The Chronicles of Estiah

Chapter 19: Order

"Why! Why! Why!" Lily shot so many whys to Saar in such a high-pitched voice that everyone had to cover their ears.

After waiting for Lily to stop to catch her breath, Saar explained without removing his hands from the sides of his head: "We initially wanted to use Inachis to shake off the Assassins, but since they've been dealt with, we don't have to stop by Inachis now."

"But why!" The princess had the extraordinary ability to hear only what she wanted to hear.

"As I said, we were slowed down by the Assassins, and skipping Inachis will save us some time to meet an important person. From the latest news, he's not doing well." Saar continued.

"Why!" The princess definitely was not listening to her servant.

"He's dying! I can't speak to a corpse, can't that messed up brain of yours understand?" Saar couldn't be clearer.

"Really!" Lily caught up with the explanation but failed to see the reality.

"I've got the feeling that I'm speaking to a corpse now..." Saar sighed then turned to someone for help, "Nikkum, we can't afford to lose any more time and I bet you are eager to meet that person as well."

Nikkum looked at the small emblem that the young man was holding, then swiftly remembered its owner: "Of course. Although Inachis is on the way, I think getting in the city will take too long."

Lily might not be a royal descendant but she had the unreasonable behavior of most princesses: "Why can't we drop by there? It's really not a long detour, I only have to check out some new robes, get a hot meal, sleep on a real bed, visit the Grand Scale, fetch a discount ticket from the Merchant Guild..."

Saar showed no interest in the lady's detailed touring plan and led the way. Nikkum quickly followed, leaving the couple behind. As she looked at her knight, the unhappiness on Lily's face changed to a bright smile, just as clouds are dispersed by sunlight.

"All my apologies, milady." The knight's agonized face indicated that he had to make a difficult choice between the code of chivalry and the sense of duty, "As I promised Saar that I should be guarding them in exchange for the Assassins' lives, I am afraid that I have to follow him."

The withdrawal of support for a lady in need struck Lily like thunder, and made her proclaim in a loud voice: "All of you can go! I'm going to Inachis without you. Don't cry later if your dying man actually dies because you forgot to bring your doctor!"

Nikkum looked behind with a perplexed expression: "Saar, I think she's got a point. She may be crazy, but I think she knows about healing as well."

The young wizard gave Celius an inquiring glance, who replied by shaking his head indicating he could not replace a skillful doctor. Saar's steps hesitated a little then resumed: "Ignore her. I only said I needed to talk to that man, not that I needed to save him."

Abandoned, the lady dashed off in the direction of Inachis. A few moments later, Saar and others could still hear her yelling: "I'll catch up with you later to see your man die! You'll be on your knees begging me to save him, and I'll do nothing!"

Nikkum shook his head: "She really means it."

Saar picked his pace up and threw a "Whatever" over his shoulder.

Only the dutiful knight seemed to care about the runaway princess: "Shall we leave some tracks so she'll be able to meet us later?"

Nikkum laughed: "What for? So she can mock us for our inability to relieve people from diseases? You can count on my sharp axes to end lives but certainly not to save them."

Celius had to agree: "That's what I've learned from last night... As a trained soldier, I can treat battle wounds and brew basic poisons but I'm afraid that I'm clueless when it comes to real medicine."

Nikkum didn't appear concerned: "Well, Saar will handle it. After having eaten that many books since his birth, he should have at least a little knowledge about common illnesses. And books taste like herbs anyway."

"Paper is made of wood." Saar reacted despite already having much on his mind, "And I read books, I don't eat them."

"Well, I did." Nikkum shrugged, "After having parted from my village when I was little, I had to eat anything to stay alive. While books aren't tasty, they're certainly better than dust."

"You..." Despite his pride, Saar knew what it meant to be an orphan in this land, one who struggled to live under the sun yet failed to feel the warmth of life. He unexpectedly gave up his usual attitude on discussions and went back to his thinking.

"Speechless?" Nikkum's slightly jeering tone indicated he cared less about what Saar said but he was amused to annoy the young mage.

Celius had no choice but to change the topic to something that would attract the attention of both men: "Back there before Lily interrupted us, I was explaining why I had to give up my high rank in the Lumina army and become an outlaw." Maybe a part of him also wanted to finally let this story out of his heart for the first time.

"Oh? You were an honest man at some point?" Nikkum did not hear the earlier discussion about the knight's glorious youth, "I sincerely believe I was unmatched in doing good deeds in my previous life."

"You were most likely thrown in the hottest hell repenting for unpardonable crimes after your previous life, and you're crawling right back in there after this one too." Had Saar had a better attitude, he would certainly have made a great fortune-seller.

"Really? Then I'm sorry for dragging you in too." Nikkum was fixed on the promise that the young man had made when they met for the first time.

Celius ignored much of the scorn in Nikkum's sentences, and resumed: "Even though I acquired the renowned name of Silverstone at my birth, in my family the name means nothing if we can't live up to it. Unlike most noble descendants, I was as unnoticeable as commoners in the way I was raised, I was a common child..."

"Ha ha ha! Did you hear that? A mere child?" Nikkum burst in with an uncontrolled laugh, "If you were a 'common child' who never had to worry about the chilling wind of winter nor the wracking pain of hunger, what do you call those homeless kids in Lumina? Are they just a bunch of monkeys filling your polished streets? To me, you're worse than monkeys if your heart doesn't ache when you look at them."

Saar showed much less compassion: "Be quiet, Nikkum. Everyone has his trials; don't blame your own misery on your parents even if they were the worst kind. Look at yourself, your own hands let you survive, didn’t they?"

"The very hands stained with blood, yeah." Nikkum had nothing to hide.

"Who can get away clean anyway in this world reeking of unfairness? One may have never killed, but his lies could have driven thousands to a misery worse than death." Saar was not fond of defending a bright world, "Let him speak."

Celius had much to argue but he preferred to finish his story: "It is true that I never experienced cold or hunger when I was little. However, my childhood was much haunted by my incompetence in fighting. In the adults' eyes, I was a failed child who would never become a keen lance in the defense of justice. I was destined to die in a battle as a glorious knight like all my ancestors, but my refusal to wield weapons made me appear a great fool to anyone who had the slightest hope in me. It was not courage I was missing, I just couldn't bring myself to believe in the things they'd told me. I was taught the darkness of the world and I was shown my duty to stand up against evil all over the lands. But why can't we illuminate this very world and cleanse these very lands? As a child, I always thought my conviction was absolute and unshakable however cruel the world could be. To the surprise of no one except myself, I joined the Lumina guards at the age of sixteen. It is then that I discovered that my unwillingness to hurt or kill wouldn't stop me from picking up my first mace, and oddly enough, I mastered it in no time and excelled even more than those who had been training with it since their youth. As the name of Silverstone required, I quickly rose up through the ranks with my true skills..."

"Blah blah, I'm so awesome. Blah blah, I'm so great." The lengthy recount of Celius’ life sounded boring to an impatient man like Nikkum, and he had to interrupt to mark his jeering, "Can you skip a little of ... or rather the whole glorious part and tell us how yesterday's knight has become today's thief?"

Saar was obviously unhappy with the rude comment of his companion, yet he chose only to give a displeased look to Nikkum and stay silent so as not to disturb the knight's narration any further.

Celius continued: "There was no doubt that my family's name had helped much in progressing in the army. Everyone seemed to know me, and yet at the same time I felt so alienated by them. They knew me by my name but my heart was at an unfathomable depth that no one managed to reach. As I became more and more disoriented by the path of my own life, I devoted myself to training and I carried out my duties without questions. I was a man of safety and calmness, the very qualities sought in the army leadership. It was all about law and order, and anyone who tried to climb faster was fated to fall because of their disturbance and recklessness. As I look at it now, I was like a little air bubble born at the bottom of the ocean, weak and yet bound to float upward by the unchangeable laws of nature. The blue water was ruthless and intimidating, and yet it was unable to prevent the little breath born from the undersea to leave the sunless depth. By dodging torrents and swirls, the little bubble was destined to surface and join with the immense space between sky and sea. I was much the same, and before I knew it hundreds and thousands of soldiers were at my command. People didn’t use my youth to question my rank, instead they simply linked my fame to the name of Silverstone.
However, I didn't stay on the top for long before something dreadful happened and changed my life forever..."

Nikkum could not help but comment: "Your little bubble exploded?"

Celius simply ignored the misplaced scorn, and went on: "The incident occurred soon after I obtained my title of General. By the order of Lumina's Holy Chapel, I was dispatched for a secret mission to somewhere between Skyrift and Wildhowl. My naive self treated the sealed letter with great seriousness and extraordinary respect. Forty of the most skilled and trusted soldiers of Lumina were handpicked to follow me, and we rode to the destination that will haunt me till my very last breath. According to our intelligence, a remote village had started to practice an unidentified dark art which posed tremendous danger to the nearby area. We were also told to anticipate the presence of Shadowspawn who were likely to be drawn to any source of darkness. Actually most of us were secretly excited about this mission as we all felt we were chosen because of our outstanding abilities. Our fighting spirit was at the highest as we rushed on the backs of our strong steeds. However, our earth-trembling arrival was met with the tranquil daily life of an ordinary village. I ordered my men to search every suspicious place in the neighborhood but our efforts were in vain. We double-checked the village's name and location, but there were no mistakes. I used a few men to seal off the exits and gathered every man and woman in the village. To this day I still remember their confused looks and shivering feet. If they were just playing a deceitful act, I must say that it looked simply too real. When the time came to make a decision, I opened the sealed letter with my hesitating hands, and my eyes widened. 'Slaughter them all'. The cursed letter had only one sentence: 'Slaughter them all'. I believed that it was either a mistake or a prank, but neither of these had their place in sealed orders bearing the royal seal. My mind raced to find an explanation and my eyes were stuck to the three sharp words on the letter. When I came to my senses, I realized that I had read the letter aloud, and that my obedient subordinate took my words for an absolute order. Before my eyes was piled corpses of innocents, before my feet flowed a river of the blood from the defenseless. The biggest mistake in my life is that I made no mistakes in reading that abominable letter. How I wished my feeling of exasperation was conveyed to my men instead of these words of absurdity... I made them execute an order that no sane man should have ever given, I stripped their humanity from them with my meaningless title of General."

Despite his earlier mischievousness, Nikkum remained speechless while the other young man kept walking without slowing down. Much time had passed since Lily ran away, and the sky was turning to dusk again. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Saar finally spoke: "Was that your downfall?"

Celius was certainly a man with courage; he looked at his past with pain but without lies: "I felt the real taste of fear for the first time. What happened next was confusion, shock, frustration, and regret. I was a lost man after witnessing such an event, but the training I had received made me ride back to Lumina like an obedient dog. How in the name of all that is holy could I think about just reporting back for the debriefing of my mission? While passing the dense forest of Wildhowl, I realized I was left with only one of my followers, and he was saying his last words before abandoning me as well. I cannot remember exactly what he said, but he was in a state of shock like all the others. I believe he was recounting memories of the event, the shriek of the defenseless and the desperation of the lifeless. Then he finally broke down when he talked about how his iron spear went through the frail body of a boy who tried to protect his sister, as if he was piecing through a paper screen. I left him behind, hoping he would be accepted by the gracious wilderness and he would never be a soldier again. I eventually reached Lumina alone, exhausted both physically and mentally. But to my aggravation, I was condemned for losing forty fine soldiers and not for murdering hundreds of innocents. I abandoned it all, my title, my fame, my family and my values. Having finally awakened, I chose to live as a man wanted by society but free in heart."

The three men walked for a long time in silence. Celius noticed that his two companions were looking away, lost in thoughts. He took their unusual silence for a sign of respect for what had happened and used that time to quell the pain aroused by those memories coming back. However, if Saar was looking away, it was more to cover the inappropriate gleam in his eyes. The story of the knight was insignificant compared to the fact that he finally found the location of a very important piece of his puzzle. Thanks to this, his path had become a lot clearer. He had the allies he needed, and was on a good lead with the Soul Harvesters. If that lead really allowed him to acquire what he wanted, all that would be left would be to meet with his old 'friend' in Draka, and pick up his prize in Lumina. His patience would soon be rewarded.

Saar finally broke the silence: "Nikkum, you didn't sleep for two days, I bet you're quite exhausted now. Let's take a good rest tonight since we're out of the Assassins' reach. The man whom I wanted to meet should be able hang on for some more time."

Nikkum was in some thought as well, pretty rare in his case: "Uh, oh? What if he doesn't?"

"Then he dies."

Nikkum nodded in agreement.

The young wizard then turned to Celius: "Even though I told you to become our bodyguard, I don't think you can hold up much longer since you must be as tired as us. We have no use for a bodyguard who can't keep up his vigilance, so I suggest you rest as well."

After some hesitation, the diligent knight took up the offer and settled down as well. Before closing his eyes, he heard Nikkum murmur: "You're terrible at telling stories."

The west breeze gently toyed with the forest that was also finally at peace, and out of consideration for the three worn-out men it took care to not make much noise. Had it known any lullaby melodies, it would be singing them at this very moment. No matter their age, orphans of fate deserve the compassion of the world. It is sad to be an outcast of society, and it brings even more sorrow when the world itself has forsaken them. The dark orange clouds endeavored to cover the dusky sky so the night could fall faster, and even the moon was too shy to play with its neighboring stars. It was content to hide behind the clouds and guess quietly what dreams those men would have. All of them fell asleep as fast as they should have, since for once there was no danger lurking around them with bloodthirsty eyes.

And yet, Nikkum had a nightmare that night. One he hadn't seen for quite a while.