The Chronicles of Estiah

Chapter 15: Stalker

"Those are quite some charges for an honest man," Nikkum laughed as his early skepticism was proven right.

"Don't do anything." Saar had more questions than he could possibly answer, so he opted for caution at this critical moment.

The guard's voice was soon followed by a dull sound. Through the narrow cracks of the door, they saw a piercing gold light. The entire inn started shaking under the battle that was starting. Even an honest man had to put up a fight when falsely accused of wrong-doings. Saar silently listened to wave after wave of guards trying to take one man down. The honest man couldn't let his belief or his truth to be altered by even the most horrific torture. The epic battle raged on the other side of the door, and Saar closed his eyes to feel all of this with his heart. His mind saw Celius dodging incoming spears, blocking blunt maces, breaking sharp swords. Saar was simply witnessing the most spectacular last stand of a soldier unwilling to give up his ideals.

"Uh, he's good." Nikkum's compliments were rare.

Saar snapped out of his admiration and focused his mind on the single ring on his left hand. A pale light danced around his hand for a few seconds then was replaced by a swirling seed of flames.

"Come on, you don't have to burn the building down to save some random guy" Nikkum unconsciously put his hands on the gold bag.

"You know what to do next?" Saar started to focus and the flame grew larger.

"Sort of…"

"Then here we go!"

A flame snake leaped towards the walls, mercilessly swallowing everything in its path. The wooden structure quickly caught fire and black smoke filled the little room in no time. The only exit that allowed a little sparrow to return to the sky was entirely wrapped in blatant fire; heaven's door instantly transformed into hell's gate, bringing doubt to which side was the one of the living.

"What are you waiting for?" Saar yelled at his accomplice while covering his nose.

"Well, I don't mind cracking your bones down along with that." Nikkum pointed at the door behind the young man.

At Nikkum's charge, Saar promptly dodged aside, letting the stone-made shoulders ram against the door. Like a castle's defenses collapsing as the most destructive siege weapon reached its gates, the wooden door was sent flying by the inhuman weight. Three guards were thrown to the ground and stepped over by Nikkum as he finished his course into the corridor. Saar sneaked out alongside the blinding smoke.

"Fire! The inn is on fire!" A young voice could be heard in the corridor.

"Water, bring some water!" A loud voice yelled over the top of painful shrieks.

The inn was immediately turned upside-down. Bucket-carrying clerks trying to reach the upstairs, battle-geared guards attempting to move down to reorganize, panicked guests running in every direction like headless chickens... They created a scenery in this little building as chaotic as a village being pillaged. Tears were dried by the clouds of burnt ash; blood was shed as aimless blind weapons were swung; and corpses were trampled upon in this merciless insanity. There was no longer any doubt over which side hell was on, as the living suffered together in the flow of death. And yet, while insects were crawling to try and get out of the path of the uncontrollable force of nature, one man stood straight and kept his immovable fortress.

The arsonists eventually left the inn through the still-burning front door, walking as if nothing had happened. No one was following them. They looked at each other and both let out a grin.

"Can you tell me how you ended up with that much blood on you?" Saar smirked.

"It's the present some of the guards returned to me for being 'generous' with them. But strangely, a few bodies were already carbonized when I greeted them."

"Oh well, I guess I was more generous since I took nothing from them."

Their twisted dialog made even the Old Gods turn their eyes away. Had there been a line of redemption, those two would have undoubtedly been first to be named and yet the last to be chosen. Still, they lived their remorseless days, walked their irreconcilable ways. Probably they believed that all human beings were free and equal in dignity and rights, but only while in a womb. Even the splendid brilliance of Zeal could not penetrate the darkness in their hearts.

The ascending smoke from the burning site was easy to spot from distance. Saar reminded Nikkum, "Let's move to the main gate before things calm down."

Nikkum remarked, "Somehow we were able to get away thanks to that 'honest man'. I wonder if he's still fighting."

"None of our business." The young man was already several steps ahead.

"But you burned down the inn for him." Nikkum quickly followed.

"That was our best way out."

"Whatever you say..." Nikkum scratched his head, quickly giving up, "You may have lived ninety years but you are still as bold as a young boy."

Saar's actions never ceased to surprise the fearless warrior. After going through a few short-range teleportation devices, he and his companion ended in the shortest and broadest roadway which led to the main gate of Zeal. Rows of maple trees were planted alongside the avenue, their perfect line-up showing how rigorous the magi of this city were. The creation of Charms requires a pure mind, and the absolute order of Zeal always seems to be the best proof of this hard training. Every twelve trees was erected a stone statue that Nikkum was unable to name; the magic runes on their front testifying a life-long contribution to the study of Charms.

"They are just a bunch of nerds to me." Nikkum mocked.

"Pay some respect to your elders. Without them Zeal wouldn't be standing here today." Saar replied while a busy merchant rushed past him.

"You mean 'floating'?"

"Do you have to pick up every detail of what I say?"

"My Charms are made by myself."

"Someone taught you how."

"Self-taught."

"It's alright to keep your little secrets, as you did when Lily panicked."

"I don't need to hide anything."

"When the poisons were applied..."

"Innate ability."

"You said that again."

"You don't want to believe."

"Look, even if I accept the fact that you are the luckiest man in the world and born with this extraordinary gift, there is no way one can learn how to craft Charms by himself. Do you have the slightest idea how many years it took the most brilliant scholars to discover the way to bypass the Curse? While you can learn how to use Charms if you have good intuition, crafting them for a brainless man like you is undeniably impossible."

"Did you just call me 'brainless'?"

"Yep, because we've been walking in the busiest avenue of Zeal for quite some time and yet you didn't notice anything unusual."

"Don't jest at me. Perhaps I prefer using my muscles to my brain. Do you really believe that I didn't notice the city's security was hardly reinforced? When I stared at two guards who just walked by, they ignored me as if they didn't receive any reports about that fake hierarch's death. That's definitely strange."

"Okay, you are almost brainless."

"What?"

"Didn't you hear what they were saying? They received orders to 'prepare for Abedgar the Venerable's arrival'."

"That's impossible! I certainly felt my spear go through his..."

"You're back to brainless again."

"It just doesn't make any sense."

"Okay, here are some hints: you are among the Soul Harvester's high ranks, you just got told that one of your public images was killed. What will you do?"

"Put up some bounty and chase after those bastards?"

"We're the bastards here... Never mind, you are not wrong."

"Then am I right?"

"Not quite. Abedgar was dead; there is no doubt about it since I checked him as well. From what I know about the Soul Harvesters, the Abedgar the guards were talking about is probably a replacement..."

"That can't be, he was parading everyday... unless he has a twin."

"Give me a break, do you really not understand? Tell me what he looked like."

"Eh... I didn't think much when I spotted his emblem... Then I was playing dead... After that I was in that dark cell..."

"Exactly. You didn't bother to look at him; you acted like you did only because the people around him made you think he was Abedgar. Do you believe the followers with faces buried in the ground have ever looked into his eyes? They weren't praying to Abedgar the Man but to Abedgar the Avatar. As long as some man stands before them in those shining clothes, they don't care about his identity, they just needed someone to pray to."

"So the Soul Harvesters merely hid the corpse and acted as if nothing happened?"

"You will know it soon. We're near the gate, walk normally. It's the busiest hour of Zeal, just follow the flow of merchants and we should sneak through easily. The city guards still believe we've been captured, if my guess is not wrong."

"And if you are?"

"Your axes know what to do next."

Nikkum nodded. Everything went precisely as the young man had predicted; the flow of people at this hour was so baffling that even the warrior's huge body was hidden away in perfect discretion. Several times Nikkum thought he lost sight of the young man in this mass of moving goods, only to notice again the flicking black mantle which seemed to wait and guide Nikkum to an unknown destination. After the flash of the mainland's teleportation, the two men landed at the border of a forest.

"Did you alter the gate again?" Nikkum was getting used to the young man's amazing ability.

"Yes, but only a little. Zeal is still very near." Saar always used spells wisely.

"Where to now?" Nikkum was ready for another adventure.

"Eclis. Since we both have business with the Soul Harvesters, we'll inevitably bump into some of their officers there." The young man's mind was very clear.

"Will we stop by Inachis as well?" Nikkum knew the land well.

"Yes. And the man I'm looking for is hidden in some village between Eclis and Inachis."

"Who?" Nikkum questioned.

"I'll tell you about him later. He holds onto one of these as well." Saar took out the emblem from his pocket.

"So you leave me no choice but to follow you." Nikkum couldn't possibly refuse such an invitation.

"Get moving and don't look back." Saar suddenly lowered his voice, "We're being stalked."

"Are you talking about the four Assassins behind us? They have been sneaking around before we even got near the gate." Nikkum manifested no surprise.

"There are some others. And I must admit that they're skilled. While I can perceive their presence, I haven’t caught a glimpse of them." Saar looked concerned.

"Yes." Nikkum felt the same uneasiness, "And I don't know how many they are."