TIDE OF DARKNESS
Within a spacious, lavish chamber adorned in precious gems embedded in the walls and various paintings depicting superhuman battles, a youth was currently sitting leisurely on a gold-laden chair, a cup of tea in his hand. His legs were crossed and his dragon-carved, golden robe fell in folds over to the floor. The eyes of the youth appeared tranquil yet, at the same time, extremely vicious, deep golden in the hue. By all accounts, the youth was rather handsome, and his completely blood-crimson, short hair added a faint presence of death onto his handsome features. The centermost window of the room was currently open, gentle breeze fluttering the silken curtains like waves, while golden stream of sun washed over the ornamental rug on the floor. As the youth enjoyed his peaceful times, a sudden, rhythmic knock on the doors caused him to frown, putting down the cup of tea.
“Who is it?” the youth asked in a faint voice, his displeasure clearly displayed.
“It is me, Your Grace.” a slightly hoarse and robust voice answered from beyond the doors.
“Clith? What are you doing? Don’t you know not to interrupt me during my free time?” the youth said, his frown deepening.
“Forgive me Your Grace,” the voice replied. “But it is urgent.”
“… enter.” in the end, the man called Clith was youth’s direct servant, someone who attended him for over fifteen years. If he chose to interrupt him, he probably had a good reason.
“Thank you, Your Grace.”
The doors to the room slowly creaked open and a tall, muscular man wearing full plate armor walked in, a sword tied in a garnished scabbard strapped to his waist. The man appeared to be roughly in his mid-thirties, with rather rough-looking features; his jaw was squared, lines of face clearly defined, cheekbones pronounced and black eyes sunk in deeply, extremely narrow. The man had a faint stubble and wavy, black hair atop. The man immediately came before the youth and knelt down, bowing his head low.
“Rise,” the youth said as he picked up the cup of tea. “Have a seat.”
“I wouldn’t dare.” Clith said quickly.
“… yes, Your Grace.” Clith said as he awkwardly sat on the chair opposite of youth’s.
“What is so urgent that you had to interrupt my free time?” the youth asked as he took a sip of the mellow tea.
“A report came in a few hours ago, Your Grace,” Clith said respectfully. “Stating that a group of roughly hundred men and women were going around villages and commencing a mass slaughter.”
“Hm? Why hasn’t anyone notified me earlier?” the youth’s complexion darkened for a moment as he put the cup of tea down.
“Forgive us, Your Grace,” Clith immediately lowered his head. “As the report at the time seem incredulous, we first decided to investigate it and confirm it.”
“Has it been confirmed?”
“Did you report it to my father?” the youth asked.
“Yes, we have already informed His Highness,” Clith said. “And His Highness had already dispatched two squadrons of Knights, and asked if Your Grace would be willing to lead them.”
“…” the youth entered in a short thought as a strange glint flashed through his eyes.
The youth was none other than the Crown Prince of the Umbra Kingdom, a man donned as one of the strongest in the entire Kingdom despite his young age – Royal Prince Yox Veera of Grand Veera Dynasty. It was already set in stone that he’d become the next King, and it was only a matter of time before he ascended the throne. Although he remained within the Royal Palace most of the time, he had dozens of subordinates tasked with informing him of any major events that took place within Umbra Kingdom as well as the surrounding Kingdoms, making sure he was always up to date.
“Very well,” Prince Yox said as he slowly got up. “Call Sin and Valor. You and the two of them will accompany me.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
“I will go see Royal Father first,” Prince Yox said as he slowly moved toward the doors. “You gather the other two and wait for me at the City Gates with the rest of the Knights. I shall join you shortly.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
Prince Yox’s room was situated in the western wing of the Palace, and without special permission, no one was allowed to even come close to it. It was heavily guarded day and night, and there were no other occupants throughout the entire western wing. Prince Yox slowly headed toward the Throne Room, situated at the centermost position between the three wings – northern, eastern and western. It was where His Highness, the King of Umbra Kingdom – Orth Veera the Third – usually resided.
The doors connecting a massive hallway to the Throne Room were gigantic, easily towering over five meters, reinforced by hard steel and adorned with carvings of two coiling serpents. Without even announcing himself, the Prince pushed the doors open and calmly walked inside. Red, ornamental carpet ran forth like a river of blood straight from the doors to the small set of stairs. Atop was a relatively wide platform where the Throne itself was situated, alongside two statues of massive lions. Currently, atop the Throne, a middle-aged man wearing lavish robes and a golden crown garnished with plenty precious gems sat with a somewhat vexed expression. Beneath him, at two sides, dozens of high-ranking members of the Court were standing in silence.
When they saw Prince calmly walking toward the Throne, some nodded a greeting, while some frowned slightly at his behavior. In the end, despite how strong he was, even he was unable to win over every member of the Court. The struggle within the Palace was eternal, and friends and alliances were only temporary. As he arrived before the Throne, he slowly knelt down, exuding unparalleled grace.
“Royal Father.” the Prince spoke softly, his voice calm and even.
“Rise.” the King said with a faint smile on his face; his golden hair, paired up with noble, azure eyes gave him handsome look despite his age. Rather, one could say that the wrinkles only gave him sagacious appearance rather than taking away anything. “Seeing as you are here, you must have accepted my proposal.”
“Yes.” Prince Yox nodded.
“Hm,” King Orth mumbled. “We are still in the dark in regards to the backgrounds of these individuals. If possible, try to capture some of them alive and investigate the matter. We will also be sending word to the City of Mercenaries to post the bounty and gather some additional forces.”
“Understood.” Prince Yox said. “It will be dealt with swiftly.”
“Just to be on the safe side, you should take the Ancestor’s Staff.” King Orth’s words immediately invoked gasps of surprise, shock and disbelief from the present audience; even Prince Yox himself was slightly taken aback. After all, Ancestor’s Staff – [Moon-beheading Staff of Glory] – was a legendary weapon crafted by a Greatmaster Blacksmith long time ago as a gift to the King at the time. It’s the only Legendary-grade item in the Kingdom’s treasury, and is considered as a part of national defense. Up to this day, it has never left the premises of the Palace, so it wasn’t surprising that everyone was greatly taken aback.
“I do not think that will be necessary, Royal Father.” Prince Yox said. Although he greatly desired the staff for himself, he knew now was not the time. Perhaps, his Father was even testing him. No golden fruit ever fell freely from the sky, not even to the Crown Prince of the Kingdom.
“The Young Prince is right, Your Majesty,” the man closest to the Throne-platform spoke; he was the Prime Minister of the Kingdom, a man with no particular background – one without even a surname – Reyel. Despite his ordinary beginnings, his wit and knowledge greatly impressed the current King, which was why he was appointed one of the most important positions in the Kingdom. “To speak nothing of the Prince’s strength, even the Knights should be more than enough to deal with the invaders. We shouldn’t underestimate the nearby Kingdoms; there’s no doubt that they have already been alerted to this event, and are carefully observing the situation. If we suddenly bring out the staff out into the open, there’s no telling what they could do.”
“Prime Minister is right, Your Highness,” another man spoke in a soft, feminine voice. He was a Great Leader of Treasury, current King’s younger brother, Lyrthar. Unlike King Orth, he had rather ordinary features, and even his aura didn’t live up to his background. However, he remained as one of the most important personnel, and one of the King’s most trusted aides. “We should not take any unnecessary risks for the time being.”
“Humph, do you think your King has gone senile?” King Orth snorted coldly as he glanced at the trio of the Prince Yox, Prime Minister Reyel and his younger brother Lyrthar. “Those bastards have been eyeing our lands for a long time now, how could I not know? Despite the current Treaty, the equilibrium between our Kingdoms is slowly breaking off, especially with Yox’s recent rise. They are no doubt planning and scheming on ways to deal with him. Why not give them a free opportunity and root them out before they are able to formulate their plans properly?”
“… you mean…?” Prince Yox mumbled as he glanced at his father.
“Of course, you will be shadowed by Three Ancestors,” King Orth said confidently. “And your life will not be endangered, no matter what, and neither will the possession of the staff. As much as it is a ploy to root them out, is also to showcase our strength. They seemed to have forgotten who won the last Great War. It is high time we reminded them of who the true ruler of these lands is.”
The entire Throne Room was suddenly cast into contemplative silence. It wasn’t as though King Orth’s plan was foolproof; myriad of things could go wrong. However, it’s not as though it was a quickly-thought-out-one either. This could potentially lead to amazing gains. Not only could they root out the direct, high-positioned spies of the enemy Kingdom, but they could also send a grim reminder to all those who are having thoughts of invading these lands. After all, current Umbra Kingdom wasn’t exactly suited for an all-out war; with the multiple layers of internal divisions and struggles, it’s hard to say whether everyone would be able to unite under the same banner and resist the invaders. The only hope of that happening is exactly the youth currently kneeling in front of the Throne – Prince Yox. If he’s given a few more years to grow in strength, there’s no doubt that he’d be able to unite all the disassociated factions. Some of those present wished to see that while some didn’t.
Political situation – whether inside or outside the Umbra Kingdom – was seemingly stable on the surface, but that was hardly the case. Even now there were numerous small-time skirmishes, whether within the segregated powers of Umbra Kingdom, or the neighboring enemies and allies alike. [Moon-beheading Staff of Glory] was a great deterrent to everyone; such a legendary weapon was even registered in the annals of history books, and there wasn’t a soul who didn’t know of it. Even if it has only ever been used once, it was more than enough to display its prowess. It could be said that it was single-handedly worth an army of one-hundred-thousand if not even more, especially when wielded by someone as strong as Prince Yox.
In the end, no one was able to provide a proper counter-initiative to the King’s plan, which is when the meeting itself ended. Prince Yox’s departure was delayed for a day, but nobody thought it mattered much. Although a few villages were completely slaughtered, they were comparatively hidden and low in population, causing the overall loss to be almost negligible. In consideration to the current position of the unknown invaders, it would take them at least three days before they’d reach any major, important villages and cities, so a delay of one day wouldn’t impact the overall situation much.
As the Umbra Kingdom – alongside the neighboring Kingdoms – slowly began unfolding the various schemes and plans, deep in the reaches of the Umbra Mountain Range, within a rather cool and isolated cave shrouded in deep darkness, a faint sound of breathing could be heard. On the floor, propelled by a makeshift bed of dried leafs, a roughly sixteen-year-old boy was currently lying motionless. He was completely naked, and a massive scar was visible running from his collar bone down to his abdomen. His complexion was rather pale, and his expression pained, but his condition appeared relatively stable.
A few minutes later, faint sound of footsteps emerged from the cave’s entrance whereupon a woman wearing tattered clothes and carrying a bucket full of water – one made of leaves and branches, no less – walked into the cave. She quickly hunched over and lit up the fire that was extinguished while she was away, sitting down and panting heavily as she recovered her stamina. This woman was Aeala, and she had been taking care of Lino for the past fifteen days to the best of her ability. Although she was well-versed in the means of survival within the community, the same could not be said for her outdoor-survival-skills. After all, she had not left Endo Clan’s grounds even once, and was even less knowledgeable about the world than someone like Lino.
In truth, she didn’t do much when it came to Lino’s treatment; she merely found this rather hidden and damp cave, laid him down on the makeshift bed, stripped him and washed him with clean, river water, and that was it. She was even unable to find a material to cover his wounds, but it seemed unnecessary, as his speed of recovery startled her greatly. Already on the second day, both his wounds – which were clearly lethal – closed up and stopped bleeding completely. On the seventh day, his ragged breathing evened out and his convoluted expression eased somewhat. And, yesterday, on the fourteenth day, the wounds slowly turned to scars. She had no idea how he was healing that quickly but, by her estimates, he should be able to heal himself completely within another fifteen days. The greatest challenge for her was actually keeping herself alive; she was forced to eat strange-looking berries and leaves and mushrooms of all sorts. She was lucky enough to come across a dead body of a rabbit a few days ago which she roasted quickly and ate with gusto, but it was clear that she had lost quite a bit of weight in the past fifteen days and that her usually rosy complexion paled somewhat.
She also felt rather lucky that there was a fresh, nearby stream of water as, otherwise, she couldn’t imagine how she’d survive. Unlike Lino, she was an ordinary mortal, and even traversing the rough terrain of the forest was a challenge for her, let alone surviving all by herself for fifteen days. She had also gone back once to the place of battle and looked through the corpses of Patriarch Varick and First Elder; she only managed to find a single, golden ring with strange carvings on Patriarch’s body. Although the ring didn’t appear to be simple, she was clueless as to what it was, so she was only able to wait for Lino to wake up and have him take a look at it. Besides that, she also buried both of the bodies – or, rather, hid them to the best of her abilities – lest they be found by someone. She had no clue as to what was happening outside the forest, nor did she care that much. Despite the fact that her days were nothing short of exhausting, it never once managed to damp her spirit. After all, she was finally free; she had escaped that place she was enslaved to since the day she was born. Even living in the forest was comparatively better.
She couldn’t help but glance at the body of the youth lying not too far away from her. Her lips curled up in a gentle smile full of gratitude and warmth; despite Lino’s show of strength, she hardly feared him or felt repulsed by him. In the end, he had saved her. And, even worse, suffered grave injuries in the process. As she couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that he even survived, she didn’t bother thinking about how he was able to achieve all these things – to her it only mattered that he lived through this ordeal. She even felt somewhat reserved over being so much older than him. Even if she was relatively beautiful, even when compared to those girls much younger than her, she couldn’t help but wish she was younger, stronger and more beautiful. She even laughed at herself a few times for having such maiden-like thoughts over a boy who’d barely entered puberty.
However, in the end, these were just passing thoughts. She had very little to do with her free time, which led to boredom sparking such ideas inside her mind. She certainly wouldn’t humor the idea to the point of getting obsessed over it. What was left for her to do was simply wait out the time until Lino awoke and survive to the best of her ability. What comes afterwards, only time will tell.