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Chapter 010: Resistance

As the horde closed in, I didn’t notice the two bandits behind us cranking open the steel barred gates. Bull picked me up like a sack of potatoes, Ash hanging from my hair for dear life. 

“From here on, you must do exactly as I say, understand?” Gavin was running behind us, the flood of enemies nearly making it through the exit before a few of the turncoats slammed the gates shut behind us, giving us a clear shot at escape. Gavin smirked as an explosion sounded behind us, followed by familiar screams from days prior. I was overwhelmed by everything happening, unable to find my voice. 

“Don’t worry kid. We’ll be out of here in no time!” Bull laughed heartily as we continued our sprint through the winding corridor. You could really tell he was in his element, loving every minute of the chaos he was orchestrating. The sounds of battle echoed through the narrow halls, Bull’s giddiness evened out by Gavin’s more serious demeanor. The giant seemed to have the keep’s layout memorized, leading us down a convoluted route of twists and turns that lead deep into the heart of the dungeon. What had felt like hours took only minutes in reality, but nevertheless the giant had brought us to a thick, wooden door that was reinforced with steel. Bull’s face was covered in a childish grin, clearly pleased with his performance. He set me down on the ground with a thud. 

“Isabelle should be just through this door. This is the chamber where Bull and I were being kept.” Gavin’s gaze was steel and focused; a side of him I wasn’t overly familiar with. Before when we were captured, we didn’t even have a chance to fight back. With how organized those bandits were, it couldn’t have been coincidence. They had to have seen us leave the city… “You doing okay, kid?” 

“Y-yeah, I’m fine. It’s just been… a little crazy. That’s all.” Ash nestled deeper into his nest of hair. 

“Good. I- no, we need you to stay focused.” 

“Step aside, gentleman.” Bull forced his way through, producing a key that was formerly hidden in the sash wrapped around his waist. “I’m sure that young lady’s getting tired of waiting.” 

After a few moments of fidgeting with the lock, an audible click sounded, and the heavy door swung open. 

“After you,” Bull said with a grin, waving us through. 

“Go on, Fyn. I’ll be right behind you.” Gavin placed his hand on my shoulder, offering a warm smile. “We’re going to get out of here. Today.” 

I nodded, struggling to keep myself composed. I’d spent days worrying that he’d somehow gotten himself killed, that I was searching for a corpse. In that moment, his words really helped relieve a lot of the worry I was holding on to. 

“Wait a minute…” Bull muttered as we passed through the doorway. Looking frantically from cell to cell, one thing became painfully obvious; Isabelle wasn’t here.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me…” The giant cursed under his breath. 

“Just hold on before you go and blow your lid. Maybe she found a way out; after all, she’s nothing if not crafty.” 

“I hope you’re right, Quicksilver. Only problem is we have to make our way back up again. Those hallways are gonna be crawling with bandits by now, and it’s only a matter of time before they find us holed up in here.” 

“I can’t really argue with that. Come on Fyn, let’s get moving.” 

“Hold on!” I shouted a little louder than I anticipated. Both Bull and Gavin jumped a little. 

“I know where the princess is…” 

“Wait, how did you-” Gavin stopped himself. “That doesn’t matter right now. Where is she?” 

“…Outside the keep, waiting for me…” 

“Of course. She wouldn’t let you wander into a bandit fortress on your own. She at least has some kind of backup with her, right?” I shrugged, Gavin cursing. “Dammit… this will complicate things.” Bull let out a hearty laugh, shaking his head as he crossed his arms. 

“So here’s the situation; Isabelle is missing in action, and the Princess you’ve been chasing is right under our noses. First things first; we find the girl. Isabelle can take care of herself. Otherwise she’s likely already dead. The Princess, however…” 

“She’ll be alright. As long as we can get to her before long…” Gavin raised an eyebrow with a playful smirk. 

“Somebody have a bit of a crush?” I could feel my cheeks turning red, looking away quickly. 

“No! It’s not like that…” 

“Then it’s decided. We find the girl first. Fyn, I think it’s safer if you wait here.” 

“No!” I shouted again, unintentionally. “I can help. Trust me.” 

“And what exactly can you help with, unarmed?” 

“Gavin, please. I have a few tricks up my sleeve…” 

“Ah, just let the boy come. I’ll take the front, you take the-” 

“My my, how heartwarming. The old washed-up knight reunited with his useless apprentice…” 

Rian stood in the doorway, a maniacal smile stretching from ear to ear. His eyes were cold and long dead, sending a chill through my spine as he spoke. 

“It’s been a while, huh.” Gavin’s grip tightening on his hilt. “I’m surprised you’re still alive.”

“I guess you should have checked my corpse more carefully, Quicksilver. Although you’re lacking the namesake you wielded so expertly…” 

Gavin’s knuckles started turning white. “After all that, I moved on. Broadswords are more my style now.” 

“What a shame. I was really hoping to fight you at your full strength.” Rian shrugged as he dropped to a low stance, lunging towards Gavin preemptively as he unsheathed two single-edged swords. Gavin narrowly dodged the first attack, sidestepping an overhead slash. Rian adjusted quickly, his left sword changing course halfway through his swing. Gavin parried the blow with a little bit of luck, swinging the blade over his shoulder. It wasn’t difficult to see this maniac was pushing the Quicksilver Knight to his limits. 

Without a rapier, Gavin’s regular speed was nearly halved.  A broadsword weighs substantially more than the former, forcing him to adjust his fighting style drastically. Neither of us wanted to say it, but Gavin was at a steep disadvantage. 

“Sloppy as ever, I see.” Despite his struggle, Gavin taunted him. The man growled, spinning his swords as he took an offensive stance.

“You think you can fool me with a facade? I’ll make you eat those words!”  

Rian lunged again, Gavin staying on the defensive. Bull had placed himself in front of me, refusing to interfere in the duel. 

“Why don’t you help him?” I whispered, Ash’s head poking up from his nest. 

“Can’t you see what’s going on here?” Bull smiled, shaking his head. “This is between Gavin and that bastard. If I stepped in, Quicksilver might kill me. Besides, he’ll come out on top. You’ll see.” 

I sighed, my eyes wandering back to the battle in front of us. It was the first time I’d witnessed Gavin’s swordplay without holding back, and it was like watching a skilled dancer. Each of his movements was seemingly calm and precise, him bringing his sword to reflect Rian’s attack in the nick of time, almost like it was rehearsed. Even with the heavier sword, Gavin was managing to hold his own, but he was tiring much more quickly. It was clear he wasn’t used to lugging around that much weight. 

“You’re not running out of fire, are you old man?” Rian’s grin was desperate and unnerving, like staring into the eyes of a demon. His technique was much less refined, but the strength behind his blows was staggering. It was no wonder Gavin was getting tired; reflecting a blow like that was no small feet, let alone a barrage. 

“I’ve… gotta push through…” I could hear Gavin’s muttering. 

“Bull! You’ve gotta do something!”  Ash began stirring, but Bull placed his hand on my shoulder before I could move any further, immobilizing me. His grip was like having a boulder pin your legs; there was no escape. 

“I know you’re just worried, but listen. You’ve got to put your trust in him. Gavin’s skill with a blade is infamous throughout the kingdoms of Sevestia’s enemies.” 

I tried to wriggle free, but it was no use. “Fine!” I shouted, shrugging off his iron grip. I glanced up, Bull smiling faintly. 

Gavin’s guard was beginning to break down, little cuts showing up on his arms as Rian continued his onslaught. 

“Why… Are you doing this?” The old knight managed to spit out, taking a slash to his shoulder. He winced for only a second, leaping backwards in order to put a little distance between him and his opponent. 

“Is that a malicious question? How could you not know, teacher?!” 

“Why didn’t… you come back?” 

“You know why! You left me for dead!” 

“Is that what you really think, Ri?” I could see a memory flash in the man’s eyes for a split second, his guard lowering for only a moment. “You may not remember, but I dragged you out of that shithole.” 

“Stop it!” Rian yelled, his eyes tearing up. “You’re lying!” 

“I dragged you all the way to that cave, in the midst of a battle. I’m the one that patched you up, Rian.” 

Gavin had forced something in Rian to snap. He dropped both his swords, cradling his head. “Quit lying, you son of a bitch! You left me there!” 

“I fought off twelve men, but then we got seperated. They overtook me, would have killed me if my brother hadn’t saved me. But when I came back for you…” Gavin looked down at his feet. “I… I’m sorry, Ri.” 

By this point, Rian was kneeling on the ground, staring at his hands. “But Graves… He said…” 

“Graves is a traitor; a deserter. He was planning to betray us all along.” Gavin sheathed his own sword, walking slowly towards Rian. 

The reality he’d clung to had been shattered by Gavin’s revelation, his hands shaking as the tears rolled down his cheeks, muttering words under his breath. 

“You can hate me all you want, Ri. But you need to know that I didn’t leave you there.” 

Keeled over, staring at his bloodstained hands as the full realization of the crimes he commited washed over him, Bull struck him once in the head, incapacitating him. 

“Gavin… I-” 

“I don’t want to talk about it. We should lock him up and get moving, alright?” He may have thought that he was doing a good job at hiding it, but I understood now. The entire duration of that fight, he was taking the defensive on purpose. He didn’t want to hurt his former student, and Rian tried to take advantage of that, and ultimately failed. 

“Understood, sir.” Bull mocked him, giving a salute. I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t relate to what he was going through. All I could do was hope that Rian would come around once he woke up, maybe change his ways. Either way, it wasn’t the time to be dwelling. 

Bull scooped up the unconscious man like a mother lifting her baby, carefully setting  him down on a cot in one of the cells, and locking it as he left. “Okay!” He shouted, punching his hand as he stood in front of the doorway leading out of the dungeon. “We have a princess to save!” 

Any of our remaining pursuers had become lost in the conflict, random bouts happening  in every corner of the fortress. It felt like we were in the middle of a war; echoes of metal against metal reverberating through the small stone corridors.  

“When Bull said he was staging a coup, I had no idea just how much support he’d rallied.” Gavin laughed with a determined grin, shaking his head. Bull grinned, offering a thumbs up. 

 As we reached the top of the staircase, he jerked his arm out  in front of me, stopping me dead in my tracks with a thump. Even running into him at full speed, Gavin hardly budged from the impact. That single moment of letting his guard up had vanished, the stench of a rotten man wafting through the stagnant air. Within seconds, Graves emerged from around the corner, donning an unsettling toothy grin

“Stay behind me…” I tried to listen as he spoke, but Grave’s wide-eyed grin was distracting. Graves twirled his broadsword, followed by a deep, menacing laugh. 

“Gavin… I never thought I’d have the chance.” 

“Likewise. Really been a blast from the past. First Rian, now you…” The man’s brow twisted for a split second, followed by his familiar, dark cackle. 

“How was the reunion? I’m sure he had a lot to say.” It was obvious what he was trying to do to Gavin, but what was more surprising was that it was working. 

“You son of a bitch… You rotted that poor kid’s mind, brainwashed him into being your lap dog. He didn’t stand a chance…” Gavin was failing at hiding his anger. Couldn’t he see that was what Graves wanted?

Graves grinned ear to ear, shaking his head. “Are you sure about that, old friend? Or maybe I opened his eyes to what the world could really offer. I’ve never been happier, or more free!” 

“You’re delusional. We end this. Today.” The knight’s anger was burning out of control, the only thing on his mind vengeance. He wanted to see Graves pay, and that would compromise him.

“Your funeral, Ex-Paladin!” The old knight lunged towards him, Gavin only narrowly deflecting the wild blow. His eyes widened, surprised by his foe’s strength, speed and precision. Graves was his senior by at least ten years, but he was just as strong, if not stronger than he was in his youth. I looked up to Bull, his expression suggesting that he was a little more worried than he was earlier.  

“That speed…” He barely had a chance to take a breath before Graves lunged again, narrowly missing his neck as he spun around with a horizontal slash. Gavin dodged the blow by the hair on his neck, the blade grazing the back of his skull. He then countered with his own strike, aiming for his foe’s thigh.Graves’s sword was already there, swatting away Gavin’s attack like a fly. The man laughed maniacally, leaping backwards. 

“You were always a skilled swordsman, I’ll give you that. But this…” Gavin shook his head in doubt, his thoughts racing. “But this…” 

Graves shook his head, snickering. “Or maybe you’ve become weak since your ‘fall from grace’, Quicksilver Paladin.” I could feel the rage pulsing from Gavin as the man mocked him. “You’ve grown complacent over the years. Training children has made you soft!” Graves began the dance once more, both men parrying the other’s blows. Watching them fight was watching two sides of the same image, their technique clearly adopted from the same instructor. However, Graves’s raw speed and power was proving too much for Gavin to handle,not to mention he was still recovering from the earlier fight. 

“Are you just gonna watch again?” I looked up at Bull, a cold sweat on his forehead. 

“I don’t know. There’s so much history…” 

“If you don’t I will!” 

Bull’s reaction was too late, reaching for me just as I exited his arm’s length. I had no idea what I was about to do; all I knew was that even for a second, I somehow had to draw Graves’s attention. He smirked, mocking me. I could feel Ash powering up, the familiar heat returning to the small of my back. 

“Get out of the way, Gavin!” I was forced to watch as he turned to face me, the tip of Graves’s sword protruding from Gavin’s abdomen. I could feel the tears instantly surfacing, and the amplified emotion aided by Ash’s power. Luckily, Bull pulled Gavin aside as I cocked back my fist, the veins of electricity spreading into my fingertips. 

As my fist travelled through the air, it was like an invisible barrier stopped me from fully going through the motion, holding my hand an inch from his chest. I looked up at Graves in shock, the man standing with his arms crossed. On the bottom of his forearm, I could see strange letters glowing a vibrant white. The last thing I saw was that bastard’s cynical grin as the lightning was released, the impact launching both of us in different directions. My arm felt like it’d been ripped off and reattached as I slammed into a cobblestone wall, an audible crack sounding in my torso. 

My vision faded in and out as Bull rushed towards me, Gavin behind him clutching his abdomen. He’d at least pulled the sword from the wound, using his prison rags as a makeshift bandage. I can specifically remember Bull’s reaction to the power; normally, people were surprised and shocked when they witnessed a kid with magic powers. Bull’s expression was more that of excitement, rather than fear. The last thing I remembered was the giant picking us both up, and sprinting for the door to the surface before I passed out.  

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Chapter 004: An Unlucky Escape

“I’m sorry, but I’m still a bit skeptical… Why would you go out of your way to help  a stranger?” Isabelle laughed at my question, unlocking the front door. 

“If you’re that worried, you can go ahead and find your friend on your own. I’ll stay right here.” She turned around, smirking. “But I sure hope those men don’t come looking for you.” 

“Fine…” I sighed. “I get your point.” 

“Then it’s settled!” I liked to pretend that I had at least some insight into how people acted. In a way that I knew what their true intentions were. But Isabelle was impossible to read. She kept an impeccable poker face, but my eye was untrained. Either way, I had no choice. She was my best bet on finding Gavin before the other men found me. 

We backtracked to the alley where we initially separated, but Gavin was long gone. After that, we headed to the main street market. It was teeming with hundreds of people, the volume something I still wasn’t used to. Isabelle claimed that normally it was twice as crowded. 

“A shadow of what it used to be. It’s sad, really.” Isabelle sighed as we searched, but I wasn’t sure how to respond. I couldn’t relate to what Traug was like when it was truly booming, so I decided it better to keep my silence. After half an hour of shuffling up and down the cobblestone path, it was obvious that Gavin had fled elsewhere.

“Where were you guys heading?” Isabelle asked. Of course! I shook my head, angry that I hadn’t thought of it earlier.

“The north gate!” The creature growled as I smacked my forehead.

“What was that?” Isabelle asked. Had she really not noticed the strange bulge in my vest? I cradled it gently, soothing it back to sleep. 

“Don’t worry about it. Let’s head for the gate.” 

Luckily for me, she decided to drop it. We headed for the north gate with haste, but the guards were still on the back of my mind. What if they were waiting for me, and had captured Gavin? I quickly dismissed the notion, and followed closely behind Isabelle.   

The brigand guardsmen were nowhere to be seen, and the gate was staffed by only one man. 

“Something’s wrong. There’s always three men posted at this gate.” Isabelle was on edge, weary of her surroundings. I was skeptical at first, but as we came closer to the guard, something seemed oddly familiar.

“Isabelle, it’s alright. That’s him!” Although he wasn’t dressed in his trademark iron cuirass, Gavin’s lanky stature was one of a kind. He stood lazily, leaning on the oversized halberd he’d mysteriously proccuerd  in the last hour. 

“Gavin!” I called out, the guard looking towards me. 

“Fyn? Oh, thank God!” He exclaimed in a whisper, his attention snapping to Isabelle. “I only just lost them. We need to get moving. Who’s this?” 

“Sir Gavin… It’s been a while.” Isabelle smiled sheepishly, but Gavin couldn’t seem to place her. 

“Do I know you?” I could almost see the veins of frustration popping in her forehead as he squinted, removing the oversized salet. 

“Gavin, it’s Isabelle!” 

“Isabelle…?” He was thinking so hard by this point you could see the steam rolling from his ears. 

“Clark’s daughter?” Gavin’s eyes widened as the realization flooded over him. 

“Oh my, the last time I saw you, you were just a little girl!” His genuine surprise wasn’t doing him any favours, the young lady still quite upset. “Um, what have you been up to all these years?” 

“Funny you should ask…” Before they could reminisce, the five men appeared in the street, looking straight at us. They didn’t look impressed. 

“Oi!” They called out, now pointing. It seemed another three had joined them, looking even less friendly than the others. “Don’t you move, scum!” 

“We’ll continue this later. If you’d both please follow me!” Gavin and Isabelle ran towards the gate, heading for the infamous Eldergrove on the other side of the drawbridge. I chased after them, Gavin kicking the gate’s crank as he passed. It came crashing down harshly, Isabelle pulling me through by a hair’s width as the portcullis grazed my back. 

“Stay on your feet! Don’t stop!” Gavin called back, Isabelle and I recovering quickly. The scaled creature had fallen out of my vest, crying out. The men’s eyes widened as I scooped it back up, taking off after Isabelle. The creature seemed injured, whimpering as we fled into the trees. 

The Eldergrove was the oldest forest in Sevestia, it’s ancient evergreens stretching hundreds of feet into the sky. It was full of vibrant history, the more religious of Sevestia claiming it as a holy land. The summits of the Frostpeaks were deserving of every bit of praise they received, setting an amazing backdrop to an impeccable testament of nature the Eldergrove evergreens were. However, it’s sacred beauty failed to deter countless bandits from taking residence deep in the bush, preventing many of Gaia’s disciples from making the pilgrimage to the First Tree. Gavin said he made the pilgrimage in his youth, claiming the tree was ‘magic’. I could hardly imagine anything more impressive than the great trees before me. 

The distraction of new scenery faded as the scaled creature yelped once more, like the cry of an infant. Gavin glanced back as we sprinted deeper into the brush, Isabelle confused. 

“What was that?” She asked, winded. 

“Gavin, we need to stop. He can’t take it anymore.” I pleaded, the knight sighing deeply as he slowed his pace.

“Fine. But we can’t stop for long. There’s no telling how close behind us they are, and even I can’t fight seven men at once.” Isabelle rolled her eyes as he bragged, and I probably would have laughed under different circumstances.

We veered down a remote trail, hidden from plain sight behind the thicket’s cover. It turned out Gavin’s pilgrimage was more useful than anticipated, having a vague knowledge of the land. We took refuge near a secluded brook, careful not to leave a trail for our ‘friends’. I set down the creature near the water, Isabelle’s eyes widening. 

“What the hell is that thing?” Her voice jumped an octave, her seemingly calm demeanor shattered. “Fyn, what is it?” 

“We don’t know.” I squatted beside it, stroking it’s back. It seemed to press into my hand, enjoying the attention. “Those men were after it.” 

“Hold on. You’re telling me that entire debacle was because of this… thing?” She looked at Gavin in outrage, but was only given a shrug. “And you let him?!” Isabelle grunted angrily, looking for an answer.

“We couldn’t just leave him behind. You saw those guys; they would have hurt him.” 

“So what!?” She barely let me finish speaking, practically screaming. “You’d risk both of your lives for some little vermin?” 

“That’s enough.” Gavin interjected. “You might as well have left a sign if you keep this up.” 

“I’m sorry, it’s just-” 

“I said enough!” It was the first time I’d heard Gavin yell, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t put me on edge. “It doesn’t matter at this point. Fyn made a decision, albeit stupid, he’s stood by it. And I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see what is so important about it that a band of brigands masquerading as guards would chase us down for.” 

Neither Isabelle nor I spoke after that, and that was fine by me. It would probably just have led to a pointless argument. Honestly, I was just relieved that he took  my side in the matter, even if he called me stupid. My father had said much worse in the past, so I could live with it. 

“Have you figured out why it was whining?” Gavin asked.

“I’m not sure. I could have just been squeezing him too tightly.” I examined him as he drank from the water, his temperament completely changed from when we found him in the alleyway. He seemed happy now, away from the cobblestone roads with dirt under his feet. He looked up at me with a peculiar grin, jumping into my lap. “Maybe he was just thirsty?” 

“He’s really warmed up to you.” Gavin stated, a shadow of a smirk on his face. Isabelle rolled her eyes with a scowl, sitting down on a nearby rock. “What are you going to name him?” 

“Name?” I hadn’t even considered it, if I was being honest. Things had happened so fast that my only focus was keeping him safe. “I get to name him?” 

“I’ve spent my fair share of time around pups, and I’d say that one’s chosen you as it’s master.” The scaled creature gallivanted around, nipping at my hands as I tried to pet him. 

“I mean, I guess you’re right…” 

Naming things is difficult. You’re responsible for choosing the title that something will be known as for the rest of its life, which becomes an especially heavy burden when you’re unsure what that ‘something’ even is. It wasn’t like I could just name him ‘Spot’ or ‘Rex’. It was too mundane, and he didn’t have any spots. As we sat, watching the creature quizzically, it let out a small cough accompanied by a small poof of grey residue. We all jumped back, startled by the discovery.

“Was that… ash?” Gavin asked aloud. In that moment, it became obvious. 

“That’s it.” I jumped up, exclaiming. “From here on, you’ll be known as ‘Ash’!” The little creature galloped around approvingly, making a croak-like noise from the bottom of it’s throat. 

As we celebrated his naming, I didn’t notice the somber look that Gavin and Isabelle shared, or hear the soft footsteps of the approaching group. I felt something pinch my neck, like a bug bite. Seconds later, I had fallen to the ground beside Ash, who was standing over me protectively as my vision quickly faded.

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Chapter 003: Peculiar Creatures & Friendly Strangers

Our return to Traug was much more informative, with Gavin less… elated. The locals whispered of uprising, with more and more citizens fleeing the city every day in fear of a full-blown rebellion. I didn’t understand it at the time, poverty being something I thought of as normal, but Sevestia’s economy was on a downspike. The noble coffers were dangerously light, keeping the aristocratic merchants far from Traug’s renowned marketplace. Instead, they were replaced by amateur craftsmen still honing their trade, but even for the cheaper price, no one had any money to spend. 

Amongst the screams of political outrage, a rumour of a crimson-haired rebel eventually found its way to Gavin’s ear. It was a well-known fact that the princess shared the same auburn locks as her father, but it had to be a coincidence. 

“You don’t think it’s her, do you?” I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not, his boyish grin suggesting sarcasm, but the determination in his eyes disagreeing. 

“How would I know? I don’t even know what she looks like.” Gavin laughed as I shrugged, still unsure. 

We were headed towards the North Bridge, one of two bridges that connected Traug to the mainland. While it was, in fact, located on the coast, the city itself sat on a solemn island  in the middle of Little Bay. The Marble Keep had been built on the island hundreds of years ago, and the city was built around it. It was the Kingdom’s western-most city, and its location made it the largest trading hub on the entire continent. That is, until the foreboding bankruptcy became an issue. 

As we navigated the wide, cobblestone streets, something caught the corner of my eye in an adjacent alleyway. Initially I thought it was a dog of some sort, but it’s red, scaled hide suggested otherwise. Gavin watched in confusion, calling after me as I sprinted towards the strange creature. 

It was curled up in a ball, cowering as I slowly approached. I’d never seen anything like it, tiny yellow claws sprouting from the tips of its little toes. It hissed as I came closer, revealing a jaw full of tiny, razor sharp teeth. It’s tongue was forked like a snake’s, it’s yellow eyes practically bulging from it’s head. 

“Fyn, be careful!” Gavin called. His furrowed brow and uneven tone were a dead giveaway of his own first encounter with the strange, scaled creature. I ignored him, approaching it carefully. 

Over the years, it seemed that animals were naturally drawn to me. I usually didn’t go out of my way to befriend them, accepting that they enjoyed following me around, but this creature was different. Something else was drawing me to it, screaming at me not leave it on it’s own. It backed as far into that corner as it could, and I could feel the fear emanating from it. 

“It’s okay, little guy. I won’t hurt you.” I extended my hand slowly, until it was several inches from it’s face. I’d made the mistake often enough that if I came any closer, I might not be keeping my finger. 

“We really don’t have time for this!” Gavin was standing behind me now, watching intently. He didn’t try to pull me away, so I waited for the little creature to come to me. 

After several minutes, waiting was no longer an option as heavy footsteps echoed from deeper within the alley. Right as he was about to sniff my finger, his eyes widened in terror and he tried to flee, jumping into my torso. His tiny claws dug into my chest, but I held him tightly as he squirmed. He was cold to the touch, and his scales smooth like a river stone. It began to yelp, and the footsteps hastened in reply. A group of five men came storming around the corner, looking particularly unfriendly. Their garb suggested they were city guards, but even I could tell that something was off about them. 

“Stand behind me, boy.” Gavin commanded. I tucked the scaled creature underneath my vest, attempting to hide him the best I could. 

“We have to keep him safe.” It was something I knew I couldn’t budge on. An unknown force had drawn me to this helpless creature, and that same force was screaming at me to flee. 

“Fine. But stay quiet, okay?” 

The men were quickly upon us ,and the closer they came the more they looked like disguised brigands.

“‘Morning, gentlemen.” The first greeted us as his posse began looking around. “We’re on a special errand for his majesty. You wouldn’t have happened to see… a strange little creature nearby, have you?” The man looked worried, constantly checking over his shoulder like somebody was watching him close by, ready to scold him if he so much as glanced in the wrong direction. His erratic behaviour put me on edge, but Gavin seemed unfazed. 

“Goodday, sir. I’m afraid we’ve seen nothing of the sort.” The knight smiled, and shrugged apologetically. 

“Damn… If you do spot anything strange, please notify the guardsmen.” It was like you could see a visible wave of fear come over him at the realization he probably wasn’t going to find the creature. I contemplated giving the little guy up, but deep down I knew I couldn’t. 

“Of course. Be seeing you, sir.” Gavin bid him farewell, beckoning me along. I stuck close behind, until the guard placed his hand on my shoulder, sending shivers down my spine. I looked up at Gavin and we both knew there was no hiding it now. I had to make a decision, and fast.

“You haven’t seen anything, have you boy?” Gavin shook his head, already knowing what I was thinking. As the guard’s grip tightened slightly, I took off like a spooked horse, mere seconds before I couldn’t escape his grip. Gavin watched as I sprinted down the alley, making himself a hindrance to their pursuit. I could faintly hear him apologizing as they tried to pass him, stumbling over his feet. I didn’t look back, running aimlessly through the alleys. That is, until a stranger pulled me through a hidden doorway. 

 I was taken off guard for a moment, the door slamming behind me quickly, and followed by the latch of a deadbolt. The stranger held their hand tightly over my mouth, shushing me as the footsteps passed. A few moments later, once they were sure that the men had passed, the stranger finally released me. With my bearings regained, I was on guard. I pulled the dull bronze blade from its sheath, but held on tightly to the creature hidden in my vest with my free hand. It’s squirming had subsided somewhat, giving me slight relief.

The stranger was cloaked in a black shroud, complete with a mask concealing their identity. I pointed the sword at them, stumbling backwards towards the doorway.  I desperately grasped for any of the thousand words racing through my head, but was unable to make any kind of noise. The stranger was much more frightening than the ‘soldiers’, and the stranger’s poise made it clear that they knew their way around a blade. Instead of drawing their own weapon, the stranger removed her hooded mask. 

Before anything else, I noticed her violet eyes, a color so fierce it pierced my soul. The conviction behind her gaze was astute, but retained a gentle quality. Her oaken hair was tied back tightly, and her smile was welcoming and non-threatening. She raised her hands calmly, gesturing that she was harmless.

“Don’t worry. I’m on your side.” Her voice was more cautious than kind, but at that time my trust could be easily won. “Just put the sword down, and let’s talk this out.” 

I studied her for a moment longer before deciding if she was telling the truth, and finally sheathed my sword. “If you’re on ‘my side’, who exactly are you?” She smiled sheepishly, shrugging. 

“This is a little embarrassing, but I saw those men chasing you and figured you could use a hand. My name is Isabelle-” She extended a hand promptly, startling me a tad. I jumped back and she giggled. “I’m sorry!”

“I-It’s fine…” I could feel my cheeks turning red as I extended my own hand. “I’m Fyn.” 

Her grasp was firm and even, nearly perfect. “A pleasure, young man! Now before we continue, we should check on your friend, no?” In all the excitement, I’d nearly forgotten about Gavin. 

“Right! Of course!” I sighed, following her to the store front. The creature had curled close to my chest, taking refuge in my grasp. It was strange; never had I experienced an animal warming up to me so quickly. I felt connected to it, a feeling I was unfamiliar with. In that moment, I swore to myself I’d keep that scaly little creature safe, no matter what kind of danger pursued it. If I didn’t watch out for it, who would? 

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Chapter 002: A Whole Lot Of Heart

Hello everyone! So to get everything caught up, I’ll be posting part 2 and 3 over the next couple days to get caught up with the story so far on reddit. If you can’t wait any longer, link is here: Part 2

Now without further ado…​

I tried asking him about the ‘meeting’ afterwards, but Gavin refused to speak of it. ‘A squire’s job is to listen,’ he claimed belligerently. I knew he was just trying to avoid the conversation, but I was in no position to push any further. Afterwards, I learned that the King had invited us to join him for a lavish dinner, as well as provide a proper bed to sleep in for the night. I was astounded by his generosity, curious if this was how he treated all of his Knights. 

We had an hour to prepare for the meal, and Gavin’s habit of cleanliness was absurd. Being raised on the farm, table manners were not a priority,  and as the youngest of four siblings, you had to fight for your food. Those more ‘animalistic’ tendencies, as Gavin liked to put it, embarrassed him on more than one occasion. This, however, was by far the most drastic case.

Once he was finished cleaning me up, a butler escorted us to the dining room, which was just as large as the audience chambers. The longest table I’d ever seen sat in the center of that room, with at least twenty chairs on either side. My jaw must have been hanging wide open, because Gavin’s elbow was buried in my side before I realized what I was doing myself. 

“Get a hold of yourself…” He whispered in a hushed, angry voice. Like a father scolding his child. I was tempted to argue, but I managed to hold my tongue as I reminded myself of where I was. Remember Fyn, you’re supposed to be respectful! 

The butler took us to our seats, strategically placed at the table’s center. When we finally sat down, I hadn’t noticed that the King and Queen were already seated at opposite ends of the table. I was unsure as to why, but Gavin didn’t seem to question it so I kept quiet. Although I was a tad anxious, things seemed to be going alright. That is, until the food arrived. 

To be fair, it had nearly been a day since we’d last eaten, in which I was scolded for my lack of table manners as well, but by that point I was completely famished. It was like I went into a gluttonous trance, all three of them watching in horror as I devoured the thick pork loin like it was still attached to the boar. It was the kind of thing you try to look away from, but find yourself glancing back constantly despite your best efforts to refrain. Even with their inadvertent staring, it was the best meal I’d tasted to this day. 

“What the hell is wrong with you…” Gavin sighed as we retired to our nightly quarters. The rest of the meal had carried on without incident, save for a few concerned looks from the King and Queen, and a parental-level death glare from Sir Gavin. Thankfully he didn’t bother shouting; after I came out of that trance, I was embarrassed enough without his ridicule. The rest of the night was filled with an awkward silence until sleep finally found us. 

Morning arrived much more quickly than I’d anticipated; I’d always dreamt of sleeping on a feather mattress, but never did I imagine how comfortable it really was. Unfortunately, Gavin couldn’t relate to my gratitude. He’d grown up in this kind of extravagance. I didn’t know at the time, but was the son of a noble lord, providing him with the wealth and power of his family’s estate. As much as his attitude bothered me, it was the type of thing you couldn’t hold against him; after all, he’d never known anything different. 

“Come on, Fyn. We’re burning daylight!” The knight was already clad in his steel armor, a long, leather cloak fastened to his pauldrons. He was even sporting his ornamental scabbard on his waist, decorated with colorful jewels and intricate etchings. The sword it housed was unfamiliar; not the old, bronze blade that he’d been wearing the day before. 

I was still dazed as I sat up, my vision blurry from sleep. “I’ve never seen that one before. Have you always carried it with you?” 

“I have…” Gavin pulled the scabbard free, releasing the gleaming steel from it’s home. “My father had it smithed when I was first knighted.” He replaced it on his waist, but his face was long. “I never thought I deserved such an ornate blade, but I must confess; I’m worried, Fyn.” 

“Worried?” 

“Yes.” The knight walked over to an east-facing window, the sunrise peaking just over the horizon. “His majesty obviously lacks faith in me if I was his third choice. Did you know he and I grew up together?” 

“You hadn’t mentioned it, sir.” 

“It’s not something I like to share. We’ve grown apart over the years, but we were close when we were boys.” The vacant look in Gavin’s eyes suggested his mind was elsewhere, reliving a distant memory. “He used to tell me that once he was inaugurated, that I would serve as his Commander General, and sit as his head advisor. That was nearly twenty years ago, now.” 

Gavin turned from the window, with his old bronze sword in hand. It must have been sitting on the sill, waiting for him.“What he’s done for us over the past day- that’s not something he would do for an ordinary knight. That’s something you do when you’re send somebody on a hopeless errand.” 

“I know that you’ve only been my squire a month or so, but I want you to take this. The path ahead will be dangerous, and you need to be able to defend yourself.” He passed me the old blade, but I was hesitant. “Come, now. This was once my father’s blade, the blade that won him the favor of the last King. Take it.” 

“Hold on one minute.” Even I was surprised by the volume of my voice, but I could no longer hold my silence. “If this sword has so much sentimental value, why would you give it to a fledgling squire? I haven’t earned that honor, Sir.” I was expecting Gavin to become angry with me, but he just smiled, laughing quietly. 

“Fyn, I could have taken on any boy in this kingdom as my apprentice. I’ve been apart of the Knighthood for many years, and have taken on many squires. Each of them has been from some royal clan, only ever in it for the glory. They never cared about our kingdom, about the people who make Sevestia what it is. But you- you may be a lazy, pigheaded boy, but you have more heart than any knight I’ve ever squired.” Gavin was smiling widely now. It was a side of him I’d never witnessed. He was prideful, but not in an arrogant way. 

“I know that all you’re after is a post with the Castle Guard, and that’s a respectable position. But hear me when I say this- you’re destined for so much more than guard duty. And that, Fyn, is why I squired a peasant boy from the farms. So, in my eyes, you deserve this sword.” There was so much passion in his voice, that it was impossible to mistake his words for lies.

My life has never been easy, and it was true; I was lazy, and pigheaded. Not to mention naive to how the world truly worked. But Gavin – he gave me a chance to prove that I was more than a lazy farmhand. He gave me a chance to prove that I had more worth than what my father told him when he took me. And with him putting that much stock in me, that much faith, I wasn’t about to let him down. For the first time in my life, I was hopeful. Hopeful to become something more than a Castle Guard. I accepted that sword, and fastened it to my belt promptly. 

“Now that that’s all sorted, don’t we have a princess to save?”

Chapter 012: Harsh, Cold Reality

I’d faced my fair share of hardships growing up. Before my stepfather was around, my family was dirt poor. I was lucky if my mother brought home a loaf of stale bread. Even through the hell Lawerence put me through, I never missed it. The further we ascended up the Frostpeaks, the more I started to miss it. Never had I experienced such a harsh cold that cuts straight to the bone. I let out an exasperated sigh as Bull trudged along in front of me, leaving a deep path of footprints in the snow that I could step in. 

“You okay back there?” He scoffed as he glanced behind his shoulder, squinting through the veil of blowing snow. I was still taken aback by how quickly the storm had brewed, and impressed with Bull’s mettle. It obviously wasn’t his first time ascending the mountain.

“Yeah! Just… Not used to so much…snow.”   

Bull grunted, but I could see his shifting eyes. He was just as suspicious as I was; it was true that the Frostpeaks were always snow-covered and cold, but for such an intense storm to stew up from nowhere…

“Why’d we have to go through the mountains in the first place? Couldn’t we have just gone around or something?” 

“You know the answer to that as well as I do, boy.” The giant’s reply was shrill, adjusting the heavy backpack on his shoulders. It still hadn’t completely sunken in that we were on the run. “We need to find shelter soon, otherwise we’ll freeze out here.” 

I had more questions, but I wasn’t in the mood to push. Bull wasn’t acting strange, and I was afraid that if I kept probing he’d snap. He was under a lot of stress after all, transporting a teenage boy and a lizard over a deathtrap of a mountain. Ash wriggled in the warmth of my coat, sleeping soundly. 

Bull still hadn’t explained what was really going on, but I knew that woman in the crow feather dress was after Ash for some reason… and the black knight… The thought of him sent shivers down my spine, the memory of his ominous presence something I’d rather forget. 

“Come on, this way-” Bull pointed off the trail, towards what looked like an impassable path shrouded ih evergreens. “There should be a cave just beyond those trees.” 

“How are we supposed to get through there? The trees are too close together to pass by…” 

“Quit that! You haven’t even tried yet, how do you know you can’t make it through?”

“I…” I could have spent hours trying to explain my thought process, but Bull was stubborn and I was tired. After everything that had happened with Beatrice, I couldn’t help but feel like a failure. My steadfast will was wavering, beaten down by our loss at the Fortress. The plan had been destined to fail since the start, and if I’d just listened to Harold… 

“Fyn!” Bull called, already standing near the treeline. “Are you coming or what?” 

“Sorry!” I said as I trudged through the giant’s tracks. 

He turned back to the grove, forcing his massive body through an opening meant for a beaver. 

“See?” He shouted, half expecting a snide grin but receiving a glare instead. “Now hurry up!” 

I stood there for a moment, watching as he slowly progressed, deep in contemplation. 

“You know what? No.” 

“What did you just say to me?” 

“I said no!” My fists were clenched as I raised my voice, Bull’s blatant surprise paralyzing him momentarily. “No, I’m going back to Traug. I have to save her. And Gavin, too.” 

“Save them from what? They’re  safe in a castle!” Bull’s sunny disposition was quickly fading. 

“You don’t understand. The Marble Keep was her prison all along…I can’t run away again, Bull. I can’t just leave her there, with that woman and her father…” 

As I spoke, Bull’s gaze was pleading. At least he was taking me seriously. 

“Fyn, just hold on! Even if you went back, you couldn’t make it out of there by yourself. I’ll be surprised if Gavin will ever walk again…” 

“How do you know? I haven’t even tried saving them yet!” I could feel the tears beginning to well in my eyes. “I can’t… I can’t leave her again…” 

It was like a moment of revelation sprang across Bull’s face as I started to tear up. He stopped trying to push through the trees, letting out a sigh. 

“You know… She’ll understand.” 

“How do you know?” 

“Because…” Bull grinned, looking at his forearm. “If you care about the princess enough to put the fate of the world in jeopardy…you must have become close. Close enough that she knows you wouldn’t abandon her by choice.” I could feel my cheeks turning red as he spoke. 

“I-it’s not like that!” I shouted, looking away. Bull couldn’t help but let out a jovial laugh. 

“Boy, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Now, look at me. I’m about to make you a deal.”

“What is it?” 

Bull held out his hand, sticking up his index finger. “Once we get Ash back to Kadriel,I’ll go back to Traug with you.” 

“Are you serious?” My voice wavered as I dabbed my eyes with my coat. 

“Yeah, of course! But first, it’s vital we get that little across the border, okay?”

“Okay…” I sighed, trying to release the tension I was holding on to. “Okay…” As I finally managed to get a grip on my anxiety, it was already too late by the time I heard the snow crunching behind me. 

“Well, well, well. I figured that this oaf might have something to do with your escape.” The stranger sounded like a young man, his sharp features and boyish smile reflecting that. His white trench coat flapped in the wind behind him, the baggy hood blowing off of his head to reveal a mop of disheveled white hair. 

“Fyn, get out of here! Now!” Bull’s voice was commanding and urgent, his eyes widened in fear. Even during the escape from the fortress, the giant’s determination hadn’t wavered. Yet this stranger, he invoked the fear of god in him. 

“Now, not so fast! We haven’t even had a chance to introduce ourselves…” The stranger’s grin grew impossibly wide, leaving an eerie feeling in my chest. “I am Gelu. I think you have something that belongs to my master…” 

“Be careful…” Ash’s voice echoed in my mind, the creature trying to bury itself deeper in my coat. 

“Quit wasting time, boy! Go!” Bull was yelling, but my feet felt like they were frozen to the ground, unwilling to move. 

“Terran, quit rushing the boy. You’re being quite rude.” The way Gelu’s voice dropped sent my heart into my stomach. There was so much malice in his voice as he danced around us, circling like we were prey. His movement was erratic and strange, like every step he took was unnatural. He stuck out his hand, revealing a vial full of red liquid like the black cloaked woman had used earlier. 

“Do you see this boy? Do you know what it is?” He crushed the vial in his hand, something glowing within his grasp as he took in a deep breath. “It’s human blood.” 

Black and red electricity began dancing around his fist as something began to take shape in front of him. As his strange power increased, his pointed ears began to grow, as well as a set of goat-like horns sprouting from his forehead. 

“Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon.” Once his spell had finished casting, in front of him was a sword made of black and red crystal, surrounded by the same electricity as before. Floating in front of him, he took the weapon by it’s hilt, pointing it towards me. “Stand still so I don’t miss, okay?” 

I could feel the warmth of Ash’s power as he began pulsing. 

“Finally!” Bull called from behind, his own ears beginning to grow as well. “I’ve been waiting for that little lizard to start pumping out some Empyr… It’s about time!” 

Bull’s arms were covered in strange tattoos, circling from his mid bicep all the way down to his fist. As he spoke, they began to pulsate a radiating brown energy, Gelu’s eyes widening as he did so. 

“How can you be siphoning a hatchling’s empyr? That shouldn’t be possible!” Gelu lunged towards me, but Bull was faster. In a matter of seconds, his arms had become encompassed in a collection of small boulders and rock, sliding in front of me to deflect Gelu’s sword at the last second. 

“When you’re as old as I am, you learn a few tricks. Now Fyn, get the hell out of here! I can hold him off for a little while, at least…” 

“What… are you?” The situation seemed surreal. Magic didn’t exist; it was something of myth and fairy tale. How could this be happening? But this wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed this power…

“You really like to ask questions at the worst times, dontcha?” Bull shook his head, deflecting another one of Gelu’s attacks. “Listen well! Head north until you find the village called Harth. Search for a man named Ignis. He’s a friend-” 

“But… What about you?” Bull caught the sword in his rocky grasp as Gelu swung again, pulling it free from his hands and throwing it into the trees. His ‘boulder gauntlets’ were beginning to fall apart, but he was committed. 

“No more questions! Go!” He grabbed me by the waistband of my pants, throwing me towards the path. I called out to him, but it was like the storm had completely enveloped both of them the second I left their vicinity. 

Over the course of my life, I’ve spent a lot of time on my own; whether that be ploughing fields, or hiding from my stepfather in the woods, I learned to appreciate my own company. Even with that experience behind me, nothing could have prepared me for the deafening silence of that mountainside. The kind that makes you feel like somebody’s always watching from a nearby bush. 

Standing in the middle of that blizzard, the rumble of an avalanche sounding behind us forced me to shift gears quite quickly. I was immediately panicked; farmers didn’t have to deal with that sort of thing!  Holding Ash tightly against my chest, I froze in place, the ground underneath my feet beginning to shake with every passing second. A dreadful feeling of inadequacy clenched at my insides; the fear that no matter what I did, I couldn’t fight the inevitable force of nature that was hurtling towards me. 

“Don’t worry…” 

Ash’s words brought warmth to my soul, the fiery sensation in my lower back spreading throughout my entire body. No matter how many times I felt that power stir, it brought the same sense of fear that I had the first time. 

A wave of white blasted through the veil of snow, time slowing so much that I could see the foreboding wall inching towards me. A wall of lighting materialized in front of me, redirecting the powerful push with a certain degree of difficulty. My feet dug into the snow and dirt, pushing back against the electric wall that stood between me and my death. 

Chapter 011: Uncertainty

When I came to, we were no longer inside the castle walls.I tried to look around, but Bull’s grip was like a vice. I could tell at least we were crouched in the shrubbery outside of the fortress, and the sound of trotting horses echoed from nearby. The second thing I noticed was Gavin’s absence. 

“I’m gonna move my hand, but you’ve gotta promise me you aren’t gonna speak. I’ll explain everything, but you have to stay quiet. Got it?” I nodded, gasping for air as he let me go. 

“Fyn, he wouldn’t have made it through that wound without someone stitching him up. And even then, his chances of survival are slim. It’s not often someone survives a stab wound through the stomach…” 

“Wait, what? What are you talking about?” Bull raised a finger to his mouth as my volume rose. “Sorry.” 

“Gavin had to go someplace where he could get the medical attention he needs. Isabelle took him with her and the Princess, back to Traug.”

“So Isabelle was okay after all, then?” 

“Yeah. Turns out she’s craftier than I anticipated.”

“But she took Beatrice… Why didn’t you send me with her?” 

Bull grinned as I finished my sentence. 

“That’s because you and your friend have to come with me.” 

My stomach sunk as I realized what was happening. “But… I can’t go with you… I have to save Beatrice!” 

“What are you talking about? She’s going home. She’s safe.” 

“No, no, no, no… You don’t understand. She can’t go back there.” 

“Wow, wow, wow. Slow down, kid. We can talk about this later, but right now, we don’t have time for it. We’re both in a lot more danger than they are…”  

“How is that even-”

Bull grabbed me by the face, ducking further into the bushes. Two people came riding out of the fortress gates; a man clad in black, gold-trimmed armor, and a woman gowned in a cloak of crow feathers. Call me crazy, but something about their presence felt ominous. 

“Any sign of the empyr wyrmling?” The woman spoke loudly, scanning the surrounding bush. Bull ducked lower, both of us trying to stay as still as possible. 

“No, ma’am. No sign of the boy either. Looks like that knight’s information was faulty.” The knight’s voice was low and gruff, his mouth seemingly still underneath his thick, black beard. 

“We can’t afford to waste any more time. If we fail to find him before the next rebirth…” 

“Don’t worry, Priestess. We have all of the fools resources at our disposal.” 

“Good, Ingram. Carry on with the search. I have a little detour to make before I return to the Keep.” 

“Yes, ma’am.” 

The black knight took off down the pathway, the roadside littered with the corpses of bandits. Maybe it was because of Ash, but I could feel the malice coming from both of them as we watched from afar. 

“She’s scary…” It was the first thing Ash had said all day, and I could feel the fear that came with his voice. 

“Don’t worry, it’s okay…” I muttered under Bull’s hand. I could feel Ash shaking, trying to burrow further into his nest of hair.

The woman reached into her cloak, producing a small vial of red liquid. She then crushed it in her hand, tracing a circle in the air. Within seconds, a portal materialized in the shape she’d drawn, it’s perimeter made from a red and black crystal-like material. She glanced from side to side once more, and let out a sigh. 

“Why can’t I feel the flow of his empyr anymore…” The rest of her sentence was cut off as she stepped through the gateway, the crystal shattering as soon as she’d passed, and disintegrating. Bull finally released me from his hold. 

“What… What was that?” I staggered backwards, falling on my backside. 

“It…. I’ll explain it later. Once we’re far away from this place. Okay?” 

Bull’s expression was reluctant. What did this giant know? 

“No.” I refused, crossing my arms. “I need some answers, and I think you know something about the power I have.” 

“Fyn, listen. It’s not safe here. If we remain here any longer, your little friend is going to start creating energy, and she’ll track us down again. The only reason she hasn’t found you is because you keep depleting it’s resources before it has a chance to completely regenerate.” 

“Uhm… Okay…” It was like he was speaking another language, but he was right about leaving. Besides, even if I tried to run, he could easily just pick me up and carry me off with  him. As I shifted my weight, I was reminded of the events from earlier with sharp pain shooting down my arm. 

“Fine. I guess I don’t have much choice, do I?” 

“Nope! Now come on, before she catches our trail.” 

“Where exactly are we going?” Bull let a mischievous grin spread from ear to ear. 

“North…” 

“You can’t mean…” 

“Yep. We’re heading to Kadriel, through the Frostpeaks.” My eyes widened as I painfully hopped to my feet. 

“Wait, what? What about the Princess?” 

“She’ll be safe, at least for now. I’m not sure what happened with you two, but you’ll have your chance to rescue her. We have to take that little guy back where he belongs, as soon as possible.” 

“And that’s in Kadriel? Seems a little bit far…” 

“It’s the only place that’ll be safe from her, and even that will only be temporary. You’re going to have to trust me on this.” 

Bull’s behaviour was becoming stranger by the minute, and I honestly wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. What if something happened to Gavin and the Princess while we were gone? What choice did I have than to take Bull at his word?  

“It’s okay. We can trust him.” Ash’s voice popped into my head without warning, but it eased the tension in me. Bull didn’t carry the malice those other two did, but instead hope. 

“Then I guess there isn’t much more to talk about.” 

“So you’re not going to argue? Great! I was worried I’d have to tie you up or something…” Bull grinned, wrapping his massive arm around my shoulders. I couldn’t help but wince. 

“Somehow, I think you aren’t kidding.” We both laughed as we set off on the next leg of the journey, unsure of what might come next. I was overcome with so much worry, a level of uncertainty I wasn’t used to. In a matter of days, my entire world had been flipped upside down and then some. Even though I was terrified, I knew I couldn’t walk away. The strings of fate had pulled me into this, and there was no getting away from that.  

“First things first, we need to get us both cleaned up and some warmer clothes. We won’t last a day in those mountains if we aren’t dressed properly.” 

I looked up to the skyline as he spoke, the white peaks stretching beyond the clouds. The Frostpeaks were a nomansland, but neither the Kadriens or Sevestians dared send soldiers into the frozen wasteland. It was a deathtrap, all sorts of feral creatures making those mountains there home. Even during the war, it was seldom that a platoon returned from those perilous peaks. Yet here I was, about to journey through the entire pass with a man I barely knew. 

My mind wandered back to Beatrice, hoping that whatever happened while I was away, that she’d be okay. 

Chapter 009: The Deception

With the majority of the rebellion’s military might injured or fallen in Grave’s assault, only Beatrice and myself were left in fighting shape. Harold chose to ignore my plead, staying behind with the other remaining force. I couldn’t blame him for his decision, but I wasn’t happy about it. If he’d given up on the princess’s cause, what could be said for the other survivors? He was a leader among them, and inspired the people with hope for a better future. Without him, the dying flame would be suffocated before it had a chance to truly breathe.

Beatrice and I aimed to set out the next day, doing what little we could to prepare for the journey. The rebellion lacked any reliable supplies, most either burned or ransacked during the last assault. Despite that, we made due with what was available. The journey to the Forgotten Fortress was far, the countless patrolling brigands forcing us to tree cover in an attempt to avoid their unwanted attention. We were mostly successful, at least until we neared the fortress itself. The last mile of road was packed full with brigands. Bandits, and highwaymen. Some leaving and most coming, the congestion reminding me of Traug’s marketplace, but it came with its own unique set of anxiety. Ash was shaking, trying his best to burrow in my hair.

“No wonder the scouts couldn’t get close. They’d have been dead the minute they rounded that corner…” Beatrice and I were both trying to quickly adapt to the unforeseen circumstance, attempting to brainstorm some kind of plan.

“How are we supposed to get you inside the walls if we can’t get you down the road? There’s no way we can sneak past all of them…”

“Unless you didn’t have to sneak…” I could see the wheels turning in her mind, but I was lost.

“How would you do that?”

“Come here for a second,” I helped her unfasten one of her pauldrons, then unbuttoned my own vest. “Let’s get this on you…,” She grunted as she pulled the undersized fasteners over my head. As she helped me don the armour, it finally hit me.

“Here,” She grunted as she tore the right sleeve from my shirt, dousing it in water and rolling it around in the dirt. She spotted my face with mud, then tied the sleeve around my head like a bandana, effectively hiding Ash underneath.

“There! Now you look like a proper brigand!” She admired her work for a moment, nodding her head. “Wait.” She lifted her hand, pulling something from underneath her leather cloak. “I almost forgot I had this.”

Beatrice held Gavin’s bronze sword. I’d completely forgotten about it after I’d been captured, thinking the bandits must have stolen it. “Graves dropped it when he fled the camp that night. Uncle Gavin’s carried this thing for as long as I can remember. Get it back to him, okay?” She handed me the old sword, and I fastened it to my hip.

“Actually, he gave it to me…” I grinned sheepishly, and her eyes widened.

“No way… That was a family heirloom. Why would he give that to you?” At first I was upset, but I understood where her feelings came from. She’d known Gavin her entire life, after all.

“He told me that I had ‘more heart than any knight he’d ever squired’.” I crossed my arms, raising my eyebrows. She rolled her eyes, shooing me away.

“That’s debatable. But now isn’t the time to argue about this. Good luck!” Before I could say goodbye, Beatrice vanished into the brush. So it wasn’t that she couldn’t sneak past them; it was that I couldn’t. I shook my head, laughing.

‘Do you really think this is going to work?’ Ash sounded worried, but at least he was shaking less now.

“I don’t think we have much choice. Shall we?” I stood from my crouched position, completely visible to the herd of bandits polluting the path. None of them seemed to take notice as I slid into the crowd, not even worth a second look.

That last mile of the journey felt like weeks. Most of the men were twice my size, breaking out into random fights as we walked. I’d nearly been caught by a stray hook a few times myself, but managed to avoid any major trouble until we made it to the fortress. It was once I arrived at the gate, I noticed the one person I didn’t want to see; Graves. He was walking a few groups ahead of me, and wasn’t very perceptive of the people around him. My stomach shriveled the second I saw him, forcing my focus to break.

‘Fyn, you need to calm down!’ Ash pleaded. ‘He’s definitely going to notice if you keep fidgeting like this!’

“Okay, okay! Sorry!” The brigand ahead of me looked back, glaring. “Haha, sorry!” I smiled apologetically, the giant rolling his eyes as he turned forward. Graves continued to look straight ahead, the Forgotten Fortress finally getting closer.

The rest of the journey was more of a game of hide and seek, ducking everytime Graves looked over his shoulder. He could feel something off, and likely could smell my fear. Despite my constant worry, we managed to pass through the entrance without incident.

The gates stood twenty feet tall, the fortress itself surrounded by a moat. An open drawbridge invited us in, leading to the huge courtyard. In its center was a makeshift coliseum, hundreds of brigands seated in it’s shoddy stands. It was impressive, it’s wooden walls standing at least twenty feet tall. The hold’s stone walls stood even taller, dwarfing the coliseum in comparison. I was certain the Forbidden Fortress was even more formidable than the Marble Keep itself.

I followed the crowd into the stands, finding a seat in the upper rows. The construction was shoddy, even worse the the colosseum’s walls. With each step, the creaky boards feigned collapsing at the slightest misstep. Once I was finally seated, bellow in the arena were two bandits, locked in combat. It reminded me of the ones that circled around Ash back at the small camp as I watched them mindlessly bludgeon each other with clubs.

‘They tried to make me fight rodents, but I’d just eat them instead. They didn’t like it very much.’

I jumped at his voice, still not used to him listening to my thoughts.

“You just about gave me a heart attack, Ash!” I clutched my chest, sighing. “Either way, I’m glad they didn’t do anything worse to you!” I let out a muffled laugh, but the joy was short lived. A heavy hand found it’s way on my shoulder, gripping it firmly. I looked next to me, finding Graves grinning ear to ear.

“Looks like I found a little shit in our midst…” I could see the sharpened steel in his other hand. “Don’t say a word or I’ll sink this blade six inches into your skull. Besides, I don’t think you want to miss the next fight…”

Graves pointed to the coliseum, one of the bandits fallen and being dragged into the fighter’s quarters. The other cheered, flailing his arms above his head in victory. A few other bandits ushered him from the arena, struggling to force him with the crowd still chanting. Moments later, Graves directed my attention to a destroyed tower above. “That there, is Rian’s throne. I think he’s gonna speak for us.” The man showed his rotting teeth, my mind racing back to the day before.

“His name’s Rian?” A middle-aged, black-haired man emerge from behind the throne. He was donning the plate mail of an Elder Knight, the plate itself black and trim silver. There were only three in the entire Kingdom, and this defector was one of them. He stood on a small, wooden platform that jutted from the broken tower, overlooking the entire fortress.

“Welcome, my friends! Today, we have something special in store that many of you have traveled far and wide to see!” The crowd roared, chanting the Bandit King’s name.

“Fighting today, is a very close friend of mine. He was once my mentor, and taught me all he knew in the ways of Knighthood! Please welcome fallen Paladin Gavin Warwick!” Graves nudged me, cheering frantically.

“That’s the knight you were with, right?” Sure enough, Gavin emerged from the fighters quarters, clothed in a worn tunic and armed with a blunt sword. He looked injured, an exaggerated limp in his left leg. I tried to stand, but Graves pushed me back down.

“I told you not to move!” He whispered, pushing the knife into my side. “We wouldn’t want you to miss the death of your precious Gavin!”

I could feel the hellish heat surging in my back, but what was I supposed to do? I still wasn’t entirely sure how to activate it, let alone fight against a thousand armed bandits. I watched in horror, dreading what might come from the opposite corner.

“A returning fighter and fan favorite, this will mark the Behemoth’s hundredth fight!” The crowd cheered wildly, the noise overwhelming Ash.

A hulking shadow emerged from the darkness of the fighter’s quarters, and it took only seconds to recognize who the figure belonged to. The stranger from my first ‘vision’, with the golden septum ring and all! Bull was even larger in person, standing infinitely taller than Gavin. He was still dressed in the same purple vest, his offwhite pants stained in dirt and blood. The giant cracked his knuckles as he clenched his fists, grinning wildly. The rumoured leader of the bandits was nothing more than a prisoner, held against his will just like all the others.

I could feel Ash stirring when he emerged, practically vibrating.

‘That’s him! That’s the bull!’

Before I could stop him, Ash leapt from my head, using the other spectators as stepping stones to the arena. Both Gavin and Bull looked up in confusion as the scaled creature made his way to the arena. Graves jumped in surprise, and I knew I had to act quickly.

I shoved the man aggressively, knocking him off balance, allowing me just enough time to flee. I jumped onto the level’s railing, the boards bending as I landed. I was too heavy to follow Ash’s example, leaving me with only one option…

With one great leap, I flew over the brigands like a bird overhead. It felt like I was hanging in the air as I jumped, until I started to descend. In that moment, it appeared that my plan wasn’t very well thought-out.

Certain that I was about to break something as I tumbled over the coliseum walls, a pair of outstretched arms caught me before I connected with the hard ground. Gavin shook his head as Bull laughed heartily, setting me down on my feet.

“What the hell were you thinking?” Gavin sighed, a slight smirk surfacing near the edge of his mouth.

“I’m guessing you must be the infamous Fyn…” Bull’s voice was incredibly deep, nearly shaking the earth underneath us. “Now… are you ready, Quicksilver Knight?”

I was in shock, unable to produce a coherent sentence. Brigands began flooding the arena, screaming in fits of rage. Gavin pulled the sword from my side, discarding the blunt edge.

“I’m glad you aren’t dead!” The knight’s grin reflecting his resolve.

I was fully panicked, watching as hundreds of bandits rushed towards us. For the third time in a short period, I was certain that I was about to die.

Chapter 008: Power Unknown

A familiar woman’s  silhouette was seated on a thick, low lying  branch of a nearby tree, nocking her next arrow carefully. 

    “You’re a liar!” She shouted from her perch; even from the vast distance I could see her bow shaking. Her raw emotion was so potent it made me sick to my stomach. “You lied to me, Fyn!” 

    “Wait! You don’t understand!” 

    “Understand what?! That I should have left you in that cage!?” I grimaced as the words left her tongue, cutting like a cold steel blade. It was one thing to know it in your heart, but to hear it said aloud… 

“It never mattered what Harold said!” She let go of the string, the arrow flying towards my chest. Terror enveloped my being, time slowing as I watched the iron arrowhead slice through the air. Beatrice’s eyes slowly widened as she realized that I wasn’t going to move in time, Ash screeching in fear. I closed my eyes, accepting my fate. Maybe that’s what I deserved; a fitting punishment for my crime. When a knight abandons his King, they’re charged with treason and sentenced to death. Was I not the same, abandoning the leader I’d sworn to follow?

When you come face to face with death, the experience changes you. As memories long forgotten rise to the surface, you question the nature of the random, irrelevant thoughts taking precedence over what you believed to be important, pivotal events. But that’s just it; the subtle, deafening reminder that you need to keep on fighting, for all the memories you’ve yet to make!

    ‘To live!’ Ash’s high pitched voice echoed through my mind as he dug his claws into my head. I could feel as they punctured my skin, but it didn’t hurt. A familiar heat ignited throughout my body, the painful sensation travelling much more quickly. The sheer intensity was overwhelming as a shockwave of blue electricity erupted from every pore of my body, eviscerating anything within a meter’s radius. The incoming projectile had literally turned to dust, leaving Beatrice in a state of shock. Every inch of my body was exploding in pain, and I crumpled to the ground in agony. I looked at my hand, noticing the glowing silver veins that slowly subsided back into the depths of my arm.  I tried to fight the ensuing darkness, but I was weak. It only took mere seconds until I fell unconscious, completely exhausted. The last thing I remember was Beatrice sprinting towards me, and then darkness. 

‘You’re finally awake!’ Ash’s boyish voice rousing me from my unconscious state.

‘Beatrice was certain you were dead, but I knew you’d be okay!’ 

    I smiled faintly as my eyes slowly opened, my body aching terribly with the slightest

movement. The little creature could hardly sit still, nearly vibrating with joy. 

“Thanks, Ash.” I wasn’t sure how to respond, but the little creature seemed content as he jumped down from the cot I was currently occupying. Judging from the canvas tent, we were likely back at the Princess’s camp, the realization accompanied with an impending sense of dread.  “Ash, what happened? After I…” 

‘Beatrice brought you back here. Harold wasn’t happy about it, but she didn’t listen.’ 

The young creature would sporadically glow as he spoke, activating the hot sensation in my back each time.  Whatever Ash was, he didn’t belong to the same world as we did. I did want to learn more about his origins, and the nature of this new power, but there were more pressing matters to attend to. I could hear the arguing of Beatrice and Harold coming near, and my stomach began to churn.  

“You shouldn’t have brought him back here! He’s a waste of resources!” 

“Harold, I’ve listened to enough of your mockery! You’ve already overstepped your authority once, and I won’t allow a second offence! Dismissed!” The whiny knight stormed off, Beatrice entering the tent. 

“You’re awake…” Our lighthearted dynamic had completely shifted, catching me off guard. I was so relieved to see her, I’d almost forgotten what happened. But the disconnect in her voice was a cold slap of reality.  Her smile was faint, the kind you show a friendly stranger in passing. It was disappointing, but I preferred it to the alternative death sentence.

“Yep. Still alive, unfortunately.” She didn’t laugh, crossing her arms.  

“So what was that? That…thing you did?” I racked my brain for some kind of viable explanation, but I already knew the answer. 

“I…I don’t know.” She wasn’t impressed with my answer, her foot began to tap rapidly. 

“Fyn, please… We’re passed the lies at this point. As far as I’m concerned you’re nothing more than a prisoner right now.” 

My jaw nearly dropped as the words came from her lips. A prisoner? 

Her eyes widened for a split second as I stood from the bed, wincing. 

“As far as I’m  concerned, I’m nobody’s prisoner. I appreciate your help, but unless you have something else you’d like to talk about, I think this is where we go our separate ways.” 

“Fyn, sit down!” I clenched my teeth as I fell back to the cot, Beatrice rushing to my side. Our eyes locked for a split second as she guided me down, both of us quickly turning the moment we realized.

    “I can’t do this anymore.” Her back was turned, refusing to look at me. I could hear the sob in her voice she was so desperately trying to hide. “You’re well aware of what’s at stake here. What little strength we had is gone, and we only have one hope at restoring that strength.” 

    She turned her head slightly, looking at me from the corner of her eye. I could feel her somber gaze as blatantly as I could feel Ash sitting in my lap. I looked down at the creature, trying to cower further into blankets. 

    “Last I checked, I was still a part of your rebellion.” She turned slowly, a flicker of hope in her eyes. “Beatrice, I know what I did was childish. I shouldn’t have let Harold get to me, but…” 

    “It’s alright Fyn. I’m surprised you didn’t run away before that.” We both chuckled, even the soft laughter causing pain to shoot through my torso. 

    “Under different circumstances, I wouldn’t have to put so much pressure on you…but we’re all out of options.” I offered a comforting smile as she trailed off. 

    “It’s alright. I understand what my role is in the grand scheme of things.” 

    “I’m truly grateful for your understanding, but I need you to promise me that you won’t go running off this time.” 

    “Don’t worry, I’m not so easily frightened anymore.” 

    “Good. I’m glad to hear it.” 

    “But before we go any further, I need to know who else I’m looking for in there. I know this isn’t just for ‘Uncle Gavin’s’ sake.” Her eyes shifted, finally letting out a sigh. 

    “You’re right. The man’s name is Callum. If things do go badly in their, he should be in the dungeons with the other prisoners, including Gavin. Please, Fyn. It’s important that we don’t leave without him” I didn’t want to read into anything, but her tone suggested they were close. 

    “Understood.” I was relieved by her faint smile, but there was something else stirring my anxiety. I’d yet to speak with Harold, and after our last meeting, I wasn’t about to kid myself that our next would be going smoothly. 

    A few more days passed before I was fully healed, my bones only aching slightly. That pain never went away, no matter what kind of therapy I tried. Once I returned to  full strength, it was time to have a conversation with Harold. Beatrice said he was still mentally unwell after his fight with Graves, that something had finally snapped. It wasn’t like I was going to look for a fight with the man, but I needed to clear the air. 

    I found him in Beatrice’s tent. It was strange seeing him without his plate mail on, dressed in only his britches. I was surprised by how scrawny the man really was, his armor making him appear much larger. The left side of his face was wrapped in bandages, as was his torso and left arm. The burns must have been worse than I’d realized. 

    “Oh. What do you want?” I’m not sure what I was expecting him to say, if anything at all. He was a husk of the man he once was, not a shred of emotion in his voice. 

“That’s it?” I stood there, dumbfounded. “That’s all you’re going to say?” 

He sighed, standing from his chair and facing me. “What do you want Fyn, an apology?” 

The man tried to glare, but even his eyes were weak. “Don’t you get it? We’ve nothing left. Not a single ranger survived that slaughter…” He winced painfully, the memory still fresh. I could feel my inner rage surfacing as he complained.

“Doesn’t that inspire you? Doesn’t that make you want to try in spite of it all?” He shook his head at my words, walking past me and out of the tent. 

“You’re too young to understand. Sending you into that fortress was a death sentence to begin with! The young Princess means well, but the logic behind her plan is absurd. There’s nothing more we can do, Fyn…” 

“Maybe you’re right. Maybe we should just roll over and give up, and maybe I am too young to understand. But you know what I do understand? I understand that if we don’t at least try and convince the bandits to join us, you and I are as good as dead. I know that if I don’t at least try and save Gavin, you may as well kill me right now, because I won’t be able to live with myself. ”

    Harold looked down to his feet contemplating my words, his emotion unclear. “Fyn, have you and her Highness forgotten that we’ve been fighting against these men since the moment of the rebellion’s inception? Not to mention we don’t even know for certain if any of these ‘prisoners’ are alive. But despite all that, you’re still willing to walk unarmed into a death trap? I don’t know what happened to you since we last met, but you must have a least a lick of sense to know this is idiotic…”

    “I do, and I’m going to go anyway.”

 He leaned over as I passed, whispering in my ear. 

“If you go through with this, you’ll die.” 

“I know.”

“Then you’re more foolish than I thought.” 

The familiar burning in my lower back returned, Ash’s paws growing hotter. Whatever the root of this power was, it fed on my emotions. I wasn’t sure if it was mine or Ash’s doing, but it felt like a natural flow. Something that you never really learned, but always knew how to do. 

    Beatrice stopped me as I walked by, placing her hand on my shoulder. 

    “Fyn, don’t think I’ve forgotten about that… ability. I’m wanting an explanation sooner or later.” 

    “Don’t worry. I’ll let you know after I find out myself.” She looked surprised by my sarcasm, and I honestly wasn’t sure what had come over me. It was like the confidence I’d lost in my youth had been returned tenfold. “In the meantime, we should really get moving. I’m sure Gavin’s getting impatient.”

Chapter 007: The First Tree

I wanted to go back; I felt ashamed for leaving Beatrice, but I couldn’t show my face at that camp ever again. She’d only see the coward who abandoned his ideals at the first sign of trouble. I tried justifying my actions to myself, but I couldn’t. I knew deep down that Harold’s antagonizing pushed me over the edge; I may have been a lot of terrible things, but I wasn’t the type to abandon my friends. 

Ash and I wandered aimlessly through the Eldergrove well into dawn, the sunrise bringing little relief. Time felt like it had stopped; I was lost, having a terrible sense of direction to begin with, not to mention I was at a loss of what to do next. The little creature grumbled, letting out a sigh with a puff of ash. 

“Yeah, I know buddy. I’m getting hungry too…” I lifted him from my head, setting him down in the tall grass. I was startled when he took off like a racehorse, disappearing into the dense underbrush. I lost sight of him, instantly regretting my decision. The creature had never done anything more than saunter, causing me more concern than necessary. 

“Ash?” I called out. No answer.

“Ash, come back!” Still nothing. I let out a sigh, walking in the general direction he took off in. 

The Eldergrove had grown uncomfortably quiet, like every animal had scattered from the trees and bushes, hiding from something. The songbirds I’d become accustomed to had fallen silent, the scurrying rabbits retreating to their burrows. As I wandered further down the path, the evergreens began to bend in a way that the canopies stretched overhead, creating a tunnel. This oddity lasted for a long time, the bends becoming more exaggerated the further I traveled down the path. 

After nearly an hour of wandering, I found myself at the end of the stretch. It lead to a great oak with a trunk so thick my outstretched arms couldn’t begin to wrap around it’s front quarter. It’s branches stretched out like bolts of lightning, connecting into the tunnel-like canopy. It stretched on for almost a mile, into the rest of the Eldergrove. It looked like it was sick, the thick bark peeling from it’s mighty trunk. 

“This… This must be it…” My thoughts were trailing off as I noticed Ash pop out from underneath the First Tree’s base. He glowed softly as he emerged, the blue aura shining more brightly than before. His blood-red scales seemed faded. 

“Ash? Did you… bring me here on purpose?” He looked like he was smiling, sitting patiently in front of the old oak tree. “There’s no way….” I looked up at the natural monument once more. The First Tree was just as impressive as Gavin claimed, an ancient, solemn oak standing tall in a sea of pine. I couldn’t believe I was entertaining the thought that I was brought here by this strange creature. I shook my head, dismissing the notion.

“So what now?” I raised my hands with a shrug. As if on cue, a strange glyph underneath the  tree’s peeling bark appeared in an electric flash. It glowed with the same blue hue that Ash did, slowly pulsing. I stumbled backwards in my surprise, falling to the dense patch of clover that went unnoticed prior. 

“Ash? What’s going on?” The scaled creature sat calmly, watching, waiting. He was beckoning me, wanting me to come closer. I struggled to stand, slowly approaching the strange, glowing mark. The shine became brighter as I came nearer, Ash walking alongside me until I stood face to face with the mark. He scaled the tree, nudging the bark with his nose. 

“Like this?” I reached out to peel off the loose piece, but it was like something grabbed my hand and pulled me in. Ash jumped onto my head as my hand landed on the glyph, engulfing us both in a blinding flash. I could feel Ash’s claws digging into my scalp as I fell once more, landing once more in the clover. 

My vision slowly returned, Ash seated close by. His glow had changed again; his aura was electric-blue, pulsing more vibrantly than ever. The change in Ash’s appearance was minor compared to what I saw next. 

The First Tree had been burnt to a crisp, leaving nothing but a black husk. Every leaf disintegrated in the heat of the bolt, seemingly sucking every ounce of life left in it’s veins. Where the glyph had once been, was replaced by a bull carved deeply into the wood. 

“I-I….” Words failed to escape my quivering lips, my entire body still burning from the shock.  A strange thunderous bang brought me back to reality, my attention shifting immediately to the clear night sky. “Am I losing my mind?”

Strangely enough, it seemed like a lingering fog had been lifted from my mind. My decision making seemed more methodical and strategic, like my brain was running at full capacity. Not only that, but I could feel. It was like I connected to the life force of the Eldergrove, and it was faint

‘The bond has been completed.’ A young boy’s voice echoed in my mind. It was familiar, but I was certain I’d never heard it before. I scanned my surroundings quickly, Ash jumping in front of me excitedly. His electric glow was slowly fading; the full hue of his red scales returning as he trotted around me happily. 

“Are you…. talking?” I spoke directly to him, and he nodded. My eyes widened; my mind flooding with hundreds of questions. 

‘I wish I could explain, but I’m not sure myself. All I can say for sure is that She summoned us to her resting place, and completed our bond.’ 

My first question was going to be ‘what is a bond’, but  before I could speak Ash answered.

‘I don’t know exactly, but it has to do with the Empyr.’ 

‘Ash, you’re speaking gibberish to me.’ 

‘I’m sorry. That’s just what mama told me. Wait, look!’

Ash ran back to the First Tree, pointing out the carved bull. 

‘Do you think that’s the man Gavin called Bull?’ It took me a moment to realize what he was speaking of.

‘You mean you saw that too?’ 

‘Yes.  I think it has something to do with the bond.’ 

I sat back down in the clover field, resting my chin on my knees. My head was spinning, unsure of whether I was dreaming or even alive at that point. At the very least, my body had stopped burning. At least one thing was clear; I needed to rescue Gavin. Whether this ‘Bull’ would be a help or a hindrance remained to be seen. 

“Alright, I’m still not sure if any of this is real or not, but I need to know right now- did this person tell you anything else before it disappeared? You make it sound like she was talking to you.” I crossed my arms, looking down at Ash.

‘Nothing. All she did was beckon us here with the aether. But before I was taken, mama talked about the The Black Witch.’ 

“Black Witch?” Chills ran down my spine as I said it. “That seems like an important bit of information. I’m going to assume you don’t know what a Black Witch is either.” Ash cowered, crawling to my feet. He didn’t speak. “It’s okay, Ash. It’s okay to be afraid.” 

The scaled creature quickly climbed back to his perch; it seemed like he was more comfortable up there. “I wonder if that was ‘Her’ will that influenced me to protect you…” 

‘I think it was more than that…’ Ash yawned, curling into a ball. 

I had tons of questions, but the creature had already fallen asleep. The bolt had exhausted the little guy and I was quite tired myself, struggling to grasp the entirety of the situation.  I wanted nothing more than to fall over and sleep, but unfortunately somebody had other plans for us.

“I finally found you, you lying little sack of shit.” I turned from the burnt tree to find the seven brigands from Traug standing before us. They were no longer wearing the city guard’s uniform, but rather dressed in a combination of leather and steel mail, wielding a variety of halberds and shortswords. I could feel their hatred resonating, but I could also feel a deeper resentment stemming from the forest itself. I think it was that feeling, that woke Ash up.

“That creature belongs to us.” Ash stirred as he spoke, and I could feel his anxiety. It inspired a confidence in me, an unnatural bravado.

‘Those men took me from my mother…’ Even speaking directly into my mind, I could feel the creatures sadness in his voice. He might not have been able to finish the thought, but I knew well enough what he was about to say. The bond he spoke of was a powerful thing, connecting us in ways I couldn’t comprehend. His sadness, his anger; it projected itself through me. I could feel the warm sensation stemming from the small of my back, the same as the heat in his own paws.

“That’s not what he says.” The brigands looked at me in utter confusion. 

“What are you talking about?” 

“He told me what happened.” I clenched my fists, standing tall. “You stole him from his mother.” The brigands exchanged glances, an enhanced courage brewing in my chest. I can only explain it as Ash’s courage; I knew if I stood there on my own, I’d be quivering in my boots. As that heat spread through my torso and into my shoulders, that wasn’t the case.

“His what? How do you know we took anything?” The man shouted, waving his weapon. “Quit pissing around you idiot! Turn him over or you’ll die!” 

“Fine. Then I’ll die!” The brigands hardly needed the taunt to begin their reckless assault. 

The first sprinted towards me, the others noticing something he didn’t. Ash dug his claws into my head as our foe swung his blade, and I instinctively raised my hand. For a split second, I thought he chopped it clean off, until I felt that hellish heat exploding in my palm. It forced every bone rigid, everyone in my vicinity falling silent to the strange crackling nearby. A dense bolt of lightning exploded from my hand, jumping to the brigand’s chest in a powerful explosion. The sudden burst of electricity sent the bandit hurtling into his friends, catching him before he fell. I stood there motionless, dumbfounded, until Ash dug his claws into my scalp once more. I stumbled backwards, the blade sinking through the top of it’s former master’s skull. 

“He’s one of them! Let’s go!” Without a second thought, the bandits fled with haste. I stood there, speechless. The burning sensation in my hand faded quickly, until a stray arrow pierced the dirt in front of me. 

Chapter 006: Retaliation

Hey friends! So after some consulting with friends and family, I’ve decided to continue putting parts out as a ‘first draft’, so any feedback and critique storywise is greatly appreciated! I’ll continue to upload the audio versions when I have time to record, but otherwise I’ll continue to post updates when I feel they are ready. Now without further ado, here is Chapter 6!

“So you’re the knight they call ‘Quicksilver’, huh?” The hulking giant asked, standing on the other side of Gavin and Isabelle’s cage. She was fast asleep, leaving Gavin and the other man alone. 

“I’m surprised you’ve heard of me. You’re obviously not from around here.” The giant was propped up against a wall, dried blood staining his face and bare chest. His interviewer stood nearly seven feet tall, his coffee-color skin and thick, black beard a peculiarity among the Sevestian people. He laughed heartily, crossing his bulky arms.

“What gave it away? My purple vest?” He shook his head as he chuckled, then leaning against the bars. “Look, I’m not here to interrogate you or anything.” The stranger closed his eyes, his smile widening. 

“Then you must be here for the pleasant conversation? I’m flattered.” Gavin winced as he shifted his weight, his lower ribs still broken from the battle days before. 

“Not exactly. I was more so hoping that we could maybe… help eachother out?” The giant’s eyes narrowed, Gavin raising an eyebrow. 

“You have my attention, Kadrian” The giant’s eyes widened for a split second, checking the dungeon’s halls for any unwanted visitors. 

“Careful who you say that around, Quicksilver. These brigands are brighter than they look. For now, how about you call me ‘Bull’?” His nostrils flared as he spoke, his golden septum ring visible as he turned his head, accompanied by a toothy grin. Then, the scene fading to white.

I almost fell out of my cot; the second my eyes opened  my stomach climbed into my throat. Ash leapt from my chest as I squirmed,  scurrying into a secluded corner of the small, canvas tent. His scales were glowing again, but this time with more of a blue tinge. I rubbed my eyes vigorously, convinced that I was hallucinating. As I tried to gather my bearings, I sat back down on the cot, cradling my head in my hands. 

“What the hell is going on?”  I muttered aloud. The dream had been so vivid, like I was standing across the room, watching. Gavin’s beaten face was burnt into my memory, Isabelle lying limp on that cold, stone floor. My still-churning stomach demanded my attention,  and I decided it would likely be best to get some fresh air.

The dark sky was painted with glowing stars, dancing happily in the moon’s shine. The mountain air was much more fresh then the looming smog that encased Traug; it was something you didn’t realize you missed until it was gone, plus it didn’t carry the lingering scent of manure which was nice. I was surprised by how quiet it was, lacking the idle noise of the city. Silence reminded me of home, bringing on a flurry of mixed emotions. 

Ash came running up behind me, leaping onto my shirt and climbing on top of my head. It had become his new perch over the past few days, and seldom did he leave it. 

“You wanna come for a walk?” The small creature purred, which I assumed meant he agreed. I needed to clear my head, and gather my thoughts. Gavin’s bloodied wince kept flashing before me.

As we wandered between the numerous tents and evergreen trunks, we stumbled into Beatrice. She was sitting on a low hanging branch, sharpening a silver dagger. The level of her focus was intense, as she carefully pulled the blade along the whetstone.  It was strange to see her without Harold by her side, but I wasn’t about to complain. He still hadn’t come around to my idea, but I had a feeling it was more personal than that.

The last few days had been quite tense at the camp, the rangers preparing for the day of the meeting. I was assigned to assisting Harold with his preparation, my only useful skills ating as Gavin’s squire. It was literal hell, every task I undertook ‘unsatisfactory’ for such a ‘renowned knight’. 

“I thought you gave up your knighthood when you abandoned your kingdom?” On the third day I became fed up with his taunts and insults, and lost my tongue. 

“Pardon me?” His eyes widened in a way that said ‘how dare you not worship me?’

“I said, you aren’t a knight anymore. You gave up that right when you joined Beatrice instead of bringing her back.” His face was visibly turning red, and I couldn’t help but slightly smirk. He came to stand directly in front of me, his nose nearly against mine. 

“You may think you’re welcome here, but don’t kid yourself; the Princess only took you on because she pities you. Open your eyes, farm rat.” Harold snatched his sword from me, storming off. I stewed on his words for a moment, wondering if there was any truth to them. Did she really pity me?

I worried that his judgement was accurate, and that I would only be a burden to Beatrice, rather than help. But I couldn’t let his doubts cloud my thoughts. In only a few hours, we’d be setting out for the Forgotten Fortress, the abandoned outpost sitting at the base of the Frostpeaks, and likely the main encampment of the brigands. 

Unfortunately, none of the scouts Beatrice had sent were able to make contact with the occupants of the fortress, making it impossible to set up a meeting between both factions. Beatrice had suggested to send me in on my own, and trying to propose a truce. I wasn’t keen on the idea, but we didn’t have any other options. If we tried to fight their force head on the rebellion would be eviscerated. 

“Fyn?” Beatrice called out, noticing my blank stare. Ash cooed, bobbing his head jovially. He’d warmed up to Beatrice quite quickly, but still refused to let her touch him unless I held him.

“‘Evening!” I called up, half waving. 

“What are you still doing awake?” She called back. “You should get some rest while you can!” 

She replaced the dagger in its sheath, leaping from the branch gracefully. 

“I, uh, couldn’t sleep.” I fumbled over my words, flustered by her innate agility. Her grace and poise was inhuman, or maybe I was biased. 

“You to, huh? I can’t really blame you.” She beckoned me to follow her as she picked up a nearby torch, starting down an overgrown trail deeper into the forest. She was difficult to keep up with, especially in the dead of night. 

“What do you mean?” 

“You’re trying to negotiate the most feared man in the Eldergrove into meeting you tomorrow. I’d be terrified.” She shrugged, stepping carefully as the path began to incline. “I don’t think he’s predisposed to ‘talking it out’.”

“Oh, right. I’d nearly forgotten.” I replied sarcastically.

“Aw, don’t be such a coward.” She laughed, throwing her hands in the air. “It’ll be fine! You’ve got that boyish charm on your side!” She stopped for a moment, looking over her shoulder. She brushed her hair over her ear carefully. “But honestly, don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to you.” 

I could feel my cheeks heating up, grinning sheepishly from ear to ear. “Of course! I’m not nervous! I was just thinking…” 

“About?” She began walking again, but more quickly. I scrambled to come up with a rebuttal, my heart racing. 

“Uhm, it’s nothing. Things in the past.” 

“What kinds of things?” Why was she prying? 

“What happens after?” 

“After what?” She stopped as we arrived at a small cliff face, only five or six feet tall. Beatrice pulled herself over it quickly, displaying her impressive athleticism once more. I was much less graceful, I could swear Ash was laughing at me. “After we rescue Gavin?” 

“No, I mean after that.” I panted as I finally rolled onto the ledge. 

 She looked confused by my question. “After it’s all over.” She smiled brightly, taking off down the path in a sprint. “Hey!” I called after her, following quickly. The evergreens began to thin into a clearing, until we finally reached the edge of the ridge. It overlooked hundreds of miles of lush forest, putting us even higher than some of the tallest trees. The view was like a perfect painting of the Eldergrove, the Frostpeaks still making the perfect background. But from here, on the horizon, you could see the stone towers peeking over the canopies from afar. 

“That’s it. The Forgotten Fortress.” She pointed to the towers, her smile faint but determined. 

“It’s beautiful…” My voice faded as I took in the scene for all it was worth. I never wanted to forget that immaculate sea of green, stretching up the mountain’s crest. I didn’t look over, but I could feel the warmth of Beatrice’s smile. 

“I…” I looked over at the princess, looking down at her feet as she spoke. “I’d never left the castle before now.” 

“Really?” 

“My father… He changed after my mother died.” She looked over to the ridge, my eyes following suit. 

“So you mean the Queen, she’s not your mother?” 

“No, not by blood.” Beatrice trailed off, suddenly looking at me. “She’s really quite wonderful, though. Don’t get the wrong idea!” I couldn’t help but chuckle. She scowled, but continued the story, sitting down on the ledge, letting her feet hang. 

“After she died, he became distant. By the time he came back after the Kadrien War, he wasn’t the same man. That would have been around the time my grandfather died, and Uncle Gavin…” She tried to speak, but she couldn’t. 

“It’s alright. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.” I was genuinely curious, but I had to trust she’d open up more in time. 

“I’m sorry. It’s just…” She looked up at me again, her eyes the size of the moon. A single tear ran down her cheek, and all I wanted to do was hold her. My heart hurt for her, but deep down I knew there was nothing I could say that would change it. 

A deafening thunder erupted from behind us, the echo of an exploding powderkeg. Beatrice was on her feet instantly, as the first was followed by an entire chorus of the familiar rumbling. We could see the flames dancing below, pained cries calling for help. The princess set off in a sprint, dropping the torch in the clearing. I followed closely, dread pooling in my stomach. 

As we rounded the final corner, many of the tents were ablaze, countless refugees fleeing into the bush as they burned. Harold was locked in combat with Graves, the others in his party having already fled. The smell of burning flesh was overwhelming, countless bodies scattered throughout the camp’s walkways, like they’d been dragged out and set ablaze intentionally. Many of Beatrice’s rangers were injured or worse, trying their best to drag the seared victims from their tents before fainting. 

I noticed the burns covering the left side of Harolds face as we came nearer, both men’s sword caught in a bind. Watching the battle was astounding, both trained so thoroughly in their craft they were on par with performers. Harold would roll to the side as Grave’s came in with an overhead swing, parrying a horizontal blow at the very last second before his broadsword cleaved into his neck. Then Harold would duck, cleaving at his feet to no avail. With another horizontal swing, the knights were caught in a bind once more. 

“I’m glad to see my apprentice hasn’t digressed over the years. You’re a worthy foe!” Graves laughed, pressing harder into his foe’s blade. 

“I wish I could say the same, but you’ve become sloppy, old man!” Harold gritted his teeth as he countered, knocking Graves off balance. The older knight rolled backwards, underneath Harold’s rage-filled swing. He sprang to his feet, noticing Beatrice and I approaching.

“This isn’t over, Harold.” The knight tried to chase him as he fled, but Graves threw his sword at him. It caught Harold by surprise, allowing him just enough time to outrun him. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t outrun Beatrice’s arrows. It wasn’t loud, but to us the sound of it piercing Grave’s abdomen was deafening. The bandit didn’t stumble, continuing his sprint as he cried out in pain. He was already deep in the bush as we caught up to Harold, the shock setting in as the heat of battle died down. 

“That bastard….” Harold was shaking violently as he clenched his greatsword with an iron grip. “How did he know… How did he find us…” Beatrice put her hand on his shoulder, but he pushed it away. “How did they know, Bea?” He looked back, his eyes welling with tears. She was holding back her emotions as well. 

“I…I don’t know…” 

“We were careful, weren’t we?” He couldn’t curb his shaking any longer, his sword falling to the ground. “We were careful, weren’t we?!” Harold shouted, the sobs finally coming out. 

“We… We need to aid the injured. Come on-” Beatrice staggered backwards, running off. She was fighting back her own grief, trying to be a strong leader. Harold’s attention turned to me, looking into my eyes with immense hatred. His appearance was unsettling, and I looked away. 

“Wait…” His hysterics had stopped for a moment as he mulled over his thoughts. “It was you. They found us because of you.” My eyes widened for a moment, looking around for Beatrice. 

“What?” 

“Don’t play coy with me. This is all your fault, farm rat!” Harold’s voice rose, and I started to back away. “If you hadn’t been in that camp…” I knew the man wasn’t making rational sense, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t affected by the immense bloodshed that night. 

“Harold, stop it.” My voice wavered like a branch in the wind.

“No, no, no. All these people died because we saved you! If we’d just left you there to rot…” The man was going into a dangerous place, but then suddenly stopped. He looked up from his hands, wide-eyed. 

“You, you should leave. You killed all these people. You killed our chance at everything. We’ll all die now because of you!” Harold went on with his ramblings, pushing me closer and closer to the edge of the camp. The man towered over me, and I was still only a teenager. I was frightened, and didn’t feel like arguing with a grief stricken man.

“Leave now, before Beatrice comes back! This is all your fault, you farm rat!” His ramblings became more violent, and I was unable to speak. He drew a dagger from his waist, holding it to my throat as he backed me against a tree. I could feel Ash’s feet heating up, nearly burning my scalp. 

“Or maybe, I’ll just kill you now. Be done with it!” I couldn’t speak, let alone move. The steel was cold against my skin, stinging as he slightly traced a line across my throat. As he grinned, something above caught his attention, then something releasing a blinding flash. Harold curled into a ball on the ground, groaning as he rubbed his eyes. The heat in Ash’s feet had dispersed, and my instincts finally kicked in. I took off into the forest, refusing to look back. 

A flurry of negative emotion was dancing in my chest. Fear, rage, angst, sadness. His words stung worse than any cut, the malice in his tone inescapable as he held that dagger to my throat. I could still hear Harold yelling as I fled, slandering me relentlessly. I know now that his words were fabricated lies, designed to rattle my resolution. But in that moment, dealing with the raw emotions of a teenager, I couldn’t handle it. I fled like a coward, and curse myself for it to this day. Even though it was unavoidable, it was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made.

Chapter 005: Unexpected Allies

Very little trumps the feeling of unease when waking up in an unfamiliar place, having your wrists bound in a heavy rope. It’s a horrible experience, something I wouldn’t wish on my own worst enemy. As the fog in my mind lifted, I noticed Ash’s absence. I’d made a promise to keep him safe; what if I failed before I even had the chance to begin? I crawled to my feet slowly, my head pounding as I stood. 

Shouting echoed through the camp, but it was gibberish that I couldn’t comprehend. The men were rowdy and rugged, dressed in remnant garb of those who’d fallen victim to their schemes. It didn’t take long to deduce that I was trapped in the middle of a bandit camp; I was a noisy traveller being punished for not paying attention. I sighed, searching for Ash as best as I could from a cage. 

It was only a camp in definition; several bedrolls and a bonfire hardly make for a proper ‘camp’. That meant it wasn’t permanent, and I might have a chance of escaping on my own.The men seemed to be gathered in a circle around the bonfire, cheering and waving frantically. Watching them made me uneasy, their movements and expressions unnatural. I was genuinely curious about what was in the center of that circle, my stomach churning at the realization it very well could be Ash. 

“Hey!” I started shaking the wooden bars, but the attention of delirious bandits was a difficult thing to catch. “Oi!” I continued more aggressively. Not even a glance. I kept it up for a stretch, until my arms had turned into wet noodles. 

“Dammit…” I felt like I had no options,  like cattle stuck in a corral. Helpless. I hated that feeling. 

“Ash!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, my voice cracking. That caught their attention. They didn’t look angry so much as they did confused. From within the circle ,a little scared creature came running through the bandit’s legs towards my cage. Relief flooded over me at the realization that Ash had survived. But in the same breath, I couldn’t help but wonder how. 

He jumped up on the cage, panting like a tired hound. The bandits followed him quizzically, to which he responded with a surprisingly hostile growl. 

“That thing yours, boy?” One of them asked. His eyes were painted black, and his head shaved on both sizes. His patchwork armor was the heaviest of the lot, as was his physical build. The others seemed to respect his authority, or maybe they were just intimidated as well.

“Y-yes.” I stuttered. I’d never been more fearful in my life, my heart beating out of my chest. 

“What the hell is that thing? Some kind of monster?” Ash managed to slip between the cage’s narrow bars, taking his place at my side. 

“I-I don’t know…” I tried my best to speak confidently, failing miserably. The bandit donned a toothless grin, taking note of my apparent fear.

“I think we should eat it!” The giant stuck his arm through the bars, reaching for Ash. I scurried into the corner, met by a wall of grasping hands. I cried out as they latched onto my arms, Ash growling once more. 

“Look at that! Little gaffer’s trying to protect him!” The bandit bellowed to his lot, but I could feel something off in Ash. His scales began to glow faintly, along with a surge of heat emanating from his body. 

All of us distracted by the giant’s laughter, the incoming rain of arrows went unnoticed until it was too late, a chorus of pained screams erupting from the bandits. From the outskirts of the camp, well armed rangers pushed inside, engaging the brigands with blades. The leader cursed, retreating into the bush before they had the chance to capture him. One of the rangers attempted to give chase, but a strong hand stopped him. 

“Leave him be…” I could tell it was a woman’s voice, but her body was blocked by her friend. Her tone was strong and respectful, a voice belonging to a leader. “He only prolongs his suffering.” 

The woman stepped out from behind the other ranger, and I was baffled. She stood relatively tall, and couldn’t have been much older than I was. Her features were smooth and sharp, hinting to noble blood. There was no way she could be… 

She knelt down beside the cage, Ash cowering behind me. Her gentle smile was intoxicating, making me a little light headed. Her eyes were a fierce silver, framed by loose, auburn locks. 

“Are you okay?” She asked sincerely, but I was at a loss for words. 

“I… Uh…” 

“It seems like he’s had a concussion. Should we take him back to camp?” A tall man stood behind her, clad in steel plate. His golden hair stretched to his shoulders, but his eyes were a cold steel blue. He looked unimpressed, and I couldn’t blame him. I didn’t come off as ‘impressive’.

“That might be best. What’s your name?” 

“I… Umm…” Speak, you idiot! 

Ash seemed more relaxed now, the woman cutting down the cage door. “Fyn. My name’s Fyn.” Finally!

“So you can speak…She smirked, laughing.

“We aren’t truly going to take him back, are we?” Her escort asked, shocked.

“He’s obviously hurt. We can’t just leave him-” 

“Princess, please! He’s common rabble!” The blonde man argued, the woman’s face twisting in anger. 

“Harold, that’s enough!” Her voice boomed. “Have you forgotten what it is we’re doing here?” 

The knight kneeled apologetically, bowing his head in shame. “My apologies, Princess.”

“How many times do we have to go over this?” She sighed, shaking her head. She turned her attention back to me, Harold pouting.

 “I’m Beatrice. A pleasure!” She ducked through the cage, cutting me free of my binds. Ash growled protectively, but relaxed once he realized what was happening. 

“Nice to meet you, Beatrice.” Harold scowled as I spoke, but held his silence. “So you’re the ‘kidnapped princess’ everyone’s looking for?” Her pleasant demeanor melted away, revealing  hostility. Harold unsheathed his broadsword in reply. 

“Who exactly are you, Fyn? You’re certainly not a knight, and you keep… interesting company…” She glanced at Ash, who returned her suspicious look with a hiss. 

“Don’t worry, I wasn’t planning on fighting you…” I glanced at Harold uncomfortably. “But you’re right. I’m not a knight, and the rest is a long story.” 

“As long as you agree too leave us in peace, we will not harm you.” Harold sheathed his blade, Beatrice exiting the cage. 

“Wait, hold on! I, uh, have a favour to ask…” She looked back with a raised eyebrow.

“And why would I want to help you, sympathiser?” 

“Wow, wow. Let’s back up here a little here. I’m not anything. I’m just a squire.” Her eyes widened, more mockingly than anything. 

“You? A squire? Who squired you?” 

“Gavin Warwick-” 

“Uncle Gavin?! You mean he’s here?” Now I was surprised.

“Gavin’s your uncle?” 

“No, not exactly…” She looked at her feet, relieving a painful memory judging from her mournful expression. “He’s… Was… a family friend.” 

“Well, he and the woman I was travelling with were captured as well, but they aren’t here.” I gestured around, the only cage in the camp being the one I’d been trapped in. “I don’t know where he is, but please; can you help me rescue them?” I felt like I was begging, but what else was I supposed to do? I had nobody else to call on, so it had to be her. The princess we were supposed to retrieve.

“I’ll help you, but only on one condition.” A devious smile spread from cheek to cheek. “You abandon your squirehood and join the rebellion.” 

“Wait, what?” I could have sworn I misheard her. “You want me to what?” Beatrice shrugged with a faux innocence, Harold shaking his head with a demeaning grin. 

“I think I was quite clear. I’ll help you save Uncle Gavin, but only if you join me.” She crossed her arms, her face stern. Her words spun around in my brain like a tornado, weighing if I had any other options. 

“Fine. I’ll join you.” Ash looked up as if he knew what I had said. Beatrice extended her hand with a smirk of approval. 

The only chance I had of rescuing Gavin and Isabelle was working with Beatrice, regardless of what ‘side’ I was on. I felt no loyalty to the King, but I didn’t have any qualms with the renegade princess either. My only loyalties were to Gavin himself, and I wasn’t about to let him rot away in some bandit camp. I accepted her hand, wearing a grin of my own. I could see Harold in the background scoffing, terrible at hiding his feelings. 

I learned quickly that the rebels were on the losing side of a war with the wandering bandits of the Eldergrove. They had a decent amount of support, but they weren’t military trained warriors. Ideology only gets you so far, and doesn’t help much in a competition of physical strength. Beatrice was growing tired of the conflict, annoyed by the manpower she wasted with warding off endless bandit raids. 

“That man who escaped, his name is Graves. He used to serve on the High Council of my father, before he was banished from the knighthood.” She said as we walked towards the rebel camp. Ash had made himself comfy, sitting atop my head.

“Why was he banished?” 

“Rumour has it he’s a cannibal, but I honestly have no idea. I do know that he looks a lot worse than he did five years ago.” 

“He may be our enemy now, but he was a fine knight when he served.” Harold interjected. “I… I was his squire.” 

“I’m sorry. That must be difficult, seeing him like that…” I trailed off, thinking of what might become of Gavin and I.

“No. He’s not the same man as he was. He’s gone feral, like a rabid hound.” The strong knight looked down at his feet shamefully. “It will bring honour to his family, once I kill him.” 

Harold may have claimed that he felt nothing, but his eyes told a different story. At the very least, he missed his old master.

“So Graves, is he the leader?” 

“He’s not.” Beatrice replied. “In actuality, bandits have no ‘leader’. But the man they follow, his name is Bull.” She said his name in disgust, spitting. 

“His name is Bull?” 

“It isn’t. Nobody knows what his real name is. I’ve never even seen the man in person. But the way the captives talk about him like he’s a monster.” As she spoke, chills ran down my spine. “He’s more beast than man, and eats the hearts of those that stand against him.” Beatrice sounded fearful as she spoke, and it didn’t suit her.

“So, uh, why did you attack Graves’s camp?” I needed to change the subject, or I would lose the iota of false bravado I had left. 

“We were… searching for someone.” Her tone was matter-of-factly, trying to avoid the rest of the conversation before it began. 

“Looking for someone?” 

“I can’t speak anymore on it.” She stated firmly, speeding her walk up. Who was it she was looking for? I sighed, falling to the back of the group and remaining silent the rest of the walk. Ash whined softly, like he was annoyed with Beatrice’s secrecy himself. 

“I know little guy, I know.” 

When the rangers had stormed that campsite, I really thought the rebellion stood a fighting chance. Turned out that they were a small group of elite amongst the masses, the majority of its membership the unemployed, untrained, refugees of Traug. The whispers I’d overheard  really were nothing more than just that; whispers. 

“I know it may not look like much right now, but one day we’ll have the strength to overthrow Eldin.” Beatrice was full of conviction as she spoke, fully believing in her words. She had an innate ability to inspire, but most people feared what they didn’t know. 

The king’s current regime represented stability, and Beatrice wanted to incite change. It’s a lot easier to fight change when you’re afraid of it. I didn’t understand it at the time, but most of our economic collapse was directly related to decisions the King personally made, fighting tooth and nail against his advisors. I could get into the gritty details, but all in all, it didn’t matter. 

The more Beatrice spoke, the more apparent it was that Sevestia needed change. And that realization gave me an idea.

“What if you’re going about this all wrong?” You can imagine the surprise on Beatrice’s face when  I made the suggestion. “You keep fighting against these bandits, but that isn’t getting you anywhere. Look at the facts; you’ve only a handful of rangers, Harold, and yourself that even know how to handle  a sword. The rest are nothing more than refugees.” I could see both Beatrice and Harold ready to explode, fists clenched. “On the other hand, all the bandits know is how to fight.” Beatrice understood where I was going, but Harold exploded. 

“How dare you insinuate that our force is weak? My Lady should have left you in that camp to rot you ungrateful rat!” Ash began growling, his feet becoming hot. I made an effort to appear unfazed by his insults. 

“Harold, that’s enough! Let him speak!” I was growing less fond of that man by the day, his arrogant self-proclaimed entitlement an exhausting struggle. 

“Thank you, Beatrice. What I was trying to say is you should organize a meeting between yourselves and Bull to negotiate a truce, and bring them into your ranks.”

“That’s absurd.” Harold didn’t give me a second to think.  “I won’t stoop to the level of colluding with bandits.” 

“Fine! Let’s go down that path and see what happens!” I could feel myself growing frustrated, and I wasn’t the kind to easily lose my temper. “You keep fighting with the bandits, but the fact of the matter is they outnumber you tenfold. By the end of it, your entire force will be gone with nothing to show for it.” I was animated as I spoke, self conscious of how much my hands were moving.

“The bandits ought to hate the King as well. It’s common ground to start from.” 

“Fine. But then how do we organize a meeting? They know us…” 

“I’ll do it.” I didn’t hesitate for a second despite every natural instinct in body telling me to shut my mouth. Both Beatrice and Harold’s eyes were wide. 

“If Graves is there, he’ll know you to. They aren’t keen on talking…” Beatrice argued, but my mind was made up. I could let the fear and cowardice dictate my actions for the rest of my life, but I’d never be any better for it. Before meeting Beatrice, my only aspiration was to become a castle guard. But since listening to her speak on her passion, it sparked something. Something that I couldn’t allow fear to contain.

“So what? Maybe this ‘Bull’ is more diplomatic then the rumours state. If they do decide to take me prisoner, maybe a group of rangers will have set up an ambush…” The princess’s face lit up with excitement, but Harold was more reluctant. 

“This seems too dangerous…” 

“Do you have a better suggestion?” Beatrice snapped. “Fyn’s right. We’re fighting a losing battle. At least this way, if the negotiations fail, we’ll have them gathered in one place. Fyn-” she turned to face me, her worried expression making me blush. “This poses the most risk for you. If things go south, chances are you’ll end up injured. Or worse. Are you prepared to face that?” Even though she was worried, her eyes were pleading. Even Harold was scowling at this point. 

“I owe Gavin a lot. If I do end up dead, just promise that you’ll save him.” 

“You have my word.” Beatrice looked relieved, and Harold unsure. As they left me standing in the center of the rebel camp, she turned to me. “And Fyn, thank you for this. You’re giving these people a fighting chance.” I smiled sheepishly, at a loss for words. It always feels good to have someone put their faith in you, even if you have little faith in yourself.