, her former fiancé was strutting toward them.

    An unreadable expression was on his face though his jaws were clenched and his eyes narrowed especially when his attention was on Noeth. Alethea tensed up. If he wanted to confront Noeth about their relationship, then she better put a stop to it before anything escalates.

    As soon as the Fallen stopped at their table, he apologized, “Sorry for not seeing you at all. I wasn’t trying to avoid you if that what’s your thinking. I’ve been busy with my responsibilities so I didn’t have to time to talk to you. Anyway, how’s your stay so far?”

    “Crappy. The worst prison in Idilyras is better than this hellhole,” Argus snorted.

    If Alethea could, she would have elbowed the Parasitic Duermon. “It’s fine,” she lied.

    Her ex-fiancé breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s good to hear. I’m sure the commander will be pleased to hear that. He relayed a message, asking us to make sure you’re comfortable. If you’re content here, then maybe you all can stay.”

    From the corner of her eyes, she saw the Rasson brother mouthed, “No!” to her – even Argus screamed it in her head. “We’ll think about that,” she replied. “Speaking of which, when if your commander supposed to be back? Have you heard from him lately?”

    “I’ll let you know in a bit, but first…” Mikhail turned his focus on Noeth, who returned his steely gaze. “We need to talk,” he said pointedly before he added, “Alone.”

    “I don’t think that’s a good idea…” she began as she was about to stand up when Noeth placed his hand on her arm.

    “It’s all right, Thea,” he reassured her as he stood up. His eyes were still on Mikhail, who stood there silently. “Your former fiancé and I are just going to talk things out and work on our differences.”

    “Like he said. We’re just having a man-to-man talk. Nothing else,” the Fallen agreed. “It should be quick anyway so you don’t have to worry about a thing.”

    “But!” she protested, but the two of them just walked away and ignored her. She was tempted to chase after them but stopped herself. She didn’t want to leave Corwin alone with the Fallen. Who knows what would happen? At least with Mikhail, she knew that she could trust him – she hopes she can anyway.

    Noeth and Mikhail’s silhouettes matched each other; they walked stiffly as they glared down at each other like two dogs studying each other before a fight. Their auras must be tense because the other Fallen stopped what they were doing and stared at them with apprehension. No one spoke until they finally left the room. Even then, a sense of uneasiness still lingered in the air.

    Corwin watched as Priya stared at the doorway before she slowly sat back down. “Noeth will be okay, right?” he asked. The way Mikhail glared at his brother, he worried that the Fallen would fling him off a cliff.

    She gave him a reassuring smile. “Yeah, he’ll be fine. I’m sure they’re just talking,” she said though it sounded more like she was trying to convince herself.

    “Maybe we should go check on them,” he suggested, but she shook her head.

    “No, it’s all right. Mikhail was telling the truth.”

    His eyebrows arched slightly. “Your power told you that, huh?” She nodded. “Huh, that must be nice knowing what your powers are.”

    “What do you mean?” she wondered.

    “I was thinking about what you and the God of Storms said about me. You know, me killing gods and almost destroying the world,” he began.
    Her face softened. “Corwin, I really didn’t mean to-”

    However, he interrupted her, “Well, that guy said that I was dangerous, and he’s right. I can’t stop thinking about what happened in Doran. I don’t remember what I did or how I did it, but whatever I did, it was powerful enough to create that crater and messed up Noeth’s mind. But I think I know why. I don’t know how to control my powers yet, which is why I black out and go berserk. If that’s the case, do you think the Goddess of Magic can help me then?”

    “Wait, do you think that if Aundra can help you, then you will no longer be a threat?” she asked. He nodded, and she rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “It may work. If you can somehow control your power, then maybe Kej won’t have to order your death anymore. Of course, it depends on whether or not Aundra would agree to help you. Knowing her, it would be a stretch, but it’s worth a try.”

    “That’s good,” he beamed. “Maybe she can also help me with the strange dreams that I’ve been having lately.”

    “Dreams? What dreams?”

    “I don’t know though they seem so real like I was actually living in them. I’ve been having them ever since you moved in with us, but they occur more frequently now after I found out about you-know-what,” he confessed.

    “Your dreams… do you remember them?” she ventured.

    “Bits and pieces. In one dream, I encountered you in the desert, and someone was ordering me to kill you. Another dream, I was being chased by shadows, which was terrifying, to say the least. The last one is the one I experienced the most; a little girl is begging me not to kill her, and all around her were bodies,” he answered and noticed that her face turned pale. “Is something wrong? Are those dreams trying to tell me something?”

    Priya quickly shook her head. “No, it’s nothing. You’re probably dreaming those things because of what you learned.”

    He looked at her dubiously. “You really think so?”

    Before she could respond, Mikhail shouted, “See? I told you that it’ll be quick!”

    Startled, he and the goddess looked up to see the Fallen and Noeth heading toward them. While the former seemed jovial, his brother was oddly quiet and subdued. As soon as he reached their table, he slouched into his seat without saying a word. Priya must have noticed as well because she asked, “Noeth, are you all right?”

    He looked at her. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just have a lot of things going through my head at the moment,” he told her and gave her a reassuring smile as he placed his hand on top of hers.

    “Oh, I see. Well, I’m glad that you and Mikhail work things out,” she replied; relief was clearly on her face. On the other hand, Corwin had a strange feeling that his brother was acting weird but kept his mouth shut. He didn’t want to make Priya more worried than necessary.

    The Fallen chortled. “You can say that again! It took some convincing, but Noeth is on the same page with me. Right, Noeth?” His brother muttered something underneath his breath. “Anyway, before I forget, I got an update from the commander. He’ll be meeting you tomorrow morning if that’s fine with you.”

    “Wait, you’re telling me he’s here already!?” she exclaimed. Corwin shared that sentiment; on the other hand, Noeth was still calm though it appeared that he wasn’t really paying attention to the conversation. He had his arms crossed and kept looking down as if deep in thoughts.

    “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you soon,” Mikhail apologized. “Apparently, he arrived a few hours ago, but he wanted to fully rest before he meets Aerius’s successor. I hope you don’t mind.”

    “No, not at all! I’m just glad that we finally got some news.”

    “Great! Anyway, I better go. My squad is waiting for me, and I don’t want to delay them any further. I’ll get you tomorrow for the meeting so don’t forget, Thea,” he said.

    “I won’t,” she promised. The Fallen smiled and waved farewell before he joined up with his team and headed off. As soon as he left, Priya returned her attention to Corwin and Noeth. “Well, it looks like we got our answer.”

    “Does that mean we’re leaving tomorrow?” Corwin asked excitedly.

    “Yep, but after I meet with the so-called Commander,” she reminded him. “Of course, we still have to decide our next destination.”

    “Oh, right.” He looked at his brother, who didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. “Aren’t you excited about the news, Noeth?”

    Noeth blinked. “Huh? Yeah, I am.”

    “You sure? You don’t look so good right now,” he commented.

    “Yeah, I’m sure,” his brother muttered.

    Priya gave him a concerned look. “He’s right. You’ve been awfully quiet ever since you and Mikhail came back. Are you sure nothing happened between you two?”

    “It’s fine, Thea,” Noeth reassured her. “We just talked – that’s all.”

    “You did?” She frowned slightly. “Are you sure you don’t want to talk about it?”

    “I don’t want to talk about it, okay?” Noeth snapped before he exhaled. “Listen, I’m just feeling a little tired so that’s probably why I’m not in the talking mood.”

    She stared at him for a moment; Corwin noticed that her hand was gripping something, which he assumed to be a Thread of Lies. He would have thought that Priya would insist that his brother tells her the truth, but she just nodded. “All right,” she relented. “You’re probably exhausted from staying in this place. I guess you and Corwin should head to your room to rest. I’ll check by later and if you’re up to the task, we can continue to plan. All right?”

    Good idea. Maybe I’ll feel better after a quick nap,” Noeth agreed. Standing up, he kissed her on her forehead before he motioned to Corwin to follow. “Come on, Cor.” Nodding, Corwin waved goodbye and chased after his brother.

    Anth 26, 2595

    “Ready?” Mikhail asked.

    “Ready as I can ever be,” Alethea muttered. Her former fiancé just smiled as he led her down the hall. “So where is the meeting anyway?”

    “The same place where you met my superiors” was his reply. She nodded; that would make sense.

    “Looks like it’s the big day,” Argus commented.

    Alethea exhaled. “Looks like it.”

    “Are you sure you’re not nervous about this meeting?” he asked. “You’ve been up since dawn getting ready.”

    “I’m sure. Besides, I have to get ready and make myself presentable; it would look poorly on me if ‘Aerius’s successor’ looks like she just woke up from bed just to meet the Fallen commander,” she responded sarcastically.

    The Parasitic Duermon snorted. “Well, the bags under your eyes tell otherwise. Don’t tell me that you’re that nervous meeting the guy.”

    “Shut up!” she snapped, flipping her hair back. “And for your information, I couldn’t sleep well last night is not because of this stupid meeting.”

    “Is it what Corwin told you yesterday?” he guessed. “I don’t see why it should bother you.”

    “Why not? Argus, he’s remembering his past! How could I not be worried?” she shouted. When Corwin recollected his dreams to her, she realized that he was actually telling her events from the past. Of course, she immediately recognized his dream of when he was being baited to kill her (who wouldn’t?). The girl’s begging for her life must be Adia while the shadows were most likely Torryn and Weiss hunting him down.

    “So what if he’s dreaming about the past? It seems like he doesn’t know. Let him think they’re just dreams and nothing else,” Argus advised.

    “But what if he does realize that they’re something more than silly dreams?” she countered. Just thinking about it filled her with dread. How would he react once he found out the truth? Corwin was already devastated about finding out that he was the Lashival so how would he react if he regains all of his memories?

    “We’ll figure things out once they get there. For now, just stay cool. If you keep panicking whenever he tells you something, he’ll suspect something is up,” he replied.

    She sighed. “I guess you’re right, but I can’t help but worry th-”

    “Are you all right?” Startled, she glanced up to find Mikhail looking at her worriedly. “Sorry for scaring you like that, but you’ve been awfully quiet. Did you sleep well last night?”

    Alethea scowled. Was the bags under her eyes that obvious? “Not really,” she admitted. “I guess I’m little bit on edge about meeting your commander.”

    Her childhood friend patted her shoulder. “Don’t be,” he reassured her. “My commander knows you, remember? So you don’t have to worry about making a first impression.”

    “Is that supposed to make me feel better? Because it’s not working,” she huffed.

    Mikhail smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “At least I try.”

    “And thank you for trying,” she told him. Along the way, other Fallen walked by them. While they acknowledged Mikhail with a nod or a curt greeting, they ignored her. Not that she mind, of course. She didn’t really recognize any of them. The only ones she knows were Mikhail and… “Speaking of the commander, are you sure you can’t give me at least a hint of who he is?”

    “No can do. He wants to keep it a surprise, but don’t you worry. The suspense will end soon,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.

    “And I can’t wait,” she said sarcastically, which caused him to chuckle.

    “Enthusiastic as always,” he joked. “How is Noeth by the way? Feeling better?”

    “Uh huh,” she said, recalling how lively Noeth was when she came to visit the Rasson brothers last night. They spent over an hour discussing their next move though most of the time was spent joking and reminiscing their times together. It was as if the moody Noeth from earlier never existed.“To be honest, I thought you did something to him.”

    “What? Cast a spell on him or something?” Mikhail asked and let out a hearty laugh. “Really, Thea! You know that I’m not that type of person.”

    “I know, but…” she hesitated. “After I broke our engagement, you were distant toward me, and I noticed you kept glaring at Noeth as if you want to hurt him. That’s why I thought you did something terrible.”

    Mikhail halted and stared at her for a moment. Finally, he took a deep breath and said, “Of course, I was upset! However, after I calmed down and thought more about it, I realized that you were right. We’re too different now from what we were during training camp. That was why I wanted to talk to Noeth; I wanted to ask him to make sure to take care of you and not hurt you. I guess he was thinking about what I told him, which would be why he was so quiet.”

    “Oh, that could explain it,” she mumbled. The Ilmarian of Truth furtively glanced down at her hand to find no Threads of Lies. Her face flushed red with embarrassment. Now she felt terrible for doubting him! “I guess I owe you an apology.”

    “It’s all right. I don’t blame you for thinking that way,” he said, waving his hand flippantly. “Anyway, we’re here so we can talk more about it later.”

    As Mikhail walked over to the guards and began talking to them, Alethea watched silently. For some odd reason, she was getting agitated. The apprehension she felt for the past few days had gotten worse with every waiting seconds. Her heart was pounding, and the hairs on her skin were raised up. Even though she wanted to sneak away, she forced herself to stay put. Just a few minutes meeting his commander and then I’m out of here, she reminded herself.

    After a minute or so, her childhood friend motioned her to come over. “It looks like they’re already inside waiting for you,” he informed her as the guards removed the barrier. Wigwagging, he waved her forward. “After you.”

    Not knowing what to expect, Alethea walked through the doorway and into a short corridor. Behind her, she heard Mikhail followed behind her as the barrier reactivated, closing the only exit. “Come along,” he said and walked ahead of her. Nodding, she followed behind him. As he led her into the room, he continued, “I promise you’re going to love the commander. Once you see him, you’re going to kick yourself for not figuring out who he is!”

    However, the Ilmarian of Truth wasn’t paying any attention to him. As soon as she stepped into the room, Alethea froze. A large gathering of Fallen was in the room. They stood there talking to each other until they noticed her presence, in which then they became quiet. On the other hand, the Fallen superiors sat in their chairs in stone silence the entire time as they stared down at her. That wasn’t what caused her to stop dead in her track – it was the person sitting in the middle of them.

    A smug Shintra dressed in black and bejeweled with embellishments sat with his right foot resting on his left thigh; his arms lay lazily on the armrests of his chair. “Hello, Ressi,” he greeted her. “It’s been awhile.”

    --- Double Post Merged, Jan 16, 2017 ---
    Chapter 19: Betrayal

    Alethea felt the blood drained from her face as Shintra asked, “What’s wrong, Ressi? Surprised to see me?”

    She took a step back. It couldn’t be. The one person she dreads seeing is right in front of her. “Why are you here?” she breathed and turned to Mikhail, who wore a knowing expression. “Mikhail, what’s going on?”

    “Didn’t I tell you that you know the Commander?” he reminded her. “Well, he’s my commander!”

    Above her, she heard the Ilmarian of Souls laughed. “He’s right, Ressi. I’m the one leading the Fallen,” he said, baring his teeth. “Sorry for tricking you like this, but you’ve been avoiding me so you gave me no choice.”

    “You-” she began.

    “Nevertheless, I have to thank you,” he interrupted. “Not only you decided to grace me with your presence, you brought along the Lashival. Because of you, I have everything that I need, and for that, I thank you.” Snapping his fingers, he sent out an order to the Fallen. “But enough of the chitchat! We have more time to talk later. Now then, seize her.”

    The Fallen crowd nodded, and they proceeded to surround her. Alethea could only helplessly watch. There was no way she could escape; not only they were on the ground, several were in the air as well. She was trapped. As she tried to back away, the Ilmarian of Truth felt someone grabbed her arm. “Come along, Thea,” she heard Mikhail whispered in her ear. “Let’s not make this difficult.”

    On the other hand, Argus growled, “What’s wrong with you? Are you going to give up that easily just because that bastard caught you off guard? Fight!”

    Alethea shook her head. Argus was right; she still has some tricks up her sleeves. Several Threads of Lies, which she’d been gathering during her stay, were all around her. Without any hesitation, she seized a handful of them. “Sorry, Mikhail,” she apologized and yanked the Threads, which caused him and several others to writhe in pain, “but I don’t intend to go that easily.”

    She then elbowed her former fiancé in the stomach, forcing him to let go of her arm. Before the others could recover, she set off some flash bombs, blinding the rest as she fled to the exit. Dashing toward the door, she blasted the barrier, which shattered upon impact. The guards immediately stepped in front of her in an attempt to block her, but it was to no avail. Alethea simply whipped out some light daggers and threw them at their chests. They cried out as they collapsed onto the floor.

    As she ran past them, she heard Venmas shouted, “Don’t let her get away!”

    Glancing back, she saw Mikhail and the others scrambled back to their feet. They screamed and shouted as they began to give chase. On the other hand, Shintra, who still bore a triumphant grin, sat calmly in his chair.

    Meanwhile, an oblivious Corwin waited patiently in his room. Tapping his feet impatiently, he sighed and wondered how long Priya’s meeting with the Fallen commander was supposed to be. It has been... twenty minutes maybe? She did say that it should be short, but it feels like an eternity. Groaning, he flopped onto his bed and glanced over at his brother’s empty bed.

    Where was Noeth anyway? By the time he woke up, his brother was already gone. At first, Corwin thought he left to grab a quick bite to eat before he waits for Priya’s return, but he wasn’t in the dining hall. Noeth couldn’t have forgotten about Priya’s instructions of staying in the room until her meeting is over. Did he decide to take a little walk? If so, he’s taking a while since Corwin hasn’t seen him at all today. Did he lose track of time? Where in Samara could Noeth be?

    Just as he was rankling his mind over his brother’s absence, he heard footsteps approaching. “Noeth!?” he exclaimed, sitting up on his bed. However, it wasn’t his brother. Two Fallen stood at the door; a serious expression was on their faces.

    “Our commander wishes to see you,” was all they say.

    Corwin gave them a blank stare. The commander wanted to see him, but why? “Why does he want to see me?” he finally inquired.

    The black-winged angels just smiled. “He heard a lot about you so he’s eager to meet the companion of Aerius’s successor. Now, come along. You don’t want to keep him waiting.”

    Instead of following their instructions, Corwin stayed put. “No,” he told them. “Priya told me to wait here so I’m staying here. If your leader wants to see me, then I go see him when she picks me up.”

    That didn’t sit well with them. They narrowed their eyes and scowled. “The commander wishes to see you now,” the first one said, and they marched toward him. “If you refuse, then we’ll have to deliver you by force.”

    Alarmed, Corwin stood up and tried to back away to no avail. The room was too small, and the only exit was blocked by the Fallen. The Fallen must have known as well because they gave a sickly smile as they cornered him. Gulping, Corwin felt his body tensed up. If only he could figure out how to control his power, then maybe he could get rid of them. Just as he was about to lose hope, he heard another footstep approaching and looked up to a worried Priya, who wore her armor, standing at the doorway. “Corwin!” she shouted and tossed some throwing knives made out of light at the Fallen before they react. As they collapsed to the floor, she rushed over to him. “Are you all right?”

    “Yeah,” he sputtered, “but what’s going on?”

    Instead of answering, she grabbed his hand and dragged him toward the exit. After checking to see the coast was clear, she motioned him to follow, and they sprinted down the hallway. “There’s no time to explain,” she finally said, “but we need to get out of here now.”

    Corwin looked at her, baffled. “But why?”

    Just as she was about to answer, they heard shouting and footsteps heading toward their direction. “Shit!” she cursed and pulled him into darkened room. Before he could even say a word, she mouthed, “Quiet.”

    He nodded and stayed hidden behind the wall. From the corner of his eyes, he saw Sendiya and other Fallen running down the hall. “The humans are gone!” he heard one of them shout. “She must have gotten to them first!”

    “Find them! They’re probably heading toward the exit. The commander will punish us severely if we let them escape!” Sendiya barked.

    The Fallen murmured and hurried down the hall. As they ran past the room, Corwin felt his heart pounding through his chest. Please don’t find us, he prayed. Luckily, they didn’t notice Priya and him. Before long, the sound of their footsteps and shouts faded away. As soon as it happened, both of them relaxed.

    “I think they’re gone,” he whispered, peeking behind the doorway. The goddess just nodded as she pulled out her needle ring from her pocket and pricked her finger with it. “Anyway, what’s going on? Why are the Fallen after us?”

    “I’ll explain later. Right now, I need to concentrate so just keep an eye out for me. If you hear any of them coming, let me know,” the goddess said hastily. He nodded though he still wasn’t sure why she was distressed. However, Priya told him not to disturb her so he remained silent despite the many questions in his mind.

    Without another word, the goddess closed her eyes as she concentrated. While she was doing that, he kept watch on the door. An eerie silence filled the air. Something was amiss. He was sure of it. The sudden change in the Fallen’s behavior has to do something with him. Corwin shuddered, recalling the strange gleam in the two Fallen’s eyes as they tried to seize him. Could it be that they somehow learned his secret?

    Just as he was thinking that, she opened her eyes and tossed the needle ring in the air. The ring expanded, revealing rocky cliffs. The whiff of salt water entered his nose. In the distance, he could see a lighthouse beaming its bright light. “Let’s go,” she said as she headed toward the portal.

    Corwin shook his head. “We can’t leave Noeth!” he insisted.

    Priya halted and stared at him. The shocking realization was on her face. “Where’s Noeth?” she finally asked.

    “I don’t know. When I woke up, he was gone!” he replied. “I thought that maybe he went out for a walk or something, but he hasn’t come back yet.”

    She cursed underneath her breath and stared back at the portal. Tapping her foot, she crossed her arms as if she was debating what to do. Finally, she turned her attention back to him and said, “Go on ahead. I’ll stay behind and look for him. After you go through, look for a place to hide. I want you to wait there until I come back. Understood?”

    “No, I’m coming with you,” he declared. “We can look for him together.”

    “No!” she snapped, which caused him to step back. He had never seen her so frightened before; it was worse than the time when the God of Storms tried to kill him. She must have noticed how taken aback he was because her face softened. “Sorry, but I need you to escape first. You're endangered, and I can’t risk having something happens to you. I promise that I’ll find Noeth and bring him back. Okay?”

    He didn’t say a word at first, but seeing her pleading and fearful eyes told him that she was serious. “All right,” he relented, “but promise me that you’ll be safe.”

    “I promise,” she told him. Nevertheless, he could sense an uneasiness in her voice as if she knew that she probably won’t be able to keep that promise, but he decided not to say anything. If he did, then it would confirm what they most fear might happen. Instead, he gave her a quick hug before he headed toward the gateway.

    “Be careful, Priya,” he said before he dashed through the portal. As he stepped onto the field, he turned around just in time to see her stepping out of the room as the portal shrunk and disappeared. Even though she had promised him that she would be back, Corwin had a terrible feeling that this would be the last time he would see her again.

    “Find them! They shouldn’t have escaped that quickly!” Alethea listened as the Fallen barked orders to each other as they attempted to find the Rasson brothers and her. Peeking from her hiding spot, she could see Mikhail was among the Fallen searching for her. He led his comrades down one of the tunnels. The Ilmarian of Truth listened until their footsteps faded before she scurried in the opposite direction. As soon as she heard someone coming toward her, she would hide in a room until her pursuers disappeared.

    She could disguise herself as one of them, but she didn’t want to risk it. Based on what Mikhail told her, the Fallen must have some sort of connection with which they can identify each other. Because of that, she watched and waited until the coast was clear. Once in awhile, she would also see Sendiya, who would increasingly scream at her colleagues. Surprisingly, the Fallen superiors were involved in the search as well. If so, then they must be desperate. The only one missing was Shintra, but then he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.

    She kissed her tongue. That bastard Shintra! How dare he manipulated Mikhail and turn him and the other Fallen into his slaves! As soon as she finds Noeth and escapes from this place, she’s going to expose that Duermon to who he really is. However, that wasn’t the only reason she was mad at herself. If only she had listened to her gut instinct! She should have left after spending the night. Now she’s in this mess.

    “I knew something wasn’t right here, but no, you didn’t listen. Now we’re stuck in this mess,” Argus fumed. Alethea scowled; he wasn’t going to let her hear the end of it, that’s for sure. “So what’s your next move?”

    “Simple. Find Noeth and get out of here,” she answered.

    That didn’t suit well with Argus. “I don’t know what the hell is wrong with him,” he grumbled. “He knew that he was supposed to wait in his room with Corwin, but he decided to go out on a walk. If I were you, I would forget him since he’s probably captured already, but I know you won’t.”

    Alethea bristled. “I won’t abandon him, Argus. I promise Corwin that I’ll get him back. Not to mention, I lost him when he was Dalin, and I won’t lose him again.”

    The Parasitic Duermon didn’t reply, which she took as a sign that he was resigned to the fact that she wasn’t going to listen to him. After checking to see the hall was empty, she set out once more. As she ran down the tunnel, she would glance at the rooms to see if Noeth was hiding in one of them. However, there was no sign of him. Where in Samara is he?

    “Don’t you think it’s odd?” Argus wondered aloud.

    She slowed down. “What odd?” the Aerian inquired as she peeked into another room.

    “That Shintra is having those Fallen search the place for you. He, of all people, should know that you have a needle ring. Why bother unless he knows that Noeth wasn’t with you?”

    “Maybe one of the Fallen saw him walking around and alerted the others?” Alethea reasoned. “Remember, some of them were patrolling the area.”

    “I guess, but this smells fishy to me.”

    The Ilmarian of Truth scowled. “Argus, there’s no way Noeth knows that this was a tr-” All of a sudden, someone in the shadows stepped in front of her, which caused her to let out a yelp and jump slightly. Dammit, she was distracted arguing with Argus that she didn’t pay attention to her surrounding.

    She quickly summoned her spear and was about to strike when she hear a familiar voice asked, “Thea, what the hell is going on here?”

    Alethea lowered her weapon and stared. “Noeth? Where were you? I was looking for you everywhere!”

    “I was taking a walk,” he replied. “That is until the Fallen suddenly acted weird and chased after me. I managed to evade them, but I’ve been hiding from them ever since. Now can you tell me what’s going on?”

    “Taking a walk? I told you to wait for me in your room!” she hissed.

    “Sorry, but I was feeling antsy,” he replied. “Now are you going to answer my question?”

    Before she could answer, she heard shouting. Cursing underneath her breath, she grabbed the front of Noeth’s shirt and pulled him into an empty room. It was just in time because a group of Fallen stormed past by hiding spot. She and Noeth watched silently in the darkness until the last of them was disappeared behind the corner. “They’re gone,” Argus confirmed.

    She breathed a sigh of relief and pulled her needle ring. As she pricked her finger, she began, “Do you remember when I told you that I was kidnapped as a child?”

    “Yeah, by that colleague of yours, Shintra,” Noeth said. “Why?”

    “Well, he’s the commander of the Fallen. He must use his magic on them and made them into his obedient servants. Now he’s using them to capture us especially Corwin.”

    “Cor? I don’t understand. Why would he want my brother if he’s dangerous?” he asked.

    “Because Shintra wants to use him as a weapon against Kejuta!”Alethea answered. “If he has Corwin, then he’ll have leverage over her and the rest of my friends.”

    “Make sense,” Noeth muttered. “Where’s Cor anyway? Is he safe?”

    The Aerian nodded. “He’s fine. I already sent him off to another location through my needle ring.”

    “Where?”

    “The Llinan coast. I told him to hide somewhere and wait for us. Anyway, I need to concentrate so stand guard while I get ready,” she said. Of course, she really didn’t need him to do that; Argus was already being a lookout. She just needed to keep Noeth occupied.

    “Sure,” Noeth agreed and walked toward the entrance to keep watch. She looked at him as he peered through the doorway for a moment before she went back to her task. Closing her eyes, she visualized the Llinan coast. Sharp rocks stood erect near the dark gray cliffs as the waves crashed against them. On the tallest cliff was a lighthouse, which was distinctive due to the white-and-red stripes. With the image in her head, she opened her eyes and tossed the ring into the air.

    While the needle ring slowly expanded, she turned back and said, “Noeth, let’s g-” and was startled to find him standing right in front of her. When did he sneak up on her?

    Not saying a word, he suddenly placed his hand on her shoulder. His eyes stared down at her intently, which disturbed her. She was about to ask him what he was doing when Argus shouted, “Watch out!”

    Before she could react, she felt something sharp piercing her chest as her body jerked from the impact and looked down to see a knife sticking out. Blood poured from her wound and onto the rocky floor, causing ceraphilis flowers to spring forth. Stunned, she glanced up to see an emotionless Noeth staring back at her. “Noeth… why?” she managed to muster as she reached out to grasp the hand which held the knife. However, her hand felt like rubber so it slipped and dropped to her side.

    “Lord Shintra wanted you captured so he asked me to delay you as much as possible. He figured that you would go out of your way to look for me, and it seemed that he was right,” he answered as he pulled the knife out. “It’s unfortunate that Cor wasn’t with you, but that doesn’t matter. Thanks to you, he’d also retrieve my brother and begin the next phase of his plans.”

    Alethea became alerted. Noeth was under Shintra’s control since when? Did it happen recently or…? A horrifying insight popped into her head as she recalled Noeth’s strange behavior after meeting with Mikhail yesterday and what her former fiancé told her about his commander afterward. “Apparently, he arrived a few hours ago, but he wanted to fully rest before he meets Aerius’s successor. I hope you don’t mind.”

    Dammit, she should have known! She has to escape and warn Corwin of the danger. Unfortunately, her knees buckled, and she started to stumble to the ground. However, Noeth grabbed her arms before she could collapse. “Sh! It’s be all right,” he whispered as he gently lowered her to the ground.

    “Noeth, don’t! Remember who you are!” she pleaded to no avail. Despite her protests, he continued to push her down; even though a reassuring smile was on his face, his eyes remained impassive.

    All of a sudden, another voice cut through the air. “You found out the Lashival’s location?”

    Noeth turned around and nodded. “Yes, it’s through there. She told me that they’re supposed to be meeting in that cabin,” he answered, gesturing toward the gateway.

    Who was that? Looking past Noeth’s shoulder, she could barely make out blurry figures walking toward them. However, their glowing red eyes told her who they were. A Dalenthi walked by Noeth and her and peered through the portal warily. “Are you sure she didn’t trick you?”

    “Of course not! She trusts me so she told me everything. Besides, she didn’t know that I serve our master until it was too late.”

    “Hmph! If you say so.” The Dalenthi motioned to his men. “You five, come with me! The rest of you will bring our ‘guest’ back to Shintra. He’s really eager about retrieving his ‘little bird’.”

    The demons nodded and did as they were ordered. The Ilmarian of Truth felt herself being lifted off the ground and carried. Glancing up, she saw that it was one of the Dalenthi, who noticed that she was staring at him. “Sleep tight, Aerian. You’ll be staying with us for a long time,” he taunted, showing a toothy grin.

    Alethea opened her mouth to speak, but all she could do was gurgle as blood trickled from her mouth. Her vision was diminishing, and she found it was getting harder for her to concentrate as she tried her best to stay awake to no avail. Everything was blurry, and she felt herself drifting away. Her body felt cold, and she could barely move a finger. She could hear Argus begging her to stay awake, but his voice sounded like a fly buzzing in her ears. As her conscious faded, all she could think was that she had unwittingly led everyone to a trap.

    “Whoa!” Corwin exclaimed as he almost slipped on a rock again. Fortunately, he was able to regain his balance. This was probably the fifth time he almost fell. The rocks were more slippery than he anticipated. It didn’t help that it started drizzling, which worsened the condition. As the Ankan gingerly stood up, he thought, Maybe I should walk.

    Taking his time, he ambled toward his destination – the lighthouse towering above him. After searching the cliffs for any cave opening (no luck), he decided the next best thing was to hide in the lighthouse. Even though it might have occupants, he has at least some shelter from the incoming storm. However, he has to be careful on his way up there.

    Besides the slippery rocks, he had to worry about being too close to the edge as he climbed up the precipitous path; the only way he could make sure he didn’t fall into the ocean below was to hold onto the jagged rock wall. By now, the drizzle has become a torrent. The raindrops felt like tiny pebbles pounding on him; his eyes stung from the water getting into them. Because of that, Corwin could barely see where he was going, but luckily, he could see the light from the lighthouse. It seemed to beckon him, urging him to keep going forward. Covering his face with his arms, he forced himself to keep walking.

    Don’t give up! You’re almost there. Priya is counting on you, he told himself. However, that led to other thoughts. So far, he hasn’t seen any gateway show up, which worried him. How was she doing? Did she find Noeth in time? Was his brother safe? Or did those Fallen captured them? He pushed that last thought aside. No, he wasn’t going to think that. Priya wouldn’t let herself get captured that easily.

    He clenched his teeth and forced himself to think about his current task. The sooner he reached the cabin, the sooner he’d rejoin his brother and Priya. Nevertheless, he looked back to check if a portal appears, but nothing popped up yet. It seemed the goddess’s search was taking longer than he thought. After a few minutes, he could see the lighthouse although something else caught his attention – a cabin, which was most likely abandoned. It has white stucco walls though the paint was peeling. Its brown wooden shutters dangled from the frames, which have some broken windowpanes, while a part of the roof was missing.

    Corwin felt like rejoicing. Thanks the gods, he’s almost there! Throwing caution to the wind, he quickened his pace as he raced toward his destination. Despite tumbling a few times, he continued sprinting. The path was slowly becoming level, which made the journey much easier. Unfortunately, due to his excitement, he wasn’t fully paying attention to his surrounding.

    Just as he was about to take another step, a person suddenly walked in front of him. Startled, Corwin didn’t have time to stop himself and bumped into him. “Oomph!” the man cried as he staggered before he placed his hands on the ground to stop himself from falling. On the other hand, the impact caused Corwin to slip and land on his bottom. The man turned to face him though the Ankan could scarcely see his face; the drenched hood of his coat covered most of his face.

    Corwin felt his heart pounding through his chest. Oh no, a Dalenthi! he thought. He probably saw me coming up and waited to ambush me. Frightened, he quickly stood up and turned back. “Wait!” he heard the man shout, but Corwin ignored him as he sprinted back down the path. Pounding footsteps told him that the stranger was pursuing him, which caused him to run faster. He got to get out of there! He has to get away!

    In his rush, he forgot about the slick rocky path. He must have stepped on it the wrong way because the next time he knew, he fell head over heels down the steep hill. “Whoa!” he shouted as he tried to regain his footing. However, his right foot landed the wrong way; his heel twisted so he was facing the ocean instead. Waving his arms around frantically, Corwin tried to stop himself from falling off, but it was too late. He felt himself plunging toward the ocean below; its waves crashed violently against the rocks. Realizing that he was about to enter the water, he could only take a deep breath and prayed for the best. The last thing he remembered seeing before he passed out was the jagged rocks below.

    As soon as Shintra saw his men enter the room, he got out of his seat and sauntered down the stairs. “Well?” he demanded.

    “We got her, my lord,” one of them announced as they parted to reveal a lifeless Ressi being carried by a Dalenthi, who laid her on the floor. The wound on her chest told Shintra that his plan had worked magnificently. He felt like gloating as he imagined her surprised look when her beloved unexpectedly stabbed her.

    However, she wasn’t the only prize he sought. “And the boy?”

    “We’re still searching for him. Apparently, he escaped through a gateway, but luckily, we got the location so a few men are scouring the area at the moment.”

    “I see.” Shintra scowled at Noeth Rasson, who pretended not to notice. If it wasn’t for him, the Ilmarian of Souls would have the Lashival now. He would have thought the Lashival’s brother was completely under his thumb – or so he thought.

    As soon as he found out that Ressi and the Lashival were with the Fallen, he immediately ordered the black-winged angels to detain them as long as possible until he could arrive there. During that time, Mikhail would send reports to him, informing him about the oblivious guests’ interactions with each other as well as their movements. After reading those reports, Shintra decided to go after the Lashival’s brother first since he seemed the least dangerous of the three so he ordered the Fallen to lure him away from the other.

    The Duermon still could remember how he waited in the shadows until Noeth showed up with Mikhail. Imagine the Ankan’s surprise when he revealed himself and quickly used his magic on him. It happened so quickly that Noeth had no time to react so he was quickly subdued. After giving the Ankan instructions, he sent the young man on his way and waited to launch his trap.

    Unfortunately, it seemed that the Lashival’s brother was still resisting his control. Instead of staying put in the room to guard his brother, Noeth went out and wandered the Fallen’s home. By the time the Ilmarian of Souls realized it, it was too late. Ressi had already rescued the Lashival and ran off somewhere. Furious, he had the Fallen find Noeth and brought the wayward Ankan back to him in order to use more magic on him to make sure he was obedient. Afterward, the Ilmarian of Souls then handed a knife to him and ordered him to use the weapon on the Aerian as soon as he found out where the Lashival was hiding. This time, Noeth Rasson followed his command flawlessly.

    Approaching footsteps disrupted his train of thoughts. Shintra looked up to find a group of surly Dalenthi stomping into the room. Their clothes were soaking wet as water dripped onto the floor. Before he could say a word, the leader griped, “We can’t find him, my lord. My men and I looked everywhere for him but nothing! We think he may have fallen into the ocean below because the path was so slippery due to the rain. Hell, we almost stumble into the ocean too if you don’t believe us!”

    Shintra didn’t speak at first as he thought about what he just heard. Finally, he asked, “Was there anyone else in the vicinity?”

    “No one! We even checked the lighthouse, but no one was there either! It was one of those automated types so there wasn’t a lighthouse keeper around. We also found an abandoned cabin, but he wasn’t there. We searched through every nook and cranny but nothing! It’s like he disappeared from the face of the earth! If you don’t believe us, you can search for him yourself!” the man ranted.

    “No, I believe you. Did you see his body in the ocean?”

    The Dalenthi shook his head. “Hard to tell. The water was so turbulent due to the storm so we don’t know. Maybe his body was crashed against the rocks or it was swept further away from the land. Sorry, boss, but we did try.”

    “It’s all right. There was nothing you could have done about it,” he reassured his men though he was disappointed. This was the perfect (and most likely, only) opportunity to capture the Lashival, his predecessors’ ultimate weapon. Now he lost it.

    Shintra quickly composed himself and continued, “The Lashival is most likely alive. I’m sure of it. Even though we weren’t able to get him, at least we got the two people whom he treasures. Maybe they can be useful in retrieving him.”

    “So what should we do now?”

    “What else? We’re leaving. It’s pointless to linger here.” Getting his needle ring, he opened a gateway back to his world. He gestured to the Dalenthi, who carried Ressi in his arms. “Put her in a cell and tell the Ruschabels to clean her up.”

    “Yes, my lord,” the man replied as he lifted the Aerian back into his arms. As he walked by him, Shintra noticed another Dalenthi’s eyes widened before he quickly tugged on his sleeves. “My lord, it’s Argus!” he hissed.

    The Humanistic Duermon arched his eyebrows. Argus? The renowned Parasitic Duermon who rejected to help him so long ago? “It can’t be. Didn’t he waste away in some barren lands?”

    “I’m positive! He’s been hiding inside her the entire time,” he insisted, tilting his head toward the unconscious Ressi. “I recognize his scent from anywhere. It has to be him!”

    Shintra could stare in amazement at the Ilmarian of Truth. Who would have thought Argus would be hiding inside her? But then, the Dalenthi must be telling the truth. After all, he was one of the Royal Guards who defected to join him so he would know about Argus, who was a loyal servant to the Idilarian royal family until he decided to leave and became a hermit. The Ilmarian of Souls also recalled his conversation with Hursa, another former Royal Guard, in which he mentioned that something about Ressi seemed familiar. Was it because he detected Argus?

    Now that he thought about it, the armor that appeared on Ressi’s body looked similar to the Parasitic Duermon’s golden scutum. That led to another question – when did he agree to hide inside her? If Argus was residing inside the Aerian’s body, then… All of a sudden, he grinned as an idea crossed his mind. “Keep what you know a secret for now,” he ordered. “We don’t want Argus to know that we’re aware of his existence. Understood?”

    “Understood, my lord,” the Dalenthi replied, bowing his head before he walked away.

    As he headed back, Shintra couldn’t help but feel cheerful. Even though he lost the Lashival, he was able to recover another weapon that he thought he lost long ago. It also looked like he was able to keep his promise to Lunes after all – she got her daughter back. No doubt she'd be pleased with that news.
    --- Double Post Merged, Feb 1, 2017 ---
    Chapter 20: Compromised

    Dirtha 5, 2595

    Torryn crossed her arms and tapped her fingers impatiently. Another boring meeting! She and Weiss could have been hunting down Dalenthi or something. Instead, they’re stuck in Welvaria. How much more will Kejuta have? She already has lost count of the numerous meetings the Ilmarian of Fate had for the past few months.

    Her brother must have sensed her displeasure because he signed, “Patience, Tory. I know that you’re unhappy about this but try to endure.”

    “Endure?” she gestured back. “We could be doing something productive, but we’re stuck here! Not to mention, Kejuta is a half an hour late! Everyone is here except for her! Why set up a meeting when you’re going to be late to it anyway?”

    Just as she signed it, the Ilmarian of Fate showed up. “Sorry I’m late, but there was something I had to check,” Kejuta apologized as she took her seat.

    Even though there are no assigned seats, everyone has a peculiar spot that they like to sit. Sitting next to Kejuta were Marika, who sat on her right, and Aundra, who sat on her left. Kejuta’s children, Adia and Pendance, sat next to the former while Brenton sat to the Ilmarian of Magic. The Ilmarians who were in charge of natural occurrences, Lanskas, Oraji, and Zentran, sat next to Pendance. On the other hand, the Three Judges sat next to Brenton although there was an empty spot since one of them is missing. Finally, Shintra sat across from Kejuta. In spite of the fact that they were sitting on a circular bench, everyone knew that the Ilmarian of Fate sat at the head.

    “It’s quite alright. We understand the stress you’re going through right now,” Hessin replied, which caused Kejuta to smile. Torryn snorted. Of course, that old fart would try to suck up to her. The Ilmarian of Justice was probably trained to act sincerely since he was a former Kahlin of Ishara. She could imagine how one of his lessons might be like: “Now, Hessin, pretend that you care about your people’s well-being. They will gobble it up and adore you for it!”

    “Thank you,” the Ilmarian of Fate replied and cleared her throat. “Anyway, let’s begin our agenda. Adia and Pendance, any new developments?”

    For the past few years, the Ilmarians of Life and Death worked tirelessly to figure out how to detect a Dalenthi, who managed to evade detection so far, by studying one of the Duermon’s soul. They reasoned that if they find something unique, then maybe Aundra may develop a form of magic to help with the situation. So far, they haven’t had any luck.

    “Afraid not, mother,” Pendance answered.

    “But we believe that we’re close to finding something,” Adia added.

    Kejuta smiled. “That’s good to hear. As soon as you discover something, let me know. What’s next in our agenda?”

    Dalenthi sightings,” Marika answered.

    The Ilmarian of Fate nodded. “Anyone noticed suspicious activities?”

    Weiss shook his head. “Not lately. The Dalenthi seemed to be lying low although it’s probably because we don’t have any way of finding them.”

    She then turned her attention to the others. “Any luck on your ends?” All of them shook their heads, which caused Kejuta to sigh. “I thought so. We’ve been having a hard time finding and hunting them down lately.”

    “It would be easier if Alethea was around to help,” Hessin said softly.

    No one spoke as they stared at the empty spot where the Ilmarian of Truth sits. Out of all the Ilmarians, she has the best chance of finding those fiends. Using her Threads of Lies, Alethea was able to discern if a person was actually a Dalenthi and quickly dispatched them Other times, she would alert them if there was too much. It had been going on like that for a while until Alethea abruptly decided to reveal herself to the world before disappearing into who-knows-where. Ever since then, she had become evasive and avoided corresponding them. Now the other Ilmarians had to clean up her mess especially the one in Anka.

    That was another thing that infuriated her. Just thinking about that made the Ilmarian of Judgement clench her teeth. That damned Aerian! Who did she think she is? Taking on the Ankan royalty and causing its destruction! Doesn’t she know that only the Ilmarians of Judgement were supposed to do that? Weiss and she earned that right, dammit! Long ago, the Ankan emperor had ordered the death of their family to make an example out of them. While their parents died from the attack, she and her twin brother survived mainly because they were chosen to be the next gods of Samara. Ever since then, they had waited patiently until Kejut would give them the okay to begin their revenge.

    Kejuta shifted uncomfortably in her seat. No doubt the talk of their missing colleague bothered her. “If we’re having trouble finding the Dalenthi, then I assume we can’t find the Lashival or his brother either,” she said, changing the subject.

    “You can say that again,” Torryn grumbled as she crossed her arms. “Weiss and I searched all over the place, but we can’t find them at all!”
    Oraji looked at Kejuta worriedly. “Do you think they could have escaped into one of the hidden worlds?”

    “Perhaps if they used Alethea’s needle ring,” she replied and turned to Marika, who was in charge of keeping an eye on such matters. “Did you notice anything suspicious?”

    “No, I haven’t,” the Ilmarian of Worlds said, shaking her head. “I’ve checked ever since we came back from Doran, but I’ll check again later today.”

    “It’s partly my fault. If I have paid attention to your messenger bird earlier, then maybe we’d found out what happened to them,” Brenton apologized.

    “It’s all right, Brenton,” the Ilmarian of Fate reassured him. “I doubt Historia would show us anything. If I couldn’t find Noeth Rasson’s Chain of Destiny, then you probably won’t be able to find him in your book either.”

    “That reminds me – why haven’t you able to find his Chain anyway?” Shintra inquired as he leaned back in his chair. “It should be easy since you have his name and description down to the tee. I thought your power is supposed to be omniscient, but I thought wrong.”

    The Ilmarian of Fate frowned at him; no doubt she didn’t like his condescending tone. Nevertheless, she answered, “I’m not sure why, but I’m sure there is a reason.”

    “It’s probably because the Lashival must have subconsciously figured that we would use his loved ones to track him down so he placed the same protection that he has onto his brother so it would make it harder to locate him,” the Ilmarian of Time surmised.

    “Makes sense. That could explain why I wasn’t able to locate his Chain,” Kejuta muttered. Torryn had to agree with that theory; it would explain why it was hard for her twin brother and her to find him. It was mostly pure luck that they spotted him in their previous hunts. From the corner of her eyes, the Ilmarian of Judgment noticed that the Ilmarian of Souls also wore that thoughtful expression.

    “Nevertheless, it still doesn’t change the fact that Alethea had decided to betray us,” Shintra declared. “Oh, I know how we don’t want to talk about it, but we might as well get it out. It’s pointless to avoid the subject any longer.”

    Hessin glanced over at Kejuta. “He’s right. We need to figure out what to do about this situation.”

    “I still can’t believe she would abandon us,” Oraji said softly.

    “Yeah, I would never expect her,” Lanskas agreed.

    “It’s so hard to fathom that our dear Alethea decided to go against your orders, Kejuta,” the Duermon commented, shaking his head. “Causing anarchy in Anka and then fleeing in Doran… You must have done something to cause her to suddenly become disobedient. Perhaps you gave her too much freedom to do as she pleases. If I were you, I would punish her severely for her insubordination so she would think twice of it.”

    Everyone waited for her response. What the Ilmarian of Souls said was true. Alethea did disobey orders so she needs to be punished for it. The Ilmarian of Fate just stared at Shintra for the longest time before she finally said, “I don’t think Thea intentionally disobeyed orders. I guess this is the best time for this, but I’ve come to believe that we may have been compromised.”

    A confused look appeared on almost everyone’s faces when she said it. Only Zen didn’t seem surprised by her announcement; a grim expression was on his face. “What do you mean?” Hessin slowly asked.

    “Remember how I asked to see your messenger birds to me as well as my replies to you?” Everyone nodded. Who doesn’t? When she first made that request, Torryn thought it was strange. Why would she be interested in their old correspondence? Kejuta took a deep breath and continued, “For the past twelve years, it appeared that someone has been impersonating us and sending false messenger birds. That same person pretended to be me and sent false orders to Alethea, which explained why she didn’t respond to us after the Ankan incident

    As soon as she said that, everyone was in an uproar. Shouts and screams echoed through the room that it was difficult to hear what another person said. Some of them even stood up as they stared at Kejuta with disbelief. “Wait, Alethea didn’t go rogue!?” Torryn blurted out.

    “False messenger birds? How could it be possible?” Marika breathed.

    “How can you be so sure?” Hessin wondered.

    Kejuta simply raised her hand, which silenced them and caused them to sit back down. “I think it’s best if Zentran explains since he was the first one to discover it.”

    The Ilmarian of Seasons scratched his head as everyone turned their attention toward him. “When I went to see Thea in Doran, she claimed that Kej sent her to Anka and even showed me the messenger bird to prove it,” he began. “Even though I knew it wasn’t from Kej, it still looked believable since it was in her handwriting. I then showed Thea a letter that I supposedly got from her, but she told me that she didn’t write it. Afterward, we cross-checked every messenger birds that we sent to each other to determine how long the charade lasts. That’s how we know it began twelve years ago.”

    “Which is why I asked to see the messenger birds between you and me,” Kejuta continued. “I wanted to make sure that our letters to each other were authentic.”

    “And?” Pendance inquired.

    “They were legitimate.”

    “But I don’t understand,” Adia said, shaking her head in disbelief. “How was someone able to forge our handwriting and pretend to be us? I thought the messenger birds would be safe due to the encryption.”

    The Ilmarian of Fate admitted, “I don’t know either, but what I do know is that we have been compromised. That’s why I want you to meet with each other afterward to compare messenger birds just to make sure your letters to each other are real. Discard any messages for the past twelve years from Alethea since those are most likely from the impostor.”

    They nodded. “But I do have one question, Kej,” Aundra said aloud and looked at her curiously. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier? If I have known, maybe I could use my magic to try to trace the false messenger birds to the imposter and put an end to it.”

    Everyone glanced at Kejuta, who seemed hesitant. Finally, she confessed, “The reason I didn’t tell you earlier was that I didn’t know who the imposter could be. It could be anyone – even one of us. That’s why I didn’t inform you as soon as I found out. I wasn’t sure who to trust.”

    An eerie silence filled the room. All around her, Torryn could see that uncertainty was on everyone’s faces. If that were true, then they may accidentally reveal a secret to that person, who then may use it against them. Would one of them really pull such a ruse? Shintra took umbrage when he noticed that most of them were eyeing him. “Don’t look at me,” Shintra retorted. “Alethea never respond to me so I would know nothing about how to impersonate her.”

    They immediately shifted their eyes away as they muttered to the person next to them. Torryn knew why. Of course, they felt guilty for immediately thinking of him, but who would blame them? After all, Shintra was the one who used to hold a grudge with Alethea and Kejuta. Everyone knows that. Nevertheless, an air of suspicion lingered.

    As she watched the people around her talked amongst themselves, she caught Weiss’s attention. “You can trust me,” he reassured her, gesturing discreetly. “No one else knows about our secret twin language.” She nodded though she wasn’t reassured. She could definitely trust her brother, but who else could she trust?
    --- Double Post Merged, Feb 19, 2017 ---
    Chapter 21: Doubts and Distrust

    As soon as the meeting was adjourned, all of the Ilmarians immediately set out to check to see if any of their messenger birds were fake. They talked amongst themselves to determine what was the best time to meet up to resolve this issue. Since Kejuta had confirmed that their letters to her were safe, they didn’t bother to meet up with her. At least they knew that they won’t have to worry about that. After making arrangements with each other, they went on their way.



    “Well?” Torryn demanded as she paced back and forth. “Does everything look fine to you?”

    Weiss could only shake his head. His sister was always impatient. Always wants everything done fast. Fortunately for them, their host, Shintra, was tolerant of Tory’s rude attitude. “They look fine to me,” he answered.

    “Are you sure?” Weiss pressed.

    “I’m positive,” the Duermon confirmed. “I even checked it twice just to be sure.”

    The twins breathed a sigh of relief. Torryn plopped down into a chair and propped her legs up. Weiss could only shake his head at his sister’s lack of manners. “Well, that’s a relief!” she exclaimed. He had to agree; it would be terrible if someone knew about their secret dealings.

    Shintra must have known what he was thinking because he said, “Indeed. It would be terribly awful if someone especially Kejuta discovers your secret contract with me. I would hate to see her reaction if she knows about it.”

    Weiss stiffened, and he noticed that his twin sister did as well. They remembered the last time they angered the Ilmarian of Fate; it wasn’t pretty. However, he quickly composed himself. He didn’t want the demon to know that he was worried about it. “If she does, who cares?” he declared, shrugging. “It’s not like she’s our only client.”

    Luckily, Torryn figured out what he was doing because she added, “Yeah. Why should we care? We’re assassins for hire; we work for anyone who wants our service. If she has an issue about it, she just has to deal with it.”

    “I suppose you’re right,” the Ilmarian of Souls agreed. “Although did you find it strange?”

    The twins exchanged a confused look. “What do you mean?” Weiss finally asked.

    Shintra shrugged. “You know what I meant: how Kejuta abruptly sprung this on us. Now we have to meet up with everyone just to see if our correspondences aren’t compromised.”

    “I don’t see how it’s odd,” Torryn replied. “She wanted to see if that pretender wrote to other people besides Thea.”

    “Oh, it’s not that. It’s the fact that we just agreed to what she said without asking for proof,” Shintra clarified. “Think about it. Here we are going through every messenger birds together just to make sure they were written by us. On the other hand, she looked at our letters without us by her side to help. How do we know she was telling the truth? What if those so-called ‘fake’ messenger birds don’t exist?”

    Weiss narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean exactly?”

    “What if Kejuta did write those messages? What if she gave Thea a secret mission and didn’t want anyone else to know? Unfortunately, Zentran accidentally discovered the fact and reported it to her. Since he believed that they were fake, she just played along so no one knew the truth. I mean surely she gives top secret missions to you too, right?”

    The twins remained silent. Of course, the Ilmarian of Fate had given them covert missions in the past, but no one was supposed to know about it. “Maybe,” Weiss answered vaguely. “But why would she give Thea a secret mission and then lie to us about it?”

    “It’s like she said; she doesn’t trust us,” Shintra reminded them. “She didn’t tell us about the fake messenger birds until now even though she knew about it for a month ago.”

    “But she also said that she was worried that the imposter may be one of us, which is probably why she didn’t tell us before,” Weiss countered.

    The Duermon just gave him a knowingly smile. “That’s what she claimed. Kejuta isn’t as benevolent as she makes herself. After all, she most likely used her powers to find and manipulate us, remember?” Weiss’s face darkened as he recalled Shintra’s theory that the Ilmarian of Fate used her Chains of Destinies to “convince” them to agree to join her.

    Shintra must have known he had struck a nerve because he smirked, which caused the Ilmarian of Judgment to scowl. Dammit, this time he was slow to hide his displeasure. Clearing his throat, Weiss announced, “Anyway, we had taken too much of your time so we better get going.”

    The Duermon nodded as he stood up. “I should get going as well. I promised Hessin that I’ll be meeting him in a few minutes.”

    Torryn made a face. “That old fart? Maybe he’s the one who wrote those false orders.”

    Shintra chuckled; everyone knew that the twins hated the Ilmarian of Justice. “I highly doubt it. He’s not the type to do such a thing.”

    “You’re right. He’s too much of a goody two shoes to do that,” his sister sighed.

    Weiss could only smile at her wishful thinking. Even he knew that the former king of Ishara wouldn’t be the type to pull such a stunt. Getting out his needle ring, he opened up a portal to the Marden Forest, where they train. “See you around, Shintra,” he said as he followed his sister through the opening. “If you need us for anything, let us know.”

    “Of course. Until then,” the Ilmarian of Souls replied as the portal closed shut, leaving the twins all alone.

    At first, none of them spoke as they walked quietly through the forest. The only sounds were the birds’ chirping, the squirrels’ chattering, and the rustling of leaves underneath their feet. Finally, Torryn said aloud, “Do you think what he’s saying is true, Weiss? That Kej is the one who wrote those letters?”

    Instead of answering, he asked, “What do you think?”

    His twin sister shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, it doesn’t make sense! Why would Kej lie about the messenger birds being fake?”

    “Maybe it’s because what Shintra was saying is true. Maybe Kej didn’t want anyone else to know about Thea’s secret missions,” he suggested.
    Her eyes widened in shock. “You really believe what he said? Do you really think she would do that?” she gasped.

    He shrugged. “Not really. Shintra may be lying since he doesn’t like Kej that much, but we have to see things in every angle.”

    “That’s true. If Shintra’s claim is right, then…” Torryn paused for a moment. “But Zen said that Thea was shocked as he was when she discovered that she was receiving different orders.”

    “Maybe Thea didn’t know either.” Torryn looked at him, confused. “Think about it. Ever since Thea joined us, she has been following Kejuta’s orders to the tee. She never got in trouble unlike us. Hell, even Hessin got reprimanded for disobeying orders once in awhile. Maybe Kej likes that so she decided to make her best operative without telling her.”

    “Or Kej was telling the truth about the whole thing,” she pointed out.

    “True,” he agreed, “but we can’t be too sure.”

    His sister became quiet as she thought about what he said. “Should we ask her about it?” she wondered. “Demand her to prove that our messenger birds to her are real right in front of us?”

    Weiss shook his head. “No, I don’t think it would be a good idea. We don’t want her to know that there’s something amiss. Besides, she probably got rid of the evidence already.”

    “Then what are we supposed to do?”

    “Business as usual,” he replied, “but at the same time, be more vigilant with our dealings with everyone. Kej is right about one thing – one of us is a traitor so we have to suspect everyone. That person may slip up and reveal something that she didn’t want anyone else to know. Then we’d have enough proof that we need.”

    “Sounds like a good plan,” Torryn agreed and yawned. “You know, all this talk is boring me. Race you to that tree!”

    Without any warning, she slapped him on the back and sprinted away. Weiss could only shake his head and smiled as he chased after her.

    “Looks like everything’s in order,” Hessin declared as he placed the last messenger bird back on the table.

    Shintra smiled. “That’s good to hear. At least we know that our correspondence is safe.” He shook his head. “But still, it’s unnerving to imagine that somehow we may have been compromised.”

    “Indeed,” the Ilmarian of Justice agreed. Nearby, his water spirit, Istra, perched on her stand. Her head was tucked under her wings as she slumbered – or pretended to be. Hessin smiled to himself. Knowing her, Istra didn’t trust his guest due to his bad reputation so she was keeping an eye on him just in case he was trying to pull a trick – not that he blames her. He continued, “Since our business is done here, will you be taking your leave now?”

    The Ilmarian of Souls didn’t answer. Instead, he strolled and glanced around the room, which has white walls and granite floor. White columns lined up on either side of the carpeted aisle, which led to a staircase. On top of the stairs was a simple golden throne. Next to it was Istra’s perch. “What an interesting layout!” he commented mostly to himself though Hessin could hear what he said. Shintra stopped and turned to him. “Is this the Isharan throne room? It seems a bit too opulent for you if I do say so myself.”

    When she heard his comment, Istra began to chitter angrily underneath her breath. On the other hand, Hessin remained composed; he wasn’t going to be provoked. “Thank you,” the former Kahlin said, “but I think the layout is fine with me.”

    Shintra just grinned and continued to study the room. “So what do you think about Kejuta’s sudden announcement today?”

    The past ruler of Ishara frowned at the sudden change of topic. What was the Duermon planning? “It was unexpected,” he finally answered. “It’s a frightening thought that someone would be so deceptive to do such a thing. Although it would explain why Alethea was acting strangely these past few months.”

    “Do you really think so? I noticed that she seemed a bit distant after her time with the Velscendus Cult. She really didn’t spend much time with us between her missions, and when she does, she was mostly quiet. Not to mention, she was vague whenever someone asks her well-being, and she seemed eager to head out again.”

    “What are you implying?” Hessin said sharply.

    “Just hear me out, Hessin, before you threaten me,” Shintra scoffed and cleared his throat. “Just think about it. We’ve read reports from former cult members in which they claimed that the leaders would indoctrinate the children they kidnapped into becoming loyal servants. Anyone who showed resistance would be physically and mentally abused until they became compliant. Well, we know that Alethea was disguised as a child so she surely had to undergo those ‘lessons’, and based on what she told Kejuta, she had several of them. Who knows? Maybe she’s secretly converted by those Dalenthi and now working with them. Maybe she’s the one who wrote those false messenger birds.”

    “Alethea would never do such a thing!” the Ilmarian of Justice rebuked. “She’s been helping us hunt them down these past few years. If she supposedly joined forces with them, why would she help us kill them?”

    “To trick us, of course. She wanted us to believe that she’s still on our side. Don’t forget that she did tell Kejuta that she hadn’t encountered a lot of Dalenthi, and that was even before the time of those false letters,” Shintra reminded him.

    What the Duermon said was true. Alethea did mention that she had a harder time finding the Dalenthi in her last meeting with his colleagues, which happened before the time of the fake messenger birds. “But Zentran said that she was shocked as we were when we found out about them,” Hessin pointed out.

    “But she could be pretending,” the Ilmarian of Souls countered. “Once she found out that her charade was almost up, she probably feigned ignorance and showed those so-called fake messenger birds to prove her innocence. Not to mention, she was lucky that it was Zen who came to see her. You know how infatuated he is with her so of course, he would believe her. She could never do any wrong in his opinion.”

    Hessin became silent as he recalled how defensive the Ilmarian of Seasons became when he said that his colleague was too invested in the Aerian’s well-being. Surely, Zentran wouldn’t blindly accept Alethea’s explanations, right? He’s much smarter than that.

    The Duermon must have thought his silence was a sign of agreement because he went on, “Here’s my theory. Most likely, she was probably planning to meet her Dalenthi cohorts in Doran after the disaster in Anka. Unfortunately for her, Kejuta was alerted to her whereabouts and sent Zentran in her place. You already know what I think what happened between those two so I’ll skip to the part where the Lashival showed up. Seeing her opportunity, Thea must have secretly signaled her new comrades to attack in order to distract Zen while she gave chase after the Lashival and his brother. From there, we don’t know what happened to her though I believe that she managed to somehow capture them and now with the Dalenthi as we speak.”

    “You have an interesting imagination,” Hessin replied as he crossed his arms. “Why are you telling me this?”

    Shintra smiled. “It’s because I know you’re not the type to sit idly around and wait for someone to find the answers for you. You would search for the answers until you’re satisfied with the result. Besides, I have a hunch that Zen is not forthcoming about everything that happened.”

    “Such as?”

    “The Lashival’s attack. Something about it seems rather odd to me. Zen claimed that the Lashival was in so much distress that he wasn’t aware of his surroundings so it would mean that he could be easily killed, but why didn’t it happen? Oh, I know that Zen said that he didn’t have a good shot, but Thea did. So why didn’t she?” the Duermon posed and shook his head. “Well, those are my thoughts about it. Anyway, I should take my leave. Until next time, Hessin.”

    Without another word, Shintra opened a portal and left. The Ilmarian of Justice stared at the spot, where his colleague stood before he turned his attention to Istra. “What do you think?” he asked his watery summon.

    “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Even though I don’t completely trust him, what he said could be true. Do you really think Thea was turned?”

    Hessin didn’t answer at first as he dwelled on what Shintra said. Although he hated to say it, the Duermon did have a point. There was a possibility that Alethea – unknowingly or knowingly – has betrayed them. Of course, there was a possibility that the event happened just like Kejuta and Zentran said it did. Finally, he replied, “I don’t know either, Istra, but I intend to find out.”

    Pendance watched warily as Shintra studied their messenger bird correspondence. Even though they were currently in Valendor, the Ilmarian of the Dead still felt uncomfortable. True, Shintra couldn’t use his power here, but Pendance was still on guard. He knew what the Duermon was capable of based on what his mother had told him. Who knows what the Ilmarian of Souls is planning?

    “You can sit down, you know,” Shintra said without looking up from his task. “You're making be feel rather uncomfortable when you stare down at me like that.”

    Pendance frowned as he pulled up a chair next to the demon. “Sorry. I guess I’m tensed about the whole thing,” he lied.

    The Ilmarian of Souls glanced up at him, surprised. “Your mother didn’t tell you about this before? I thought she visits you once a week.”

    “No, I learn about this the same time like you,” he answered, shaking his head, “and Mother has been busy lately so she hasn’t come to visit as much.”

    “Oh, I see. It has been hectic for all of us these last few months,” the Duermon commiserated, “but I’m sure everything will be back to normal soon once we settle this issue.”

    “Yeah, I hope.” Pen didn’t know why Shintra was trying to act cordial to him like they were old friends. He never acted that way before in their past encounters; the Duermon was usually curt and formal. “Anyway, I see nothing wrong in my end. What’s about yours?”

    “Same with me.” Shintra grinned. “It seems that imposter didn’t bother to trick us.”

    “Look that way,” he agreed and shook his head. “Although I can’t imagine how Thea felt when she realized that she’s duped. Hopefully, she’s all right wherever she is.”

    The Ilmarian of Souls waved his hand flippantly. “I’m sure she is. Based on what I know, she can handle herself.” He abruptly stood up and wandered over to a shelf. Pointing at a glowing orb in a bell jar, he asked, “By the way, is this the Kasama’s soul? It’s amusing, isn’t it? The biggest threat against us is now nothing more than a test subject. That reminds me. Earlier in the meeting, you mentioned that your sister and you are coming closer to identifying a Dalenthi’s soul. Care to give me a hint on what it is?”

    He shook his head. “I don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t want to tell you something, and it turns out to be wrong,” Pendance explained.

    “Oh, that’s a pity. I would like to help with your research, but unfortunately, my power doesn’t work here. If you let me borrow his soul for awhile, then I may find something that you and Adia may overlook,” Shintra offered.

    “Thanks, but no thanks. Adia and I can handle it,” the Ilmarian of the Dead said rather hastily. There was no way in hell he would let that Duermon have the Kasama’s soul! Who knows what he would do with it?

    The Ilmarian of Souls smirked because it was obvious why he refused his help. Turning his attention away from the Kasama’s soul, he picked up a tall, white flower. If Pendance remembered correctly, it was a winter star, which got its name due to the shape of the flower as well as the fact that it blooms in winter. “Is this from Oraji? My, what a sweet girl to give it to you! So when are you two lovebirds going to marry? I’m sure your mother would approve.”

    Pendance scowled. “That’s none of your business!” he snapped as he snatched the flower from Shintra’s hand. “Besides, you’re not the one to give love advice! How many women have you slept with by now?”

    “The number of women I slept with shouldn’t concern you. It’s just that I haven’t found the right girl for me yet,” Shintra demurred and smiled. “Enough about me! We’re talking about your girlfriend. Oraji is a considerate girl, isn’t she? Always performing her duties well and looking out for everyone. Not to mention, she has a heart of gold. She never sees the bad in people, which is a good thing in my opinion. Although, she has been acting strange lately especially whenever she’s with Lanskas. Is there something going on between those two?”

    “No, why?” he asked.

    “Oh, I just noticed that Oraji and Lanskas have been awfully close lately. That’s all.”

    “They have to work together to ensure that Samara is running smoothly. Just like you said, it’s been crazy lately so that’s probably why they’ve been together a lot these days. There’s nothing going on,” Pendance scoffed.

    Shintra chortled. “Is that what you think? Well then, if that is true, then why isn’t Zen with them as well? After all, he’s also involved with taking care of the natural state of Samara. No, there’s something else going on between those two.” He hesitated and sighed. “I hate to tell you this, but I guess I should. For the past few weeks, I’ve been spying on them and observed that they’ve been meeting each other late at night. Unfortunately, I wasn’t close enough to hear what they were saying. Nevertheless, I think they’re up to something. Maybe they’re conspiring against you and your moth-”

    “Raj would never do such a thing!” Pendance interrupted, nearly yelling. He took a deep breath as he calmed himself down. Glaring at the bemused Duermon, he repeated, “Raj would never betray us. That would be unlike her to do that.”

    The Ilmarian of Souls continued to smile. “Are you sure? Then do me a favor. The next time, your precious Raj comes to visit you, ask her. Based on her reaction, you’ll know whether or not I’m telling the truth. If she has nothing to hide, then you can discard what I said.”

    Pendance glowered at him as he clenched his fists. “I think it’s best that you go now,” he murmured in a threatening voice.

    Fortunately, Shintra got the hint because he raised his hands innocently. “If you insist,” he said. As he walked by Pen, the Duermon patted his shoulder and added, “Think about what I said, will you?”

    He remained silent as he continued to glare down at the demon. Shintra just shrugged and left Valendor without saying another word. As soon as the Duermon left, Pendance finally relaxed. Exhaling loudly, he exited his room, where an anxious Un waited for him. The wisp, whose body and dragonfly wings were made out of light, flickered near the door. “Everything all right, my lord?” he inquired.

    “Yeah, everything’s fine, Un,” Pen reassured him. The head wisp seemed relieved and bowed his head as he flew away to check on the other wisps. He watched as Un disappeared into the crowd of spirits and wisps before he returned to his seat, which overlooked the land of the dead. Here he could preside over the souls of the departed and determined who was ready to be reborn. Even though he observed the crowd, Pendance wasn’t paying any attention to them, however. His thoughts were elsewhere. Despite denying Shintra’s claim, he still felt troubled by it. No matter how hard he tried to ignore it, the Duermon’s words echoed in his mind.
    --- Double Post Merged, Mar 16, 2017 ---
    Chapter 22: The Prick of a Needle

    By the time Shintra arrived back at his room from visiting most of his colleagues, he was exhausted though at the same time, energized. True, it took some efforts to convince a few of them to suspect the others, but he believed that his plan worked. In order to distract the other Ilmarians from his scheme, he told a handful of them, whom he selected after a thorough consideration, that he had doubts about the fake messenger birds. He only told a select few since he figured that if he told all of them, they might trace the origin of the lies back to him. That risk was what he couldn’t afford.

    Recalling the other Ilmarians’ reactions, he smiled. Even though they refuted his claims, he didn’t care. All he wanted to do was to plant a seed of doubt in their minds, and it seemed that it already worked. When he left, he saw that his colleagues appeared troubled, and their eyes darted back and forth as they considered what he said. He has a feeling that the next meeting would be interesting. Poor Kejuta won’t know what hit her, that’s for sure.

    Feeling rather pleased with himself, he poured himself a glass of wine and grabbed a book to read before plopping down in a chair. The flames in the fireplace danced and crackled as he read his book, which he has read before. It was an interesting book about the success or downfalls of several historical world figures, but Shintra wasn’t focused on it. His mind was elsewhere at the moment.

    As he took a sip of wine, he glanced up at the clock hanging above the mantle though it was rather pointless. The concept of time was different in the hidden worlds. Nevertheless, he knew that he has waited for at least fifteen minutes. Dammit, she’s late! She should have been here by now. Where is she? If she thinks she could delay the inevitable, then perhaps he should…

    The sounds of chimes, which indicated that he has a visitor, interrupted his train of thoughts. “It’s me,” Oraji whispered.

    With a wave of his hand, he unlocked the entrance, allowing her to enter his room. He watched the Ilmarian of Nature strolled toward him. The petite woman was comely, in his opinion. Her satin maroon dress fitted snugly to her body. Her orange hair, which was braided, has flowers woven into it. The basket in her hands swayed back and forth. However, while he enjoyed admiring her beauty, Shintra still had to let her know his displeasure. “You’re late,” he growled when she was within an arm’s length of him.

    Her face flushed red. “I’m sorry, but it has been difficult to grow some of the plants you requested!” she protested. She dropped the basket on the table in front of him. “Here’s everything from your list so you better be happy!”

    The Ilmarian of Souls didn’t say a word as he stood up to examine the basket’s contents He made sure to take his time; making Oraji squirmed amused him. From the corner of his eyes, he saw that she was watching him anxiously. Her hands were wronged so tightly that her knuckles were white. She knew that he would punish her if she didn’t follow his directions correctly. Finally, she must have gotten impatient because she demanded, “Well? I did what you told!”

    “Hmm… kastic roots, mandara leaves, a bundle of blustac flowers, morian grass, and tustic barks. I guess that’s everything on the list,” he muttered. Without looking up, he waved her off. “You can go now. When I need some more plants, I’ll let you know.”

    Shintra expected to hear her footsteps but was surprised when he heard nothing. Glancing up, he saw that Oraji was still standing there. “Are you deaf? I told you to leave,” he told her.

    Instead of doing what she was told, Oraji demanded, “What are you doing with those plants? I know those plants can be used for medicinal purposes, but they can also be used to make toxins.”

    The Duermon let out a hearty laugh. “My dear Raj, you don’t have to worry!” he reassured her. “I only have good intentions; I plan to make some barbiturates with these plants. I did train to be an apothecary after all.”

    “Barbiturates?” Oraji frowned and crossed her arms.

    “That’s right. I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately so I’ve decided to make myself some sleep aides to help me. Rest assured, I have nothing terrible in mind.”

    The Ilmarian of Nature gave him a dubious look, but she knew that he was telling her the truth. The plants she’s given him were used for that purpose. “If you say so…” she mumbled.

    Shintra smiled. “Is your curiosity satisfied now? Now then, you can take your leave. I have a tight schedule to follow, you know.” However, she still refused to budge, which irritated him. “What is it now?”

    “How long am I supposed to be doing this?” she asked.

    “As long as I said so,” he replied. “Why? Have you decided that you have enough?”

    She glowered at him. “For the last few years, I’ve given all the plants you asked, but you kept asking for more and more. It’s enough that I’m busy performing my duties and providing medicinal plants for Marika. How much more do you need?”

    “A lot more, I’m afraid,” he answered.

    “And if I refuse to give you any?”

    A bemused Shintra sat back in the chair. “My, my! The rose has shown its thorns. If you refuse to obey my orders, then…” He leaned forward as his eyes gleamed dangerously. “Perhaps I’ll tell your beloved Pendance what you and Lanskas have been up to. Who knows what will happen if he finds out?”

    As soon as he said those words, the Ilmarian of Nature turned pale and shrank back. Heh, he knew using that threat would put her in her place. When Kejuta had ordered the death of the Lashival, Shintra noticed that Oraji and Lanskas were the only ones who seemed displeased with the order so he decided to keep watch on them. Lo and behold, his hunch was right.

    After he was given his own needle ring, he immediately set out to track the two Ilmarians down and spied on them. It was easy to find them; for some reason, they always meet up in the Kallia Forest for their get-together. Nevertheless, he overheard what he needed to hear, and he had used the information to blackmail the Ilmarian of Nature ever since. True, he could use it on Lanskas, but he thought it was unnecessary. For one, the Ilmarian of Beasts really didn’t provide any benefit for him. Second, Shintra doubted that the former priest would be easily pressured, unlike the naïve Oraji.

    Baring his teeth, the Ilmarian of Souls asked, “Do you have any more issues with this arrangement?” Oraji just stared at him, which he took as a “no”. “Good. Now I want you to leave in the next thirty seconds. If you stay here any longer, then I really will tell Pendance about you. Got it?”

    The Ilmarian of Nature gulped and nodded. Snatching up the empty basket, she scurried to the exit. As she was about to open the door, Shintra shouted, “Oh, and one more thing.” She froze and slowly glanced back at him. Her eyes were widened with apprehension, which caused him to grin. “Don’t you ever question me again!”

    She nodded before she fled the room. The Duermon watched her diminishing back as she disappeared from view. Shaking his head, he closed the door with the wave of his hand and stared at his glass of wine with disgust. That incident had ruined the taste. He threw the alcoholic drink into the fire and placed the book on the table next to him. He could finish the book later. Right now, he has other business to attend.

    Without further ado, he stood up and grabbed the basket of plants before he strolled to one of the bookshelves. Shintra then proceeded to pull the small book, which opened the secret passageway to the hidden headquarters of his operation. As usual, the place was buzzing with activities. Ruschabels bustled about performing their servile duties. Some Dalenthi returned from their raid with new prisoners, who would soon become members of the enslaved humans, while the rest were either training or relaxing.

    During his walk, he spotted Lunes preparing one of his prized concubines for her tryst with one of his men. The old Dalenthi fretted over the woman’s sheer gown as she provided advice to the woman, who listened attentively. Shintra could only shake his head. Lunes always likes to fuss about everything even the minor things. Personally, he doesn’t care as long as his concubines give birth to more followers. However, his focus wasn’t on what his men were doing. Right now, he has a task to do. Ignoring the people walking by him, he headed straight to his bedroom and shut the door.

    Not only was his bedroom the largest in the headquarters, it also sat on the top story so he could overlook at his growing empire. When he first created the room, he made sure that he has the finest of everything – furniture, linens, and décor. His large four-poster bed, which was made with ebony wood, was placed in the center of the room while the armoire was on the north end, which was the head of the bed. Next to the armoire was a pedestal with a shallow bowl filled with the celuiquore, the foggy liquid that allows him to spy any places in Samara from the comfort of his room.

    On the opposite side were a crimson-colored settee and a coffee table, which were placed in front of a fireplace. A painting portraying the creation of Samara was displayed above the mantle. A credenza was placed on the left side of the fireplace and a door, which led to a small workspace, was on the left corner. However, there were no furniture or décor on the west wall. Instead, there was a large blue mural, which was painted recently. It depicted a kestrel trying to take flight from a branch of a fir tree, but its talons were chained to its perch. Its eyes were full of desperation as it tried to escape to no avail.

    Shintra stopped for a moment to admire the picture. The painting turned out better than he had anticipated, but then, he had some of the best artists worked on it. Unfortunately, he has no time to marvel at the artwork; he has work to do. With one last glance, he turned around and entered his office.

    It was a small room just enough to hold his supplies and to work in peace. A U-shaped counter was attached to the three walls with cabinets above it. Shelves were built under the counters perpendicular to the doorway while the work surface parallel to the entrance served as his table. Several plants hanged from hooks to dry while a few were in vases full of water. The rest were in labeled jars, which were arranged in alphabetical order in the cabinets. A fitting room for an apothecary if he says so himself.

    After putting away the newly acquired plants, Shintra went straight to work. Pulling the stool from under the counter, he sat down and began to ponder what to make. If he has assumed correctly, then it would be around that time. Hmm… should he increase the dosage or should he increase the strength of the medicine? Decisions, decisions. In the end, he decided to increase the strength. With that determined, he went to gather the ingredients.

    First, he got a few pieces of tustic barks, crumbled them into tiny pieces, and soaked them. Next, he sliced up some kastic root and boil them in a pot. During that time, the Duermon gathered a bundle of dried blustac flowers and morian grasses, which he rubbed against his hands. Soon, specks as small as pebbles rained down into a mortar. When he got a small pile, Shintra then turned his attention back to the barks and leaves. Scooping them up, he dumped the now saturated plants, which he patted dry, into the bowl before he grabbed a pestle and began pounding the mixture until it was a fine dust.

    He then poured the powder into the pot with the kastic roots, stirring the concoction until everything was incorporated before he tossed in a mandara leaf. Once it started to boil again, Shintra removed the pot from the burner and strained the mixture into a bowl. While he waited for the medicine to cool, he prepped the vials. As soon as the liquid was cooled enough, he poured it into the bottles and closed the lids. He was busy putting them away when he heard a knock at the door. “Come in! I’m in my workshop,” he shouted. He heard the door open and footsteps approaching.

    Looking up from his task, he saw Noeth standing at the door; a stack of papers was in his hands. “My lord, I have some reports for you,” the young man said, bowing his head.

    Shintra nodded. “Go on,” he replied as he continued to work. While Noeth began reading the reports, he studied the Lashival’s brother. The Ankan dressed in the finest clothes: a long-sleeved white dress shirt, a maroon vest, and black dress pants. His hair was slicked up, and his black loafers were polished. Even though he didn’t have the Lashival, at least he has some use for his brother. Having Noeth Rasson as his personal assistant was a genius idea. Now he doesn’t have to worry too much about the everyday activities and focus on more important things. It also helped that the Ankan was a diligent and dependable worker, but then Shintra made sure of it.

    “Any luck locating your brother?” he asked.

    Noeth shook his head. “No, my lord. Balster said that the men searched that place thoroughly but no luck.”

    “Huh,” was all he said.

    His personal assistant looked at him, concerned. “Do you think she lied about his location?”

    “No, I don’t think so. She wasn’t aware that you had sworn your allegiance to me until after the fact. Most likely, your brother is hiding somewhere,” he reassured Noeth.

    “Makes sense,” he said, nodding. “Do you think he’s safe?”

    “For the time being. However, he won’t be completely safe until he’s here with me,” Shintra replied.

    “Of course,” Noeth agreed. One reason he was willing to obey Shintra’s orders was that the Ilmarian of Souls convinced him that he only has Corwin’s well-being in mind. Although if Noeth knew his real intention, he wouldn’t dare stop him. The Ankan was completely under his thumb; any form of resistance was suppressed once Shintra was finished altering his soul. But just to be sure…

    Noeth’s eyes became aglow as Shintra cupped his soul in his hands to examine it. Hmm… all of his commands were still sound, and it appeared that nothing seemed out of place. Good. If the Ankan was aware of what his master was doing, he didn’t show it. Instead, he asked, “If I may be bold, my lord, but I have to ask. How is she?”

    Shintra smirked; he didn’t have to ask whom Noeth was asking about. “Fine though it’s hard to tell when she’s…”

    All of a sudden, he heard a racket, which caused him to stop mid-sentence. Shouts soon filled the air as a door slid opened. Before long, an out of breath Ruschabel appeared, shoving Noeth out of the way. “My lord, she escaped!” he gasped.

    Shintra frowned. “Escaped? How?”

    “It’s my fault, my lord. I didn’t keep an eye on her. I was about to administer the medicine to her when she suddenly bolted and shoved me out of the way,” he explained and kowtowed. “I’m so sorry. I’ll accept any form of punishment.”

    “I see.” The Ilmarian of Souls looked at the Ruschabel thoughtfully. “Did you, by chance, managed to inject the medicine?”

    The man thought for a moment. “A little bit, my lord. I managed to prick her.”

    “Then it should be fine. Just a little should slow her down,” he replied. He quickly grabbed a clean syringe and needle. Inserting the needle into one of the vials, he drew up some of the new medicine. After tapping the syringe to ensure that there were no bubbles, he strolled out of the room.

    The center sections of the mural were gone, revealing that it was hiding two pocket doors that led to a hidden room. Without any hesitation, Shintra walked through the mural and entered. Behind him, he heard the others following him. Even though it was dimly lit, he could still see an outline of the room. A prison made up most of the room; its golden bars reached up to the ceiling. A canopy bed with sheer white curtains was placed in the middle of it, and a nightstand was next to the bed. A cream-colored wingback chair was arranged close to the head of the bed while an ottoman bench was placed at the end of the bed. Against one side of the bar was a vanity set with a screen, which depicted peonies, was set at the corner. A wardrobe was placed on the other side of the screen. Lastly, the perimeter of the prison was used as a walkway for anyone passing by.

    However, Shintra wasn’t focused on the room arrangement. Right now, he was more interested in finding the escaped prisoner. The wide opened door told him that she had managed to get out of her prison though it probably took her a lot of effort. Nevertheless, he didn’t have to figure out which way she went. After all, the path would only lead to the back stairwells. And based on the amount of sedative inside her, she most likely didn’t go far.

    His hunch was proven to be right. Shintra found her sprawled on the floor just a few meters away from reaching the stairwell. Ressi lie facedown on the ground with her wings covering most of her body. She was barefoot and only wore a silk lavender nightgown. He had to admit that he was impressed. Who would have thought that she would be able to walk that far? Nonetheless, it did tell him that he was right in increasing the strength of the barbiturate.

    He just reached her when she started to stir so he quickly knelt down beside her, grabbed her by the shoulders, and turned her over. Ressi groaned as she tried to push him aside but in her drugged-up state, all she could do was tap him lightly. “Let go of me,” she moaned, trying to get up.

    Shintra kept a firm grip. “Now, now, Ressi, you’ve been a naughty girl,” he admonished the Aerian. “You know that I can’t let you go – not until you get your medicine.”

    He expected her to put up a fight, but imagine his surprise when she opened her eyes slightly and smiled at him. “Oreche, you came back for me,” she slurred, patting her hand on his chest. “What took you so long? I miss you.”

    At first, the Ilmarian of Souls stared at her, stunned. “Oreche” was the nickname he had her called him when she was his ward after her capture. He shook his head and quickly regained his composure. The Aerian was currently under the influence of the sedative to be fully aware of what she was saying although it confirmed a suspicion he had about her. “That’s right. I’m back, my dear,” he replied and secretly pulled out the syringe from his pocket. “But right now, you need to take your medicine so be a good girl and let me do my job.”

    “No!” she started to protest, but he jabbed the needle in her arm before injecting the barbiturate. Ressi whimpered as she tried to struggle but to no avail. Shintra felt her body slumped against his arms as she closed her eyes once more and fell into a deep sleep. Her light breathing informed him that the sedative had taken an effect.

    Turning to Noeth and the Ruschabel, he ordered, “Take her back to her room. I’ll leave a bottle of the new medicine on the nightstand. Give it to her every four hours. Understood?”

    “Yes, my lord,” they answered as they immediately rushed over and carried the Aerian back to her prison.

    “In the meantime, I’ll be in my quarters. Noeth, I want you to meet me there when you are finished,” Shintra added.

    The Ankan bowed his head. “Understood.”

    As he strolled down the hallway, he glanced over the balcony and saw his men, obvious to the incident above them, continued to work. Heh, if only they knew what trouble he was dealing with at the moment! Knowing Lunes, she probably shakes her head while Balster would have a laugh about it.

    He was staring at the fireplace when he heard Noeth return. “Close the door,” he ordered. Shintra heard the pocket door slid shut before the Lashival’s brother approached him. “How is she?”

    “Fast asleep,” he replied. “Whatever you gave to her knocked her out cold.”

    Shintra nodded. Of course, he expected it; after all, he’s the best apothecary – better than Marika, who may think otherwise. “Now that matter has been taken care of, let’s go back to business, shall we? First thing, I want you to-”

    Knock, knock! The Ilmarian of Souls frowned. Now what? “Noeth, let whoever is at the door in,” he ordered. His personal servant immediately rushed over toe the door and opened it.

    As soon as Noeth realized who the guest was, he tensed up and scowled. Mikhail returned his scowl as well. Shintra watched the whole thing and laughed quietly to himself. Those two men despised each other due to the fact that they loved the same woman and at the same time, blamed each other for her “downfall”. Dalin's reincarnate believed that the Fallen's betrayal caused Alethea to suffer greatly while the other felt that the human “corrupted” her. Their hatred for each other provided entertainment to him and besides, a healthy rivalry did help boost up the competition.

    “Mikhail! What a pleasant surprise! Please, do come in,” he greeted. Noeth glowered as he reluctantly let the Fallen enter the room. On the other hand, Mikhail ignored the Ankan though Shintra thought he saw the Fallen gave Noeth a slight smile. “Do you have anything to report to me? Any interlopers dare try to step near the Idilarian border?”

    “No, my lord,” Mikhail answered, shaking his head. “It’s been quiet so far, which is a good thing, I suppose.”

    “I suppose it is,” Shintra agreed. “If that is the case, then why are you here?”

    “It’s about Thea, my lord! I’ve heard rumors that you may have a way to bring her to our cause,” he blurted. “Is it true?”

    The Ilmarian of Souls scowled. My, people jabbered! “Yes, it is true. I think I found a way to turn her,” he confirmed as he lifted his hand and touched the Fallen’s soul. Mikhail’s eyes lit up as he continued, “However, her name isn’t Alethea or Thea. Her name is Ressi. The person that you knew from childhood no longer exists, remember?”

    The Fallen shuddered as the light in his eyes dimmed. “Of course, my lord. Forgive me for my transgression,” he apologized, bowing his head shamefully. “Nevertheless, allow me to help in some way! I know her so I may convince her to see things our way.”

    Shintra rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he thought about what the Fallen, who was staring at him earnestly, said. What he said was true; Mikhail does know some things about her that he could use against her. On the other hand, the Fallen hadn’t seen her since her kidnapping so he wouldn’t know much. Before he could reply, an irate Noeth countered, “I think I have a better chance than he does! Not only I spent two years with her recently, I’m also the reincarnated of her first love. Surely, that would mean more to her than a former fiancé, whom she hasn't seen for ages!”

    “Don’t listen to him, my lord!” the Fallen interrupted as he glared at his rival. “What possibly does a human know about anything?”

    “More than you, you halfwit!” the Ankan retorted. Before long, they began to argue with each other about the other’s merits. Shintra didn’t pay them any mind; he was used to seeing them going at each other. At that moment, his thought was elsewhere. After founding out that Argus was secretly residing inside Ressi’s body, he has been trying to figure out how to lure the Parasitic Duermon out. For the past few weeks, he has been tossing one plan and another, but in the end, he discarded all of them. No, Argus was too clever to be goaded. Otherwise, he would have shown himself many times earlier. What he needed was to see it from another angle, but what? At this rate, he would never find a way, and it started to frustrate him, to be honest.

    He was about to develop an inkling when the screaming match behind him disrupted his train of thoughts. “Enough, the both of you!” he yelled, slamming his fist on the fireplace mantle, as he turned to confront them. Both Mikhail and Noeth stopped and stared at him with their mouths agape. “I want you out now! If you two can’t handle being civil to each other in front of my presence, then I want you out of my sight. So go before I make things worse.”

    Mikhail didn’t have to think twice. He did an abrupt bow before he headed out of the door. On the other hand, Noeth sputtered, “But what’s about the orders you were about to give me?”

    “I’ll give them to you later. Now go!” he snapped. The Ankan bowed his head as he dashed the door and shut it. Shintra watched as the door clicked shut before he sighed irritably. What was with everyone today? It was as if they were trying to get on his nerves on purpose. Especially those two! Normally, he would let them squabble, but today, he wasn’t in the mood. Maybe it’s because they usually argued about the same thing – Ressi’s well-being. Who would have thought those two would care so much about her…?

    All of a sudden, an idea popped into his head. He may have found a way to draw Argus out after all. Of course, he needed to get a lot of help to ensure that it works. Knowing the participants, they would readily agree to the plan. If they refuse, well, let’s say that he has a way to “convince” them. Smirking, he hurried out the door to begin his preparations.
    --- Double Post Merged, Mar 27, 2017 ---
    I think I'm halfway done with the book... I think anyway. :sweatbunny

    Nevertheless, i think I'll need more 20+ chapters to reach the conclusion.




    Chapter 23: Growing Tensions

    Dirtha 12, 2595

    “Hessin, what’s wrong? Are you feeling all right?” Zentran asked. The Ilmarian of Justice looked at him curiously so his friend added, “You seem distracted lately so I thought that something is bothering you. Hell, this is the seventh time that I beat you today, and I usually don’t win that easily against you!”

    Hessin shook his head as he wiped the sweat off his face with a towel. At the moment, they were taking a little breather from their training. Once a week, they would meet with each other to spar. It was nothing too strenuous; they usually go easy on each other because they mostly want to focus on techniques. “It’s nothing, Zen. I guess I’m just…” He paused for a moment. “Actually, you’re right. There’s something that has been bothering me lately.”

    The Ilmarian of Seasons gave him a puzzled look so he continued, “It’s about the false messenger birds. You said that Thea showed them to you, right?”

    Zen nodded. “Yeah. And?”

    The former Kahlin took a deep breath. Even though he doesn’t like saying it, he might as well get it over with. “Are you certain that she was telling you the truth about why she disobeyed Kej’s orders?”

    “Of course, I’m certain. What is with those questions? What are you implying?”

    He hesitated. Zentran would hate him for what he’s going to say next. “What I’m saying is that maybe she lied to you about those messenger birds. She was right that she did receive those orders from someone other than Kejuta, but she followed them it knowingly and willingly.”

    “That’s ridiculous! Alethea would never betray us! You know she wouldn’t do that,” the Sendoan argued

    “I don’t like that thought either, but we have to consider all possibilities,” Hessin countered.

    The Ilmarian of Seasons narrowed his eyes as he crossed his arms. “All right then. Let’s see it your way. If she did betray us, who’s she working with?”

    “The Dalenthi.” Zentran looked at him incredulously. “Listen to me. We know that she was undercover with the Velscendus Cult for almost two years. We know that they mentally broke down their followers to be submissive and loyal to their cause. Who knows what they did to her? What if they somehow managed to break her and turned her to their side?”

    “Thea wouldn’t break down that easily, Hessin! She learned her lessons after spending centuries under Shintra’s spell. She won’t let anyone control her like that again!” his friend rebuked.

    “But how can you be so sure?” Hessin asked softly.

    Zen didn’t answer. Instead, he tossed his towel aside and put on his gauntlets again. “Come on,” he said tersely. “Let’s go another round.”

    The Ilmarian of Justice sighed. It seemed that Zen still didn’t want to admit the possibility. “All right,” he agreed as he grabbed the Sword of Palenthor, which used to belong to his immortal predecessor. He kept it sheathed since it was only a practice match. Getting back on the mat, he struck a fighting pose as his friend did the same. “Ready?”

    Before he could react, Zentran struck. He pelted Hessin with an avalanche of punches, leaving the former Kahlin barely time to attack. Hessin could only focused on defending himself as he tried to block every punch launched at him. It appeared that Zen wasn’t holding back this time. He was tempted to use his magic, but he and the Ilmarian of Seasons had made an agreement with each other not to use their powers during their scrimmages. No, he’s a man of his words; he wouldn’t break his promise no matter how tempting it is.

    It didn’t take long for Zentran to finally break through his defense, though. As Hessin tried to block another attack with his sword, he struck the weapon with all of his might, causing the former Kahlin to fall to the ground. “Oomph!” he grunted as he landed hard on the mat. Glancing up at the towering Zen, he admitted defeat. “It looks like you bested me again,” he congratulated him, raising his hand up.

    Imagine his surprise when the Ilmarian of Seasons refused to take his hand but walked away instead. “Zen, wait!” he called out, sitting up. However, his friend ignored him as he grabbed his belongings and stormed out of the room without saying a word.

    A contemplative Hessin sat on the mat, deep in thoughts. He should have known that Zentran would be upset by his accusation. After all, the Sendoan was very protective of Alethea. A part of him debated whether or not he should apologize to his friend, but in the end, he decided against it for now anyway – not until he has enough evidence to prove that the Aerian didn’t betray them. As he stood up to gather his belongings, the Ilmarian of Justice sighed. It looked like he and Zen won’t be having another weekly sparring match for a long time.

    “Pen? Hello?” Pendance gave a start when he saw a hand waving frantically in front of his face. He turned to see a bemused Oraji looking back at him. “There you are! I kept repeating the same question, and you didn’t say anything. Are you daydreaming on me?”

    “Sorry, I guess I am,” he said sheepishly. “What were you saying?”

    “Do you think these are lovely?” she asked, straightening a branch of myrtles in a vase. Every time she visited him in Valendor, she would leave him a flower as “a way to remember her” as she put it. The cluster of pink flowers stood out in the mostly somber room.

    The Ilmarian of the Dead smiled. Raj always knows how to brighten any room whether with her flowers or her bubbly personality. “Yes, they are,” he agreed.

    She beamed. “I thought so. Anyway, how're things down here?”

    “Oh, same old, same old,” he replied. “The wisps are busy gathering the souls of the recently departed while I focus on getting them ready for their next life. And you?”

    “Same old, same old,” she parroted, sticking out her tongue.

    “That’s good, I guess.” His smile faltered as he recalled what Shintra told him. Ever since his visit, he has been preoccupied with that Duermon’s warning. Was the Ilmarian of Souls telling the truth? Is Oraji really planning something with Lanskas? Against his mother? Troubled, Pendance ventured, “Are you and Lanskas up to something?”

    He had hoped that she would laugh at him and tell him that he was being silly for worrying too much. Maybe she would tease him about being jealous of a former priest, who took a vow of celibacy, like she did the last time he asked. Instead, she became pale as she accidentally knocked over the vase. Her hands trembled as she hastily picked it up and grabbed a hand towel to clean up the spill. “N-n-no! Of course not, Pen,” she replied, wiping up the mess. “Why in Samara do you think that?”

    Pendance didn’t answer. Right now, he didn’t know how to react. Shintra was right. Raj and Lanskas were secretly working with each other. Scratching his head, he finally said, “It’s just… I noticed that you and Lanskas have been close a lot lately. Even after the meetings in Welvaria, I saw that you would always leave with him – only you two, not Zen even though he’s supposed to work with you. I also asked Zen about it, and he didn’t know what I was talking about. So what’s going on, Raj? Are you and Lanskas going behind my mother’s back?”

    “I would never do anything to hurt you, Pen! You of all people should know that!” she protested.

    “Then why won’t you tell me what’s going on!?” he countered.

    The Ilmarian of Nature winced as she picked up the flower. “You don’t have to yell at me,” she said in a hushed voice. Now it was Pendance’s turn to wince; he wasn’t aware that he had raised his voice at her. Dammit, that would mean the wisps and the spirits probably heard them fighting then. He doesn't need them gossiping about his love life.

    Taking a deep breath, he apologized, “Sorry, Raj. I didn’t mean to-”

    “I think I should better leave,” she interrupted.

    He started to protest but nodded instead. Right now, their emotions were raw, and they weren’t thinking rationally. “Yeah, I think we need some space and cool down a bit,” he agreed. He gave her a weak smile to assure her that he wasn’t mad at her. “Maybe we can talk about it another time.”

    “Another time,” she replied though he has a hunch that there won’t be another time. “Goodbye, Pen.”

    “Bye, Raj,” he answered softly. As he watched her disappeared through the portal back to Samara, he realized that she didn’t leave the branch of myrtles behind.

    As soon as he arrived in the Kallian Forest, Lanskas knew something terrible must have happened. A visibly upset Oraji sat on a log, waiting for him. Before he reached her, she abruptly stood up and blurted, “He knows, Lans! I don’t know how he knows, but he does!”

    Lanskas stared at her, confounded. Placing his hands gently on her shoulders, he tried to calm her down as Reiki, his wolf companion, did the same by nuzzling against her. “Whoa, slow down, Raj. Who knows what now?”

    She took a deep breath and shuddered. “Pendance,” she answered between gulps. “He knows about us.”

    The Ilmarian of Beasts gaped. “But how? There’s no way no one knows about our secret meetings. We made sure to be discreet about it.”

    “I don’t know, but he confronted me about it today.”

    “What did he say?”

    The Ilmarian of Nature turned pale. “He asked me if we were doing something behind his mother’s back. I denied it, of course, but the way he looked at me, he knew that I was lying. He thinks we’re conspiring against the others.”

    Lanskas became silent. This was bad, indeed. If Pendance believed that they were opposing Kejuta in any way, this could have serious repercussions. “Did he reveal how he knows?”

    “No, he didn’t,” she answered. “I’ve been thinking of every possibility, but the only thing I could think of is that he may have intercepted and read our messages to each other.”

    “Wait, hold on! You think Pendance is the one behind those false messenger birds!?” Lanskas stared at her incredulously.

    She nodded. “I don’t want to believe it, but that’s the only possibility.”

    “But there may be another possibility. Pen doesn’t seem like the type to do such a thing. Maybe someone told him?” he suggested, but she shook her head.

    “No, I doubt it. Unless…” Her voice trailed off as she squeezed her eyes shut before opening them again. “No, I’m sure of it. There’s no way someone told him.”

    “Are you sure?” She nodded. “What’s about the wisps? Maybe one of them saw us here and told him about it? After all, we can’t see them flying around here, right? They’re invisible to everyone else except for Pen and Adia.”

    “That makes sense,” she muttered though she still seemed agitated. Not that he blamed her; he felt the same as well. She glanced at him with her doleful green eyes. “What are we going to do now?”

    “For one, we need to move our meeting place someplace else. If the wisps are spying on us, then we should meet in a hidden world – either yours or mine,” he determined.

    “All right,” she assented. “And Pendance?”

    “Let me talk to him. Maybe I can convince him that we’re not planning anything sinister.”

    “How? If he doesn’t believe me, why should he believe you?” she wondered.

    He thought for a moment. “Tell him the truth. Since he knows about us, he might as well know why. Knowing Pen, I’m sure he’ll understand.”

    Oraji shook her head vehemently. “No, I can’t let you! What if he tells his mother, and she orders Aundra to seal our powers? I’m in enough trouble as is, but I won’t let you go down with me!”

    “Listen, Raj. I know what I got myself into when I agreed to work with you to find a way to save the Lashival so you don’t have to worry about me,” the Ilmarian of Beasts said firmly. “If my powers are going to be sealed because of this, so be it. At least I stood by my principles.”

    She stared at him for a moment before she sighed and slumped back down on the log. “I wish I’m brave and calm like you, Lans. Look at me! I’m trembling because I'm shaken up about this!”

    “Don’t beat yourself up, Raj!” he admonished. “You’re braver than you think so stop belittling yourself.”

    “I wish I can believe that right now,” she replied ruefully and shook her head. “I just don’t know what to do, Lans. We’re in this too deep, and I don’t know how to get out of this mess.”

    “I don’t know either,” he admitted, “but I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”

    “I hope so,” she mumbled, “because right now, I can’t think of anything.”

    “It’s probably because it’s been a stressful day for you,” he surmised. “Why don’t you head back to your room and rest for a bit? I’m sure you will be able to concentrate better if you have a clear head.”

    She nodded as she stood up. “That sounds like a good idea,” she said, wiping her dress. “It has been rather taxing for me today. Well, goodbye, Lans. Sorry that we didn’t do anything productive today.”

    “That’s okay. We still have plenty of time,” he reassured her. “Take care, Raj.”

    “You too,” she said, waving goodbye. He waved back as he watched her disappeared into her room before he sighed. Seeing Oraji distressed worried him. The Ilmarian of Nature rarely gets upset that easily. His gut instinct told him that something else was bothering her though he can’t put a finger on it yet.

    Sensing that he was troubled, Reiki placed her head on his lap and whimpered. “It’s all right, Reiki,” he told her, scratching behind her ears. “It’s just… I felt bad about what’s happening between Raj and Pen.” The Kallian wolf gave him a quizzical look so he clarified, “What I’m saying is that I have a feeling that somehow I’m responsible for their fallout, and I don’t know how to fix it without one of us getting hurt.”

    --- Double Post Merged, Mar 29, 2017 ---
    I now have a Patreon page so if you want to support me, I greatly appreciate it :)

    Anyway, the next chapter is somewhat done. I got most of it written already, but it just needed to be edited a bit.
    --- Double Post Merged, Apr 11, 2017 ---
    Yeah, so I decided to split the chapter because I have a lot of info to write to fit in one chapter. :sweatbunny




    Chapter 24: The Unexpected

    “I’m so glad that you decided to join me for dinner although it took some effort,” Shintra said with a smile.

    Alethea glowered. Ever since she woke up, she had to hear that damned Duermon droned on and on. Not to mention the fact that he kept ogling at her since she was wearing a red dress with a plunging neckline, which was probably his idea. If it wasn’t for the fact that he was on the opposite end of the long dining table, she would have reached over and stabbed him with her knife just to shut him up. It also didn’t help that there were several Dalenthi standing guards, and she was in no condition to fight back.

    Although she really didn’t pay much attention to him. She was still feeling slightly woozy due to the effect of the drug so she spent most of her time concentrating on staying awake. “How are you feeling?” Argus asked worriedly.

    “A little groggy,” she replied, rubbing her head gingerly. “Whatever they gave me did a number on me.”

    “Yeah, that sedative was very effective in knocking you out. I couldn’t wake you up at all, and whenever you did about to wake up, they’ll inject more of that junk into you,” the Parasitic Duermon grumbled. “I would have jumped out of your body to stop them, but I had to restrain myself.”

    “And the good thing you did. You know how Kej doesn’t want anybody knows of your existence.” She frowned. “Did anything terrible did happen to me while I was asleep? The only things I remember was someone stripping off my clothes and getting pricked a lot.”

    Argus shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. When they brought you here, I heard an old lady barking orders about getting rid of your clothes and making sure you’re properly dressed. Other than that, the only people who stopped by were those mindless humans checking up on you every once in a while.”

    “Not even Shintra bothered to see me?” she asked incredulously. “I was sure he would come over to gloat.”

    Before he could respond, Alethea heard someone clearing his throat and looked up to see Shintra looking back at her. “Are you all right? You haven’t touched your food at all.”

    She glanced down at her meal. A bowl of braised veal shanks and vegetables over risotto stared back at her. Even though the aroma caused her mouth to salivate, she refused to touch it. Who knows what he put in there? It could be poison for all she cares! “I’m not hungry,” she lied just as her stomach rumbled rather loudly. She scowled at her traitorous stomach for betraying her.

    If the Ilmarian of Souls noticed, he didn’t show it. “What a pity! I even had the best chefs from Bisaha prepared the meal too,” he said, shaking his head. “Oh well. Perhaps another time – when you’re feeling up to it, of course.”

    She didn’t say anything, which caused him to chuckled. “Still upset with me despite all of the nice things I did for you? I made sure that you were comfortable and taken care of during your stay. You should be grateful for my hospitality.”

    “Hospitality!?” she exclaimed, “Being drugged for several weeks and being stuck behind bars is what considered hospitable?”

    Shintra smirked. “Are you that upset about the Birdcage? I assure you that it’s for your own protection.”

    “My protection?” The Aerian raised her eyebrow. She didn’t know what was more laughable – the name of her prison or that outlandish excuse. “More like making sure I can’t escape.”

    He stared at her for a moment before he smiled. “I just realized that this is the most you ever spoke to me since you ran away. It hurts me when you refuse to acknowledge my existence during those meetings that Kej loves to have.”

    “And why should I? You ruined my life!”

    “Oh, stop being so bratty about it! Because of me, you lived a pampered life. I made sure that you had a good education and get the best of everything. You surely wouldn’t have those things if you were still with your people,” he responded.

    Although she hated to admit it, Shintra was right. Nevertheless, she refused to accept it. “What do you want me to do? Thank you?” she retorted, glaring at her captor.

    “In a way,” was all he said.

    She narrowed her eyes. “And how do you want me to repay you for your kindness?”

    “I was beginning to wonder when you’re going to ask.” He wiped his mouth with his napkin before he continued, “I want to offer you a chance to work with me again – willingly, of course. In return, I promise that I will forgive you for your past transgressions. If you refuse…” He shrugged.

    A bewildered Alethea stared at him before she barked out a laugh. “Work with you? Why in Samara would I do that?”

    Shintra gave her a hurt look. “You didn’t seem to mind when you followed my orders before.”

    “Orders? What orders?” she wondered before it dawned on her. “You’re the one who sent those false messenger birds to me,” she accused him.

    His smug face confirmed it. “You’re correct. I was the one who sent those messenger birds to you for the past twelve years.”

    “But how? There was no way you would know the encryption that Kej and I used in our correspondence!”

    However, he continued, “You were such a dutiful worker, you know that? Always reporting where you are, and how everything went. I can see why Kejuta put a lot of trust in you. As a matter of fact, I must thank you for helping me locate the Lashival though it was unfortunate that I lost him. Although his brother has proven to be a great asset to me. After all, he did deliver you to me.”

    “Where is he?” she demanded. The humans she saw were the servers coming in and out of the dining room, and none of them was Noeth.

    Shintra just grinned. “Rest assured, your beloved Noeth is safe for now.”

    Alethea’s temper flared as she stood up. “If you dare lay a finger on Noeth, I’ll- ARGH!” All of a sudden, she felt excruciating pain, which forced her to sit back down, as she clutched her left arm. In her head, she heard Argus cried out in alarm. Her eyes watered as she glanced down at the tattoo, which glowed sinisterly on her arm. It reminded her of the one that the Velscendus cult branded on her when she disguised herself as a boy named Talen.

    “Impressive, isn’t it? Who would have thought a simple tattoo can enforce obedience?” Shintra glanced over at one of the Dalenthi guarding the door. “You can stop now. I think she learns her lesson.” The possessed man nodded as he lowered his hand and placed it behind his back. “Now then, to answer your earlier question, that was how I was able to intercept your conversation with the others.”

    “A tattoo? But how?” the Ilmarian of Truth asked through clenched teeth. She still clutched her sore arm, which still stung.

    “Remember the tattoo you got while investigating the Velscendus Cult? You and the others probably believe that it was used to force compliance, but it was made for another specific reason. Do you recall how it would glow whenever you received or sent a messenger birds? That’s was how we were able to intercept and unencrypted any messenger birds deliver to and from your hands.”

    “Velscendus Cult?” Her eyes widened at his admission. “I knew it! You were in cahoots with the cult along!” she breathed. Even though the other Ilmarians had doubts about it, she always has a feeling that Shintra was behind the anarchic cult. Now that she has proof, she just needs to figure out how to alert the others.

    The Ilmarian of Souls beamed. “You’re partially correct, my dear. I wasn’t the founder, but I did take over once I discovered the cult.”

    “But I don’t understand. If the tattoo was made to intercept my messenger birds, how did they know who I am while in disguise?”

    “I don’t think you know about this, but some Duermons have the ability to detect an Aerian presence so they still locate you even when you’re in disguises. Once they realized who you are, I had them implement the tattoo system,” he explained, “You know, your ability to change your appearance is a great asset. Imagine all the possibilities that you can do for me!”

    She felt her face burned a bright red, which caused Shintra let out a hearty laugh. “You’re so cute when you look like that. Anyway, I was able to read your messages ever since, but I waited until I got to know everyone’s distinctive styles before sending you those false messenger birds. That way, no one would suspect anything, and what I’ve seen, it seemed that no one was none the wiser.”

    “You-” Alethea was about to stand up but stopped herself when she noticed the Dalenthi gave her a warning glance.

    An unconcerned Shintra, however, continued, “After a while, I figured it was time for you to discover the deceit so I sent the order for you to go to the Marden Forest. There, I would have some of my men ambush you to capture you.”

    “Ambush? Then the Marden Forest Guards were your men!”

    “That’s right,” he confirmed and shrugged. “Unfortunately, it didn’t go according to plan although there was a silver lining to it. You bumped into the Lashival and alerted me to his presence. When you wrote that you were planning to kill him that night, I put a stop to it. After all, I don’t want my ultimate weapon to be destroyed after such a long search.”

    “That’s why you ordered me not to kill him and protect him at all cost,” she determined. She gripped her dress angrily. Not only was she tricked by that bastard, she was made to look like a fool!

    “Unfortunately, my men couldn’t locate you for some odd reason though Brenton had an interesting theory on why, and it made sense. But I don’t think you would be interested in it now. Anyway, we were only able to locate you after you revealed yourself in the Coliseum.” He wore a smug face. “As you can imagine, Kejuta was furious when she found out you did that. You should have been there. It was a riot!”

    The Ilmarian of Souls chuckled at her when she winced. “Oh, it was that bad. I felt somewhat bad for putting you in that predicament – somewhat being the key word.It was worse than the time when she was furious with Hessin for trying to restore order in Ishara after I ruined Kahlin Leomas’s life. From what I heard, it was entertaining. Too bad I missed it since I was under house arrest; I really wanted to see the spectacle.”

    “Why?” She recalled how the former ruler of Ishara suddenly became unstable and almost waged war against the neighboring country, Eirernerida, after meeting the Velscendus Cult. Luckily, rebel forces led by the Kahlin’s brother put a stop to it.

    “It’s simple – revenge. When the Lashival first attacked us, I tried to flee, but Hessin prevented me. I’ve been wanting to get even on him so I thought what’s a better way than destroy his legacy? Anyhow, my men tried to capture you, but you must have escaped using your needle ring because we couldn’t locate you anywhere. I only found you when you sent the messenger bird, informing me that you would be in Doran. I then had my followers over there waited for your arrival. As soon as they spotted you, they alerted me so I set up another trap.”

    “Your followers?” Alethea rankled her mind trying to recall meeting anyone suspicious but gave up.

    He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “They were everywhere in Doran. In fact, they made up most of the population,” he hinted.

    “The only ones who lived there are the…” Her eyes widened with realization. “…priests and nuns! Don’t tell me that they’re Dalenthi!”

    His smug expression confirmed it. “It was so easy to convert them too. They were so willing to accept donations from an anonymous philanthropist that they didn’t suspect that Dalenthi were secretly hiding in them. As soon as they opened the boxes…”

    “And the orphans?”

    “I made sure the older ones got possessed just in case they suspect something was amiss and try to alert someone. I figured that the younger ones wouldn’t know any better so I left them alone. Besides, their minds are more easily molded so I have the nuns teach them to follow me instead. From the reports they sent me, it works splendidly. The children are eager Ruschabels ready to serve my cause.” He bared his teeth in a gloating grin. “I wonder how Lanskas would react if he finds out? I bet he would be devastated to find out what his home has become!”

    Alethea’s face darkened. How dare he toyed with the others like that! In her head, she heard Argus grumbling angrily as well. Another thought then occurred to her. “Why are you telling me this? I can easily alert the others to your scheme!”

    The Duermon waved his hand flippantly. “Oh, please. That tattoo would alert my men if you try to send a messenger bird, and even if you did manage to send one, we would intercept it. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and try.”

    She hesitated as she glanced at the mark, which taunted her with its yellow glow, on her left arm. No doubt he was telling the truth. “If I can’t send a messenger bird, then I’ll just find a way to escape here to tell them!”

    “And how can you escape my hidden world to warn the others if you don’t have your needle ring?” he pointed out.

    The Ilmarian of Truth became puzzled. From what Marika told her, their private rooms were only small space; Shintra’s was massive! “Wait, this is your hidden world?”

    He nodded. “What? Did you believe that it’s one of my bases in Idilyras? I assure you that you’re currently staying in my hidden world; you’ll be amazed at how I was able to expand it.”

    “But Marika said-”

    “That foolish woman knows nothing! Isn’t this proof enough?” the Duermon interrupted before he smiled. “If you don’t believe me, why don’t I give you a tour of the place?”

    “As you can tell, the top floor that we’re on now is where we reside,” Shintra announced as they walked down the hallway. Alethea nodded absentmindedly; she mostly focused on studying the layout. Even though her captor claimed that they were in his hidden world, she still questioned it. How was he able to create a seven-story floor plan in so little space? It was impossible!

    “Any luck?” she asked Argus. Knowing him, he was also trying to figure out an escape route.

    The Parasitic Duermon growled in frustration underneath his breath, “Nothing. I hate to admit it, but I think he may be right.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “I think this may actually be his hidden world. Look around! There are no windows anywhere! Don’t you think it’s strange?” Argus commented.

    Now that he mentioned it, she did notice that there were no windows. Now curious, she glanced down over the railings and saw that the other floors, which were crowded with bustling people, didn’t have any either. What was going on?

    “Enjoying the view?” Alethea looked up to find Shintra was waiting for her near the staircase. His bodyguards stood impatiently next to him. Scowling, she walked over to him though she made sure that she took her time. She didn’t want to give him any satisfaction whatsoever. Nevertheless, he wore a bemused look. “Ready to go?”

    “Does it look like I have a choice?” she snapped, which caused him to chuckle.

    “You look so lovely when you pout like that. I think the last time I saw you did that was when you were upset with Lunes because she didn’t let you play outside until you finished eating your vegetables,” he remarked. She just glowered at him, which caused him to shake his head as he led them down the stairs.

    They continued in silence until they reached the next floor. Shintra stopped at a wide, white door and began, “Now, this floor is my favorite. This is where all of my special girls stay.”

    “You mean your concubines,” Alethea replied flatly.

    Shintra smiled. “I forgot that you’re no longer the naïve girl, but you’re right. They are my concubines. As a matter of fact, why don’t we pay them a visit? Shall we?”

    Before she could say anything, he opened a door and entered. Having no choice, she sighed irritably and followed after him. What she saw disgusted her. Twenty-five women of various nationalities wandered about in their tiny cells; what they wore left nothing to the imagination. As soon as they saw the Ilmarian of Souls, they clamored over to their prison doors. “Welcome back, Lord Shintra!” one of them greeted. Her bright blue eyes sparkled with delight. “Have you come to choose one of us?”

    “Not at the moment,” he answered as he reached out to stroke her long, blonde hair. “I just wanted to show my guest here a tour of the place.”

    She glanced curiously at Alethea. “Is she the new girl?”

    The Aerian felt her face burned red. However, Shintra just laughed. “No, my dear. Not yet anyway. Ressi here is a bit shy at the moment.”
    Like that’s going to happen, she thought drily. “Why are we here anyway? It’s not like I’m interested in your sex life.”

    “My, my, you sound a bit jealous,” he said, kissing his teeth. He tipped the concubine’s chin so that she looked up at him. “You should learn from these girls. They’re never jealous of each other because they know that I love them equally. Isn’t that right, Rua?”

    “That’s correct, my lord,” she agreed. The other women also nodded with agreement. “We know that you don’t favor any one of us any more than the other.”

    He turned to Alethea, who was trying hard to bite her tongue. “This girl here used to be a Doranian nun. She was so devoted to serving the All-Mother at first, but after I ‘persuaded’ her, she now knows her new purpose. And what was that purpose, Rua?”

    “To love you and serve you with all of my heart,” she recited. Ecstasy was on her face as her breasts heaved heavily with each word. She swallowed as she continued, “To give birth to more Ruschabels in order to build your army in order to defeat those who dare defy you.”

    “And all of you are doing a wonderful job of that. As a matter of fact, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy a year ago,” he praised her, which caused her to smile more. Turning to Alethea, he added, “Let’s take our leave. I see that you’re getting tired of this place.”

    As soon as they closed the door, Shintra boasted, “Aren’t they such charming? You see how fortunate I am to be loved by so many lovely girls.”

    This time, the Ilmarian of Truth couldn’t hold it in. “Loved? You call that love? You forced them to love you. I bet if they have their free wills, they would be repulsed by the sight of you! In fact, I bet you have never experienced love in your lifetime.”

    What she said must have stung him because he stared at her as if she had slapped his face. Alethea crossed her arms smugly. Even though she may be powerless at the moment, at least she can use her words against him. After a moment, he composed himself. The Duermon then asked, “And you think you’re an expert just because you’re supposedly in love with Noeth Rasson?”

    “Of course we love each other! Why else do we want to be together?” she retorted.

    “You still love him even though he stabbed you in the heart?” Alethea grimaced as she traced the area where Noeth had killed her. “Now you know how I felt when you stabbed me in the heart long ago. In fact, it still hurts when I think whenever I think about it. Having someone who loves you betrayed you like that.”

    “You manipulated him to kill me,” she countered. “And who says anything that I love you? I never did!”

    “That’s not what you told me last week.” He smirked at her baffled expression. “Oh, that’s right; you wouldn’t recall it. While you were in your addled state, you told me that you missed me and that you were waiting for me. In fact, you were thrilled to see me.”

    “That’s a lie,” she breathed and quickly turned to Argus. “He’s lying, isn’t he? I didn’t say those things!”

    The Parasitic Duermon shifted uncomfortably. “Actually, he’s telling the truth. You did say those words. I didn’t want to tell you, but… do you really feel that way about him?”

    “I don’t! He must have put something in the drug to make me say those things!” she denied, but she sensed her companion narrowed his eyes doubtfully at her. Even she began to wonder about it herself. Did she really mean what she said?

    “Still in denial?” She looked up to find Shintra standing right in front of her. “I think I figured out why you have been avoiding me. You didn’t avoid me because you hated me what I did to you; you avoided me because you don’t want to admit that deep down, a small part of you still have feelings for me. Just like you don’t want to admit that you’re actually Ressi masquerading as Alethea, who died in that cave where I first found you.”

    “You’re lying! I would never-” Loud cheers suddenly erupted below them. Distracted, she stopped talking and glanced down over the balcony. Based on the noise level, it probably came from the first floor.

    From the corner of her eyes, she saw Shintra was also looking over the railings. “Hm, it sounds like something exciting is going on down there,” he commented and beamed at her. “Why don’t we go down and take a look?”

    --- Double Post Merged, Apr 19, 2017 ---
    Chapter 25: A Time to Celebrate

    As they walked the stairs, Alethea’s thoughts were in disarray. Why did she say those words? She couldn’t really mean that, right? After all, she hated him for what he did to her! At the same time, what was he planning? The sudden boisterous cheers couldn’t be a coincidence. Shintra wanted them to go down there for some reason, but for what?

    She was so distracted that she didn’t even notice that Shintra has stopped until she accidentally bumped into him. However, the Duermon didn’t seem to notice at all. “Focus!” Argus hissed at her. She mentally shook her head. Right, she needed to be alert now because Shintra was planning something. They continued to walk in silence until they reached their destination. There he led her out in the open so he could show her off to the crowd. As soon as they appeared, a boisterous roar rang from the crowd. That was when she heard loud cheers below and realized that he had led her to a balcony. Below them were all of his men who sat on rows of benches or stood around cheering in a circle as they looked up at them.

    Upon hearing them, Alethea bristled. No doubt she knew the true reason why they’re celebrating. “Smile for the crowd, Ressi,” he whispered in her ear. “They’re cheering for you.” She shot him a dirty look, which caused him to chuckle.

    In the middle was a ring made out of white sand, which was surrounded by metal bars with spikes. Two gates were on the opposite ends. It reminded her of the coliseum in Anka except it was more barbaric. Dried blood stains splattered all over the floor and she thought she saw some limbs scattered around as well.

    “What is this?” she demanded. The sight sickened her and she felt queasy in her stomach again. The Ilmarian of Souls just shrugged nonchalantly.

    “My men demanded some entertainment so I decided to give it to them. They always want to see who the best is so I thought this game would satisfy them. It also helps me too since it separates the weak from the strong. Oh, it looks like we have two new challengers. Let’s see who they are.”

    Something in his tone rang the alarm in her mind and she looked down in spite of her efforts not to do so. Her heart sank when she realized that the fighters were Mikhail and Noeth. Both of them wore armor, which shined dimly against the light. Mikhail carried a broadsword while Noeth used a morning star. They walked up toward each other and stopped in the middle of the ring. Then they turned around and raised their weapons at Shintra. “Honor and glory to you, Lord Shintra!” they shouted before waiting for him to commence the battle.
    Alethea turned her attention to the Duermon and demanded angrily, “What is the meaning of this?”

    He turned to look at her. “These two men asked me to fight. Apparently, your fiancé found out that you’re in love with Noeth since he is the reincarnate of your beloved Dalin and not too happy about it. Likewise, Noeth felt the same way about him and wanted to challenge Mikhail because he wanted to end your engagement with the Fallen. To be fair, I’ll let you pick who to save: your fiancé or Dalin reincarnate. Which one would you choose?” She remained silent so he sighed. “Since you seemed so indecisive about who to love, I decided to do it for you. I thought this is the best choice to settle the issue.”

    Before she could stop him, he raised his hand and the battle began. Mikhail swung his sword at Noeth, who dodged it with ease. The human then hurled the morning star at the Fallen, but Mikhail used his wings to generate a shield. The latter used his powers to cause the earth to asunder with hopes that Noeth would lose his balance. However, it didn’t seem to faze the young man who easily jumped on top of the pillars of earth and lunge to attack. Alethea could only watch helplessly as the battle unfolded below. They were attacking at each other as if they wanted the other to die, and she could clearly see the hatred that burned in their eyes. The loud cheers from the crowd disgusted her too. How could anyone watch this?

    She turned to find that Shintra was looking at her intently. Was this a part of his plan? For what though? Finally having enough, she walked toward the edge of the balcony and unfurled her wings. She was determined to stop this fight. If she has to come down there and separate those two, so be it. That was when she felt someone grabbed her hand and pulled her back. “Don’t think of stopping the fight,” Shintra warned her. “If you do, then I’ll make it more violent than it should be.” To prove that he wasn’t kidding, he used his powers on the two and they immediately became more aggressive.

    “Stop it!” she cried. The sounds of the weapon clashing caused her heart to beat faster. “Why are you doing this? What do you want from me?”

    Instead of answering, he pulled her closer and tapped her chest. “I know you’re hiding something or should I say someone from me, and I want you to reveal him to me,” he whispered in her ear. She blinked at him confusedly. Was he talking about Argus? But how did he know? Inside her head, she heard the Parasitic Duermon cursed underneath his breath.

    “Dammit, I forgot that other Parasitic and Possessor Duermons can sense each other in a host’s body,” he hissed. “Most likely, the Dalenthi have that ability too.”

    Her heart dropped. If that was true, then Shintra would definitely figure it out. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied weakly, but he tightened his grip on her hand, which caused her to wince in pain.

    “Don’t play dumb with me, girl,” he growled. “I know that he’s in there and I want you to summon him out right now unless you want the two men you love die at each other’s hands.”

    “You’re bluffing.”

    He arched his eyebrows. “Do you doubt me still? Fine, I see how it is. I guess you don’t care so much about those two after all. What a pity especially since they’re fighting over you. I’ll let them kill each other off rather than have them live with the fact that they were in love with a heartless bitch.”

    He raised his free hand and was about to give out the order when Alethea shouted desperately, “Stop! All right, I’ll get him out.” Taking a deep breath, she whispered, “Argus, please come out.”

    Shintra felt triumphant as he watched Argus slowly emerged out of the Aerian’s body. He knew that finding her weakness would be the key; he learned that lesson after being defeated by then-Prince Janaam Acesta. Because she was so distracted by what happened to her, she wasn’t thinking rationally and was easy to be persuaded. It also helped that he had the right pieces. He knew that she didn’t want to lose her beloved again. Who would have thought that he would have the two persons she cares about right in the palm of his hand? If it was fate, it would be very ironic.

    Finally, the Parasitic Duermon’s entire body except for the tip of his tail, which was still attached to Ressi’s soul, was present. “He’s here so do what you promise,” she said, defeated. He nodded and had the two fighters stop what they were doing. After bowing to him again, they exited the coliseum much to the crowd’s dismay. However, their disappointment was quickly diminished when two more contestants emerged. Then he turned his focus to Argus.

    “Hello, Argus,” he said sweetly. “It’s been awhile.”

    “Shintra…” he growled dangerously.

    The Ilmarian of Souls looked at him with mock hurt. “Is that how you greet an old friend?” he asked, but Argus didn’t reply. He continued to ignore Ressi, who struggled to break free from his grasp. “I must say that I thought you had died in that godforsaken land. Who would have thought you would be hiding right in front of me the entire time? You know, you could have come out once and awhile to say hello.”
    “Is that the reason why you wanted to see me?” the Parasitic Duermon wondered aloud. “If so, this is a waste of time. Now let go of my host or I’ll make sure you’ll regret it. I still haven’t forgiven you for what you did to her.”

    “Oh, that? Don’t worry about that. It was a small price to pay just to get your attention,” he said as he brushed his hand aside to show that he wasn’t bothered by it. He heard Argus roared in anger so he pointed out, “Now, now. Control your temper, old friend. You don’t want your little host to be harmed.”

    The Duermon reluctantly settled down and the Ilmarian of Souls nodded with approval. “Anyway, there is something else I wish to discuss. I want to offer you a place in my army. As you can see, you will be with your own kind and not mention, you’ll be given your own unit. What do you say?”

    “Thanks but no thanks,” he replied without hesitation. “I know what you do to your men, and I don’t wish to become a mindless drone. At least Alethea treats me as an equal and I know that I can trust her with my life.”

    “I see… how disappointing. I figure that you would say that.” Shintra then turned his attention to the Ilmarian of Truth. “By the way, Ressi, you must have gotten Argus inside your body before Aundra cast the Gods’ Blessing on you, correct?” She didn’t answer, but the look on her face confirmed it to him so he slowly made his move. “Argus must have been inside you when she did it, and it appeared that he is under its protection when he’s inside you so my question is this: does the spell work for him if he’s outside of your body?” The two exchanged alarmed glances at each other, which was all that he needed. “I thought so. Well then…”

    “Argus, get inside my body now!” Ressi screamed but it was too late. Before he could have a chance, Shintra seized the Parasitic Duermon’s soul and compelled him to stay. Immediately he could see all of the demon’s memories and feel his emotions. In awe, he let go of the Aerian’s hand; she won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.

    Walking around the two, he examined his latest addition. As he thought, Argus has valuable information especially about the secret meetings that Kejuta had with the others. This would prove very useful in his plans. The only thing that disgusted him was that he viewed his host as a daughter. How could a Duermon see their most hated enemy as a family member? Argus must have gotten soft. Oh well, it didn’t matter anyway. Without any warning, he poured more magic into his prisoner, and Argus started to scream in agony. A panicked Ressi winced and screamed, “What are you doing to him!?”

    Shintra ignored her, however, and concentrated on his task. Just a few more seconds and his modification would be complete. From the corner of his eyes, he saw that she tried to lunge at him to stop him, but fortunately, the Dalenthi activated the tattoo, which forced her to the ground. Finally, he was finished and Argus collapsed to the ground next to his host. “Stand up, Argus,” he commanded and the Parasitic Duermon obeyed. His eyes were still closed as he rose to his true height.

    Ressi slowly raised her head and dread was clearly on her face. “Argus?” she whispered cautiously. The Duermon slowly began to stir and opened his eyes, which caused the Ilmarian of Truth to move back with horror. Instead of his usual red eyes, his eyes were green like Shintra’s. “What did you do to him!?”

    “I just made him into my avatar,” Shintra and Argus said at the same time, which caused her to jump with surprise. “Remember how I told you earlier that I took over the Velscendus Cult? All I did was change the soul of the ‘Kasama’ to make him into another version of me. Then I had him go around the world and gather followers by using my powers. After his death, I quickly changed his soul back to normal and make sure not to leave any trace of my magic behind when Aundra examined his body to leave no suspicions. In fact, I have several avatars acting for me in Samara right now.

    “However, I won’t worry about them if I were you, Ressi. You see, once I realized that you were hiding Argus, I figured out how to go around that stupid protection spell that Aundra cast on us. Since Argus was inside you when she cast the spell, it would mean that he would be exempt from it. That means…” He smiled broadly as the Aerian put two and two together. “… I now have a way to control you again. Argus, return to your host body but be sure to make it painful. I want to see her squirm.”

    “Argus, please listen to me. You need to fight him,” Ressi pleaded but it was in vain. Her former friend crawled toward her hungrily as she desperately tried to knock some sense into him. Finally, she stopped and with a determined look, began muttering something underneath her breath, which made him curious. It suddenly dawned on him that she was casting an exorcism spell.

    “Stop her, Argus!” he commanded. The Duermon immediately rammed her to the ground, which caused her to lost concentration. With one pair of arms, he pinned her to the ground and with the other, he held her hands down. Then he slowly opened his mouth and bit her at the base .of her neck. Her agonized scream filled the air, which delighted him greatly and caused him to laugh.

    While Argus slowly returned to her body, Shintra turned to his bodyguards and ordered, “You can take your leave now. You don’t worry about her anymore.” They bowed their heads and left the vicinity. Looking back at a horrified Ressi, he decided to liven up the eerie silence. “I have to admit that I would have never thought to look for Argus inside you,” he said. Her shallow pants interrupted the silence between his dialogues. “Was it Kejuta’s idea? If so, I must thank her. After all, she just handed me the two people I wanted revenge on a silver platter. The best part is that this revenge is better than I expected. Oh, I see that Argus is completely back.”

    He went up to her and bent down to be at her eye level. The Ilmarian of Truth had sat up and was clutching her chest; the pain was clearly on her face. However, when she looked up and saw that he was right in front of her, her expression was that of terror. “Now don’t be frightened, Thea,” he comforted her, using her former self’s nickname mockingly. “I’ll make sure it won’t hurt.” He gave her a wicked grin and reached out to touch her soul. “Now let’s take a look at your soul, hm?”

    She gasped as her eyes began to glow a bright blue. Shintra wanted to shout with glee. It worked! Once again, he could see all of her memories and understand how she feels. In other words, he now knows everything about her. Caressing her soul, he mused to himself that she was currently terrified of him because of his hold on her. However, she still hated him because of what he did to her and her people although there was a tiny part that revealed that she still does care for him even if for a little amount.

    “Enjoying a little taste of my power, Aerian?” he taunted as she desperately tried to fight back. “This is only the start. Remember my offer earlier and what would happen if you decline? Well, this’s what happens. Since you refused my offer, I’ll force you to join me instead. From here on out, I’m going to slowly take away everything that makes you you and transform you into my most devoted servant. By the time I’m finished with you, you won’t know which way is up and which way is down. Everything I say will be your law. Now for our first lesson, I’m going to wipe out all memories of exorcism spells so you won’t have a chance of removing my avatar from your body.”

    Her eyes shined brighter like a sapphire as he placed his spell on her. However, she shut her eyes and shook her head as if she was trying to fight him. Foolish girl! Doesn’t she know that the more she fights, the more control he has on her? Smirking, he increased his hold on her as she continued to struggle. Sooner or later she would have to give up especially in her weakened mental state. After five minutes or so, her eyes went back to normal as she opened her eyes, which was now slightly darker. “Now let’s see if you can exorcise Argus out of your body,” he declared, but she gave him a helpless look. “It seems like you don’t remember your spells anymore. That’s good. We don’t have to worry about you escaping from me again.”

    Standing up, the Ilmarian of Souls offered his hand to her. “Since that has been taking care of, let’s enjoy the rest of the battle. Shall we?” Without saying a word, she obediently took his hand as he helped her stand up.

    As he led her to her seat, he noticed that she was trembling and that her eyes were unfocused. She’s in shock, he realized. “Everything will be all right, my dear Ressi,” he comforted her, stroking her hair. “I’ll take good care of you. I promise.” She didn’t reply as she continued to stare straight ahead although he could sense the growing dread emanating from her soul.

    Taking his spot next to her, Shintra watched the fighting below though he wasn’t really paying much attention to it. Instead, he stared at the pale blue orb in his hand and imagined all of the things he’s going to force her to do for him. Even though Ressi may not pose a major threat to Kejuta compared to the Lashival, she still was useful especially with her powers. With a few modifications, she could be more powerful and provided more uses for him. Just thinking about all the possibilities made him smile.
    --- Double Post Merged, Apr 30, 2017 ---
    FYI, upcoming chapters may be delayed for a while since I have a long-term sub position until the end of the school year. Not to mention, I'm busy playing Persona 5. :p




    Chapter 26: Rift

    Dirtha 14, 2595

    As soon as she entered Welvaria, Kejuta sensed something was wrong. The Ilmarian of Fate would usually hear her colleagues chatting amicably, but today, she heard nothing. Unnerved, she entered the meeting area and discovered an unpleasant sight. Almost everyone was avoiding each other’s glances as they lingered around the room. If someone caught another person’s eyes, he or she would quickly glance away. The only ones who appeared to be confused as she was were. Marika and Aundra. On the other hand, Brenton seemed lost in his own world (which wasn’t surprising at all) while Shintra walked around the room and talked to everyone as if obvious to what was happening around him.

    What baffled her the most were that the ones who were acting strangely got along with each other. Hessin and Zentran would always chat about new fighting techniques, but at the moment, they refused to acknowledge each other. The twins kept to themselves as they whispered in each other’s ears though she did notice that they kept eyeing her discreetly. Even her son, Pendance, was being odd as well! Normally, he would be catching up with Oraji since he has so little free time, but today, he was sitting next to his sister, who was trying to console him to no avail. Kejuta looked over at the Ilmarian of Nature and noticed that she shared the same glumly expression as like her son. Lanskas, who was sitting next to her, appeared to be urging her about something, but the young woman kept shaking her head, which exasperated the former priest.

    Kejuta looked back at Marika and Aundra. “What’s going on here?” she mouthed to them, but they shook their heads and shrugged. It seemed like they were as clueless as she was. Shaking her head, she sighed and signaled to the Ilmarian of Worlds to begin the meeting.

    “Everyone, please take your seats. We’re about to begin,” Marika announced. They complied and sat down though Kejuta noticed that none were sitting in their usual spots. Zentran had switched spots with Lanskas while the twins sat next to Shintra, leaving an empty spot between them and Hessin, who now sat next to Brenton.

    Nevertheless, she began the meeting. “I know that all of you have been stressed out about the false messenger birds so I’m going to start the meeting off with the report,” she decided.

    “And the results?” Zentran asked, crossing his arms.

    “Based on what everyone told me, it looks like none of us is the culprit,” she informed them, “which means that whoever it is, it’s an outsider.”
    Her colleagues began to murmur at her assessment. “If that’s so, then how was he able to break through the encryption? I thought Aundra made sure that it was hard to break,” Hessin pointed out.

    “That’s true,” she agreed. “However, he may have figured it out somehow.”

    Or there may be the culprit never exists!” Torryn countered. Surprised by her sudden outburst, everyone including her twin brother stared at her.

    Despite being startled, Kejuta kept herself composed. “What do you mean by that?” she inquired.

    “What I am saying is how do we know that you weren’t the one who sent those messenger birds?” she replied. “And when Zen discovered it, you covered it up in order to save your own hide!”

    This time, the Ilmarian of Fate couldn’t hide her shock. “Why in Samara would you think that!?”

    “When you first told us about the false messenger birds, you asked us to meet with each other to compare notes. But you never bothered to meet with any of us to do the same – not once! How can we know that your correspondence with us are true?” the Ilmarian of Judgement accused, standing up as if to challenge her.

    An indignant Kejuta opened her mouth to make a rebuttal but stopped herself. She could feel everyone’s eyes on her as they waited for her response. Her answer will determine whether or not they will believe her. As she mulled over what to say, she wistfully thought her Chains of Destinies would have been useful at the moment. They would be beneficial in making the right choices.

    Fortunately for her, someone came to her defense. “Don’t be ridiculous, Torryn!” Shintra scoffed. “Kejuta would never intentionally put Alethea in harm’s way. You know how protective she can be with all of us.”

    Torryn’s eyes seemed to bulge out, but Kejuta didn’t blame her; she was sure she had the same reaction. Out of all the Ilmarians, Shintra, who made it quite known that he couldn’t stand her, defended her!? Nevertheless, his support for her encouraged the others to do the same. “Shintra’s right,” Pendance agreed. “Mother always warned us to stay out of Anka, remember? So why would she send Thea there if she knows that it was dangerous?”

    “Not to mention, why would she keep the messenger birds hidden from any of us? Kej is always forthcoming on where she sends Thea,” Hessin concurred. “What benefits does she have by keeping the missions a secret?”
    While the Ilmarian of Justice was speaking, Kejuta noticed something peculiar. Her son glanced over at Oraji and Lanskas; the petite woman turned pale, but on the other hand, the former priest remained stoic although the corner of his mouth twitched slightly. What was going on with those three?

    “B-b-but!” Torryn stammered, but she saw that the majority stood by Kejuta. She glanced over at Weiss, who gave her a disapproving look in return. Realizing that it was a lost cause, the young assassin slumped down into her seat and sulked though Kejuta could sense the animosity coming from her.

    “If you like, we can meet afterward so you can compare my letters with yours,” she offered, hoping to pacify the adolescent.
    However, Torryn refused to answer, but her twin brother declined. “It’s all right,” he said, shaking his head. “If the others believe your words, then we have no choice but do the same.”

    “All right then, but my offer still stands if you change your mind.” In spite of what Weiss said, Kejuta didn’t feel that confident that everyone else believes her now. From her viewpoint, she could see that some have questioning looks in their eyes as they scrutinized her. No doubt they were wondering if she was being truthful to them or not. Glancing around the room, she recalled how much the atmosphere had changed from the last meeting. The feeling of camaraderie was now replaced with that of wariness, and the Ilmarian of Fate wondered if she was to blame for it.

    “The meeting is now over. Everyone, you’re dismissed!” Marika declared. As her friends went their separate ways, the Ilmarian of Worlds sighed. To say today’s meeting was disastrous would be an understatement. One would need a knife to cut through the tense atmosphere! The whole time, she noted that everyone kept giving each other either accusing or questioning looks, especially at Kejuta.

    Speaking of which, she glanced over at the Ilmarian of Fate, who was speaking with Hessin. Her friend seemed so exhausted as she nodded wearily to whatever the former Kahlin was saying. “I’ll meet you at your place in a little bit,” Marika overheard her promise him.

    “I’ll see you soon then,” the Ilmarian of Justice replied, bidding her farewell. As he walked away, he stopped and glanced over at Zentran, who gave him a steady gaze before he returned to his conversation with Oraji and Lanskas. Seeing that the Ilmarian of Seasons refused to acknowledge him, Hessin frowned but continued on his way. Marika could only shake her head. Who would have thought that grown men would act like petty children?

    She returned her attention back to Kejuta, who sat alone. Her hand was on her forehead as she sighed heavily. Marika gave her friend a sympathetic look. She must be under a lot of stress. Not only does she have to worry about the Lashival and the Dalenthi, she has to search for the missing Alethea and find the connection between the Aerian and the false messenger birds. That last thought caused the Ilmarian of Worlds to wonder.

    Even though she disagreed wholeheartedly with Torryn’s accusation, she has to admit that the young assassin did have a point. They only had Kejuta’s words that her correspondence with the Ilmarian of Truth was compromised. Nevertheless, she couldn’t fathom her friend would have kept that a secret from Aundra, Brenton, and her. After all, they were her advisors. The Ilmarian of Fate always sought their advice on such important matters.

    But then, now that Marika thought about it, Kejuta didn’t reveal anything about the false messenger birds until a few weeks ago. Although her friend explained her reasons, the Ilmarian of Worlds felt somewhat hurt that she didn’t trust her. If Kej had told her advisors as soon as she learned about it, they would have gladly helped her. If she kept that a secret for so long, what other secrets does Kejuta have? As she watched the Ilmarian of Fate began to fidget with the Chain of Destinies, Marika couldn’t help but wonder if her friend knows more than she was letting on.

    --- Double Post Merged, May 21, 2017 ---
    Chapter 27: Fishing

    “I’m glad you can make it,” Hessin said, greeting Kejuta as she entered his private room. He led her to a crimson-colored chair and sat down across from her. Behind him, Istra sat on her perch and flapped her wings as a form of greeting. “Would you like some tea?”

    The Ilmarian of Fate shook her head as she declined. “No thank you. I can’t stay too long,” she apologized. “Another time perhaps.”

    “It’s quite all right.” Grinning, he chuckled, “It seems that you’re popular.”

    “Looks that way,” she replied ruefully. “Anyway, what is so urgent that you wish to see me?”

    The Ilmarian of Justice didn’t answer at first. Instead, he studied his friend and noted the tired look on her face. Dark circles were under her eyes, and her hair, which was usually in a tight braid, was slightly unkempt. The wrinkles in her lavender dress told him that she slept in her clothes – if she had any sleep, that is. No, he determined, despite Torryn’s accusation, there was no way she was involved with the false messenger birds. Kejuta was too busy with other matters to think of a nefarious plan like that. Besides, why would she make more work for herself by sending Alethea two sets of messenger birds? It would be confusing after awhile.

    “Do you by chance have any copies of Alethea’s fake messenger birds?” he finally inquired.

    Kejuta blinked. “I do, in fact. Zentran was lucky to have them with him when the Dalenthi attacked them and handed them to me immediately. May I ask why?”

    The Ilmarian of Justice flinched slightly when he heard Zen’s name, but he pretended that he wasn’t bothered. “I’m curious on why whoever sent them ordered her to go those places,” he answered. “Perhaps there is a reason.”

    “Perhaps, but it would be rather difficult, wouldn’t it? Alethea never mentioned once what her disguises were in any of those. How would you be able to find out?” she pointed out.

    “True,” he agreed, “but I think we should at least try. After all, it’s better to search for answers instead of sitting around and wondering.”

    “You do have a point.” The Ilmarian of Fate pulled her hair behind her ear as she thought of his request. At last, she sighed and nodded. “All right,” she relented. With a wave of her hand, a group of messenger birds appeared on the table in front of them. “Here are the fake messenger birds. Are you sure this will suffice?”

    Hessin nodded. “I’m sure,” he reassured her. “I better start my search now. The sooner we know the truth, the sooner we can find Alethea and the Lashival.”

    “By yourself?”

    “Istra will accompany me so you don’t have to worry.”

    “Are you sure? Why don’t you have Zen come with you? I’m sure that will help keep him occupied. You know how anxious he has been the past few weeks,” she suggested.

    This time, Hessin hesitated. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

    “Did something happen between you two?” He didn’t respond, which caused Kejuta to nod. “I thought so. I noticed that both of you weren’t acknowledging each other during the meeting. Do you want to talk about it?”

    “No, it’s all right. It’s a personal matter,” he answered. “All I can say is that I said something that he took offense to.”

    “Let me guess. You said something about Alethea, didn’t you?” His silence confirmed her suspicion, which caused her to sigh. “You know how he gets defensive over her!”

    “I know, but he got to realize the fact that his bias is blinding him from a possible fact!” he argued. “If he keeps clinging onto his beliefs that all Aerians can do no wrong, what will he do if it was proven wrong? Turn a blind eye to it? Sooner or later, he has to accept the truth.”

    Kejuta remained silent, which Hessin took as she knew what he was saying was true. Finally, she said, “I best be going. Is there anything else you need me for?”

    He was about to told her no when a thought occurred to him. “Do you also have a copy of your correspondence with Alethea? The real ones, that is. Maybe whoever sent the fake ones didn’t want her to go those places that you sent her.”

    “Sure,” she said, nodding her head. A few moments later, she handed him some more messenger birds. “Anything else?”

    “No, that’s all for now,” he answered. “Thank you for your help. I’m sure I took a lot of your time.”

    “Not at all!” Kejuta replied, shaking her head. “If you can help find out the bottom of this mystery, I would be grateful.”

    “And I as well,” he agreed. “Take care, Kej.”

    “You too. Be careful, Hessin,” the Ilmarian of Fate said as she took her leave.

    As soon as she left the room, Istra leapt off her perch and transformed into her spirit form. Placing her hands on his shoulder, she peered over it and stared thoughtfully at the messenger birds in his hands while he read them. “Well, you got both sets so which ones will you check out first? The real ones or the fake?”

    He thought for a moment. “Let’s pick the real ones for now. Perhaps there was something sinister happening that the writer of the false ones didn’t want us to know.”

    The watery spirit arched her eyebrows. “You know that you have twelve years of correspondence to investigate. Are you sure you don’t want anybody’s help?”

    “I’m sure,” the Ilmarian of Justice confirmed. “The fewer people who know, the better. If the creator of the false messenger birds is one of us like Kejuta suspects, then we don’t want to reveal to him what we are doing and risk getting sabotaged."

    “That’s true,” Istra admitted, “but it’s going to be a pain nevertheless.”

    Hessin smiled. “I’ll try to make it quick for the both of us.”

    “You better. Anyway, you told Kejuta that you’re going to start as soon as possible so we better get started.” She transformed back into her bird form and landed gently on his shoulder. “Ready?”

    Preparing his needle ring, he envisioned his first stop and tossed it into the air. “Ready,” he replied as he stepped into the bustling streets of Sabin’s capital, Tarma.

    “I can’t believe that no one would listen to me!” Torryn griped, slamming her fists against the bedpost once more. As soon as they got home, she immediately went off about the “injustice of it all”. Weiss didn’t say anything as he worked on his crossbow. If she wanted to hurt herself, she could go on right ahead. At the moment, he wanted to distract himself; otherwise, he might explode. His sister didn’t seem to notice that he was fuming because she continued to vent. “What the hell is wrong with people!? Are they so blind that they won’t accept the fact that Kej may be lying to them? Hey, are you even listening to me?”

    “I am,” he finally answered, tightening the string of his crossbow until it was taut.

    “Then why won’t you say anything!?”

    “Because I’m fucking pissed off at you!” Weiss screamed, jumping off his bed. He heard his weapon crashed onto the floor but ignored it. Right now, he was too furious to care.

    His glare must have been frightening because his twin sister took a step back. “What’s the matter with you?” Torryn demanded.

    “What the hell were you thinking!? Blurting out like that? Didn’t I tell you not to confront Kejuta like that because it would be pointless?” he shouted. “Because of you, she now knows that we suspect her of something!”

    His sister’s face fell at that realization, but she quickly composed herself. “But still! Didn’t her reaction seem suspicious to you? I mean, she looked surprised by what I said, right? I bet it means that she knew something about those false messenger birds.”

    Or she was stunned that you made that accusation,” he pointed out.

    “Oh. I supposed you’re right…” she muttered. Torryn thought for a moment before she added, “And what’s the deal with Shintra? Why was he defending her if he was the one who gave us that idea?”

    Weiss just sighed wearily as he picked up his weapon. Luckily, his crossbow wasn’t that damaged – just a nick here and there. “It’s because he doesn’t want to look like he’s involved with us. The more he distances himself from us, the less likely Kej and the others know about our alliance. Remember if they find out about our dealings, Kej may have Aundra seal our powers.”

    For the past century or so, the twins had signed an assassin contract with the Duermon, in which they agreed to kill anyone that he wants to “disappear”. It wasn’t much, but then, they didn’t want the other Ilmarians to be aware of their arrangement. So far, everything has turned out well.

    Torryn turned pale as she gulped. “Geez, Weiss. I didn’t think of that. I was trying to fish for some kind of hint, but… I really fucked up, huh?”
    He was about to confirm it but thought better of it. True, he was still crossed by his sister’s actions, but he shouldn’t dwell too much of it. “Maybe a little,” he told her, “but we just have to change our plan.”

    “Change? How?” she asked derisively. “Because of my big mouth, Kej knows to be careful around us. How are we supposed to know the truth?”

    “Simply, Tory. We use our powers.”

    “Powers? How can we use them if we have the Gods’ Blessing placed on-” Her eyes widened when it dawned on her what her brother meant. “Oh, I see. Do you think it’ll work though?”

    Weiss shrugged. “Maybe. It doesn’t hurt to try, right?”

    “When should we start then?”

    He thought for a moment. “As soon as she is out of Welvaria. It would be more crowded in Samara so she wouldn’t notice a thing.”

    “Sounds like a good idea.” His sister paused for a moment and grinned. “Whatever would I do without you?”

    He returned her rueful smile and shook his head. Even though Torryn can be a pain in the ass at times, he doesn’t know what he would do without her. “I have no idea, but I sometimes ask myself that same question.”

    “Got anything yet?”

    Kejuta shook her head at the question. “Nothing yet,” she answered. “You?”

    “Same,” Brenton replied, “but then, these things take a while.”

    When the Ilmarian of Time requested that she meets up with him, Kejuta didn’t think much about it. She had figured that he wanted to discuss with her about some issues in Samara, but instead, she found him standing near the edge of a lake; fishing gears were in his hands. She was about to inquire about them, Brenton asked her if she wanted to try her luck with fishing. Before she knew it, she was sitting near the water edge and waiting patiently to catch a fish.

    Her colleague continued, “So how are you? It must be taxing these past few weeks.”

    “It has,” she admitted and sighed. “Did I do the right thing, Brenton?”

    The young man looked at her curiously. “What do you mean?”

    “After I told everyone about the false messenger birds, I noticed that all of them were acting strangely. Obviously, you saw how Torryn made that accusation, but you know how hotheaded she can be. It’s the others I’m worried about. Hessin and Zentran always get along with each other, but now they barely acknowledged each other’s existences! From what I’ve gathered, it was something that Hessin said that upset Zen.

    “The same goes for my son and Oraji. Something must have happened between them because they’re avoiding each other like the plague. I asked Pen about it, but he said that he doesn’t want to talk about it. I’m tempted to ask Raj too to see if I could help, but I don’t want to be a meddling mother either.” She took a deep breath and shook her head. “I just don’t know what to do. With this and everything else that’s going on, I feel like my head is going to explode. I know that the others appointed me as the leader, but sometimes I feel like I’m not up to it. Maybe just maybe I’m in way over my head.”

    “Don’t blame yourself for what happened, Kej. Some things are beyond your control. Besides, everything will turn out fine in the end,” Brenton reassured her.

    She gave him a wry smile. “Did you look into that book of yours?”

    He chuckled as he glanced down at the book next to him. Historia, a book which records the history of the world, was given to him by Aundra in order to help him manage his powers. “No, it didn’t. Let’s just say that I have a gut feeling.”

    The Ilmarian of Fate looked at him for a moment but decided not to pester him about it. Even though Brenton has provided good advice, he could be odd at times. A dreamer, Aundra had described him. “Anyway, where have you been a few weeks ago? Aundra and I tried to reach you, but you didn’t answer any of our messenger birds.”

    Brenton’s face blushed a bright red. “Oh, that.” He cleared his throat. “Well, you see… uh… I found some interesting historical text carved onto a cliff wall so I was busy deciphering it.”

    “Oh?” The Ilmarian of Fate knew that her colleague was a history buff so she wasn’t surprised. Once something caught his interest, it was hard to get him to focus on anything else. “Did you find anything inter-”

    She felt an abrupt tug on her fishing rod and immediately looked back to see that the line was rigid. “I think I caught something!” she exclaimed, standing up as she pulled her pole. Behind her, she heard Brenton shouted as he hurried over to help her. It was a good thing, too because whatever she caught was putting up a fight.

    As she was pulling the fish toward the shore, the fish was desperately going in the opposite direction. Sometimes she managed to force it to get closer to her; other times, it managed to increase the distance. Once, the fish almost caused her to fall into the water, but luckily, Brenton was able to catch her in time. The constant back-and-forth was putting a strain on the line; the pole was also bending to the point that the Ilmarian of Fate feared that it would snap. Who would have thought she would have difficulty catching a fish?

    Just when she was about to give up, she noticed that the fish has become somewhat sluggish with its pulling. Now was her chance! Grunting, a now determined Kejuta forced herself to use every bit of strength and yanked the rod as hard as she could. The next thing she knew, she was on her back while Brenton shouted, “Congratulations, Kej! You caught your first fish!”

    “I did?” Kejuta sat up to see the Ilmarian of Time beaming at her while he held the fish, which was dangling from her line. Standing up, she walked over to examine her catch. Its greenish silver scales glistened in the sunlight as it resignedly flapped its tail as a last attempt to escape. The fish’s gills expanded as it gasped for oxygen.

    “Uh huh. You must have beginner’s luck because based on what I see, I think the fish you caught is around thirty-nine centimeters long,” Brenton said.

    “That long? From the battle I had, I thought it was at least twice as long!”

    The Ilmarian of Time chortled. “Well, the Kreesian bass is known for being feisty. I had to admit that I was getting worried that you would need my help, but it seemed that you were fine on your own. So what do you want to do with the fish?”

    “I guess you’re right,” she assented and looked at the fish. Its bulging eyes stared back at her. “I think we should let it go. Let it live and fight another day.”

    Brenton nodded as he carefully unhooked the fish and gently placed it back into the water. “So what do you think?”

    Kejuta thought for a moment. “You know, I was wondering why you asked me to go fishing with you, but I think I understand why now.”
    “You do?” he asked, surprised.

    She nodded. “For the past few weeks, I was so busy worrying about everything that I’ve completely forgotten to take care of myself. Even though I only spend an hour or so here, I feel more refreshed than I’ve ever been.” She gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you.”

    The Ilmarian of Time shyly kicked the sand as he transformed into a child. “It was nothing, Kej. If you like, whenever you feel like you need a break, just send me a message, and we can go fishing again.”

    “I would like that,” she answered with a smile.
    --- Double Post Merged, May 30, 2017 ---
    Chapter 28: A Small Reprieve

    Dirtha 15, 2595

    Alethea was having a nightmare. She dreamt about a monster that seemed to cover the sky reaching out to grab her with its long, curved claws. Terrified, she tried to flee, but no matter how far she flew, the creature would simply stretch its black arms and catch her. Crying out, she struggled to break free from its strong grip to no avail. The towering monster didn’t seem bothered by her futile attempt; its glowing green eyes didn’t even blink as it pulled her back. As soon as she was close, it opened its wild mouth, revealing several rows of sharp teeth. A horrified Alethea could only scream as she was about to be consumed.

    The Aerian woke up with a start. Panting, she sat up on her bed and clutched her blanket. Her heart was still pounding out of her chest just from thinking about it. What kind of dream was that? Troubled, she immediately reached out to the person whom she trusts for advice. “Argus?”

    “Sorry, but Argus is preoccupied for a moment. Maybe I can provide some help?” a familiar voice called out. Alethea felt the blood in her veins froze. She slowly looked to her left to find a smug Shintra staring back at her.

    Out of instinct, she summoned Aerius’s Spear and tried to lunge at him. However, the Duermon seemed undeterred as he simply ordered, “Argus, stop her.” As soon as he said that command, she felt a pang in her chest, which caused her to drop her weapon. It landed with a clang right in front of his feet. “Did I startle you? I didn’t mean to do that. I was keeping watch over you since you’ve been sleeping for the past few days, and I was beginning to worry that you might not wake up. But then, you must have quite a shock over what happened so I don’t blame you.”

    Over what happened? Dread filled her as she whispered, “What did you do to Argus?”

    “You don’t remember? Allow me to show you.” The Duermon raised his hand and reached out to grab something in the air. The Ilmarian of Truth could only gasp as a feeling of euphoria washed over her. It only lasted for a few seconds, but it was enough to cause her to almost fall flat on her face. “Now do you remember?”

    Grinding her teeth, she glared at him as she sat back up. “Do whatever you want with me, but leave Argus out of this!”

    Shintra laughed. “Oh, Argus has everything to do with it! When I begged for his help, he rejected it and dared to mock me. He even threatened to kill me if I continue to pester him. For centuries, I longed to make him pay for humiliating me. Now I got my revenge on him! What’s a better way than having him turn his ‘daughter’ into my loyal servant? I imagine that it would kill him if he knows what he’s doing.”

    Upon hearing that, Alethea wanted to vomit. Because of her, Argus has become a mindless slave to that bastard. However, another thought occurred to her. “I don’t understand. Why are we having this conversation? You got me, don’t you? Why hasn’t you make me revert back to Ressi?”

    “Are you still insisting that you’re Alethea? Haven’t you forgotten what I told you? That girl is long dead – dead in that cave where I first found you. You’re just Ressi pretending to be a dead girl,” he chided. The Ilmarian of Souls then paused for a moment. “And to answer your question, it’s because of what you said to me earlier about how none of my concubines truly loves me. Well, I thought about it and realized that it was true. They only love me because I made them. Then another thought occurred to me.”

    He stood up and walked over to her. Placing his hand under her chin, he forced her to look up at him. The slight touch of his hand made her shiver. “If what you’re saying is true, then I’ll just have you fall in love with me – on your own free will, of course. And when you do, you’ll beg me to change your soul because you want me to do it. That way, I’ll make you eat your own words. Heh, I can’t wait until I have my way with you. You’re still a virgin, right? According to Argus, you haven’t slept with anyone yet.”

    “You-!” Angry, she slapped his hand away and glowered at him. “That will never happen! I won’t allow it. I have and will never love you – let alone sleep with you!”

    Shintra just gave her a knowing smile as he rubbed his injured hand. “You keep telling yourself that, but you know it’s true. That kiss we shared long ago confirmed that to me. Deep down, you do have feelings for me, but you’re still afraid to admit it. I don’t know whether it’s because you want to hold onto that grudge against me or because you’re in denial.”

    He shook his head and stood up, picking up Aerius’s Spear along the way. She could only watch in despair as he took her only weapon from her. “You know, Argus told me something interesting about this spear, but I’m sure he already told you about it so I won’t bother to tell you. It’s quite impressive seeing this up close. Who would have thought this weapon was made by a Duermon craftsman? I think I’ll take it for safe keeping. Well then, I better get going. I’ve taken too much time talking to you. Don’t want to be late after all.”

    “Going? Where are you going?” the Ilmarian of Truth wondered.

    Shintra smirked. “Sad to see me go already? Don’t be. It may take awhile, but I’ll be back. I just have to check up some of my subordinates as well as meet with our colleagues. You should be grateful. Because of my tight schedule, you get to enjoy the little time you have as ‘Alethea’ because once I get back, your re-education will commence.”

    “Awhile? How many subordinates do you have?”

    “Oh, I guess almost half of Samara’s population.” He grinned at her reaction. “What? Surprised by that amount? You do know that I run an operation, which is doing splendidly by the way, so I need to get more men to help out. In fact, I estimate that two-thirds of the population will be Dalenthi by the end of the year.”

    “Why are you telling me this? Don’t you know that I can warn the others when I escape?”

    Shintra let out a boisterous laugh. “Like that’s going to happen! You’re in my hidden world, and the only way you can escape is with a needle ring, which you don’t have. By the time I let you leave, you’ll already be my unwitting servant. And the reason I’m telling you this is that you’re now my subordinate whether you like it or not. Now, if you excuse me…”

    He was about to exit her prison when he stopped at the door. “Oh, before I forget, I recommend staying on this floor while I’m gone. Some of my men are furious at you for betraying us and want to punish you even though I explained to my followers that you weren’t at fault for your actions. However, I don’t think I convince a few of them so who knows what they’ll do if they find you defenseless?”

    “Don’t think I’m weak because I’m your prisoner!” Alethea retorted. “I still have my powers.”

    “And yet, you haven’t dared use it against me,” he pointed out. She stared at him, stunned at that realization. Now that he mentioned it, why hasn’t she used any of her attack magic? “In case you’re wondering, I had Argus set a command on you forbidding you to use your magic while you slept. I hope you don’t mind.”

    “You little bastard!” she screamed. Looking around, she could only find a pillow and threw it at him. Laughing, he deflected the soft projectile with ease before he made his exit. The Ruschabel standing watch simply closed the door and locked it. She could only seethe and watched him disappeared back into his bedroom; her chest rose and fell as her heart pounded like a drum. As she watched the doors slide, she slammed her hands on the bed. Dammit! What was she going to do?

    Feeling agitated, she threw the blanket off of her and get up. Right now, she needed to move around to clear her head. Nevertheless, several thoughts entered her mind. What should she do? Knowing Shintra, he most likely has Argus monitor her every movement. Not to mention, she still has that tattoo, which prevented her from sending any messenger bird and alerting him if she receives any.

    Falling to her knees, Alethea grasped the gold prison bars and yanked at them though they didn’t budge. At that moment, she wanted to scream. No matter what she thinks of, that damned asshole has figured out how she may try to escape. What is she supposed to do? Sit here and wait until he comes back to work his magic on her?

    Just as she began to give up, she heard the roar of the crowd below her. Opening her eyes, she glanced down to see Shintra’s men in a celebratory mood. No doubt they were still rejoicing their leader’s triumph over her. They were probably getting drunk and sleeping with the concubines Shintra provided for them. Thinking about his gloating face made her blood boil. Alethea clenched her teeth as she slowly stood up. No, there was no way she’ll admit defeat without trying. She won’t let that Duermon claim victory just yet.

    With her new resolve, she hatched a plan. Walking over to the vanity set, she began to search the drawers. Sure enough, Argus immediately noticed. “What are you doing, Ressi? Trying to beautify yourself? If so, you should have done it while he’s still around,” Argus asked in a bored voice. She imagined him lounging on his side as he said that.

    Hearing his voice caused her skin to crawl. Because of her, Argus was now… Instead of answering, she apologized, “I’m so sorry, Argus. Because of me, you got bewitched by him.”

    “Don’t be,” he told her. “Shintra didn’t harm me at all with his magic; he just helped me reach my potential – just like he’ll do for you.”

    “Potential? How does becoming his slave help you reach your potential?” she retorted.

    “Hehehe, you’ll see soon enough. Anyway, find what you’re looking for?” the Parasitic Duermon asked, but she ignored him as she continued her search. Even though it sounded like her old friend, she knew that it wasn’t him. It was just an imposter wearing his skin.

    At last, she found what she was looking for and put it in her pocket. After she checked to see if the guard was around, she began her task. Walking toward the door, she knelt down, pulled out a bobby pin from her pocket, and remove the pins at the end with her teeth. As soon as she got it on the pin the way she wanted, she bent it until it was good enough for her. Nudging the bent part of the pin into the barrel of the keyhole, she started to twist and turn it around. After a minute or so, she heard the first click, which caused her to smile. Thanks to the gods, she encountered a thief who taught her how to pick lock during one of her missions! Now she has to work on the moving the other pins inside the keyhole up until she could make her escape.

    An alarmed Argus realized what she was doing and demanded, “Wait a minute! Didn’t Shintra tell you to stay put?” Alethea didn’t bother to answer him as she concentrated on her task. He growled at her insubordination. “Answer me, Ressi!”

    “Ngh!” she grunted, clutching her chest. It was a familiar pain; whenever Argus needed some nourishment, he would sink his teeth into her soul until he has his fill. However, this time was different; he was always gentle, but now he acted with wild abandon. Her eyes began to water, which made it hard for her to see what she was doing. The Ilmarian of Truth wanted to cry out, but she knew that would alert the guard. To prevent herself for crying, she bit the inside of her mouth and continued to try to unlock the door despite the increased pain. Already she could taste the blood in her mouth, but she forced herself to bite down still. Nothing was going to stop her – not when she was this close to escaping.

    After what seemed like hours, she heard the last click. Without hesitation, she pushed the door. Imagine her relief when it creaked open! “Yes!” Alethea muttered to herself. Standing up, she hastily hurried out of her prison and headed toward the doors leading to Shintra’s room. The Aerian discreetly slid one of them open to check to see if it was safe and found the room to be empty. He must have left already. Sliding the door wider, she crept in and shut the door behind her.

    As she walked through the darkened room, she took a look around. Why wasn’t she surprised that Shintra has expensive taste? “Return to your room this instant, Ressi, if you know what’s better for you,” Argus warned, interrupting her thoughts. However, she continued to ignore him as she headed toward the door. He could gripe all he wants for all she cares.

    Alethea just opened the door a bit when something caught her eyes. Aerius’s Spear was on top of the fireplace mantle; the gold and blue spear gave a soft gleam due to the light coming from the hallway. Shintra must have wanted to display it as a proud reminder that he has captured her again. She bristled at that thought.

    Nevertheless, her heart skipped a beat. If she has that weapon, then she would have a better fighting chance if she encounters any Dalenthi along the way. Now more determined, she ambled over to the fireplace to retrieve her weapon. “Now where are you going?” Argus asked, exasperated. “Your room isn’t that way.”

    This time, she answered him. “I’m not going to sit around and wait for him to have his way with me. If I can find a way to escape, then I will!”
    The Parasitic Duermon chuckled. “Is that so? Let me guess; you’re planning to head down there in hopes you bump into someone who has a needle ring.” Her silence confirmed his suspicion. “I thought so. Well then, let makes things more challenging for you.”

    Before she could react, she felt his teeth pierced her soul as a feeling of euphoria entered her body. “No!” she gasped as she heard an order inside her head: “Leave your spear here.” Alethea shut eyes shut and placed her hands on her head as she tried to fight back. There was no way she was going to let that bastard keep her weapon away from her! Unfortunately, the bombardment of that order ran throughout her head that she thought she would go crazy. That was the only thought she could hear inside her head; anything else buzzed that she couldn’t comprehend what the words were. With no other choice, she reluctantly accepted it.

    Opening her eyes, she was surprised to find herself on her knees. Was she struggling that much against Shintra’s magic? As the Ilmarian of Truth slowly stood up, she stared at her weapon. No longer did she feel any desire to take it. She wanted to cry, but that would give Argus satisfaction. However, she could hear him snicker. “Now that’s taken care of, let see how you’re going to get out of here,” he gloated. All of a sudden, she heard a shout coming outside. “ “Looks like something just happens downstairs. I wonder what that is?”

    Grinding her teeth, the Aerian rushed to the door and flung it open. Then she ran over to the railing and looked down to find a group of Dalenthi scrambling up the stairs. What was going on? Did they find out that she escaped? That was when she heard Argus said, “Oh, to make it more interesting, I already alerted the others of your escape so if I were you, I won’t linger here. So what’s your next move, hm?”

    Alethea cursed underneath her breath. She hated to admit it, but the Duermon was right. Just standing here would make her a sitting duck. She needed to leave and hoped she didn’t confront a large group of Shintra’s men. Even though she was weaponless, she could still fight, she reasoned. Having no other choice, she fled down the stairs and into danger.
    --- Double Post Merged, Jul 5, 2017 ---
    Sorry for the delay. Here's a long chapter to make up for it :sweatbunny




    Chapter 29: A Lesson in Futility

    No sooner did she run down the first flight of stairs, she encountered a large group of Dalenthi. “Where do you think you’re going, Aerian?” one of them sneered. “Didn’t the boss tell you to stay put?”

    Alethea took a step back, but before she could flee back up the stairs, another swarm showed up behind her. This time, she recoiled as she immediately recognized the person standing in front of the group. “Hello, Ressi,” he greeted her; his scarred face seemed to crack like crepe paper as he cracked a smile. “Remember me?”

    “Engum?” she gasped. The last time she saw him, she learned that Shintra lied to her and barely escaped from being recaptured by Engum and Othi, another Shintra’s follower. The man nodded. “What happened to you?”

    “Are you talking about these scars?” he asked, tracing the longest one. “I got them as punishment for letting you escape. Othi was lucky; he couldn’t bear the torture and succumbed to his injuries. But I did, and I vowed that if I ever see you again, I’ll make sure you suffer just the way I did. And lo and behold, you’re here. Now I can complete my promise. Get her.”

    Before Alethea could react, someone grabbed her from behind and dragged her to the floor below. “Let go of me!” she screamed, struggling to break free to no avail. Her kicks and squirming were useless.

    The other Dalenthi just chortled at her futile effort. “Now that we got her, what do you want to do to her?” one of them asked Engum.

    He just smirked. “Hand me a knife, and lift her head up,” he ordered and flipped his hand out as if waiting for the weapon. “I’m going to give her a pretty scar to match mine.”

    “No!” Despite her resistance, her captors easily tilted her chin up. A gloating Engum sauntered over and pressed the cold blade lightly on her left cheek.

    “That’s right. I want to see that terrified look on your face when I cut you,” he taunted and increased the pressure on the blade. “Let’s see if the boss will enjoy your new look then.”

    She felt the knife began to move so she shouted in a choking voice, “Don’t you dare! If you do, I’ll-”

    “You’ll what? Get Shintra to rescue you? He ain’t here to save your pretty ass,” Engum sneered as he pressed the knife harder, which caused her to wince.

    Soon, she felt a trickle of blood dripping from her face. Out of desperation, she pleaded, “Argus, do something!” However, the Duermon didn’t reply. Was Argus trying to punish her for leaving her prison?

    Just as she was about to lose hope, she heard another familiar voice shout, “That’s enough, Engum!”

    A startled Engum stopped and took a step back, revealing a muscular Sendoan standing behind him. “I was just teasing her, Balster,” he protested, but the other man continued to glare at him. “Honest!”

    However, a Thread of Lie appeared in Alethea’s hand. Before she could yank it, Balster growled, “I didn’t ask to hear your excuses, Engum. Now get out of here! Take your goons and get far away from here. If I see you ‘teasing’ her again, I’ll make sure your torture will begin again soon. Got it?”

    The other Dalenthi stared at him before he tucked the knife into his belt. “The fun was over anyway,” Engum grumbled as he gestured at his followers and walked away. “Let’s go.”

    As they began to walk away, Alethea felt them drop her on the ground, and she fell with a plop! Still baffled by the sudden change of events, she watched as her tormentors disappeared down the stairs before she glanced up at her “savior”. Balster still looked the same from the last time she saw him; the only difference was that he was leaner and more buff. His angular face was thinner as well, and he still has that youthful complexion. “Thank you,” she mumbled.

    Without saying a word, the Dalenthi strolled up to her and roughly yanked her back to her feet. “Don’t think I did it out of the goodness of my heart. I have my own reason for saving your hide. Otherwise, I would have let him have his way with you for all the trouble you’ve caused,” he growled and pushed her up the stairs. “Now head back up, and don’t try to do anything funny!”

    Even though she was curious for his reason, the Ilmarian of Truth kept her mouth shut. Based on his reaction, Balster was in a foul mood, and she didn’t want to risk making it worse. She knows his temper was legendary especially if someone presses his button. Instead, they walked back to the Birdcage in total silence.

    As soon as they reached her prison, Balster shoved her in before slamming the door shut. “And stay there!” he barked. “The next time, you may not be so lucky if you catch my drift. Oh, don’t worry too much about that pretty face of yours; it’s healing up quite nicely.”

    As soon as he mentioned it, Alethea immediately touched her cheek and sure enough, the cut was slowly disappearing. Still giving her a stern look, the Dalenthi began to walk away. “Wait!” she shouted, which caused him to halt. Hurrying to the door, she demanded, “Then why did you save me back there?”

    Balster studied her for a moment before he sauntered back to the prison door. Leaning forward so that he was only a touch away from her, he bared his teeth. “The only reason I saved you, Aerian, is that I am looking forward to Zentran’s reaction when he finds out the very race he admires so much will be the one who turns against him.” He laughed at her stunned reaction as he took a step back. “Satisfied now?”

    “Wait, you know Zen?” she breathed.

    He nodded. “In a way. You see, I possessed the body of one of the people in his village. From what I’ve gathered from his memories, Puloog has an interesting history with your colleague. I’m sure you’re curious, but I’ll save it for another time. Right now, I have better things to do than babysitting.”

    Alethea watched in stunned silence as Balster walked away. Even though she knew a little bit of Zen’s history, she still couldn’t believe that she would encounter someone from his past. If that so, would there be more then? She tried to recall if the Ilmarian of Seasons ever told her what happened to the village after he fled, but the only thing she remembered was that he became rather evasive whenever she asked.

    “Learned your lesson now?” Argus asked, ruining her train of thoughts.

    She scowled. “No, I’m not going to give up that easily,” she replied curtly.

    “Stubborn girl! What can you possibly do without your powers?” he jeered.

    “Oh, plenty.” She glanced down at the single Thread of Lie in her hand. Now that she thought more about it, Shintra probably didn’t remember that she could see every lies since she could no longer use it on him because of the Gods’ Blessing. Likewise, she noticed another slip-up. Even though Shintra had forbidden her from using her magic against him, he has forgotten to include his men, and she intends to use that mistake to her advantage.

    Dirtha 18, 2595

    “Again!?” Balster exclaimed and turned his attention to a defiant Alethea, who was being held by another Dalenthi. “How many times does it today? Fifteen?”

    “Actually, nineteen,” she snapped as she struggled against her captor’s grip.

    The Dalenthi groaned. “And it’s still morning. By the gods, how long until you give up?” she didn’t answer, which caused him to sigh. “You’re a pain in the ass. You know that? I can’t wait when the boss is done with you, that’s for sure.” Turning his attention to the other Duermon, he ordered, “Put her back in her cage, and make sure the door is locked! Got it, Evanti?”

    “Yes, sir,” the other demon answered. As soon as Balster walked away, he grumbled underneath his breath, “Who made you the boss anyway? Just because Shintra views you more favorably doesn’t mean you can tell me what to do!”

    As soon as Alethea heard him, a thought occurred to her mind. Based on what he just said, it seemed that he didn’t like Balster at all. Perhaps she could use it against him. “So Shintra didn’t leave Balster in charge while he’s gone?”

    “Of course not! That bastard just assumes that he was,” he spat. All of sudden, he narrowed his eyes suspiciously at her. “Why should you care?”

    “Oh, nothing,” she said, shrugging. “I just notice that you didn’t seem happy to be boss around like that.”

    “And what are you going to do about it?” His eyes widened. “You’re not going to tell Balster, are you?”

    She looked at him innocently. “No. Why? Are you scared of him?”

    “Wh-what? I’m not afraid of that asshole. Just because he’s one of the best fighters and can easily beat a group of pathetic human soldiers doesn’t mean that he scares me!” Evanti declared. “You hear me?”

    “I hear you all right.” The Ilmarian of Truth glanced down at her right hand, which now held two glowing threads. That should suffice. With a quick jerk of her hand, she yanked the Threads of Lies, causing her captor to collapse in pain. Now freed, she quickly turned around and struck him on the back of his head, knocking Evanti out cold. Now that was taken care of, she just needed to find a way to escape.

    “Do you think it would be that easy?” Argus sneered. “I’ll just alert Shintra’s other avatars to what happened.”

    “And by the time they warn the others, I’ll be long gone from here,” she retorted as she dashed down the hall. Along the way, she glanced over the railings to check to see if anyone notices. So far, so good.

    The Parasitic Duermon chuckled. “And then I’ll tell them where you are.” Sure enough, she heard shouts as the arriving Dalenthi coming her way. Before she could blink, a swarm of them blocked her way. “Looks like I win.”

    However, she just smiled.“You may be right for now, but let’s see if they can catch up.” Unfurling her wings, she leapt over the railing and flew down to two floors below. As she pulled her wings back, she looked up to see an angry mob yelling at her as they scrambled down the stairs. A bemused Alethea simply hurried out of the way as she continued to search for a way out.

    It didn’t take long for Alethea to hear another group of Shintra’s followers heading her way. “Seems like they caught up to you already,” Argus laughed. Shit! She needed to hide for now. The Aerian immediately tried the door nearest to her. Jangling at the knob, she was relieved to find the door was unlocked. She opened the door and ran inside before she shut it again and locked it.

    It wasn’t a moment too soon because she heard her pursuers ran by her hiding spot. The pounding of their footsteps matched the beating of her heart. Please don’t find me. Please don’t find me, she prayed as she waited with abated breaths. However, none of them stopped at the door, which meant that this group didn’t have anyone who specialized in detecting Aerians. After what it felt like an eternity, she no longer heard the pursuit, which caused her to breathe a sigh of relief. Nevertheless, she knew that her luck wouldn’t last long. Sooner or later, they’ll backtrack and discover her hiding place. With no other choice, she explored her new surroundings.

    The darkened room was empty of life. Usually, she would be thankful for that fact, but for some reason, it made her feel uneasy. Why was it so quiet in here? Alethea stopped for a moment to gather her thoughts. Hmm… if she remembered correctly, she flew down from the fourth floor, which would mean she was currently on the second level. And, based on what she’s seen so far, the majority of the Dalenthi live on this floor. Why did they avoid this room? If Argus knew, he refused to say. In fact, he hasn’t spoken at all since she hid. Now that she thought more about it, he didn’t tell the others her whereabouts either. But why?

    She found her answer soon enough. A low growl interrupted her musings, startling her. What was that? Looking around the room, the Aerian thought to herself, A dog? Why on Samara would Shintra keep a dog here? It didn’t make any sense to her; after all, only Lanskas has the ability to give commands to animals.

    Baffled, she decided to follow the sound. If it was a dog, then maybe she could use it to distract her pursuers. Tiptoeing carefully through the room, Alethea strained her ears in order to not to miss it. The growling continued as it got louder and louder. She licked her lips nervously. Whatever the creature was, he sounded dangerous.

    At last, her outstretched hand touched something cold and cylinder. A metal bar? She squinted her eyes to get a closer look. In front of her was a prison cell. It was still hard to make out who or what was in it, but the growling, which now stopped, was coming from there. Glancing back at the entrance of the room, Alethea stretched her hand and gathered some light from underneath the door. She then molded the wave of light into a small orb and turned her attention back to the cell.

    Despite the extra light, it was still difficult to see what was inside. In the back corner, there was a thick layer of straw with a thin blanket on top of it. A bowl full of water was nearby as well as what appeared to be some toys. However, she couldn’t find the source of the noise. Where was it hiding? Just then, quick movement caught the corner of her eye. Alethea quickly shone the light toward the direction just in time to see something lunging at her.

    “Ahhh!” she screamed, jumping out of the way in time. The creature slammed onto the prison bars, but that didn’t stop it from trying to latch onto her. Snarling, he kept stretching his arms out between the poles. The Ilmarian of Truth could only stare at it in amazement. What she thought was a dog was actually a human.

    The prisoner was an Isharan. His long, black hair was unkempt and went every direction. His bulging eyes were full of fury as he bared his teeth with spit flying everywhere. What used to be considered as clothes were now tattered and soiled. In fact, he reeked with the smell of urine and feces that she wanted to gag. Who on Samara was he?

    All of sudden, another door slammed open as another Dalenthi dashed into the room and lit up a lantern, temporarily blinding all in the room. “Xyrem, whatcha matter with you? I got your food right here,” he bellowed, showing a large bowl full of meat. He abruptly stopped when he saw her, and his eyes widened with recognition. “Hey, I know you! You pretended to be that mute boy, Talen!”

    That voice… Blinking, Alethea stared at the newcomer. “Hursa!?” she gaped, recognizing the traitorous former guard to the Idilyrian royal family. “What are you doing here? I thought you were dead!”

    Hursa chuckled. “Not quite. Actually, I joined Shintra after a few of us escaped. Speaking of which, remember him?” He tilted his head toward the cell. The prisoner was no longer growling. As a matter of fact, he was now panting and spinning on all four. “That’s Xyrem.”

    “Wait, the second-in-command to the Kasama?” She stared incredulously at him. That man who used to torment her was now acting like a docile pet. “What happened to him?”

    The Dalenthi didn’t answer. Instead, he went up to the cell, opened it up, and went inside. Xyrem followed him happily like a shadow and would sometimes jump on Hursa. “Now, you’ll have to wait,” Hursa admonished. “You’re going to make me drop the food all over the dirty floor.” A yipping Xyrem immediately went back on all fours. “Atta boy! Come on! Follow me for your meal!” As soon as Hursa reached the water bowl, he placed the bowl full of meat next to it. “Okay, now you can eat!” When he said those words, Xyrem pounced.

    The sight sickened Alethea. It was so strange to see the Velscendus Cult member act like a feral creature. Her hunch told her that Shintra was the culprit to Xyrem’s bizarre behavior; the Ilmarian of Souls would pull a cruel trick like that.

    Meanwhile, Hursa quietly exited the cell and locked it again. As he put the key back into his pocket, he turned to the Aerian. “As you might have guessed, Shintra did it to him. You see, when we escaped from fighting your colleagues, we got captured by his men and were brought before him. He immediately offered us a chance to serve him or face the consequence. Xyrem outrightly refused so Shintra… well, you see what happened. Of course, when we saw it, the majority of us agreed.”

    “So the only reason you joined Shintra was that you don’t want to turn into someone who believes he’s a dog?” He nodded, which infuriated her. “You’re a coward!” she accused him.

    Hursa shrugged. “Maybe, but what would you do in that situation? I doubt you would refuse his offer. But then, you’re in one right now, aren’t you? I know you don’t like it right now, but believe me, it’s better than being in Xyrem’s shoes. At least, you’ll get three square meals and a nice bed. And not to mention, since you’re Shintra’s girl, you’re going to get pampered.”

    “I’m not his girl!” she hissed. “Unlike you, I refuse to bow down to him. I’ll fight him to the end even if I turn out to be like Xyrem!”

    The Dalenthi let out a hearty laugh. “That’s the spirit! Show him your Aerian pride!” he said, clapping. His face became serious. “However, that won’t help you in the end. No matter how hard you’ll try, one day, he will win, and you will find yourself serving him like the rest.”

    Alethea became silent. Even though she hates to admit it, but Hursa was right. Shintra has her soul in his hand, and his magic was notoriously very powerful that few can resist it. “What would you do if you’re in my situation?” she whispered.

    He thought for a moment. “If I were you, I would just accept it. You can’t escape fate especially if you’re cornered, right?” She didn’t answer. Just thinking about reminded her of Shintra’s accusation about Kejuta. The Ilmarian of Fate wouldn’t force her to endure such a terrible destiny, would she? After all, she may have accidentally caused Alethea to suffer when she was young just to capture Shintra.

    Thankfully, Xyrem interrupted their conversation as he scurried to the cell door and barked. A bemused Hursa walked over and petted his head. “He’s nice once he gets to know you. The poor fellow is lonely, you know. No one really goes here to see him after all. I guess it’s because we don’t want to be reminded of what might happen to us if we somehow anger Shintra. Unfortunately, someone has to take care of Xyrem or otherwise, he would starve to death so guess who was brave enough to volunteer?”

    She was about to open her mouth to answer when thunderous footsteps coming from the hallway interrupted her. Before she could even blink, the door was broken down and a large number of Dalenthi flowed into the room, blocking her escape. “I guess they heard your scream and headed here,” Hursa said. He glanced at her thoughtfully. “Tell you what – let me escort you back to your place. They won’t dare lay a finger on you since they know who I am. In return, you promise that you won’t do any trick. Okay?”

    Eyeing the murderous crowd, Alethea realized that she has no choice. With a nod of her head, she reluctantly agreed.

    Dirtha 19, 2595

    Ever since she encountered Engum, Alethea knew that treacherous Duermon was waiting for the best opportunity to get her. Whenever she spotted him in the crowd of pursuers, she would evade him. It wasn’t because she was terrified of him; it was because he appeared to be in charge of all the Dalenthi who wanted revenge on her for killing their comrades. If he manages to catch her, Alethea knew that he would make sure her torment would be torturous. While she was prepared for ways to avoid him, she didn’t expect Engum to make a move.

    Maybe it was because she let her guard down, but he caught her when she least expects it. That day, Alethea decided to sneak out of her cage in the early morning (or what she perceived to be early morning since she wasn’t sure what the time or day for that matter was). She has reasoned that most of Shintra’s followers would be asleep by then, which would make it easier for her to search for the elusive needle ring. Of course, she continued to make several escape attempts throughout the day in order not to raise suspicions.

    As she lay in her bed, Alethea waited patiently for Argus to fall asleep. By then, most of his thousand eyes have closed shut, but she didn’t dare make a move lest she alerted him to her scheme. Instead, she just remained still and breathed slowly as if she was sound asleep. Come on. Close your eyes, she urged as the drowsy Parasitic Duermon stifled a yawn. The Aerian could hear him grumbling as he tried to stay awake, but it was to no avail. At last, she sensed Argus closed its final eye and became silent. Even though she was tempted to step out of bed, the Aerian refused to budge just in case her Duermon friend was pretending. After waiting for what seemed like hours, she finally made a move.

    Sitting up, she gently placed one foot on the floor and waited. Nothing. Good, Argus was dozing off then. Nevertheless, Alethea was still cautious. When she crept over to the door, she would stop every few steps to check on the Parasitic Duermon, who remained fast asleep. As soon as she reached her destination, she created a key and unlocked it. Now was the difficult part. Staring at the gate, the Ilmarian of Truth prayed that it wouldn’t squeak when she opens it. Otherwise, all her plan was for naught. Argus might wake up and alert Shintra’s men, ruining everything.

    Taking a deep breath, she pushed the door open and cringed when it made a soft squeal. Luckily for her, the only thing the Parasitic Duermon did was stir before going right back to sleep. Alethea exhaled. With that over, she could now continue her search. Determined, she tiptoed out of her prison.

    As she expected, it was mostly peaceful and quiet. Everyone was asleep in their quarters or preoccupied with something – or rather, someone. The Aerian blushed slightly when she heard moaning coming from one of the concubines’ rooms on the fifth floor. Based on what she heard, whoever was in that room was having a good time. Just thinking about it made her shudder. Would she act like that if she let Shintra have his way?

    Alethea shook her head. No, now wasn’t the time to think such thought. Right now, she needs to focus. Argus could wake up any minute now, and she needed him to be slumbering still. If everything goes according to plan, she would find the Dalenthi who has her needle ring and recover it. Then she would open a gateway back to Welvaria before Argus was aware of what was happening and warn the others about Shintra. At the same time, she also hopes that Aundra could help exorcise Argus out of her body as well as free her old friend from Shintra’s grasp.

    Ignoring the lovemaking, she hurried past the room and down the corridor. If she remembered correctly, the stairwells should be around the corner. The Ilmarian of Truth was about to round the corner when someone seized her by the hand and pulled her forward. It happened so fast that she was barely aware that a trio of Dalenthi was right in front of her. Before she could fight back, Alethea felt one of them tapped her chest as he whispered, “Dreine.”

    A tingling sensation spread throughout her body. Alarmed, Alethea tried to move but found it to be useless; for some reason, her body refused to budge. What did her captor do to her? Just then, she heard a voice that chilled her to her bones. “Surprised, Aerian?” Engum greeted her, stepping out of the shadow.

    The Ilmarian of Truth felt the blood drain from her face. “What did you do?” she whispered.

    “I bet you didn’t expect to be hit by that paralysis spell, huh?” he gloated. “Now you can’t use your mumbo jumbo on us to escape. I know what you did to Evanti earlier. Unlike Balster, I figure things out.”

    Even though she hated to admit it, Alethea knew what Engum was saying was true. Her hand was frozen in place so she couldn’t use any Thread of Lies to aid her. Her only hope now was to wake up Argus to alert Balster or Hursa to her situation. “Argus, wake up!” she pleaded. “I need help! Go get someone to save me! Engum has captured me, and I’m sure he’s up to no good.”

    Engum must have sensed what she was doing because he goaded, “Don’t bother telling Argus about your problem. It’s Balster’s turn to go out on a raid, and Hursa is busy running errands. There’s no one here to save you now. I guess you’ll just have to spend some quality time with me.”

    Alethea gulped. If what Engum was saying was true, then she was in trouble. “You wouldn’t dare hurt me. Don’t forget what Balster has told you! If Shintra finds out, he’ll let you have it!” she threatened.

    “The key word is being ‘if’,” he pointed out. The Dalenthi glanced over at the pair of doors close by and suddenly smiled at her. “Now that I think about it, you have been running raggedly a lot today. You know what you need? A bath.”

    Just as she was about to open her mouth to allow the water to gush inside her, Engum abruptly lifted her head up. Coughing, she barely heard an old woman shout, “If you dare dunk my daughter one more time, I’ll make sure you regret it, Engum!”

    Daughter? Did she hear that correctly? After being dunked so many times, Alethea was feeling woozy that she couldn’t focus. On the other hand, Engum growled, “Don’t think you can frighten me, Lunes! Do you think I’ll be afraid of an old hag like you?”

    At the mention of her guardian’s name, the Ilmarian of Truth perked up. Lunes was here? Most likely, the concubines must have alerted her to Engum’s action. Looking up, Alethea saw Lunes standing tall at the entrance with a handful of Ruschabels standing on either side. Even though it has been a long time since Alethea saw her, Lunes still left an imposing impression on her. Her white hair was still wound up in a tight bun, and her cream dress was immaculate. Her slightly wrinkled face has a stern expression as she stared defiantly down at Engum. However, something about her guardian’s appearance bothered her. Why does she remind her of Zentran?

    Lunes didn’t seem fazed by Engum’s taunts because she continued to glower at him. “Have you forgotten who you are dealing with? Or perhaps I should give you a reminder?”

    Alethea thought for sure that Engum would just shrug off Lunes’s threat because what could an old lady possibly do? Imagine her surprise when the Dalenthi turned pale before he composed himself. “Have it your way. I’m done with her anyway,” he declared and let her go before he gestured at his friends to leave.

    A still-paralyzed Alethea yelped as she splashed into the water, but fortunately, Lunes must have sent the Ruschabels to retrieve her before she drowns because they lifted her up and carried her to the pool edge. Her guardian didn’t waste time to see her. As soon as Alethea was placed gently on the ground, she rushed over and knelt down to see her. “Are you all right?” she asked, pulling the Aerian’s drenched hair away from her face while the human servants grabbed towels to dry her. A stunned Alethea could only nod as she was still coughing up water and trying to get some air. By now, the paralysis spell was losing its effect.

    Lunes must be pleased because she smiled though it quickly became a scowl. “That damn Shintra! How dare he didn’t tell me that you were awake! All this time, I've been keeping myself busy until then. When I see him again, I’m going to give him a tongue-lashing!” She paused for a moment to glare at Engum and the others, who ignored her, walking past them as they made their exit. Her face softened as she focused her attention on Alethea. “It’s all right, child. Engum won’t touch you again; I’ll make sure of it.”

    The Ilmarian of Truth stared at her, and she wondered how much she really knows about her guardian. Regardless, she was touched by Lunes’s concern for her. Her eyes were filled with worry and relief as she kept fretting over her. Despite everything that has happened, Lunes still loves her… Alethea’s smile faltered. Pushing her guardian’s hand away, she whispered, “Don’t.”

    Lunes looked at her, confused. “What’s wrong?” she asked, reaching her hand out to her again, but Alethea slapped it away.

    “Stop pretending!” the Aerian snapped. “Everything right now is fake! I know Shintra ordered you to ‘love me like a daughter’ so you can stop the act. You don’t care about me at all! I’m just another job for you like those other whores he keeps!”

    A look of pain flashed on Lunes’s face. Alethea thought for sure that she would have slapped her, but her guardian just stood up. Seeing Lunes towering over her, the Ilmarian of Truth winced. “Do you actually believe that I don’t care about you?” she began. “When you went missing that day, I begged Shintra to send his men to search for you. Hell, I even went out to look for you despite Shintra’s telling me not to bother. Every passing day, I pray that you were safe and sound. I also kept your room in good order just in case you come back. And, as soon as Shintra gave me word that he found you, I cried tears of joy knowing that you were all right even though you joined forces with our enemy. If that doesn’t show how much I love you, then what does? If you don’t believe me, ask the others.”

    Alethea shifted her feet as she looked down at the tiled floor. How was Lunes managed to make her feel like a child in spite of the fact she was a young woman? Regardless, she refused to be guilt-tripped. She was no longer that foolish girl, who gets easily persuaded. Looking up at Lunes, she declared through her clenched jaws, “I don’t care what you just said to me; that entire speech is just a part of your charade, and I refused to believe it.”

    Her guardian looked at her, disappointed. “I see that they have turned you against me in spite of everything I did for you.” Turning to the Ruschabels, she commanded, “Bring my ingrate daughter back to her room and provide her with new clothes. Since she wishes not to see me, I’ll let you take care of her while I attend to Shintra’s ‘whores’. At least they show me gratitude.”

    “Yes, ma’am,” they said as they lifted Alethea up to her feet. As they helped her walk out of the room, Alethea glanced over at her guardian, who refused to look at her though she thought she saw Lunes wiped a tear from her eyes. Seeing her like that caused the Aerian to feel horrible over her treatment. After all, Lunes did save her from Engum’s clutches. But at the same time, Alethea had a gut feeling that Shintra must have used his magic on the Dalenthi to force her to care for her like a mother. That would just confirm the fact that Lunes truly didn’t love her. But then, why does she feel so terrible?

    Dirtha 21, 2595

    Eager cheers alerted her that the Dalenthi must have spotted her. Cursing, the Aerian ran faster to increase the distance between her and her pursuers. She especially didn’t want Engum to catch her since he whispered into her ear about the “fun time” they had together, which she rather much forget. The longer the chase, the longer she could prolong getting caught. Already she could feel her heart pound faster just thinking about it. Shaking her head, she forced herself not to think about it and focused instead on getting away.

    Before long, she could hear all of the doors around her slammed open, telling her that they were closing in on her. Desperate, she looked up to the domed ceiling above, and a thought occurred to her - they would never expect her to go up. Unfurling her wings, she flew up just in time. Angry shouts below told her that she barely escaped her captors and looking down, she could see a swarm raising their arms at her. No doubt they were upset that they weren’t the one to catch her. Smiling a little, she ignored their curses and flew away.

    That feeling of euphoria didn’t last long. Someone slammed hard against her, causing her to lose her breath, and wrapped his arms around her. Dazed, it took her a second or two to notice that black wings engulfed her, which told her that Fallen had captured her. She started to struggle until she heard a familiar voice. “Stop it, Ressi. It’s useless.”

    Turning around, she looked at her former fiancé pleadingly. “Please, Mikhail, let me go,” she begged, hoping that she could somehow reach the part of his soul that wasn’t influenced by Shintra. “You know this isn’t right. The Mikhail I know would never allow this to happen. Don’t you remember that you promise to protect me from harm? So please help me.”

    For a moment, she thought she saw a flicker in his eyes as if he remembered their times together. Alethea held her breath and wondered if she managed to reach out to him. However, the look disappeared, dashing her hope. He gave her a serious but apologetic look. “I’m sorry, Ressi, but orders are orders. Lord Shintra asked us to bring you back, and I intend to obey it.”

    “Even if he tortured me!?” she screamed angrily, but he looked at her sternly.

    “That is your punishment for insubordination. He is our Supreme Commander after all, and you need to know your place. I know that it’s difficult to accept the fact that Duermon is leading us, but you need to learn to accept it. This is for your own good.” Shintra’s hold on Mikhail was too strong for her to break. Realizing that it was useless to reason with him, Alethea just slumped in his arms and became resigned to her fate. He must have noticed because he added, “Listen, if you agree to stay in your room and be more obedient, things will get better. Lord Shintra is an understanding and merciful man, but only if you let him be. Remember what our instructor used to say: an obedient soldier is a good soldier.”

    She didn’t bother responding to him and just watched silently as the crowd below made room for them to land in the center of the room. It was pointless persuading him. They landed on the floor with ease and waited in the middle of the crowd, who soon parted. Alethea thought for sure Balster would walk over to her and give her the usual talk; however, she was surprised to see a disapproving Shintra strolling down the aisle toward her. Was he back already? However, someone else also caught her attention. Noeth, who was wearing extravagant clothes, was walking beside the Duermon; the expression on his face was unreadable. “Noeth!” she screamed, struggling to break free from the Fallen’s iron grip. The Ankan didn’t react to his name though, and he continued to remain stoic. Nevertheless, she was somewhat relieved that he didn’t appear to be harmed in any way.

    “Don’t think he’ll help you out of this mess!” Shintra rebuked. He stopped right in front of her and shook his head. “I heard you’ve been causing trouble these past few days. Leaving your room without permission and making my men chase after you. Tsk, tsk. I thought you would know better,” he admonished. “Because of your antics, I had to cut short my visits. You know how irritating it is to reschedule? Now, what do you have to say for yourself?”

    The Ilmarian of Truth was about to make a retort when she stopped herself. Even though Shintra was bemoaning her rebelliousness, there was a twinkle of bemusement in his eyes. Does that mean…? She clenched her fists at that realization. That damned bastard! She fell into his trap. He knew all along that she would try to pull a stunt like this! She should have known he would figure out that she would try to escape while he was away. Why else would he tell her to stay in her room? He discerned that she would do the exact opposite and alerted his followers to her intention. If that so, then he also foresaw that she could use her magic on them, which begged the question: why did he still give her that ability?

    Annoyed, she shook Mikhail’s hands off her and glared at Shintra, who continued to give her that condescending look. “I’m going back to my ‘room’, and I don’t need a goddamn escort to follow me. I know where to go,” she snapped.

    Shintra simply raised his hands up and stepped aside so she could walk by him though it looked like he was trying hard not to laugh. With a huff, she stormed by him and headed up the stairs. She thought she heard some snickerings and muttering of “lovers’ quarrel”, which infuriated her more. Nevertheless, something else dawned on her. Now that she thought about it, it was pointless trying to search for a needle ring in a crowd of millions. Sneaking around and hoping to bump into someone who has it was a stupid idea. Looking back at the gathering behind her, Alethea wondered if she needs to think of another plan to escape.
     
    Last edited: Jul 8, 2017
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  7. Darky

    Darky The Red Spear

    英雄メンバー / Eiyuu Menbaa / Hero Member

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    I should really take a week or 2 to read this :hmm
    ..Once it is finished:heh
     
  8. riki

    riki Short and Sweet

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    LOL yeah, it won't be anytime soon :p
     
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  9. Darky

    Darky The Red Spear

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    But your stories are too good to forget with time;)
    I got plenty of years and I can wait reaaalllyy long
     
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  10. riki

    riki Short and Sweet

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    Chapter 30: Desperation

    “Will that be all?” Shintra asked. He lounged back in his black leather chair as he took a sip from his glass of red wine. Unlike him, his second-in-command refused to take a seat and relax. Instead, Balster stood next to the chair across from him. It didn’t make sense to the Ilmarian of Souls. Why calls it a sitting room if one doesn’t sit down?

    “I think so,” Balster replied. “There’s nothing else to report.”

    The immortal Duermon nodded and stood up. “Well then, if there’s nothing else, I better head out. I need to check on how the Eirenerdian region is doing, and I don’t want to keep them waiting.”

    “I understand.” The Dalenthi paused. “Uh, boss? What’s about Ressi? Do you want me to do anything with her?”

    “No, it should be fine with her now. I doubt she’ll try to pull another stunt like that anytime soon. According to Argus, she’s just sulking in her bed at this moment,” Shintra reassured him. He recalled her reaction when she realized that he had tricked her. Even though she hid it on her face, he could sense the shock and anger emanating from her soul. Just seeing her peeved look made him want to laugh though he had to restrain himself from doing so.

    Balster breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, that’s good to hear. It was getting annoying chasing after her.”

    “I can imagine. Although you should have told me earlier so I can deal with her behavior and nip it in the bud.” That was another reason the Ilmarian of Souls “encouraged” Ressi to escape; he wanted to see how long until anyone sent him to help. He was surprised that he didn’t get any messenger birds until two nights ago when Lunes sent him one, in which she complained that her daughter needed an attitude adjustment.

    His second-in-command shifted his feet as he scratched his head. “Well, you were busy meeting people that I didn’t want to disturb you. Besides, I thought I could handle her since I dealt with her before. Looks like I was wrong, I guess.”

    “Well, you’re not dealing with a powerless child anymore; she’s now a grown woman with dangerous powers. You of all people should know that by now,” he reminded him.

    “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. You don’t have to lecture me about it,” Balster grumbled.

    Shintra smiled. “No need to be grouchy, Balster. Anyway, I best get going! If another emergency comes up, let me know. Otherwise, just inform my assistant so he can deal with it.”

    He was about to leave when the Dalenthi cleared his throat, which stopped him in his track. “Speaking of your assistant, some of the men are upset over him.”

    The Ilmarian of Souls looked back. “Upset? Why should they be upset?”

    “Well…” Balster scratched his head. “They are wondering why you won’t let any of them possess him. They think he’s going to be a Ruschabel forever at this rate since it appears that you’re playing favorites. I understand their reasoning. I mean, he does have a healthy and strong body after all. Not to mention, it’s been awhile since we have fresh me-”

    “You will do no such thing!” Shintra interrupted. “If you or anyone dare try to possess Noeth Rasson, I’ll make sure you rue the day you were born!”

    “Jeez, you need to relax, boss! I was only telling you what the others were saying,” Balster protested. “I’ll tell the others what you told me, but what should I say if they ask why?”

    The Ilmarian of Souls hesitated. How could he tell his second-in-command that he was afraid of how the Lashival would react if he discovers that his brother was possessed? Balster may view him as weak! In turn, he’d lose support from his men. “If they ask, tell them I just say so!” he snapped.

    If the Dalenthi suspected something, he didn’t say. “If you say so,” he sighed, shrugging.

    “Now is there anything else?” Balster shook his head. “Good! Take care of things while I’m gone. Until then.”

    Without waiting for Balster’s response, he stormed out of the room.

    Ceza 2, 2595

    “And how’s the operation coming along?” Shintra inquired as he inspected the warehouse.

    Gravis, the Dalenthi in charge, rubbed his nose. He was a short and chubby middle-aged man who tended to sweat a lot, which was why he always carried a handkerchief. Of course, it didn’t help that they were in Ishara with its hot and arid climate. “It’s going pretty well, boss. Your merchandises have been shipped throughout the world. Luckily, no one suspects anything, but then it helped that the inspectors are one of us.”

    The Ilmarian of Souls nodded absentmindedly. Everywhere he looked, his men seemed busy. They packed the goods, which held Dalenthi inside, into wooden boxes. Afterward, they would load the crates onto wagons, which would then be sent to shipyards. From there, the crates would be loaded onto the ships, which would deliver their precious cargo to their unsuspecting victims.

    “How many shipments have you made so far?” he finally asked.

    “ I reckon we have over 25 million shipped so far,” the Dalenthi estimated. “Could be more or less though.”

    “And the earnings?”

    Wiping the sweat off his brows, Gravis answered, “Probably 45 million.”

    Shintra frowned. “That sounds rather low, don’t you think? I would think I would make a much larger profit.”

    “Well, you have to consider the costs of shipments as well a number of men I have to pay,” he pointed out.

    “True,” the Ilmarian of Souls muttered. Nevertheless, he still has his doubts. If Gravis was trying to hide some money from him… No, he won’t use his powers on such trifles; he could have someone else investigates for him. “Well then, I guess everything’s in order so I better let you go back to work. I’ll see you another time.”

    The Dalenthi nodded. “Until then.”

    As Shintra walked away, he noticed a messenger bird coming toward him. He stopped and waited for the bird to land and reveal its content.

    Shintra,

    I need to see you immediately.


    - Pen
    The Ilmarian of Souls looked at the note thoughtfully. It was unusual for Pendance to request to see him. Perhaps the young man was troubled by the allegations that he made about his girlfriend and seek his counsel. Shintra smiled recalling the anguish on the two lovers’ face at the meeting. If so, he better not keeps him waiting then. With the quick toss of the needle ring, he headed toward the meeting place.

    Imagine his surprise when he saw Kejuta and her two children waiting for him in Valendor. Shintra felt his muscles stiffened. The canister containing the Kasama’s soul was placed on the table in front of them. If she was here, it could mean two things: either she figures out what he’s been up to or she needs him for something. He highly doubted that it was the former, however, because he made sure to cover his tracks. But, just in case… “Don’t be alarmed, Shintra,” the Ilmarian of Fate said, motioning him to sit down. “We just want to talk.”

    Shintra relaxed and sat down across from them. “And what do you wish to talk about?” he asked, lounging back in his chair as if he has no cares in the world.

    Kejuta glanced over at her children before she returned her attention to him. “I was discussing with my children just now, and from what they told me, they have made little to no progress in finding a way to detect a Dalenthi’s soul. Pen told me what you said so-”

    “Oh, get on with it! I don’t have all day, you know,” he snapped.

    She gave him a reproachful look before she took a deep breath. “We have decided to let you examine the Kasama’s soul.”

    “Oh?” He arched his eyebrow and smirked. “Are you telling me that you’re allowing me to use my power on the Kasama’s soul? Tsk, tsk. You must be desperate, Kej.”

    He thought he saw her face twitch. “Are you willing to help or not? Because if you’re not interested, then this is a waste of our time.”

    “Of course I am! I would do anything to help you with this issue,” he protested, raising his hands. More like hinder you. “I assume you’ll have Aundra monitoring me as well?”

    The Ilmarian of Fate hesitated before she answered, “No. Let’s just say this is my token of my deep faith that you won’t do anything deceitful.”

    “I see.” Most likely, she’ll ask her children to inspect the soul afterward. He glanced around the room. “That reminds me. Where are your advisors? I half-expected them to be here with you since they always seem to be. Do they know about this?”

    “Not yet,” she admitted, shaking her head. “This was a sudden decision, but I’ll make sure to tell them afterward.”

    “I imagine that they’ll be displeased that you made this decision behind their backs,” he warned.

    Kejuta just shrugged. “I’ll deal with it when the time comes. Anyway, when do you like to start?”

    Shintra thought for a moment. “Would tomorrow be fine? I have something to do later today,” he said as he glanced down at Ressi’s soul cupped in his hand. It seemed that his scheme was going much better than he had anticipated.

    He was in a terrific mood when he returned to his bedroom. What an eventful week this has been! And to top it off, he managed to fool Kejuta into trusting him completely with the Kasama’s soul! When he sees Lunes, he’ll have to make sure to request one of the girls tonight. Humming a jovial song, he tossed his coat onto thesofa and headed toward Ressi’s room. Oh, he couldn’t wait to see the look on her face when he tells her the good news!

    As he slid the doors open, he came upon a sight. Lunes was berating Ressi, who was sitting at a small, round table; a tray of food sat on top of it. Two Ruschabels stood, stone-faced, close by. “You need to eat! You haven’t eaten for the past few days,” the old woman shouted. The Aerian, however, just looked away. Exasperated, Lunes was about to open her mouth again when she noticed Shintra watching from the door. With a huff, she stormed out of the cage and straight toward him.

    Before he could say a word, she vented, “I don’t know what to do with that girl! After you left again, she refuses to do anything; all she does is lay in bed.” In the distance, he noticed Ressi glancing over at them. Dread and nervousness emanated from her soul.
    “And you’re saying that she won’t eat either?” he asked. She nodded. “Let me talk to her.”

    While he walked toward the prison cell, the two Ruschabels strolled by him. One carried the tray of foods. The Ilmarian of Souls took a peek and noticed that the meal, which consisted of a slice of pork roulade stuffed with wild mushroom stuffing and roasted asparagus, was still piping hot. The fork and spoon, as well as the glass of water, were still in the same place, untouched. For some odd reason, something about that tray bothered him, but he couldn’t put a finger to it. However, he brushed it aside; it was probably nothing. Besides, his attention should be elsewhere.

    As soon as Ressi saw him approaching, she gave him a wary look. “What’s with that face? I would think you would be happy to see me especially since I got news for you.” She just stared at him before looking away, which caused him to sigh. “Giving me the silent treatment as well? I saw how you mistreated Lunes just now. She’s quite upset about it, you know.”

    “So?” she said, shrugging. “I know that it’s all an act so she can stop pretending.”

    Shintra crossed his arms and gave her a smug look. “Do you really think so?” he asked. “Did your ‘Threads of Lies’ tell you that, or did you assume it?” Her head spurned around as she looked at him, stunned. “I thought so. You shouldn’t base your assumptions on your biases. You of all people should know that especially since you spent your time with Argus. Lunes cares for you like a mother, and she still does. If you still refuse to believe it, then Lunes deserves a better daughter. I’ll let you dwell on that.”

    As he turned his back toward her, he said, “Oh, before I forget, I just meet up with Kejuta and…” His voice trailed off when it suddenly dawned on him why the tray of foods bugged him. It was the utensils! How could she eat the slice of meat without using a knife to cut it? If so, then where was it…?

    His eyes widened as he quickly turned around to see Ressi was lunging at him with the knife. It was a good thing that he moved in the nick of time because when he twisted his body, she struck his left shoulder instead of his chest. The Ilmarian of Truth cursed underneath her breath and slammed him to the ground. As he fell to the ground with a thud, he felt her climb on top of him and search frantically through his pockets. She’s looking for my needle ring, he realized. She must have realized that it would be easier to take his instead of searching for hers. He has to stop her! If she manages to find his needle ring and escapes, his plans would be ruined. Without thinking, he called out, “Argus, stop her!”

    Ressi abruptly sat up onto her knees and screamed out in agony as she clutched her chest; her eyes glowed a bright blue. Meanwhile, still-shocked Shintra pushed himself up to his elbows and stared at the sight in front of him. Who would have thought she would dare to pull a stunt like that? Bewilderment quickly turned into fury, however. How dare she try to make him look like a fool!

    Using all of his strength, he backhanded her, causing her to topple off of him. He then stood up and towered over her. She barely has a chance to look at him when he suddenly reached out and started shaking her. “Do you think you can escape from me?” he roared. Her eyes bulged with terror as she clawed at his wrists, which only further his anger more. Tightening his grip, he continued, “You can never escape! You belong to me no matter how hard you try to deny it. I’m going to drive that into your head until you learn to accept it. I’ll make sure of it!”

    During his outburst, he felt someone trying to pull him back, but he ignored them until he heard Lunes screaming, “Stop it! Stop it! You’re killing her!”

    Startled, he stopped what he was doing and saw what Lunes was saying was true – his hands were around Ressi’s neck. Her hands had slipped from his wrists though he could see the marks left by her nails. Her dark blue eyes have started to lose its vibrancy. Short wheezes came out of her throat as she desperately gasped for air.

    A horrified Shintra released his grip, and she collapsed onto the floor. He barely noticed Lunes pushing by him as she hurried toward her adopted daughter. “Are you all right?” she asked, wrapping her arms around Ressi. The Ilmarian of Truth, who was touching her neck, just nodded while gulping for air. The relieved Dalenthi sobbed as she continued to fret over her.

    Shintra watched the scene in complete silence while clutching his wounded shoulder. At last, he announced, “Lunes, I have a new order for you. From now on, Ressi is no longer allowed to have any utensils for her meals. Anything that needs to be cut will be cut beforehand. Do you understand?”

    “But how is she supposed to eat?” Lunes protested.

    “With her hands!” he snarled. “She should have thought of that before trying to kill me.” He glared down at the Aerian, who didn’t bother to hide her terror. “Don’t think you’ll get away with this! You’re going to learn a hard and valuable lesson about messing with me the next time I see you.”

    Then, without bothering to look back, he stormed toward his room. As soon as he slammed the door shut, he leaned against it and shuddered. That was the same way his mother died. Despite his efforts to suppress it, he could still remember the look on Magges’s face as she was strangled to death. It was similar to Ressi’s just now. Was he the same like his mother’s killer? For the rest of the night, he pondered that question while staring at his hands.
    --- Double Post Merged, Sep 3, 2017, Original Post Date: Aug 9, 2017 ---
    Chapter 31: Way of Thinking

    Ceza 9, 2595

    From high in her prison, Alethea could watch what happened below her. Based on the ruckus, Shintra’s men were having fun. Jubilant cheers and boisterous laughter informed her that Shintra’s men were getting drunk while watching each other fight in the battle arena. Meanwhile, Ruschabels nimbly went around the Dalenthi blocking their ways as they completed their duties. Just seeing the latter just frustrated her. All their lives, they believe that their only purpose is to be hosts to the Dalenthi. Even when she tried to convince them to think else wise, it was no use. They were too headstrong in their way to listen.

    However, her thoughts were elsewhere. “Just you wait until Shintra gets his hands on you. You’ll regret ever pulling that stunt,” Argus sneered. Alethea ignored his taunts, but it bothered her nevertheless. Whatever the Ilmarian of Souls was planning, it was going to be terrible. She was sure of it, especially after that debacle. After her failed attempt to seize his needle ring, she waited with dread for Shintra to come back. The Ilmarian of Truth subconsciously rubbed her neck and shuddered. He tried to kill her! Just thinking about that gave her the shivers. Who would have thought he would be capable of it? She never thought he was strong since the Duermon was never a fighter. Has she underestimated his prowess?

    The only visitors who came by her cell was the Ruschabels, who would come to deliver her foods or dress her. Lunes hasn’t stopped by though it didn’t surprise her. The day after the incident, she could hear the old Dalenthi and Shintra getting into a spat over her; their screams could be heard through the closed doors. Lunes was arguing that the Ilmarian of Souls was being too harsh while the Humanistic Duermon countered that she should mind her business. In the end, Shintra must have won because Alethea hasn’t seen her guardian since then. Most likely, he used his powers to force Lunes into submission.

    Nevertheless, she wished that her guardian was here. Staring at her hands, she recalled when Shintra pointed out that her power didn’t indicate that Lunes was lying when she said that she cares for her. Even though she hated to admit it, he was telling her the truth – Lunes did love her as a daughter. When she realized it, the Aerian felt guilty for treating the Dalenthi so harshly. A part of her wishes to apologize for her behavior, but at the same time, her pride won’t let her. Besides, Lunes was one of the Ilmarians’ enemies.

    After a few more minutes of people watching, she had enough. Looking at the hopeless scene below her only reminded her of her predicament. Sighing, she began to turn around when she gave a start. A bemused Shintra stood at the door of her cell. How long was he standing there? “I was wondering when you would notice me,” he said, smiling.

    The Aerian felt the blood in her body turn cold. If Argus was his normal self, he would have alerted her to that bastard’s presence. She hated to admit it, but she has depended too much on the Parasitic Duermon. Gripping the bars behind her, she braced herself for one of his magic attacks before she demanded, “What do you want?” Despite her defiance, her voice sounded shaky, and her body trembled slightly. Has that incident terrified her that much?

    “Is that how you greet your benefactor?” Shintra asked and motioned her to come with him. “Come. I’m going to take you for a little walk.”
    She narrowed her eyes. Was this a trick? “And if I refuse?” she challenged though her voice was cracking in the end.

    The Ilmarian of Souls gave her a knowing look. “Then I’ll just have to force you,” he replied and lifted up his hand, which she knew hold her soul. “So what will it be? Hm?”

    Staring at his cupped hand, Alethea knew that she has no other choice. With great reluctance, she let go of the bars and went with him.

    “I’m so sorry that it took a while. You see, I was busy fulfilling my obligations,” Shintra began as they strolled down the hall.

    Alethea didn’t answer. As she followed him down the stairs, a thought occurred to her – she could easily ambush him from behind and try to seize his needle ring again. None of his bodyguards were accompanying them, and they were all alone right now. This was a perfect opportunity. Shintra must have read her mind because he abruptly announced, “Oh, don’t even think about doing that. I didn’t bother to bring my needle ring with me. Besides, you know what happened the last time you tried it.”

    Her face turned pale as memories of being strangled flashed into her mind. A cold shiver ran down her spine just remembering it. Quickly changing topics, she crossed her arms and asked, “Where are you taking me?”

    He smiled. “You’ll see,” was all he said.

    Along the way, they bumped into some of Shintra’s followers, who greeted their leader wholeheartedly while scrutinized her. She scowled at them. No doubt they have heard what happened and knew what Shintra was planning. Either that or they were ogling her due to her drop-waist dress that barely covers her butt. “What is with that face, Ressi? You should take it as a compliment that they’re admiring your body,” the Duermon teased. She glared at him and then tugged on the hem of the pale pink dress. He just laughed, which infuriated her even more.
    They just arrived on the first floor when a portal appeared in front of them. Soon, a group of Dalenthi emerged bringing back human prisoners from one of their raids. “Yo, boss! We got some fresh meat for ya!” one of them shouted.

    Shintra turned to her. “Wait here. It shouldn’t last long,” he instructed her before he proceeded toward the group. She was about to object when she felt the cool sensation piercing her soul while his order echoed in her mind. Before she knew it, she obediently stood in her place and could only watch helplessly as her captor sauntered over to the crowd. While he walked back and forth to examine the captives, he commented, “I see that the raid has been successful, Renv.”

    “You said it! Fifteen healthy men, women, and children at your service,” Renv beamed. “And I think there’s a cute girl or two who would make a great addition to your harem.”

    “I think you’re right,” he said, stopping in front of two young women comforting each other. Their cheeks were wet with their tears as they looked fearfully at him. He smiled and lifted his hand, causing them to gasp. “You two look lovely. How would you like to serve me as one of my concubines?”

    Their hazel eyes aglow, they stood up and looked up at him with adoring eyes. “We would be honored to serve you, Lord Shintra,” the oldest one said, curtsying.

    “I know you would.” He then turned to a Dalenthi and ordered, “Take them to Lunes so she could prepare them for me tonight.”

    “Yes, sir,” his follower replied and led the now-enthralled women up the stairs. As the three of them climbed up the stairs, a middle-aged man started screaming and tried to claw his way toward them.

    “Eltha! Gwenna!” he shouted, but the two ignored him as they continued to climb up the stairs. He kept shouting their names but stopped when he locked eyes on Alethea.

    “An Aerian? Here?” he breathed. His face then distorted with rage while he waggled his finger accusingly at her. “Why are you standing there!? Isn’t your kind supposed to protect us? Why aren’t you stopping that fiend from taking my daughters away? What’s wrong with you!?”

    The Ilmarian of Truth could only clench her fists and didn’t answer. Before long, the others joined in on the attacks. “Yeah, what’s wrong with you? Are you some sort of idiot? Why aren’t you saving my sisters? Are you defective or what? No wonder your people died!”

    Biting her lips, Alethea shut her eyes and looked away. She wanted to tell them that she wants to help but couldn’t due to Shintra’s interference. However, she knew that they wouldn’t believe her; the look on their faces told her that. Instead, she remained silent, cursing the Duermon for her troubles. That damned Shintra! If it wasn’t for him, she could have prevented this from happening. Because of him, she has to endure this abuse.

    “That’s enough!” Alethea opened her eyes to find the Ilmarian of Souls glaring at the men, whose eyes were now aglow. With his back toward her, he continued, “I won’t let you abuse my pet like that! You should be ashamed of yourself. Acting like fools! Now go! Make yourselves useful by becoming hosts to my men.”

    “Yes, my lord. We humbly apologize for our actions,” the men mumbled, bowing their heads before heading off in the other direction with the rest of the Dalenthi.

    Shintra watched them for a moment before he turned around and strolled up to Alethea. “You’re crying,” he said, wiping the tears from her cheeks. She blinked, surprised. Was she that upset that she didn’t notice? “I’m sorry that you had to go through that. Humans are so unreasonable sometimes. Don’t you think? Expecting you to solve everything for them, and bitching and moaning when you don’t do things to their liking! It must be hard for you.”

    She slapped his hands aside and snarled, “Hard for me? I don’t blame them one bit for being angry! You’re the one who forced me to stand there like an idiot while you just took away their daughters and sisters right in front of them. How are they supposed to react? Be fine and dandy about it? I’m supposed to protect them from something like that. Now they think I’m in cahoots with you!”

    The Ilmarian of Souls just chuckled as he stroked her hair. “Is this how you repay your defender? Although I have to admit that you look adorable when you look that way.”

    Hearing those words made her blood boil. “Defending me!? When did you ever defend me?” she nearly shrieked.

    “Just now and from some of my men,” he said simply.

    “Since when? If I recall correctly, you did nothing.”

    “Not quite. I did warn you to stay in your quarters, which you didn’t listen. Remember?” he pointed out. “And I made sure that you’re safe while I was gone; I had Balster keep an eye on you though he wasn’t pleased about it. Not that I blame him. It’s not supposed to be his job to babysit you.”

    “And I should be grateful? I bet my life you told them to do it!”

    Shintra scoffed, “Please! Why should I hurt someone who’s precious to me?”

    “You should have thought of that when you strangled me,” she snapped. As soon as she said that, she felt Shintra’s hand tensed up against her face. At that moment, she didn’t care if Shintra did anything to her. If he tries to kill her, so be it. It’s better than being humiliated.

    The Duermon looked at her coldly. “You gave me no choice. You tried to kill me so I had to defend myself. It was a good thing I did because who knows what would happen to you afterward? Besides, you need me.” Before she could demand what he meant by that, he walked away. “We’re wasting time here. If you want to continue to make a scene, go right ahead. As for me, I’m not going to wait for you to finish your tantrum.”

    She was about to retort that she wasn’t throwing a tantrum but stopped herself when she noticed that everyone was staring at her and whispering to each other. Her face burned a bright red, but she kept her head high. She’s not going to let them know that she was bothered by their reactions. Clearing her throat, she trudged after the disappearing Shintra.

    They walked in silence the rest of the time. The only sound came from the battle arena, where they could hear the audience cheered and the fighters clashed against each other. Based on the noise level, they were probably on the same floor as the fighting ground. “We’re almost there,” Shintra announced as they passed through a metal gate leading to the arena.

    Alethea looked at him incredulously. “You’re forcing me to fight?”

    “Of course not!” he said, shaking his head. “Unless you want to participate; I can easily arrange it. There’s something else I want to show you.”

    A part of her wanted to ask him what it was, but she stopped herself. Something told her that she wasn’t going to like it. Instead, she asked, “What do you mean back there?”

    “What do you mean?” he wondered, confused.

    “When you said that I need you,” she replied. “I don’t see how that could possibly be true.”

    “Oh, that.” He nodded as he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Think about it. At this very moment, you’re surrounded by several Dalenthi; some of whom wishes nothing but harm toward you. The only reason they don’t dare do anything is me. They know that I control their fates so they don’t want to risk it. Without me, there is no one strong enough to keep them in check.”

    “You’re delusional! I can easily defend myself,” she snorted.

    “And how did it turn out when you found yourself incapacitated by Engum and his supporters?” He smirked at her. “I thought so. That’s why you need me around. If anything happens to me, then there is no one else to save you.”

    “That still doesn’t mean that I need you!” she argued. “Why should I trust you anyway? At least I know that I can depend on the others!”

    He chortled, “Why? Have they ever do anything for you in return? Not once did I see them do things for you! Besides, why should you be their hand maid without expecting anything in return?”

    She vehemently shook her head. “So what? I don’t do anything in hope of getting rewarded!”

    “Why not? Why shouldn’t you be rewarded for your actions?” he countered. “You’re too noble for your own good if you ask me. Always doing things for others. Why should you do something for yourself for a change?”

    The Aerian cringed. She hated to admit it, but the Duermon was right – never once did she do something for herself. It was always for Kejuta and the other Ilmarians. Nevertheless, she stared defiantly at the Ilmarian of Souls. “It’s because I’m not an opportunistic like you!”

    “I rather see it as getting what I deserve,” he replied dryly. He flipped his long hair flippantly. “And at least, I’m being true to myself – unlike you.”

    “Excuse me?”

    “You know exactly what I mean, my dear,” Shintra said, walking up to her that they barely touch. “You suppressed everything: your thoughts, your emotions, your desires – everything! Not once did I ever hear you tell anyone what you want! It’s as if you’re afraid that people will disapprove if you decide to be selfish.”

    The Ilmarian of Truth gave him a level stare. “You don’t know anything about me so don’t you dare try to preach me.”

    “Believe me. I know more things about you than you do,” he taunted. “But don’t you worry. I’ll fix that problem of yours, and you’ll thank me for it. I’ll make sure of it.”

    “Over my dead body,” she growled. He just chuckled as he turned to walk away. Grumbling under her breath, she had little choice but to follow him into the darkened tunnel.

    Before long, they arrived in a dimly-lit room. “Ah, we’re here!” Shintra proclaimed, extending his arms to the air as he walked toward the middle of the room.

    Wrapping her arms, Alethea glanced around the room. The surrounding walls each have three large prison cells. Based on the rumbling above them, they must be below the coliseum. “Where are we?” she wondered.

    Instead of answering, the Duermon just kept on walking toward one of the cells. “Have you ever wondered what happens to the losers after they lost their match in the coliseum?” He opened the door and lit up the lantern in the cell, revealing Engu chained to the wall. “Well, this is where they go.”

    Alethea’s mouth dropped. “What did you do to him!?” she gasped. She could barely recognize the Dalenthi. His face was bloodied, and it looked like he lost an eye. Gashes of various sizes were all over his body. Low moans came out of his mouth.

    “Hmph. I did nothing to him,” the Ilmarian of Souls rebuked. “After I found out what he did to you, I forced him and his fellow conspirators to fight to the death in the arena. It seems that his so-called ‘friends’ rather have him died than them. Oh, and you’re welcome.”

    “But I never wanted him to suffer like this!” the Aerian protested.

    Shintra kissed his tongue. “Why should you care? He didn’t care about hurting you. You’re too kind-hearted to your enemies sometimes; that’s another thing that I need to readjust for you, but I’ll deal with that later. Right now, there’s something I have to do first.”

    Strolling over to the Dalenthi, he greeted, “Hello, Engum. I hope you’ve learned your lesson.”

    Engum slowly turned his head and looked at the Ilmarian of Souls. “Fuck you,” he spat.

    “Is that how you greet your leader? But I’m going to ignore it for now because I’m here to make you an offer.”

    “Oh yeah? And what’s that?”

    “As you probably figure out, you’re dying. However, I can fix that for you, but only in one condition – are you willing to serve me faithfully again?” Shintra offered.

    The Dalenthi didn’t answer as he thought for a moment. Finally, he declared, “I rather go to hell than be one of your lapdogs again.”

    “I see,” Shintra said, nodding his head. He slowly raised his hand; Engum wheezed as his eyes began to glow. “If that’s the case, then…” With any warning, he cupped his hand into a fist. When he did that, Engum’s body jerked up before it slumped down – dead. “…I’ll gladly send you straight there.”

    Alethea screamed. Her mind could barely comprehend what just happened. One moment, Engum was alive; the next, he’s dead. A horrible thought then dawned on her. He killed him by crushing his soul. Would I be next?

    So terrified was she that she didn’t notice Shintra was standing in front of her until he grabbed her arms, which stunned her into silence. “You can stop screaming now. You’re scaring the other disloyal followers when you do that,” he scolded. “Now then, was that traumatizing to you?”

    “You killed him,” she could barely whisper.

    He shrugged. “So what if I did? He refused my generous offer so the best thing I could do was give him a swift and painless death.”

    “By crushing his soul!?” she retorted.

    “And? Less risk of having anyone betraying me to Kejuta.” He suddenly grinned. “How else do you think I was able to evade getting caught?”
    Her eyes widened at the realization. “Wait, you’re saying that you-”

    “Personally kill anyone who risks exposing me? Yes,” he finished. “As a matter of fact, every Dalenthi now has a spell incorporated in their soul so if they get killed, their souls will explode. That way, they won’t be able to enter Valendor, and then Pendance won’t be able to access their memories to alert his mother dearest. It took a while, but I finally perfected it.”

    The Ilmarian of Truth glared at him. “You’re a monster!”

    Shintra chuckled. “You think so, hm?” He cupped his hand, and Alethea felt a slight tingle. “I wonder what would happen if I crush your soul? So fragile, so delicate.”

    “Don’t,” she gulped.

    He placed his hand down and smiled as he caressed her hair. “I was teasing you. Now then, since you’re uncomfortable here, let’s move to another cell. Shall we?”

    Before she could even blink, she felt his arm wrapped around her waist as he led her away. As they exited the cell, she glanced back one last time. The image of Engum’s bloodied corpse hanging on the wall was engraved in her mind.

    They entered the next cell, which was thankfully empty. “Let’s stay here until you calm down,” Shintra suggested as he sat down on a bench.
    “Am I going to stay here for the rest of my duration as your prisoner?” she snorted.

    The Duermon gave her an amused smile. “You’re not my prisoner, Ressi. You’re my subordinate. Remember? And to answer your question, you’re going to stay here for a little bit.”

    “First of all, my name isn’t Ressi; it’s Alethea. Second, I don’t recall ever agreeing to work with you, and third, what do you think you’ll accomplish by having me stay here? That I’ll beg you to bring me back to my gilded prison?” she said, crossing her arms.

    Shintra slapped his knees and laughed. “And you claim that I’m delusional. As the Ilmarian of Truth, you’re not being true to yourself. Why do you keep denying the truth even though it’s right in front of you?”

    Alethea fumed as she glared at him. She wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction by answering his stupid question! She knows that he was just trying to aggravate her. Shintra must have thought he had stumped her because he gave her a smug look, which gave the sudden urge to punch him in the face.

    Just then, they heard thundering footsteps heading their way. Both of them glanced at the door as two strong Ruschabels brought in another victim of the battle arena. Unlike Engum, this one wasn’t as severely injured. Nevertheless, he was mortally wounded; a stab wound was on the left side of his body. “My lord, we brought in an injured Dalenthi like you asked,” one of them said, bowing his head.

    “Thank you. You may leave now,” Shinra replied, dismissing them with his hands. They bowed before they took their leave.

    As Shintra stood up and walked over to the injured man, Alethea asked, “Are you going to kill him like you did to Engum?”

    “Not yet. It depends on his answer.” Kneeling down, he informed the Dalenthi, “You’re dying. However, I can fix that for you in one condition: are you willing to serve me with another purpose?”

    The possessed man looked at him. “I’ll do anything,” he replied.

    Shintra nodded, satisfied. “Good choice. Here is what I need for you to do.” The Ilmarian of Souls pulled out a knife and slit the palm of his hand. Pressing down on his injured hand so a gush of blood came out, he tipped his hand and ordered, “Drink this.”

    “What are you doing!?” an alarmed Alethea demanded. “Don’t you remember how the Shuryvals are a threat to us?”

    She attempted to rush over to stop this madness, but Shintra pointed at her with his free hand. “Stay where you are,” he commanded, and she felt her body abruptly stopped. “I won’t have you interfered with this process. Argus, make sure she’s compliant.”

    “Yes, my lord,” she heard the Parasitic Duermon said. Alethea could only watch helplessly as the Dalenthi drank Shintra’s blood like he was dying of thirst. After a few minutes, the possessed man collapsed on the ground while Shintra grabbed his handkerchief and cleaned up his bloodied hand.

    Walking over to Alethea, he simply said, “And now we wait.”

    She watched the Dalenthi with anxious dread. Based on what Aundra had told her, it was going to be a slow and painful process. Sure enough, the Ilmarian of Magic was right. At first, the man just laid on the ground, moaning. All of a sudden, he started to writhe in pain. His body then went into convulsions as his limbs began to bend in an awkward direction. He abruptly shrieked as his back arched upward. His head tilted back, and black ooze emerged out of his eyes, nose, and mouth. Before long, the goop was coming out of every orifice as it slowly wrapped around the Dalenthi’s body.

    Once the body was completely covered, the Dalenthi then stood on his knees, or rather… The ooze is controlling the body, Alethea realized. It’s now transforming the body into something else right now.

    The black goo began to increase in size so that it was as tall as the vaulted ceiling. It then focused on taking shape. A spiked lizard head with a long neck first appeared; its eyes were still closed. While its arms were elongated and thin, it has short, stubby legs, which cradled its swollen dark gray belly.

    No one spoke at first until Shintra announced, “It seems like its transformation is completed. Let’s have a look. Shall we?” She refused to budge so he shrugged. “Or not. You can stay there while I check.”

    As he strolled over to the newly-born Shuvyral, Alethea was positive that the monster would wake up and attack him. After all, it now craves their blood to ease its pain. An obvious Shintra stopped in front of the creature and simply said, “Wake up.” It stirred and opened its green jeweled eyes. Imagine her surprise when instead of attacking the Duermon, the Shuvyral just bent its head and let him pat its head though it let out a low growl.

    She must have shown it because Shintra said, “Amazing, isn’t it? I bet you never expected that.”

    “How is it possible?” she breathed. “I thought they’re supposed to attack us!”

    “Naturally, but it seems that they’re not immune to my power,” he explained, still stroking the Shuvyral’s head. “Of course, I found out accidentally when I was doing a little experiment. Now I’ve been using them for my own purpose. As a matter of fact, I have six of them right now.”

    Dread filled her up. “Are you planning to use them against the others?” she ventured.

    Instead of answering, he sauntered over to the cell door and looked around. Wary, she turned her head to follow his every movement; he’s up to something but what? “Only a few people know about this place so you should feel honored,” he said but added, “Or not. You see…” Just then, one of the Shuvyral’s tendrils grabbed her ankle and slammed her into the ground, causing her to see stars. “This is also a place where anyone who dares defy me.”

    As the Shuvyral started to drag her toward it, an alarmed Alethea looked back to discover its belly was now opened. It occurred to her then that the monster was going to swallow her. Now panicking, the Aerian tried desperately to claw her way out to no avail. More tendrils came out of its stomach and latched onto her, pulling her farther away. “Nnh!” she cried, stretching her hand but grasping nothing but air.

    During the ordeal, Shintra watched in total silence. However, his eyes twinkled with delight. At last, he sauntered over to her and explained, “Since Kejuta forced me to remove the loyalty and obedience command on my men, I had to find another way to ensure I have loyal followers, and I have found a way. When I offered my blood, it seems that the Shuvyrals have gained my powers so now I can use them to influence my men. If anyone is being unruly, I simply send them down here, and by the time, they come out of the Shuvyrals, they’re more willing to work with me.”

    He then knelt down so he could look at her straight in the eyes. “You see, I’m going to change your way of thinking. By the time the Shuryval is finished with you, you’ll be more agreeable with my point of view and helps me with my plans. Until then, enjoy your stay.”
    “You-!” Alethea started to shout when she suddenly felt herself getting yanked into the Shuvyral’s stomach. As she landed in the soft and slimy goo, more of its tendril began to wrap around her body. “No!” she screamed, trying to desperately pull them off her. However, they latched onto her like leeches and refused to let go.

    Just then, she noticed the light was dimming and looked up to see the monster closing its belly. It’s going to trap me in here, she realized. The Ilmarian of Truth forced herself up as she tried to escape, but the tendrils held their grip on her, refusing to budge. The only thing she could do was to stretch out her arm as the Shuvyral closed its stomach. The last thing she saw before she passed out was a gloating Shintra.

    By the time she woke up, she found herself surrounded by darkness. Where was she? Her head pounded as she groggily tried to recall what happened. Alethea went to touch her head she noticed black tendrils were wrapped around her arm. Alarmed, she glanced down and saw that her entire body was covered by those things; the only place was untouched was covered by her clothes.

    That was when she remembered. She was inside the Shuvyral! Trying to remain calm, she decided to look around her surrounding. It was difficult for her to move her arms and legs since she was surrounded by ooze; it was like moving in thick mud. Surprisingly, she could easily breathe and see though it took her a second for her eyes to adjust.As she looked around, something caught her eyes.

    The skin of the belly was translucent, allowing some light to shine through. Maybe I can escape from there, she thought and swam over there. Pressing her fingertips on the surface, she found it to have a flexible and elastic texture. She took a deep breath and hit it as hard as she could. However, it didn’t budge. Undeterred, she tried again, but the same thing happened. After several attempted, she felt exhausted. No matter how hard she kicked and hit it, the skin refused to break open.

    Just then, she noticed a blurry figure was standing in front of her. Despite the hazy view, she knew that it was Shintra; he was the only one with long, green hair and green eyes that shine like an emerald. All of a sudden, she heard his voice speaking in her head though, for some reason, she somewhat knew it was the Shuryval who was speaking. “I see that you woke up,” he said. “Good. That means that the fun can begin.”

    Before she could react, she felt excruciating pain throughout the body. Her veins felt like it was on fire and she wanted to scream in agony. Through her watery eyes, she noticed that the tendrils were pumping something inside her body. “No!” she groaned as she made one last attempt to escape. She lunged her hand into the Shuryval’s skin and watched helplessly as it stretched. Her fingertips barely touched Shintra’s face.

    “Don’t do that, Ressi. Be a good girl and relax,” Shintra admonished. When he said that, Alethea felt the tendrils pumped more of its poison inside her. Instead of feeling pain, she suddenly felt relaxed. At that moment, she didn’t have an urge to leave this comforting place. “That’s right. Just close your eyes and let the Shuryval do its job.”

    She nodded and slowly closed her eyes halfway. Feeling content, the Ilmarian of Truth hugged her knees close to her body as she allowed the tendrils pulled her back. As her back pressed against the belly’s wall, she kept looking right in front of her. A blurry Shintra still stood in front of her. For some reason, she has a feeling that he was mocking her, but she didn’t care. Right now, all she wanted to do was sit there and listen to whatever the Shuryval has to say. “Now then, shall we begin?” it asked in Shintra’s voice as it forced more of its venom inside her.
     
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