The Chronicles of Estiah

Chapter 21: Outcast

"I killed her again..." Nikkum opened his eyes, only to shut them again quickly to avoid the strong sunshine. Through his right hand, which was trying to cover the radiant light, he saw a vigilant guard dutifully standing over him, as immobile as an elephant and yet as alert as an eagle.

"Mornin'." The guard greeted Nikkum with a bright smile, "Did you sleep well?"

Nikkum jumped up, ignoring the courteous question. When dreams mix with reality for too long, one cannot easily walk away from the things on one’s mind. Nevertheless, the enduring body had regained much of its strength thanks to a full night of peace, even though his mind remained in a state of constant exhaustion.

"You were saying something before you woke up..." Celius mused.

"Did I dream-talk?" The warrior asked, cutting short Celius' curious remark.

"Not really, that was something inaudible." Nikkum thought one of the best virtues Celius had was certainly that he never needed to lie.

"Then leave me alone." Nikkum was feeling annoyed again, but out of blue he let slip an unusually considerate question: "Were you up all night?"

"No, no, I had time to rest as well, as Saar told me." Celius was surely someone who knew how to follow an order.

"Where did that brat go?" Nikkum looked around, showing a little anxiety.

"Oh, he awoke a little while ago and took off for a walk. The Assassins didn't follow us, so don't worry." Celius' explanation sounded soothing, but he had completely overlooked the fact that the question showed no concerns about his fellow traveler's safety at all.

"I'm not worrying about 'that'." The warrior hated to explain the obvious, but he had forgotten that not everyone knew about his story, especially when he had never cared to explain.

"Hum? What do you mean by 'that'?" Celius was perplexed.

"He meant he only cared to know if I had run away." Saar appeared from nowhere, catching both men off guard in their discussion. "I'm feeling much better, Nikkum, thank you for your concern by the way."

"Good to see your arrogant self again too, Saar." Nikkum raised an eyebrow, apparently smelling the young man's irony for once. "So how did your teleport-walk go?"

"Actually it was a regular and casual walk. And I always remained nearby." One of the worst vices Saar had was undoubtedly that he could tell lies without blinking.

"Sorry to interrupt..." Celius did not know if he had to intervene, but he certainly had the feeling that these men were not on good terms, "Saar, shouldn't we get moving? I remember you saying you needed to meet someone who was probably in pain."

"Yeah, my bad for wasting our time on a dumb rock. The man that I, or 'we', have to meet is called Duriuk, one of the key members among the Soul Harvesters’ officers. He has some valuable information for me..." To explain the shared interest between Nikkum and himself, the young wizard went on, "As for that brute over there, he probably just wants to hack out the brain of the poor guy. It looks like he holds a grudge against every Soul Harvester alive."

"Want me to do it before he speaks up?" Nikkum tried to remind Saar how he smashed the 'valuable' information into pieces the last time they saw a Soul Harvester.

"It won't happen again." Saar made a little grin as he glanced at the mighty guard who was missing most of the discussion.

"That's why you wanted him to come." Nikkum caught up quickly.

"Among other things, yes." The young man decided it was wise not to waste any more time, and started leading the way again.

It was a bright day, with the sun giving off some warming rays. It was not often that the golden light radiated in such a fine spectacle for man, let alone for this little group of travelers, each one with their own burdens and regrets. As the three men slowly walked away from the main road connecting Inachis and Eclis, they became absorbed in an increasingly isolated land. Roadside shops were nowhere to be found, and fewer and fewer peddlers passed by. Their silhouettes disappeared every once in a while in small groves of trees, but still they kept up a good pace toward their destination.

While the men shared the same road on this slightly dusty soil, their minds were certainly straying down very different paths. They did not travel in silence, but the lack of understanding was suffocating. The discussions about Lumina's royal lineage between Saar and the frank guard bored the uncaring one to tears; the secrets between Nikkum and the deceptive magus were only meaningless words to the discreet man; and the differences between Celius and the impenitent warrior left the remaining fellow to ponder over his next plans. They were much like the bamboo trees they came across every now and then, all of them were born from the same fostering ground, shared the same nurturing root, but yearned for a different sky. Maybe it was puzzling too to the Old Gods themselves when they watched their creations mature in ways they could not imagine. While the souls of humans are unquestionably born with a light to counter the Shadowspawns' blackness, the almighty designers of life failed to guess that every human would be able to grow a darkness in their heart, and sometimes an overwhelming one.

"What do men become when their light is engulfed by the black flame?" Celius inquired of the young savant.

"Who knows?" Saar shrugged with a smile, "Perhaps Duriuk will be able to answer that..."

Before Saar could finish his sentence, Nikkum, who had worn a look of blase indifference on his face all morning suddenly jumped in: "Are you joking? You guys have been talking about some philosophical nonsense for hours now, what pill of enlightenment did you take for lunch? I really hope we are not going to seek some 'wise' answers from Duriuk, because if so, this 'wise' man is going to meet his maker sooner than you think."

Saar changed his smile to a scoff: "As if you understood us wise men."

Nikkum cracked his fingers: "They understand the pain."

Saar refrained from retorting, then thought about something else: "Can't blame you if your muscles simply enjoy mindless killing, but this time you really have to pay attention to your acts. Duriuk is a very knowledgeable man, and from his rank among the Soul Harvesters, he must hold many of their dirty secrets. Whether I'll be able to keep my promise to your kid, will mostly depend on you. The Soul Harvesters may be your enemy but you can also get help from them if you ask the right question."

The warrior could not have mistaken the extorting tone in Saar's words, and reluctantly replied: "I seek the Soul Harvesters ranked high enough to wear an emblem, I have no business with small flies. But you said Duriuk had the same emblem..."

"Yes," Saar interrupted, "Well, he had. Now he's simply an outcast from the guild. You'll hear everything I'm going to ask him and you'll figure out the details by yourself."

"Fine by me." Nikkum conceded.

The following days of travel were rather monotonous with the same scenery repeating over and over again. Celius and Saar talked at length about various things, but no questions about each other's past were asked. The warrior said few words and listened to even fewer, his slightly dispirited expression had not gone unobserved. Saar, who merely feigned his ignorance, kept up the empty dialogues with the one who seemed more human. Celius perceived the unusual air around Nikkum as well, but he was disturbed and amazed after the exchanges of words with the young wizard over the course of recent days. Even as a descendant of high nobles and a well-educated man, Celius was hardly able to hide his surprise about Saar's vast knowledge, to such an extent that his words were often filled with excessive modesty and even admiration.

"Saar, I'm really impressed at your familiarity with the great city of Zeal. My childhood tutor had spent much of his life as an archivist in the most important library of Zeal, and yet your descriptions of this very library just made him appear to have never been there."

"I spent most of my time traveling, but sure, Zeal is the place I've stayed for the longest." Saar always had a strange melancholy and reminiscence whenever he talked about Zeal.
Nikkum, who was so far totally unconcerned suddenly chuckled: "Don't ask Saar about his age, despite being in a brat's body he thinks he's lived so long that he's forgotten about it. But can't blame him since he was born in a pile of books."

"Do me a favor, Nikkum, bury me in a pile of books if you ever manage to kill me." Saar did not sound offended.

"With pleasure." The rude one scorned.

Witnessing another round of quarreling about to begin, the prudent guard finally let go his curiosity: "How come you two can travel together while it seems to me you don't really get along?"

Nikkum had a well-prepared short answer: "He owes me something."

Whereas Saar had a more elaborate one: "It's just the circumstances which made it so. Just think of him as my fumbling servant, let him do the tiresome chores and take care of expenses. When he doesn't talk, he's no different from that rock over there."

Nikkum naturally reacted with anger: "Ha! What a shameless freeloader. And I believe you have no problem living on my blood-stained money."

Saar scoffed: "Which bag of gold doesn't come with blood? If I had to wait for clean and shiny pieces, I would've starved a long time ago."

At this point, Celius felt he had to patiently wait for one of them to loosen their tongue. The honest guard's intuition was pretty sharp, his early question was easily dodged and he would only appear indiscreet if he pressed. So he changed the topic instead: "Are we getting any closer to Duriuk?"

"Yes." Saar pointed over yonder, "We can almost see the village's entrance from here. It's not that remote so we can expect to see some people soon."

Nikkum sped up his steps, apparently much irked from the boredom of days of walking.

"Wait up, Nikkum! Don't do anything stupid!" Saar still did not feel confident even with the skillful knight around.

"I won't!" The trained fighter who was certainly more of an athlete than a weak scholar, dashed quite a distance before exclaiming, "I just saw someone!"

Celius picked his pace up as well, "I'll follow him."

By the time the young magus finally caught up with the others, he was already in front of a modest but respectable wood house. He quickly noticed the small wildflowers next to the doorstep, and said to himself: "Must be village children, it looks like the village elder's living here."

And he was not much off the mark, as he saw a little boy seized by Nikkum, screaming under his captor's iron arm: "The Oracle is sick, he's not seeing anyone!"

Nikkum looked back, confused: "Saar, you didn't say Duriuk was a herb-smoking, mentally-unfit man."

Saar gestured to the brute to put the child down: "I didn't. And Duriuk never started doing prophecy to my knowledge."

"Then what's this? When I asked the kid where Duriuk is, he started screaming 'Oracle' all over the place." The warrior saw his prisoner flee into the house immediately after releasing his vice grip.

"Who knows?" Saar raised his shoulders, "We only need to follow him to find out."

The inner house was as expected for something from a village, simplistic and without much decor. The rooms had some plain furniture that fulfilled daily needs, and Saar walked straight past them without even a glance. Then he found the man he was looking for. Duriuk was apparently very ill, bedridden and unconscious. The startled boy was holding the hands of another patient who was also in a deep coma, an elder in his eighties who must be 'the Oracle'. Saar promptly approached Duriuk and started examining him.

Nikkum scratched his head before two dying men: "Revive them, Saar?"

"They're not dead yet." Saar's slightly worried tone indicated how much longer he thought the patients might hold.

Celius came near as well: "I'm sorry, I'm at loss to know what's happening to them."

"Yeah, I know." Saar replied with little thought, then started ransacking Duriuk's clothes before everyone's eyes.

Celius was not expecting this unmannered act, but before he spoke up, he heard a somewhat familiar female from the entrance: "Show me now me where your so-called Oracle is, I can't heal the dead and you'd have to pay nevertheless."

"This arrogant voice..." Nikkum seemed to recognize it, "Don't tell me she followed us..."

"Lily?" Celius moved away from the bed, curious.

"Who are you calling Lily?" A proud woman appeared in the doorway, "Do I have the name 'Lily' written on my face?"

It was a let-down to Nikkum: "OK, it's not her. I thought no one would make this kind of flashy entrance but Lily. And Lily looked finer than this woman anyway."

The impolite one's misplaced remark inevitably ignited the lady's fury. She might not look the same as someone the three men had known, but she certainly shared the same traits: "Who are those ruffians? Are you calling me out to this rundown place only to have me ridiculed? I might just sit down and watch them die, that would make me feel better."

Nikkum had not yet recovered from the surprise, still he murmured: "Lily just said something similar earlier."

At this moment, two village men rushed in, and yelled: "Who are you people? Who let you in?"

Saar, who showed until then no reaction to the situation finally stood up and spoke: "Sorry for our intrusion. We bear no evil intention, we simply followed this kid and let ourselves in. We're concerned about our friend Duriuk."

The villagers scolded the little boy with an unhappy glance, without giving him any chance to explain: "Didn't we tell you not to play around here? Now move along, Doctor Karya's here so the Oracle'll be fine."

"Ho, wait." The doctor cared less about the introduction, but minded something else, "Let me see your money first."

"No hurry, Doctor. We have it ready."

Karya had completely forgotten about the incident with the three intruders, and sat down with her arms crossed, clearly in no rush to assist: "No, no hurry at all. I'm not the one dying here."

One villager swiftly ran off to fetch the compensation, leaving Nikkum in awe: "Hey, Saar, did you see that? She's worse than Lily!"

Saar marched over next to Nikkum, pointed to the hefty bag on the warrior's waist, and addressed the woman without title: "Karya, is it? Pardon me for being impertinent, but is a bag of gold pieces of this size enough to save a man?
"
Karya looked at him decisively: "Should do it."

Nikkum had to protest each time Saar went ahead spending his money: "May I remind you, if the bag is on me, it certainly means that it belongs to me?"

"You got most of it from Abedgar's storehouse anyway, so technically I have my share in it too." Saar was about to try reasoning with Nikkum but changed his mind, "Just give it to her, it's a small price to pay to save Duriuk."

"Man, in the name of the Old Gods, what..." The remaining villager also had something to say, however Saar did not let him finish. Under the command of his masterful hand, followed by a white light spewing from his ring, a violent spontaneous mass of air projected the man into the wall. Upon hearing the sound of cracked bones, Karya smiled as she foresaw another patient, thus another bag of gold.

"Did I talk to you?" Saar's mood darkened, he turned to Karya, "So, what say you?"

"Fine as long as I get that bag." Karya showed no emotion.

Nikkum nodded in agreement. With his skills, this amount of gold was easy to come by after a little sweat in the city arenas. He had been traveling with Saar for some time after all, if the usually composed magus just exposed himself by casting a life-threatening spell on a commoner, Duriuk undoubtedly meant a lot to him. However, he could not have missed the bothered expression on Celius' face, who was already tending to the injured without saying a single word.

Karya's arrogance was not unfounded, she examined Duriuk in a precise and efficient way. Then she prepared to leave the room.

Saar needed an explanation: "How is he?"

Karya responded with a dry voice: "No good."

Saar was not satisfied: "I need more than that. Any way to make him conscious again?"

Karya could hardly tolerate the doubt in the young wizard's question: "Am I able to save him? Yes. Will he be saved if you don't follow me? No. So, it's up to you."

Saar yielded: "Where to?"

Karya already left the room: "There is only one cure for his disease. I have every reagent except Silverclaw Floret. This flower usually blooms on cliffs, if we head out now, we'll be back before sunset."

"So he'll be saved." Saar decided to trust this doctor, then turned to the other fellows, "You heard her. Let's move."

Nikkum followed Karya closely. Celius was relieved to see that the unconscious, injured villager's life was not in immediate danger. After casting one last round of healing, he decided it was safe to leave as well.

As the group of four stepped out of the Oracle's house, Karya suddenly made a curious clarification.

"By the way, only one of them will be saved."