It was a Tuesday, and the ground was very wet, like a padding of mossy dirt covered by the trampled sprigs otherwise dry and water-saving grasses always is after a large downpour. As a matter of fact, the rainy day had not turned fully into a sunny one, nor had the clouds been wafted away, in the manner of clouds, by a swift wind either from the east or the south– for it was a northern wind that had brought the contents of the storm, and a westerly wind that shook loose the wetness. There would have been no sense for a northerly or westerly wind to clean up there own mess, and so the clouds, though they had been dark and brooding over the night, remained sturdy and gray, hanging there above the landscape. A drizzle remained for as long as the clouds held their place above the earth, and that healthy drizzle was neither unpleasant nor unwanted, especially by rural farming communities in the area who had, over the course of time, been hardened to the cold and the wet. Such people were able to go about their business amidst the comparatively cheering sprinkle, a mere aftermath of a passed storm.
The terrain that had been affected was a wide swathe of land, a veritable cornucopia of healthy young greenery that lived alongside the wild hay fields of the region; how these wild hay fields were able to survive with the frequent and very beating rains of the area was unknown to the seasonal harvesters, but appreciated nonetheless. In the distance, a few peaks of daunting height rose in the north, and in the west a chain of greater proliferation but unarguably lesser reach stretched in a scattered and curved line that, at its farthest northern border, was able to touch the foothills of the few northern mounts. To the east, a sea; unnamed to the inhabitants, it was a salty inland ocean to the farmers and men of millwork who lived in their townships, who would have remained undisturbed but for their magnificently large access to perfect milling creeks and rivers. However, because the milling work of this area was year-round, unlike their farming labors and the tending of their very good horses– their horses, during the rainy winters, were as native to the western mountains of lush green grass– and, because their millwork was year-round, there was constant plenty for the people, and they were able to import the wood they were not able to attain from natural growths in their fertile place.
To the south was The Kingdom. Not truly apart from this kingdom, the townships of the region were largely self-sufficient, trading eagerly with the townships of other regions that, like themselves, were ever-eager to maintain their independence; it was a well-known that the king had no interest in conquests, and therefore only intervened when he believed that peoples were downtrodden and living in unfortunate circumstance. Due to this, the various regions were left to their own devices. Only the currency of The Kingdom was something to be used in this region, for all else came not from the scope-spanning breadth of that southern empire, but from close relations between tribes of friendly "barbarians", as those in the lower country referred to their northern neighbors, though not without fondness.
On a hillock, surrounded by the comforting amount of dryness provided by a small patch of bracken that had shed much of the water from the rains of a whole week prior, a small, wet fire had been set. Though it was a small fire, the smoke it gave up from its lush fuel was not small in the least, and would be clearly visible for a furlong or more, even in the weighting and dispersing effect of the drizzling; this furlong would lengthen to a mile, had it been merely a day of overcast clouding, or even many miles had it been a clear and crisp day. As it was, it mattered not to the person who had kindled the small but warm blaze.
Solomon Marcenii sat– or, rather, knelt warily above the vaguely discomforting mush of the soil underneath– before his kindly little blaze, enjoying the heat from it in silence as he ate from a loaf of oat bread and drank from a pottery bowl he had heated over his fire. The comforting silence was not so tense as a casual onlooker might think, for the scene would actually have been quite sobering to the denizens of those parts: a tall man by their standards, and wearing a very large and mysterious mantle of durable brown, he would most likely have been construed as something he was not, perhaps a wandering warrior. Wandering warriors were plentiful in such a region, as it was a very fertile place that appeared beautiful both from afar and up close, pleasing to the eye and to the nose, for there was always a waft of good-smelling greenery about the place. Also, it was very often pleasing to the purse, for someone could bring with them an easily-gotten cartload of wood and go away with twice what it was worth down in the south, though such a price was never so large that a native could not or would not pay it. Tactile senses were the only senses unchanged between the south and the lush north; in the south, they felt the coarseness of the earth, of the wood, and they disliked it. In the north, they felt the sogginess of the earth, and when they reached out to lean against the familiar sturdiness of a tree, there was none to be found, not even a branch.
Despite all the wandering warriors that deviated from their lives to seek solace in the north, that was not the reasoning behind Solomon coming thence. Where his feet took him, there he walked. Where his eyes looked, there his feet would trod. In this way he was very little different from wandering warriors, for they also went upon their feet and wandered where their eyes desired to canter. However, Solomon had no higher purpose, or any purpose at all for that matter. A warrior commonly sought out those he could help or pillage or capture or revenge themselves upon, whereas the ex-legionary who stooped before his fire was intent upon nothing, and indeed thought very little about one thing or another. Cursed he was, almost, with a brand of oddity that seldom occurs naturally; it may not have occurred naturally in his own case, but he would not know that if one were to ask him. His oddity was such that he was not truly insane, for he was capable of human thought and deed, and no the worse for ware if those who passed him by remained content to do simply that and, from then on, give him no more thought; if he did come into contact with others, it was even then very rare that he would come across as more than a brooding and cold-hearted man who had nothing better to do than speak in riddles. The truth of the matter was that he could not speak intelligibly at all, perhaps because he could not think intelligibly either.
Whatever the case may have been, there he stooped, tending his fire with wet bracken, minding no business but his own, whatever that business may have been. The bread disappeared slowly, chewed methodically as if he enjoyed it a great deal more than he was capable of doing, and the water washed it down only after he had taken his fill. Then he sat tending the fire, doing nothing. For this was his way: to do nothing.
Another fine mess I've found myself in, the ice innate groaned to himself as he looked over the endless green of this land that he found so repulsive. I guess it is worth it. If I spend enough time around this guy, I'll learn the secret to his powers and become more powerful then him in no time, the swordsman told himself, looking at the man that had brought him out here. Why me? he asked himself, thinking back on how the man had easily convinced him to tag along, promising the boy that the adventure would be a good way for him to become stronger.
Zachary hated the grass, the rain, the vegetation and especially the man that had dragged him here. Far away from the ice, snow and tundra that the ice warrior considered home, this winter of this strange land held only disdain for the boy. He had always preferred the silence and ever looming sense of death one finds in frozen areas and mountains to the life giving areas of the world, and the fact that it was winter here and not a flake of snow was on the ground angered the ice innate beyond rational understanding.
The red haired boy clenched his hand, keeping himself as civil as he could, despite the fact he hated every inclink of this adventure thus far. Moving slowly behind the man that had, more or less, dragged him along, the boy tapped the shoulder of the man in front of him. "Can we get going yet? This places makes me sick," the ice innate told his traveling buddy, who turned around slowly.
The man in front of the ice innate had vibrant green hair and shimmering green eyes that reflected the glow of the grass off them towards the boy, who hated this man all the more for the fact his attire represented this setting. The green haired man smiled and looked down at the youth. "Sure, we'll get on the move immediately," the fencer stated, taking a step on forwards on the hill and slowly walking down, his new compatriot following closely behind.
Jackass, the boy called the fencer mentally as he continued to follow the fencer, who was currently looking for someone. A strange story had entered the ears of the fencer, and he needed to see exactly what was going on. The swordsman hated this man with every part of his existence, and yet, he couldn't defeat this man no matter how hard he tried. The fencer was simply too strong. After all, that had been why the ice innate had agreed to travel with the Aura Master in the first place: To become more powerful then the green haired man.
Whereas Zachary's thoughts were filled with anger, Zorlo's were very different. He was excited to be in this new land, and not only that; but he wished to find out if the rumors of a member of a legion that had went insane was truly in this area. The fencer was unsure if this man was dangerous or not, but he didn't worry, for even if this deserter held great power, it would be good fun to fight him, of this the green haired man was certain.
"So, where are we going, anyway?!" the swordsman asked with great annoyance, watching the green haired man look over the area.
"There!" the fencer stated, pointing at a nearby puff of smoke, and the one that followed after it. There was a fire nearby, and the green haired man intended on examining if the man he quested for was there.
The two moved from their position towards the fire slowly, not wanting to startle the man that inhabited the camp if it could be avoided.
The sounds of the two newcomers were not unnoticed by Solomon, who remained crouching over his fire and ignoring them without much care to them– whether they were friends or foes did not matter to him, for he was much too enveloped in his own strange mental curse to make any real note of them or their movements. However, he did notice them in a vague, presence-noting kind of way, because one of them had a very strong presence that could be felt even from so far away and from underneath the shroud that the ex-legionary's inability to think clearly had created around him; the presence of the other one was considerably smaller, so much so that it was almost completely unnoticeable next to that of the larger presence, but it was noticeable nonetheless and the crouching fire-tender noticed it in the same vague way. Even so, he did not have the mental capacity that would be required to aptly greet them or turn them away, and so on they came without word or motion from the crouching man by his fire, who had not seen fit to acknowledge even that he knew they were coming.
It was not an overlong time before the pair had made their way up the slope at his back, obviously intending either to share his fire or to have some conversational intercourse with the man who had created it; there was quite the large likelihood that the first would last but a very short time, because very few people were able to tolerate a silent presence for more than a few minutes, and if they searched for he second it would most likely not occur at all, much less for a few minutes. Nonetheless, the larger and smaller presence alike came into the camp in a friendly, non-threatening sort of way, though the smaller seemed to be either highly angered or mentally deficient in his ability to control emotions ... not that the crouching legionary noticed, for his eyes had not left the fire since he felt their presence vaguely. Perhaps the smaller of the two– who was also smaller in stature, though stuck out much more against the landscape because of his strange choice of clothing– was a bit impatient, for he was huffing in the way that could have been either the heavy breathing of a travel-worn youngster or the rebellious signs of impatient that a immature child would give to a senior.
For a moment, Solomon did not realize that he noticed the child, for the feeling of sensing him entirely and understanding his mood came on slowly as he neared, and the picture of his face in the mind's eye of the legionary had not changed when his physical eyes were set upon the young one– another sure sign that he had once again gained a small, fragile bit of sanity. The flame of the young boy was not only on his head, but deep in the heart of his being, a much warmer flame than the snowflake on his blue garment would have striven to imply ... indeed, the flame that the crouching man saw was a deep-rooted anger, or perhaps hatred, directed at the taller man. When he realized this, he turned to the taller man suddenly, setting his eyes onto the larger in the same way that he had set them onto the smaller: in a mystified sort of expression created from the knowledge that, for the first time in many days, perhaps weeks, he was able to clearly understand that the presence of other human beings was near him. With that knowledge came the dull remembrance that, as a human, he was able to communicate with them.
"Good day," he croaked, his voice rusty and rough from disuse over a very long time.
And that was that. With the simple appearance of two people– hardly the confusing, angering crowds that Solomon so loathed– he was once again sane, and could once again talk, though for how long that would last would remain a mystery until he, once again, was shut into a coma of walking-death, an out-of-body experience that disallowed him even from observing the progress of his own body when it was out of his control. That would come eventually, as it always did, but the crouching fire-tender knew that it would only come if he made a mistake ... somehow it was always a mistake when it happened, as if he had no control over it but could never rectify his error because he never knew exactly what it was. In time, it would happen again, and he would have no way to stop it, of that he was sure.
"What news of the world?" he asked, having been separated for so long that he knew not even if his King still lived, or if The Kingdom he had fled remained vigilant for his life.
The fencer couldn't lie, he was very happy that this fire-tender responded to his and his young compatriot's arrival. Although they had been standing around for a short while before he even seemed to acknowledge them. To the Aura Master, this man's question was absolutely normal, nothing out of the ordinary. According to the green haired man's logic, there was no way this man could be a supposed insane deserter. Then again, although Zorlo hated to admit it, his logic did tend to wind up with several faults.
Unlike the green haired man, the ice innate instantly sensed he didn't like this man. The strange man sitting by the fire seemed almost too subdued and unnoticing to be normal. Although the fencer considered the ice warrior's outlook on life to be bleak, the swordsman knew that all people had innate goods and evils, and insanity, as Zachary saw it, was merely the evils of a corrupted man overwhelming his rationality, producing something that was no longer its former self.
The ice innate had, at times, considered himself mad because of the odd, looming voice that invaded his mind and told him to commit acts that could be considered evil. Each time, though, the voice gave a justified reason as to why such sins should be committed. Even in the madness that was Zachary's own mind, Leos could not accept that he and this deserter he and the fencer were looking for had anything in common. He wasn't mad, and he'd prove it. Nothing could control him.
The green haired warrior understood that this man before them wasn't the most normal of people, his voice had become rough and hoarse, perhaps from disuse; but just because he didn't speak much didn't mean anything. Perhaps this man was simply a wanderer, merely stopping here to rest for a short while to recover his strength, and he'd move on later. Even though the Aura Master could produce a reason that still didn't answer the question of if this man was the deserter the fencer had been told about.
"Well," the green haired man started, "in the land of the east, where I am from, times have gone quiet. War is scarce; people are content and go about their daily business without much of a care." The fencer stopped, brushing some of his green hair from his face and smiling at the strange man before the fire. "As for in this western land, there isn't much I can tell you, only rumors. The political standing seems stable enough, and the king doesn't seem to be doing anything to risk the security of his kingdom, but still, voices stir in this land of something odd."
"A deserter," the fencer stated, looking at his young comrade. "He is said to be one of several others that abandoned their legion and have gone mad, although I don't imagine such things could happen. Why would two hundred men simply pack up and leave their comrades, tis a bit farfetched if you ask me."
"Don't go about reciting that insane story to a guy we don't even know, it isn't like those sailors or those merchants have any idea what they are talking about," the red haired fighter interjected, looking angrily at the fencer.
"Even so, I think this is worth investigating, mostly because I get the feeling if we get to the end of this mystery, we maybe able to understand the fact from the fiction," the Aura Master stated, smiling as he seemed to always be doing.
"You really are a moron, you know that? All you are doing right now is blabbering on about something that has no grounds in fact. How stupid could you be?" the young fighter asked, blowing a small bit of red hair out of his eyes.
"Depends, why don't we introduce ourselves to this good sir and see if he knows anything. Well, anyway, my name is Zorlo, the Aura Master and Fencer of Tasogare, and he's..." the fencer found himself cut off by the swordsman.
"My name is Zachary Leos. Not much more to say," the ice innate noted, looking at the travel worn man.
"Well, sir, what, pray tell, is your name, and do you know anything about this rogue legionnaire or madness going through the ranks of a legion?" the fencer asked, hoping that this strange man could aid them.
"Solomon Marsenii," he replied. Throughout the small, heated debate between the two strangely garbed and much more strangely colored men, the crouching man had not done much more than stare and think, since it would have been a virtual impossibility to slant a word in edgewise between the argumentative pair. He wondered if they always argued so much, and if they had any kind of good reason to do so at all ... especially around strangers.
That through brought back memories; legionary soldiers of the Thirteenth had been specifically reprimanded whenever they were caught arguing anywhere in public, thereby creating hairline cracks in what the general had wanted seen as a ‘perfect legion', without disputes or problems, everything running like a mill. A crushing blow had been dealt to that old fool when his perfect legion turned into a group of half-insane liars and cheats, most of them bent to greed and cruelty by the attentions of wild women and a common overindulgence in alcohol products, and a that crushing blow had given him a heart attack, or so the rumor said. Solomon had left the legion around the time the old man was said to have become a cripple, without the ability to move his lower body, use his left hand, or even talk in the clear, strong, basso voice that he had used to address the Thirteenth many a time in the past. ‘His boys' had done him in with their horrible behavior, and not one of them ended up regretting it; they had hated the old man, thinking him a sorry attempt by the King to make a replacement for the long-dead Alexander Thatch, a man whose boots their general was not even fit to lick. They would not have peed on the old failure if he was on fire.
"Zachary Leos," the deserter said, a grim look plastered on his face as he looked keenly at the young man ... no, the boy. A young man was a person who had learned manners, discipline, and respect, if not morality and sensibility as well– this angry child had not learned any of them, if his attitude was an indicator. "A strange name... but I suppose Solomon Marsenii may seem a strange name to you two, and I suppose maybe it is, but it is mine."
His eyes glinted with steel as he came to an issue they had mentioned in their argument. Mad legionaries abandoning their legion was uncommon, even in with the perversely undermining influence of dark magic at work, but for random ‘traders' and ‘sailors' to know about it mere months after it truly did happen, that was random. Quite the stir we've caused, a voice whispered in his head, breathlessly evil enough to send a shiver down the spine, And just with a few hundred crazy legionaries ... the empire is getting touchy. It was a voice not heard in his mind for a long time, and Solomon knew that it was the voice of his own, his lost partner, the insanity that plagued his sanity; he had wished it to be gone, but it had not left or died over the time, and why would it? if his sanity had lived, why not his insanity as well ... after all, it had been stronger in the beginning, strong enough to do a great deal of damage.
"The Thirteeth Legion lost almost half a cohort to dark magic," Solomon said, raising his steely eyes to those of Zorlo, "if that is what you mean. I was one of over a hundred who deserted. How did you hear about it?"
Zachary's eyes widened as the strange man tending the fire told him that it was dark magic that had overcome that legion and driven them all mad. Something about that made the story more believable in the eyes of the ice innate. Dark magic seemed to do odd things in the world, one of which seemed to be effect people who could not resist its temptation. The only question I have: Why in the world did the dark magic choose that legion? Why would it drive only some mad and not all? Also, who is this guy and how does he know? the red haired boy asked himself, baffled at this thought.
"Well, that proves it. This man is a resident of this land, and he would surely know. For the sake of the gods, he lives here!" the fencer said with a powerful assurance in his voice, although nothing but happiness aside from his own sureness. The green haired man hadn't broken eye contact with the glance of this Solomon person, even in the glory that the fencer had just found himself having. "In all honesty, I received word of it from an old acquaintance that lives here. I thought he was joking, but I heard a few of the merchants and sailors at the port talking about something similar, so I thought I'd investigate."
"Why is it I find myself following you here and agreeing to help you?" the swordsman asked, looking at the fencer with an amount of annoyance in his eyes.
"Because you want a chance to defeat me in a fight and I said I wouldn't fight you unless you succeeded in helping me find out what is going on here and, if there really was something going on, how it was brought about and by what. If this magic that Solomon has told us about is really that bad, then we have to find out where it originates from and destroy it! If we don't, things like what has happened here could occur in other places of the world," the fencer assured the ice innate, although Leos merely shrugged.
"You have too much of a naive look on the world. There is no defined good and evil, everything is in the gray. You need to understand that," Zachary stated to the green haired man who merely looked at him.
"Did you say something, I was busy wondering what this darkness could be," the Aura Master responded as he let his glance shift slightly to Zachary.
"One day... Oh... I'm going to defeat you, even if it takes a hundred years!" the boy stated, swinging his fist at Zorlo who quickly caught it and let it go. Forgot how fast he is... the boy thought with a mental sigh.
"Well, mister Solomon, would you mind helping us find out what it is that plagues this land, since you seem to have a better idea then I do. So, would you please lend us your aid?" the fencer asked with a bow and a smile at this odd, yet friendly man.
After a quick few elbows from Zorlo, Leos finally bowed as well and stated, "Yes, I'd be delighted if you helped me help this idi-... I mean Zorlo find out what is bothering this land."
"What ... plagues ... this land?" Solomon replied, blinking his eyes dully as the thought sank into his mind: this naive man actually thought there was a root to black magic? one that could actually be pulled? That was as unlikely as a dog learning to speak, and foolhardiness itself might shun such an idea, even spoken from one so polite.
"Nothing plagues this land, Zorlo. Nothing more than plagues any other hundreds of continents, if there are so many. The thing that caused this is not something so easily uprooted as to quail in fear when it sees two men coming out of the distance. Black magic is much stronger than that, and is not so easily destroyed."
Black magic ... had it really been so long since the un-sane ex-deserted had reached into that black abyss and pulled out, like a living thing, the ropes with which he could tie down his entire legion ... it seemed like an eternity, but it was not, it could not have been more than a month, or even a few short weeks. The prospect was uncanny, because the desire to pluck more power from the very jaws of the Enemy was great, so great even that he would rather be completely engulfed in his inability to think than he would willingly leap into the outstretched arms of untrustworthy demons such as black magic. Once upon a time, not so long after he entered the legions, it had been a weak practitioner of the arts that sapped his strength to resist and thrown him into the insanity of dominating others; that one man had set off a chain reacting, and even he was nigh powerless in his own right, a mere speck on the magical scale in comparison to huge towers of strength, the men of bloodlines.
Feeling it, the power of blackness, was like feeling your strength slowly used up and destroyed, pummeled into a fine dust and swept away ... pure anguish for minutes, hours, days, as every last thing inside you was taken and beaten into a useless pulp, then languishing pleasure as the flood of power once again rushed into limbs and spirit. Trouble came only when the black magician realized that he was not creating a pawn of the magic, but that the magic was quickly creating a definite hold over the mind and the body, one so unbreakable that only a very powerful person could escape it without aid. So few had truly understood that black magic was subverting them, and fewer still were those who had wrested back their free will and regained the position of dominance in their own mind, taking back the high ground of their own will and forcing down the manipulative darkness.
To use black magic was the subscribe to it. To use it again was to let it creep into your home. To use it yet again was to give it your very being. When, at last, you had nothing left to give, no more that it could take from you and use for its own purposes, you would begin giving away that which was not yours in the first place. Family, friends, comrades-in-arms– none of that mattered once a person had been crushed beneath their own magical dalliances, all was used and abused by the new mind. A new mind is never forged from goodness, but from evil: even the good are tested in the fires of evil.
Solomon shook his head and closed his eyes, pressed the butts of his hands into the sockets to stymie the tears that convalesced without warning. His crouching position on the soft ground became compromised, and he let himself slouch down into the crushed bracken, sitting down hard on his cloak. It was many moments of silence, sitting still and feeling voided, before he felt that his sins had once again receded into the gloom ... sins that had come to haunt him, sins that had come to break him, it never mattered, they all felt the same, and they all worked together to make him feel the worthless person that he very well might have been.
But I'm alive, he reminded himself, That magic didn't kill me. If it had been a little bit stronger... but it wasn't. I was lucky. The others had not been so lucky, they had been forced to feel the magic. Unlike Solomon, who had made the conscious decision to sap his own will and strength, they had been forced into chains, bound and chained like slaves to the will of an altered man, one whom they should have been able to trust and depend on in life and in death, one who had turned out to betray them. He had betrayed them.
"If anything bet–" he caught himself, swallowed, and started again, "If anything is plaguing the land, Zorolo, it is far beyond your powers to heal it. Black magic has held people here for too many years to count. You cannot reverse history."
Zorlo laughed at this thought. The inability to change history may have been a challenged, but, "Even if one can't change the past, one can alter the future. There can be a future where no one suffers from madness produced of the darkness of magic. Please, Solomon, understand that even if we fail to stop this darkness in its entirety, perhaps it can be stopped and protect generations still to come. One cannot merely assume that just because destroying this magic will take time that it can't be done. Just give it time and people will work their way through such darkness," the fencer stated, looking at the vagrant.
Zachary, despite being in disbelief at what he heard the fencer saying, couldn't help but listen. No matter how insane what the fencer said was, it made a good amount of sense. Is it really possible that if mankind tries to work past the darkness of temptation and magic that could destroy him or her, that he or she could succeed in ending it? Is it possible, that if a person pushes through the darkness of magic that a person could truly come out better then when they entered? Maybe I'm just overanalyzing this, the ice innate told himself as the fencer finished talking.
The ice warrior looked at the green haired man and couldn't help but ask, "Okay Mr. We're going to destroy this Dark Magic even though it has no tangible form and don't care if we die trying, how do you expect to start looking for something without a physical form? Do you even have any idea where to start? Do you think out anything before you do it?" the youth asked in quick procession.
The fencer raised his index finger into the air at the end of each question, but was cut off from speaking as the ice innate interrupted him. "Zachary, now to answer your questions one at a time. And when you ask a question, can you at least wait for the person to answer?" Zorlo asked a counter question, interrupting his train of thought.
Leos groaned quickly, and responded, "I was just asking a group of questions with a similar idea, so just answer him." The ice innate crossed his arms and looked at the fencer, clearly growing more and more annoyed with the man.
"Oh yes, of course!" the Aura Master responded, slightly embarrassed. "To answer your question on the magic, there has to be someone that traded something for the magic to awaken it, so if we can find out who did that; it can safely be assumed that said person got the power from somewhere, so we find out where aforementioned person got his or her power and then we find the person pulling the magical strings and cut them. Simple, no?"
"That has to be the worst plan I've ever been forced to sit down and listen to..." Zachary remarked, looking at Solomon, and then back to Zorlo. "Okay, let us say that your theory has some merit and the insane things you are saying are possible, where would be start looking for this person? Do any of these thoughts cross your mind at all?"
"Of course they do!" the fencer responded in great confidence. In fact, he had been asking himself this very same question. "We would have to find each of the deserters and question them until we learned what caused them to go mad and... no wait... that wouldn't work..." How in the world can one find the source of a power if one doesn't know where to begin? I suppose there is a way to go about finding this magic, we just need to never give up, the fencer thought to himself silently.
The ice innate nearly fell over when the fencer failed to give him an answer. The red haired boy watched as the Aura Master was caught in heavy though before the green haired man's hand erupted into the air, making the ice innate jump back a few feet.
"I've got it! Mr. Solomon, you seem to know a lot about this land. Can you please help us find the source of this magic?" the green haired man looped around back to asking the fire tender in hopes this man could help them, although not fully knowing why.
Were it not for the smoldering crackle of the fire, nothing would have disturbed the silence reigning after that simple question; the silence, on the part of one man in the camp, had been much longer and more strenuous, though perhaps his companions did not realize what had caused this shift. Solomon listened carefully, hovering on every word coming from the mouth of the green-haired man, but could barely understand why they elicited such a response throughout the core of his being, why the grabbing hands of fear were clawing at his throat and forcing him to stay silent. Not a word, not a whisper, nothing– he could not have spoken if he wanted to, and the fear was stifling even that urge, but he could not discern exactly why ... blackness had settled before his eyes, and he felt for a moment as if he could not breathe, thinking left him, and his hand strayed up the hilt of his sword.
He remembered. He remembered the sword. It had been there, it had ... something had been with the sword, no it must have been someone, not something. He remembered the same fear, the same blackness, the claws of dread. He remembered real claws as well, and while one hand clasped his mantle tight about his shoulders, the other strayed down to his calf, where he remembered pain. The pain had left, but he could feel the marks. The sword! the sword had been there!
As quickly as it came, it went, and he was left in silence again, not remembering, his eyes unseeing and his lips pressed tight together in a firm, white line, as if some wound had suddenly pained him and was now throbbing throughout his being, a feeling so tearing that he could not move or think. But he could think, he remembered now! He could think, but he could not talk, and his body would not obey a command, nothing would obey a command. The blackness over his eyes had not left, but he could see now, there was someone there, and they knew one another, they knew one another well, as lovers know one another but in a worse way, in a horrible way that was as perverse and hateful as the atrocious acts that had been committed in their minds and by their hands.
"We had our fun, it seems," the voice, his voice, said. It was calm, cold, and dangerous. The lurking death of black magic had never left him, but it was a small death ... it had always been a small death, a weak death. That was why he had kept it at bay, and he knew that, he remembered that now.
He answered, knowing that nothing would hear him but what was already in him, what was him in every way. The darkness of his soul held sway in the darkness, and whatever good was left in him had been left to rot; that was truth, he knew and remembered that truth now ... his ‘sanity' had not been taken, he had thrown it away. Insanity would come in time, because he was too frail to hold back the tide ... black magic smiled on the insane, gave them power, might to uphold themselves and crush others. He remembered what it felt like.
Outwardly, his eyes opened and he looked out across the hills and bracken without actually looking at anything, as one does when staring out into space. His head jerked once, side to side, and he remained silent. The internal struggle, such as it was, had managed to reach him through his memories. His mouth formed a grimace, and for the first time since the insanity had first settled on his shoulders, becoming the burden for him to bear, he was able to come back.
"Know the land!" he yelled, leaping to his feet, "Knowing the land is not enough! You are right, Zachary Leos," he barked, the legionary tone of his voice returning and the rust scraping away, "there is more to black magic than searching for it. Have you looked at your life? Have you chosen between your family, your friends, your comrades, your country ... have you weighed them against each other on the scales of power, and found that power was the greater boon, the thing that you needed more? Because only the people who have done and are doing that very thing can know where the roots of black magic are spreading."
Sinking to his knees, Solomon felt the cold mush seep into his trousers ... he ceased to care, and enveloped himself in the protective blanket of thought. He remembered still, but it was different now than it had been. He knew the sword, but he did not recognize it through mists ... mists were everywhere in his mind's eye, an unbreakable wall of mirrors shining all the light of thought back into his eyes. It was impossible to see more than he already knew, but that was not enough.
The keening call of a bird rang through the land, and sunshine suddenly broke through a patch of cloud, blue sky stretching quickly as a west wind blew the clouds away. For the first time in an unknown time, Solomon knew he had won the struggle within his mind. His eyes sought the eyes of Zorlo, and he held them.
As the last words left the fire tender's mouth, a large smile spread across Zorlo's face; a slightly less amused smile spread across Zachary's, thinking both men to be absolutely mad. A cool breeze blew in from the east, causing the hair of both warriors to be pushed up as the stood looking at the now standing vagrant. Something about him didn't seem quite right, but who were the fencer or the ice innate to judge this man?
This is purely preposterous! This guy is utterly mad, there is no doubt about that! He's silent when we introduce ourselves, but now he's telling us he'll help us because, some how, that idiot helped him. This is, without doubt, the stupidest, most idiotic idea I've ever had to suffer through! the ice warrior thought in outrage as he looked angrily from Solomon to the fencer, who merely stood smiling, his eyes not breaking the stare of the strange man.
This is excellent, the fencer told himself, his eyes fixed on this Solomon person. The man that tended the flames was strong, the fencer could tell, even without sensing this man's aura. It also became obvious to the green haired man that his new ally suffered from some sort of internal struggle, although what, the fencer didn't care to ask. He's agreed to help us, and now, all we need to do is find the source of this darkness. If it can be conquered, I will find a way, and even if we can only weaken it, then that is good enough. Anything to slow the spread of darkness is better then not doing anything at all, the Aura Master told himself, looking at the ice innate, who seemed annoyed... more so then normal anyway.
Although, this annoyed look was not what it appeared to be. This man, Solomon had asked a question, and Zorlo had already answered it for himself, but Zachary hadn't yet. The fencer had already chosen others over himself, but what would the red haired boy choose?
Is power more important to me then others? the ice warrior asked himself, looking at the fencer, a man that he knew as the strongest warrior he knew. Do I travel with him because I want to be more powerful then he is... or is it because I see something in him that I want to have? he asked himself, his mind split between the darkness that was Magnus, his supposed conscience, and his own heart, where the will to do good prevailed. Am I truly cut out to be an avenger? Is that the way I want to keep my life moving? he asked himself, taking a long, hard look into his past. He would have to choice for himself soon, because something about the choice between the light and dark drew near.
"Can we go yet?!" Zachary asked in a low, almost growl like tone. He was tired of standing around and wanted to get heading out.
"Solomon, are you ready to head out, because I think we are," the Aura Master said with confidence, looking at his young friend and smiling, although the boy didn't respond in the same manner. Whether Zachary admitted it or now, he did enjoy having company, even if it was with a person he hated.
Solomon stretched to his full height, almost half a foot taller than his green-haired companion, and looked down on the two with quiet solemnity at their mutual impatience, though it was much more reserved and undemanding in the older of the pair. The sun had passed beneath another blanket of clouds, and a natural dimness set upon the cool mid afternoon, already warning the instinctively travel-minded wanderer that they would get no where far on the first day, and would have difficulty if they kept moving by night. He looked of south and felt a twinge of fear rise in his throat again, like bile, but he did not retch with it as he had done before, because it was not nearly so strong and dominating.
"South is our direction," he said, pointing in the direction they needed to take, "but it would be safer for me to skirt the border and arrive from the mountains. I am a deserter, and you two are strangers. It would be likely for them to kill us if we happened upon a mounted cohort."
The direction he intended, west, loomed large on the horizon, mountains of great but conquerable height, where they would find what they needed and, perhaps, a bit more; wild horses, as well as those born and bred in the good grasslands of the north, were in their winter abodes up on the mountains, and their herders would feel no problem with a few extra gold pieces in their purses. Misfortune tightened Solomon's features, because he realized that there were no gold pieces to spare, even for three very good horses such as they could easily find in the mountains ... they would have to be wild or none at all, and that in itself could become a serious problem, if they found it necessary to break in three wild horses. No, he decided, unless some stroke of great luck happened upon them it would be a long journey on foot, and with scarcely enough food to fill their bellies if there was poor hunting.
Already the aid he had pledged to Zorlo was looking more unkindly than it had when he first gave it. Going south, to where his madness had first struck him and claimed his mind, was a venture badly planned enough, but to go south into a quest that could take them to hundreds of fortified settlements in the empire and bring them into cities ... cities with crowds of people ... and the soldiers! there would be soldiers on every corner, waiting for them in every field and glen, sitting low in their saddles and ready to ride them down. It was a grim prospect, returning home, but it would be necessary if he wished to keep a friend.
"If we go through the mountains or across the border straight away, one thing is definite: I will be no help to you, should we encounter military men, and I will not willingly enter a city," he said, looking to the two, "That is the way of it, and I am afraid that must remain the way of it until something changes greatly."
As he spoke, he was already stamping his feet over the low fire and steeling himself for the long walk to come, but slowed his movements when he felt something on his arm. Tracing it with his finger, he knew it was tender to the touch, and would most likely have been splashed with dark color if he looked at it. He had been bruised, but had been in no physical contact for days. There was a greater danger to his internal struggles than he had first suspected.
"So you don't wish to head into the cities, which is fine with me. Being outlanders we can get around fairly unnoticed," the fencer stated, looking at Zachary who half nodded at the prospect of being an outlander. "But you said you were a deserter? Were you, perhaps one of the..." a hand placed itself on Zorlo's shoulders, making him stop mid-sentence.
"Leave it be, Zorlo. Don't ask questions that shouldn't be asked, only bad things come from that," the ice innate whispered to his associate. "Anyway," the ice warrior said loud enough for both to hear, "shouldn't we get heading south before something bad happens?"
"Ho now Zachary, don't you know that once you start a travel, bad things always happen," the fencer stressed, looking at the young swordsman. It was very different for the fencer having the ice innate around, because the boy acted almost like a little brother to the Aura Master, and he hadn't had anything or felt any relation to a person in a family like manner besides Selene in a long time.
Since the loss of the fencer's Master, Kurenkento, things had scarcely been family like for him. Although Zorlo had Selene, the two were scarcely able to spend time together between their own, busy schedules. Selene was always there when the green haired man returned from his journeys, although they had barely a few weeks, sometimes as little as days, to spend together. Above all else, the Aura Master hoped that the woman he loved was finding things to keep her life entertaining while she waited for him to return.
Merely the prospect of Selene waiting at home in the fencer's Master's house made him slightly depressed. In all her time alone, what did she think about? What did she do? Did she have friends she could speak to when she felt lonely? All these questions raced through the green haired man's mind, recalling the shear and clean cut agreement he had made with Cenarius. Whenever something the God of Druids needed to be dealt with, the fencer would do it.
It wasn't only Cenarius, but the green haired man himself that was the problem. He found himself leaving far too often to deal with the dark works of the world and attempt to bring order and justice to people, who, from the sight of a normal person, did not wish to have either of those things. However, Zorlo knew it was necessary to do as he had always done and go about the world trying to end the darkness that loomed over it.
Perhaps even more then his chivalric attitude, the fencer was also plagued by his own guilt. The guilt that Shinu had been born. The guilt that Shinu had killed so many innocent people and Zorlo could do nothing to stop it. How could he, one who claimed to be a righteous warrior, have produced something as evil as Shinu? The shear concept was mind-boggling.
Suddenly, a voice echoed through the fencer's mind, uttering the words Let it go! the voice was familiar, but it was not only one person's, but several people. The sound of Selene's voice was the loudest, filling his ears with these words and his heart with the fleeting feeling that it was his fault.
It isn't may fault, for what Shinu has done, he now told himself, a very serene, relaxed smile crossing his face. The fencer's eyes no longer glowed with the sadness they had once held, for something in him had helped him conquer the voices of darkness that seemed to plague him. He had conquered his darkness, once and for all, breaking his last tie to Shinu. No longer would he feel any guilt for the actions of the Terror of Death, for that creature was no longer part of Zorlo, and even if he were, the dark one had a mind of his own.
"It isn't my fault," Zorlo repeated aloud, and the ice innate looking at the fencer oddly. "It isn't my fault," the green haired man repeated, his voice sounding happier, his eyes gleaming with light. "It isn't my fault!" he now yelled, jumping into the air and slipping as he landed, covering the back of his jacket and his pants in mud. Despite being slightly dirty, a weight had been lifted, and perhaps meeting this Solomon person had helped.
"Okay... what isn't your fault?" Zachary asked blandly, looking at the Aura Master as if he had lost what little remained of his mind (as Zachary saw it.). "Are you done jumping up and down, and can we please begin heading south now?" the red haired swordsman asked in annoyance.
"Certainly!" the fencer said, his voice ringing cheerfully. "Please, Solomon, if you would, lead the way, since you know where we are going," the Aura Master stated as he shuffled to get from the mud beneath him to his feet. He had conquered the specks of darkness that had plagued his mind, and now he hoped he could help Zachary conquer the misconceptions that the young warrior had about the fencer.
So the ex-legionary and his two new friends struck west at a healthy marching pace, since even a careful lope would see them out of breath and energy well before the end of the day and, more likely than not, restrict them greatly if they came into contact with any kind of foemen along their way, which would be a problem because of the small, but still existent, presence of other deserted legionaries. Unlike Solomon, who meant no person any harm and was only hampered in his social life by the mixed views of his mental states, many deserters had formed cadres of banditry and were as highly dangerous now as they had ever been in service to the empire ... the good training they received was only held in check by a chain of command and sense of duty, whereas the bandit deserters had nothing but a chief to their groups. If anything, the deserters that left their legions and formed into lawless, wandering murders were ten times as dangerous as their organized counterparts, because they struck heedlessly but with the combat discipline of a trained army, and that was something to be feared.
Because of this, the forced march one ex-legionary led was meant for a twofold purpose: the first being the conservation of energy without the total abandonment of quick traveling, and the second being avoidance of undue attention that would be gained, should they move quickly through the easily trampled bracken of the region. A few things should be noted about Solomon and his method of travel. As he was now sane, the way that he moved and traveled was altogether different from the mode he traveled before his grasp on life.
When hovering between the sane and insane places of his brain, he adopted the trademark legion march, stomping carelessly though undergrowth, giving no thought to danger or trackers that could be on his trail, after all, he had very few enemies in the north and had less need to hide his movements because of this. Though travel was direct and easy using this method, it was anything but stealthy, and lacked a good deal by way of speed. By comparison, he moved very quickly now that he had regained his sanity– Zorlo and Zachary in tow, he moved over the terrain in set pathways that the locals called ‘hunting runs', because they would be used to chase down deer and wild boar once the summer came upon the land. These runs were trampled into near-road pathways all across the land; one hunting run, once entered, would lead to thousands more, reaching from the very foothills of the mountains to almost every township and city sheltered within the valley, and that was saying quite a bit when the sheer scope of the valley was taken into contemplation. By use of these runs, they made their way easily, were subjected to very little hindrance by wildlife, and had absolutely no contact with other humans who could– and, most likely, would– reveal their passing to families and friends.
The route itself was more direct than going completely cross-country would allow them, because the runs were designed for convenience and speed, something that wild animals would recognize as a life line when being chased down, and therefore something that was meant to be followed without stresses. This was how it went: the first hunting run that Solomon picked for them was near to the fire he had left behind, and it was not so narrow that the bracken would so much as brush against their legs, which was a good thing. That first run took them well into the plains, out of sight from the trees on the hillocks, and led them into an intersection that led them into runs to the east, north, and south-west; of these, the ex-legionary guide chose the south-west course. Soon after, there was a branch of the run that split and traversed almost directly west, and this was the next that they followed.
Around mid-afternoon, some five hours before the sun would set on them, they sheltered beneath a grassy knoll and rested their legs for all of five minutes, none of them talking, though Zorlo probably would have if Solomon was not so distracted by his scheming about their travels ... though he did try to poke a bit of fun at Zachary, who was having trouble, just before they set out again. As it was, when they entered the sixth– and last– hunting run that the ex-legionary intended to follow that day, even Zorlo seemed a small bit footsore, though their guide was completely at ease, as if their afternoon had been but a stroll. They had reached the foothills, and the next day there would be no benefit of hunting runs to follow: it was purely hiking from there on, and they all knew it deep in their soul.
Just to be sure, though, Solomon had them settled down beneath the growing ceiling of conifers and had set up a makeshift ‘perimeter'– meaning, he cut down the undergrowth and set it off to the side in an eight-by-eight foot space between the trees– to keep their camp inside, and then he hunkered down in the dirt and made a great show of drawing a map of the valley. He looked up at Zorlo and pointed near to a line of rocks he had set up, indicating the mountains they were headed into, and said, "This is us. If we were to go south from here, it would take us three days of the same kind of travel to reach the border we're headed towards. Instead," he traced a finger into the rock pile, then through it as he said, "instead we are going into the mountains, where the going will be much tougher and the incline steeper for the first three days."
Spreading a few of the rocks apart, he created a very narrow band that reached about nine-tenths of the way to the ‘border', then pointed at it, "This is the Gorge of Hellgrim. All around it are highland pastures, where we might or might not find some strong mountain horses. If we do, the speed we can travel will be about twice as fast as on foot. If we do not, it will take us about ten days more to reach the border. In that time, there is no end of things that can happen to us in the gorge, because it is a holy site. That's why I want to go that way, of course: Hellgrim, one of the more bitter gods in The Kingdom's pantheon, frowns on black magic, and might be able to help us while we are in his domain. If not...," he shrugged, "... if not, then it will be no different than on the plains, except that a military presence will never be within twenty days, and we may have access to fine traveling horses."
"I'll let you alone to think on this while I gather some dry wood, then we can talk about it when I return," Solomon said, then he promptly disappeared into the ungrowth and began searching for the driest wood he could find: smoke was bad here.
The long march had pushed the group a long distance, and that meant that, although the trek before them seemed to be a long one, it would be exciting. Night had arisen, though, and the fencer and his associate sat next to the campfire, doing what they do best: arguing. Despite the calm arguing of the young warriors, a strange, underlined feeling set in. An almost uncertain outcome to this adventure had the ice innate on edge and had the fencer excited.
The deserter had shown the Aura Master the path, giving a time frame. The green haired man liked the odds, and the sound of a god that would support them on this travel was even better news. To the fencer, this adventure had everything: dark magic, a tragic hero, gods that might, or might not, play a role in deciding the ultimate fate of the world... and an ice innate that seemed to be slightly less enthusiastic. Why did Zachary have to make this trip slightly less enjoyable with his sour attitude?
Leos, on the other hand, watched as Solomon laid out the trail for them, but something in the back of his mind screamed out that this was a bad idea. Although the red haired boy would enjoy trekking through mountains, since mountains meant snow and cold breezes, but the long travels through them were always dangerous. The swordsman merely crossed his arms and looked up at the sky, the fire still cackling brightly, and, in an odd way, helped the youth to relax.
"I'll let you alone to think on this while I gather some dry wood, then we can talk about it when I return," Solomon said, after explaining the route they were to take. As he disappeared, the green haired man sat back down at the fire and looked at the ice innate, who now stared into the fire, absolutely absorbed by it.
"Zachary?" the fencer asked, sitting down across from the boy, trying to get his attention. "Zachary!" the fencer now yelled, hitting the boy with a rock, making the red haired boy snap out of his trance and make eye contact with the Aura Master.
"Yeah, what do you want?" the swordsman retorted, looking angrily at the green haired man.
"What were you thinking about so deeply when you were staring into the fire? You seemed almost absorbed in it," the fencer said with a slight hint of worry.
"I was thinking about that Solomon guy. He seems nice enough, but something is worrying me, mostly that..." the ice innate was soon cut off by the man across from him.
"He's a deserter, right? Do not worry about it, so far, it doesn't appear he's any crazier then you are," the green haired man said half joking.
"What's that supposed to mean?" the red haired boy responded, giving the fencer a sour look.
"It means it's time for bed! We've got a long journey tomorrow!" the fencer said, excitement leaking from his voice as he said it and laid himself on the ground. Free of the burdens of guilt, he feel to sleep quickly, but this wasn't the only thing he had gained from letting go of the last of the darkness in his heart.
The red haired boy looked at the man and shrugged, laying his head back and falling to sleep as well and thinking about what lay before them.
Early the next morning, before the first light of dawn had even began to show, the twilight of morning provided the red colored sky that would be the group's source of light. As soon as they had all awoken and had their rations, the three warriors began to head out. The planes they had traversed and the forest they had been in slowly disappeared, becoming almost removed entirely by the time the sun had fully peaked over the horizon, about two hours after the group awoke, and by the time they stood at the foot of the mountainous range, the sun was above the horizon, although not greatly. They had made great time, taking only four hours to get to this point. Now came the fun part.
The three fighters headed up a narrow passage along the mountain, barely being capable of moving thanks to the narrower parts of the passage as they moved through the mountains. As the group moved on, they learned that as they moved between the mountains, there was some open space to camp, and such a thing was good, it was getting dark anyway.
The three set up a makeshift camp and rested that night. They had survived day one of the trek through the large mountains, and now there were only two days left of this intensive traveling in this climate.
The night came and went, starting the second day, and things started early again. Not very high above sea level at this point, the only choice the warriors had at this point was to climb up the next mountain, the passage that Solomon had pointed out had been blocked off by boulders. Perhaps it had been raiders, but the fencer and the ice innate didn't want to take guesses.
So, up they went, scaling the mountain. The way to conquer this obstacle was go over the massive block and then head down, although this was a lot harder then it sounded. To Zachary, this wasn't too hard, using his powers to control the lightly falling snow to assist in creating foot or hand holds, although that slowly got straining to him. Getting over the block had taken nearly half of the day, but they did succeed, crossing the threshold and finding a rather large passage behind the rock blocked off wall, but by that point, it wasn't the rocks that were the danger anymore.
The snow now fell heavily as the warriors passed through the darkening mountain pass, the ice innate using his powers to hold the snow back from completely removing visibility. Slowly, the path widened again, and just as the last light of sun vanished, not that it had been wholly visible at all. The three made camp, and Zachary spent the night meditating, trying to keep his mind focused on his task: keeping the heavy snow from burying the fencer an the deserter.
By the next morning, the snow had stopped and the warriors found themselves on the trail again. The third day had, surprisingly, few problems. The trail was relatively large, there was no snow, and the path, at no point was blocked. Even so, the highly exhausted Zachary moved at a slow pace from barely sleeping the night before. It took a bit longer then necessary, but still, as the sun set, it set on the Gorge of Hellgrim.
Zorlo turned to a very weakened Zachary with a smile and said, "We've made it Zachary. Only ten days before the boarder if we don't find horses," the fencer said with a smile, hoping that they found the horses. Zachary was far too tired to keep up this travel pace, and if they did, he risked becoming very dangerously sick. This travel was bound to be a tough one, despite the fact that a strange, looming shadow seemed to be following them, but the Aura Master did no know what it could be.
Solomon looked up and the firelight glinted strangely across his features, his eyes especially, so that he looked much more frightening than he would have during the day. Something was stirring within him, an uneasiness brought upon him by the mountain pass, by their camp, perched as it was upon the holy gorge of one god who was deeply hateful towards black magic, even if he was passively so. Three or four steps and he would be over the rim and on his way down to the sacred ground beneath ... one wrong step once over that rim, and he would fall to his death on that same ground, food for all manner of wildlife.
A sudden urge came over him. Looking deep into the fire, he stared solemnly for a good time, as if searching for something specific that he knew should be within the licking, biting flames of their small blaze; however, nothing leapt out to him, and he felt that his ‘urge' was nothing but a strange desire to look into the flames, something that had happened on too many occasions to count in the distant past. But no, it was no desire: he still felt the need to see churning masses of fire, greater than his small twig fire, greater than a bonfire, greater than a burning castle ... he looked to the stars, but saw nothing for a moment. The urge pressed harder.
From his peripheral vision, the sudden flash of lights in the south caught his eye, and he turned to see what that what he sensed was no small thing, no mere echo from the Otherworld, but a strong hand guiding him to what he saw. Down over the southern reaches of the mounts they were encamped upon, seven bright stars flitted down from the heavens, heading far beyond the western ranges of the mountain and disappearing from sight over those snow-capped peaks. As quickly as it began, it had ended.
One glance at his companions confirmed what he had expected– neither Zorlo, the self-confident fencer and decent leader, nor Zachary, the youthful firebrand too obsessed with his own anger, had seen the starfall, and therefore neither of them would be of any use in the interpretation of such an important omen. Solomon was no astrologer, that he could see such things and, at one look, determine their meaning and import, and he was no theologian that the meaning and importance would be an open book to him even should he learn them, and for this reason the omen was a mystery. Nothing more than a passing fancy, perhaps, but the urge to see it was as great a thing in the ex-legionary mind as the firm belief that it would be important in days to come, whether as a prophesy on behalf of his own life or as a warning for dangers yet to be revealed upon the road. Such things as falling stars were rare and always implied a great event in the world's realms.
Pondering the meaning of this thing, Solomon turned his back to the fire and lay down, clasping his hands tight around the cloak and using it like a blanket against the cold. It was some time before he finally drifted to sleep, but he did so well before the dawn of a new morning. All his dreams were infested with one sight: seven deaths.
He awoke just before dawn and shouldered his haversack before stamping out the remaining coals of the fire and covering them with dirt; he shook the two companions awake, then shrugged into the new day as if nothing had happened the night before, and they were on a path changed not at all. The two others bore up under his new pace– a faster, more determined lope that picked the flattest, most southern routes of the mountain– without complaining overmuch. They reached the gorge by midday, and ate a sparse meal of traveling bread.
It was deep into the day that they came upon the destination, that being a small convent at the mid-point of the gorge. The nuns provided them with bread, water, and allowed them the trust that only very holy people can dole out without effort. Bidding these kind souls goodbye was not difficult, for they were poor company but for their kindness, and moving south on tired limbs was not so difficult that they needed to stop for rests. Even if they had needed rest, Zachary in particular, no one said anything and Solomon would not have been likely to let them rest while his personal goal was still before them, though only he knew what that was.
Only near sunset did the truth reveal itself. They camped at the narrowest point of the gorge, facing the towering stone wall that was the once-incomplete legion garrison that Solomon had hoped they would see still in the building. Steep cliffs rose on either side, and the unassailable height of the keep and gate was not open for suggestion when they fell to sleeping.
Morning saw Solomon musing on the wall. At most, it would be manned by some twenty-five legionaries. At least, four of the same mold would be holding closed the fortress.
"Zorlo," the deserter said, looking seriously at his comrade, "this is where we stop, until we know more about this gate and its keepers. I beg a favor of you: go to them, but do not tell them of me or where we go, but please ask them for news ... I fear something of this wall that is far beyond the guards. There may be something here we cannot pass by in safety."
As they sat in camp, the fencer watched the ice innate silently. The young swordsman truly had pushed his body to its limits, but on a long trek like this, that was bad. The boy coughed a few times during the night while, and more so after, the fencer got ready for sleep. This journey had been treacherous, of that there could be held no doubt, but to be in bad health when the adventure was only beginning meant only ill things for the one whom befell such ill luck.
The Aura Master looked up at the sky and watched the stars emptily as he removed his gaze from the ice warrior. The green haired man slowly moved his hand into his pocket, looking for what it is he needed. Suddenly, within his jacket pocket, he found it! Grasping the item firmly, he pulled out a small, plastic container; within the small, orange container were several half blue, half green pills, a gift from Mark before the fencer had left last. A smile cracked over the Aura Master's face as he looked at the almost bottle like container. If anything could help Zachary, it was these pills.
These pills were would do the trick, or they should from what Mark had told the fencer they do. The way the madman had explained it, the pill strengthened the human immune system when it was weakened, which prevented sickness and would return a person's strength. Mark had mentioned one side effect that bothered the fencer slightly: the pills would put a person in a coma-like state until their body had fully healed. The scientist had also explained that, based on the mental state of the person, during the coma-like state, he or she could suffer from nightmares.
Zorlo could carry the boy, that wasn't a problem, but the nightmares part kind of worried the fencer. This boy has seen horrible things, so if I give him one of these pills... it could be damaging to his psyche. I have no choice, I won't just leave him behind, and if he pushes himself any harder, he'll die. Its the only choice, the green haired man told himself as he placed the pills into his pocket and went to sleep for that night.
Not long passed before the sun had risen again, and the fencer awoke, his new ally getting his attention soon after the Aura Master was awaken. "Zorlo," the man began, "this is where we stop, until we know more about this gate and its keepers. I beg a favor of you: go to them, but do not tell them of me or where we go, but please ask them for news ... I fear something of this wall that is far beyond the guards. There may be something here we cannot pass by in safety."
The green haired man smiled at deserter and threw him the plastic bottle, the man responded quickly and catching it. "When Zachary wakes up, give him one of those. He'll be asleep again soon after for a little while, but no matter what happens to him while he is asleep, do not try to wake him up. That pill is going to heal his body and put him in a coma like state. It's also probably going to give him nightmares because of the dark things in his past, so that isn't exactly a helpful thing either. Please, just make sure he doesn't die," the fencer asked, and the deserter merely nodded, and with that, the fencer was off towards the great wall and the adjacent garrison to get what his ally asked for.
The ice innate awoke about an hour after the fencer had left, and as he sat up, a pill came flying at him. Had he not noticed, it probably would have whacked him in the face and hit the ground, but when it hit him, it fell into his lap. "Hey you! What's this for?" The man half looked at the ice innate, but chose not to answer him. Leos lifted the pill from his lap and looked at it silently, wondering what it was. Simply shrugging, he consumed it. It was a pill, what could it hurt?
That would choose to be a less intelligent choice then one would have expected, as the ice innate looked Solomon, his vision went blurry before he simply passed out. His body relaxed itself, his muscles becoming less tense and his body fighting off the bacteria that had invaded his body, but now it was what dwelt in his mind that needed to be battled. Although, on this battlefield, anything could happen.
Meanwhile, the fencer had been moving across the landscape quickly, the wall drawing ever closer. All that mattered now was getting the information he needed and getting it back to Solomon, who's hunch, Zorlo sensed, was more then correct. Knowing our luck, he told himself silently as the wall, and the adjacent base next to to the gate began to come into view, I'll get there and find out something really bad... like this whole region is under the control of the dark magic or something. Then again... I'm not unfamiliar with the powers of darkness, the Aura Master told himself, his mind bringing up two images.
One of the two images was the fencer's counterpart and long time foe: Shinu. The creature that had, at one time, been merely a servant of the darkness had become an incarnation of darkness itself. His powers had, at one time, been far beyond the green haired man's hope to destroy him, but now, the dark one was merely a fading memory. One day soon, the green haired man would find him and recover what had been stolen from the Aura Master so long ago, even if it wasn't for the best of his person.
The other was not merely an incarnation of darkness, but the God of Darkness himself. Sin, the Dark God that had been sealed into the sun so long ago to prevent his dark energies from ruling existence, or so the fencer had been told, had appeared defeated the green haired man. His dark magic stronger then the young Aura Master could handle, but one day soon, the fencer would find that creature again and defeat him.
It wasn't long now, only a few more minutes and he would be upon the gate. A suddenly, thundering voice called down from atop the gate to the small man below. "You there, halt! What is your business here?!" the man asked, looking at the man with eccentric green hair.
"I am here to get news of this land, that is all. I greatly desire to know what new has come about in this land, for I am merely an adventure looking for a good adventure. Please, kind sir, indulge me into what is occurring here!" the green haired man responded, casting a wide smile up at the man.
Perhaps the most straining experience that Solomon had ever been subjected to, waiting for Zorlo to meet with and garner useful information from the gate guards, was almost unendurable for many important reasons– not the least of which being that the ex-legionary was forced to wait helplessly while the possibility of being caught and executed loomed ever-larger over him. The thought of the excruciating pain that would await him, as a deserter, if he was ever brought into the hands of the legions was almost too great a thought to stomach, it was truly that terrifying, and more because he knew first hand that even the best of men were unable to stand against the treatment deserters were doled out ... he had seen the toughest soldiers alive reduced to weeping masses. They became little better than jelly, quaking at sounds in the night or the creaks of doors down the hallways, waiting impatiently for the day they would be shoved out of their cell and into the light of day, where they would be beheaded.
The idea that such a thing could befall him in such a short time, mere moments even, was enough to make the flesh crawl all over Solomon's back and shoulders. His hands shook, but he hardly took notice of them, staring intently at the walls instead, and the dark figure of Zorlo as it went inside the opened gate. It was up to the fencer now, but the thought was as unwelcome as it was worrying, because it meant that failure would be on the hands of another: a death sentence due to someone else, a friend's, carelessness.
Zachary had gulped his pills and was asleep now, but his hand was still twitching, as if it itched. When the swordsman began shivering and twitching all over, Solomon felt his eyes drawn to the slightly younger man in curiosity– it looked like hell, if hell could be in a nightmare. Soft exclamations started streaming into the air, followed by horrible rasping gasps, as if the boy was choking to death.
The deserter looked away, leaving his companion to solitary misery. A past that could incite dreams so horrible ... perhaps the man deserved it, if he had done things so terrible. Solomon knew he deserved it himself, but he had never had trouble sleeping.
"Hurry up, Zorlo," he whispered, feeling his unease rise like bile in his throat. The bad feeling he had earlier was not only bad, it had begun to feel like a terrible weight on his shoulders, like someone had taken ten tons of weight and forced him to carry it for miles. Something about that star sign gave him the desire to give up the quest and abandon Zorlo to whatever happened. If anything, he did not want to be included in seven prophetic deaths.
That was the best way the ice innate could describe the dream realm he found himself in. All around him was an inky, lingering darkness that rushed around his body. He stood up, in the center of a strange room where a black liquid seemed to pour from the walls towards the young warrior's position in the center. The blackness converged on him, but how could he allow this.
He scrambled backwards, trying desperately to get away from what seemed to be trying to draw him in. Something, from where the ice innate had been placed, began to rise, only forming a black orb that continued to rise. Suddenly, the blackness about the rising thing began to swirl, and the walls leaked even more of the black ooze. Now, the sludge began to take a physical form, a face forming out of the top of the black liquid that rolled off of it. Whatever this was, it was surely the purest darkness that Zachary had ever seen.
Slowly, the form revealed a head, with long bangs hanging over the face, eyes closed with features that were similar to another person the ice innate knew. Slowly, the body took shape, revealing a long jacket that moved down until the person's thighs, gauntlets covering his hands and his legs were strong, meant for long distance running. Slowly, the ice innate figured out who it was. That figure was a dark version of Zorlo, and it was here to kill him.
How could that be though? Why would such a thing be wherever it was the youth found himself? He pondered, grabbing his sword and drawing it. This was his chance to strike down the fencer, and that was it. This was his dream, and he knew it. This fake Zorlo would fall, as the real one would.
Suddenly, the dark figure's eyes opened, glowing red. His gaze fell upon the ice innate, who stood up and slashed his sword through the dark warrior.
The fencer watched as the massive gate opened and a pair of guards walked out, eying the green attired man suspiciously. They seemed more thrown by the man's hair then his outlandish appearing clothing. Despite how he was dressed, they wouldn't arrest him without cause. Lucky for the fencer, his bounty did not reach this land.
"State your purpose again!" the guard ordered, keeping a close eye on the fencer's actions.
"I come seeking news of this land," the Aura Master stated, remaining calm and relaxed.
"Why have you come in search of such things?" the other guard asked, eyeing the green haired man with greater suspicion.
"I am a traveler and have heard of trouble in this land and have come to try to remove it. Would you tell me what this is about?" the green haired man asked, smiling at the soldiers.
The both looked at each other and shrugged, deciding he was merely a traveler and that they could trust him. "Word is that three more Legion generals died. I think its dark magic killing off all of these generals," one said, looking at the other.
"Yeah, that's the story going around at home. You need anything else, civilian?" the guards asked as the fencer shook his head.
"Thank you, good sirs. Have a good day!" the fencer said, smiling as he turned around and burst towards where Solomon was. He had to get this news to him quickly.
The green haired man had ran for an hour at the highest speed he could manage before arriving back at the camp. He looked at Solomon, catching his breath, before telling the deserter. "Word from the gate is that three generals have died, and the suspected cause is the dark magic. What are we going to do from here?" the Aura Master asked, a hint of worry in his voice.