A city littered with corpses, flames burning everything in sight, the sky filled with ash and dust, and above, a crimson-shining sun illuminating in the distance. Had he awoken years earlier than this fateful day, the world could’ve been saved. Had he stopped the Endless War, the evil entity wouldn’t have been awoken from the souls it had amassed. His years thwarting the malevolent had been for naught. Evil had won and he fell to his knees, tears streaming from his face, as the crimson sun fell from the heavens and destroyed the planet he once called home.
This was the revelation brought upon to Aren Damoder, one of the many legendary heroes who changed Thyderalis for the better. It was with this knowledge that he was tasked to save the entire world from its fated destruction. Despite his efforts of interfering with countless battles and sacrificing many lives from the shadows, the Endless War raged on, as destiny demanded.
When he was about to give up, a vision of hope glimmered through his subconscious: an image of fiery red-haired woman. Though it left him with more questions than answers, there was one thing Aren knew: helping this woman may impede the disastrous future. The once hailed hero had set out to find the girl he had seen in his vision, shouldering the responsibility of this burden alone. He traveled across the continent of Thyderalis, letting his vision pave the path to his goal. Aren couldn’t remember his time spent before his departure, but nothing would stop him from ever reaching to that fading hope.
Another nightmare. The voices of the damned howled his name within the dark, inhospitable place of his mind. They shouted, they screamed, asking why did he fail them all, questioning his once grand title of a hero. The voices got louder, screeching and demanding him to answer. After taking a deep breath, Aren opened his eye, ending the nightmare. There was no more darkness, but the sight of dirt, grass, and houses. He stroked his right eyepatch, feeling an unusual sensation.
“Hey boy, you’re finally awake. You were trying to cross that border, right? Well, here we are.” The driver heard no response and turned to see what was going on. “You all right?”
Aren snapped up and looked at the driver with a smile. “Oh right, sorry. Thanks for the ride.”
He jumped off from the wagon and waved goodbye as it departed to places elsewhere. Now that he reached his destination, it was time to gather clues about the mystery girl within his vision. His stomach growled before he could start his investigation, and he let out a sigh.
“To the nearest food stand I go!”
And there he was, in front of a fruit stand examining an apple. Though the vendor was confident about their pickings, there was something off about his next meal that intrigued his one left blue eye. When he inspected it, a small worm wriggled out and leaped to its freedom.
“Well, are ya gonna take it or not?” the fruit vendor asked, “I ain’t got all day you runt.”
"Is this how you treat your customers? No wonder why your stand is empty compared to the rest.”
“Hmpf. Four copper pieces.”
A band of riders rode past him, one of them wearing insignias bearing a wolf’s face with laurels surrounding it. As they housed their steeds in the nearest stables, the rough-looking one of the group pulled one civilian to the side, demanding them to “kindly” hand over their money. The other villagers watched and turned away, knowing they themselves cannot help.
“What’s up with him?” Aren asked.
"Damned mercenary has been going around hauling any ‘spare change’ he could. Been at it for weeks now. Wish there was someone to help the poor lass…”
“Yeah, I wish,” Aren agreed and took a bite from his newly bought apple. His days of saving people are long behind him: helping the innocent bystander would waste his time.
After not getting any definitive answers from the locals, he decided it was best to head to the village tavern. Past its the swinging door, there were a couple of tables and chairs occupied by daily customers, and a second floor for rooms. He found a seat on the bar counter and lifted his finger. The old bartender noticed and approached him as he was cleaning a mug.
"Well, dependin’ on yer mood. Them city folk don't serve drinks to younglin’s… but this ain't the city. Everythin' up fer drinks.”
“I’m in a mood for milk. Oh, and that… sweetbread. People from around say your place is famous for those things.”
The bartender came with a mug of warm milk and three pieces of sweetbread on a plate moments later, handing them to his new customer. Aren clasped his hands together, saying thanks for his food, and wolfed down the bread.
“Where ya from, kid?”
“Some place, far from here.”
“Ain’t that a surprise,” the bartender said sarcastically. “What brought ye to sum low establishment like Alme?”
Aren drank his milk and wiped his lips. “I’m looking for a woman. Red hair with… a ponytail? Pretty according to some. Locals said she passed here some days ago.”
“Ah, ye must be lookin’ fer Miss Hawkwood: gal’s the Phoenix of Damore! Aye, did see er’ with me two eyes.”
“The Phoenix of Damore? What in the seven depths of hell is that?”
“I could tell ye more but… I got me sum company.”
He nudged him, gesturing to look behind. Aren turned and saw the same mercenaries from before enter the tavern. The rough-looking mercenary yelled for some drinks, shaking his newly gained coin purse he “kindly” received from a villager. A young woman came to serve their drinks and before she could leave, the rough-looking mercenary grabbed her arm.
“Oh ho? And what’s a beautiful woman like you doing here?”
“I work here with my father. If you would excuse me, I—”
“You can work for me, if you like. I have many… benefits that come along with my package.”
The bartender frowned. “That’s enough. Hands off me daughter!”
“That old man of yours is no fun. Maybe if I can slip a few coins in his pocket, he’ll shut up.”
“S-Sir, please…” the bartender’s daughter pleaded.
The mercenary rolled his eyes and let the girl go, stating it was a huge turn-off to see her like that. The daughter ran into the kitchen and the bartender sighed. He said he’d be right back and went to see her. Some time passed and the band of mercenaries were playing cards and Aren listened into their conversation.
“Can’t believe I am being paid to protect a shithole like this! What does Sir Eadburt have to gain to have us guard his shitty peasants?”
The armored, graceful-looking knight sighed. “You’ve been complaining for the past week straight.”
“Resources are important for a prestigious, powerful House. These peasants are the backbone of their profits.”
“Gah, I should’ve asked for more money if this is all the fun we get!”
“Steel yourself, unless if you want me to report Lord Harley about the harassing.”
The rough mercenary growled. “Damn hound…”
One of the other riders spoke up. “As much bonkers you are, I believe he’s right chief. We came to fight bandits, but there aren’t any on sight anymore. I think we can call it a job well done and continue on with some crap.”
“That is true… Your last payrolls are coming up so perhaps I can hire a new batch to take over your roles.” The graceful knight leaned forward. “However, gentlemen, we still must be on guard. Don’t you remember those assassins we took down days ago? We must look out for any suspicious individuals, especially foreigners.”
The group’s eyes turned to Aren’s direction. Aren faced them, then continued on eating his meal. The bartender came back and was asked if he had any idea who were those people. The old man explained that those riders were hired by arguably the most powerful family in all of Damore: the Eadburt family.
The Eadburts were so rich that hiring mercenaries to defend the villages from raiders and bandits was cheap money for them. As grateful as the locals were, many disliked the treatment towards them, especially the rough-looking mercenary who had been extorting money for weeks. The villagers did not want to sever the relationship of their protectors, but something needed to be done to end the constant bullying.
“As a foreigner such as ye, I’d not worry a trap about it. Them mercs scared awf all them pesky bandits n’ raiders. Hippie-do, this Civil War’s a mess. Kingdom’s too chaotic!”
“Aye, Civil War. Heard sum folk named Gaster Lenin startin’ sumpn after Sir Ulric died. Preachin’ equality and stuff but them rumors say man wantin’ the throne for himself. Died though.”
“Apparently Damore lost their king to some illness. Can that be…”
“Aye, Sir Ulric. Died to sum illness years ago. Death causin’ them whole conflict.” The bartender leaned in. “Yer were askin’ about Miss Hawkwood, right? Like I said, saw er’ came by days ago. Hoo boy, a pretty gal, I tellin’ ya. Oh, she talkin’ about goin’ to sum camp…”
“And this camp is?”
“A Royal Campin’ place. Perhaps them gentlemen there can provide ya with the spot. Good luck.”
He gestured Aren to the mercenaries at the back. Aren crackled his knuckles and approached the men with a bright smile. The rough-looking mercenary stood up, trying to impose a frightening appearance.
“And what’s a runt like you doing in a man’s place? Get out.”
Aren ignored him and looked at the graceful-looking knight. “Hey sir, may I ask you a question?”
The rough mercenary was about to shout, but the graceful knight gave a look and gestured him to sit down. He folded his arms and raised his brow. “You may, young sir.”
“Just want to know if you are associates of the Eadburt house.”
“For these three, you can say such. Me, however, am sworn into the House.” The graceful knight showed his palm. “I am Sir Dagn and the rough-looking gentleman is Hagley.”
“R-Right. So, I’m looking for a woman named Ms. Hawkwood… uh, the Phoenix of Damore, that is.”
“And what is your business with her?”
“O-Oh uh… I just need to speak to her, that’s all.”
“There are many who wish to meet the Divine Circle, her included. They are powerful individuals who harness the power of trapped Divine Beasts inside their weapons. Perhaps you are a fan of her exploits and want to be under her tutelage.”
“Wow, she’s giving me a good impression. Didn’t know she’s that important.” Aren waved his hand. “Anyway, I heard she’s going to some place called the… Royal Camp?”
“Royal Outpost, yes,” Dagn corrected.
“Yeah, there, and I am wondering where can it possibly be! It would be fantastic if—”
“And why would you want to know that? It’s not strange for a foreigner to ask for a famous individual’s whereabouts. The interesting part was that we met assassins days ago, and they were asking similar questions. We killed them on the spot.”
The graceful knight pointed at Aren’s satchel. “We found their orders in a bag like that. Coincidence?”
There was tension in the air. Surely these men do not believe he’s an assassin, or so he thought. A moment passed, and it was clear persuading them wasn’t an option on the negotiating table.
Aren felt a drop of sweat fall from his forehead and backed off slowly. “Look, I don’t want any trouble since I’m in a hurry. I’ll just go.”
He made his way to the exit to leave, but two of the riders blocked his way. Dagn stood up, cleaning his hands with a handkerchief.
“I’m afraid you are not going anywhere. Damore has a policy of not trusting outsiders, even children such as you. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. Now, where did you come from, little one?”
“I believe there’s a law in Damore that grants me the right to remain silent?”
“No. If there was one, then it wouldn’t apply to outsiders like you.”
“Great. Oh, one more question before you guys pummel me to death.”
“Go ahead, you have that privilege.”
“You sure you know where this Royal Outpost is? Like 100% guaranteed?”
“Yes, but you will never get that information from us.”
Aren smirked. “That makes my job easier.”
Before they were able to make the first move, he threw the first punch at Hagley. The man flew across, slamming through many tables and chairs. Aren was picked up and thrown, slamming his back against the bar counter. As the many bottles fell from their shelves, he caught one and chugged it down as much as he can before a fist came swinging at him. He smashed the bottle at one of the rider’s face, then grasped and slammed his head at the top of the table, dizzying him temporarily. The other rider took out his weapon and dug his weapon deep into the bar counter when Aren dodged his attack. He was disarmed and after a couple of punches; he broke through the tavern’s wall and stayed laying on the floor, groaning in pain. The Hagley got hold of Aren and Dagn dug his fists deep into his body. Aren raised his legs and drop kicked the knight away and hurled himself back to the bar counter. He escaped and broke Hagley’s jaw with a hook. The man was unfazed by the strike, fixing his jaw back into place, and proceeded to suplex him. Aren’s back felt like it was shattered into many pieces and took a moment to process what happened. Hagley smirked and stood over him, spitting to the side.
“Screw you,” Aren mumbled.
He shot a beam of light which pushed Hagley through the tavern’s walls and straight into the dirt ground outside. After the dust settled, Aren used a broken stool to get back up and leaned back to stretch.
“Oh yeah, that’s better. Ugh, being old takes a toll on ya sometimes.”
A flash of metal came from the corner of his eye, and he dodged by instinct. It was Dagn, who was now using his weapon to take down his opponent. He threw several wild swings, trying to land a single blow. Aren threw whatever was near him to fend off his attacker, be it chairs or bottles.
“Argh, enough is enough, young man!” Dagn shouted. “I’ve had it with your theatrics and snarky misplays!”
“All right, all right, I’m sorry for defending myself. Is there still a chance for us to make up? We can start over from scratch. Hi, I’m Aren nice to—”
“Surrender yourself to my blade!”
“Okay, he’s not listening.”
Dagn’s sword emitted a dangerous blue energy and when he struck the wooden floor, the force generated gale winds which tore the place asunder. Knowing that prolonging the fight would cause more harm than good, Aren focused and his fists emitted a yellow light. He snapped the metal blade into two upon contact. Dagn was dumbfounded upon this sight and was knocked out cold. He washed his hands and nodded as the tavern slowly collapsed around him.
“Phew, another job well done.” After confirming no bystanders were hurt, he went to Dagn and grasped his face. “All right, now spill the beans.”
“Ugh… what are you?”
Sir Dagn fainted. Aren took Hagley’s coin purse and sat in front of what was left of the bar counter with a spare chair, seeing the bartender peek to see if the brawl was over. Aren tapped to get his attention, then setting the bag down in front of him with a smile.
“Hey, you guys got any ale left? Oh, and more of those sweetbreads please.”