May be a bit late, but I’m still filing this one under “Spring.” So the next few chapters will be filed under “Summer,” which is just poor timing considering the setting. Well, except the very next one, but it’s a Break chapter. They almost don’t count.
For what it’s worth, the details in this chapter regarding you-know-what were in place long before I played Soul Sacrifice. I’m just that slow. Seriously, 3 and a half years and I’ve only now reached my 25th chapter? Well, technically 28th or 29th. I’m averaging 7 chapters a year. Well, at least it’s faster than Berserk.
I really want to promise this is the last chapter title to play with musical terminology… but that’s definitely not a promise I can keep.
Quest 25 – Rest
What did he think when he saw me that day? I was a filthy child, not that that it made me any different from anyone else, adults included. Farming wasn’t possible, but at least I didn’t have to resort to theft. Well, I suppose it was a form of theft. I crept into the library hoping to survive on moss and whatever else might still be living there. I wasn’t the first person to think of it, of course. People burned books for warmth and used old bookshelves as beds. There wasn’t much room there for me, but the library was much larger than anyone remembered. Avoiding the other squatters, I eventually found my own living space. Unlike the others, I didn’t stop there. I explored the rest of the library as best I could. Then one day I fell through a hidden chamber and discovered a spring. Perhaps this discovery could have saved the people of my city, but I was more interested in securing my own survival. Besides, it would have been irresponsible for me to open such a resource up without knowing if it was sustainable.
Then he came to the library and killed the other squatters. I thought I was safe in my hiding spot, but he seemed to be searching for something. It was inevitable that he would stumble upon me.
“Who are you?”
“Heh, you’re going to scare the child to death. You know who this man is, don’t you?”
I nodded. Who didn’t? He was a hero. He was a villain. He was respected and feared, and he was one of us. I didn’t recognize the woman at his side, though.
“You must be the last one. I see you found the spring.”
“Are you taking it away from me?”
“It doesn’t belong to you. But I’ll allow you to draw from it. But you have to do something for me.”
“Take care of this place.”
“Do repairs, keep it sorted… kill anyone that dares defile it. You will of course receive compensation.”
“You want me to be Keeper of the Tomes?”
I took my job seriously, as it was the only opportunity I might ever be afforded. I salvaged whatever bookcases remained and put them in order. Whatever books remained, I had them sorted and placed. It took weeks to do so, but once the job was finally done, I didn’t have anything left to do but guard the library.
Now that was receiving payment, I didn’t have to worry about survival. I started reading whatever I could in my spare time, and my spare time was plentiful.
And then, he returned.
“I like what you’ve done to the place.”
“It needed a lot of work.”
“I need a book of herbs.”
“Can you be more specific? There are books specifically on Rhean herbs, desert herbs, ancient herbs…”
“Herbs that once grew in the land of Wilder.”
“I know just the book. I’ll be right back.”
I retrieved the book and brought it back. Unexpectedly, he held another book towards me.
“A present of sorts. This belonged to a true hero. Protect it with your own life. You may read it if you wish, but whatever you do, do not listen to its lies.”
I nodded and gratefully received the tome. Almost immediately after he left, I started reading it.
* * *
Coleen: What’s this for?
Guild Clerk: Well, you didn’t turn in an active Quest, but according to our records, it seems to have been completed. It was an escort request for a man named Brier. Yesterday, he signed over confirmation that his escort was successful, so this is your reward.
Coleen: I see… I had forgotten about that. Thanks.
I had forgotten. I only intended to escort Brier as far as a small village in the Rhean Forest. It was a matter of convenience that I used him to travel to Lorath. And now, we’re both heading to Harl mostly for Avery’s sake. My father warned me about getting too involved with allies.
“As a mercenary, our only loyalty is to ourselves and our client. Once the job is done, you must cut off all ties to your client, for he may be your enemy tomorrow.”
Well… it’s not like I have anything better to do.
* * *
Parnell: I’m afraid it remains a mystery. I’ve broken the flower down into its chemical components, but there is one compound that can’t be replicated.
Avery: Can’t be replicated? But every other compound…
Parnell: All other compounds are known substances. Some are rarer than others, but if an elixir could be made with only those, it could be replicated very cheaply. Unfortunately, this mystery compound…
Avery: You’ve never seen anything like it?
Parnell: No, and I haven’t a clue where to begin. I understand you’re about to depart towards Harl.
Avery: Yes, though I’m not quite sure yet of how we’re getting there.
Parnell: I’ll give you some of the compound for reference. When I can afford it, I’ll send a description out through the Adventurers’ Guild system and reward Alchemists for sending in compounds that match its description, but I think you deserve a head start.
Avery: I appreciate it. Hopefully we can spread this discovery to all of Rym one day. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll stumble upon many promising samples in Harl.
Parnell: Harl? The only reason I can think of for an Alchemist to travel there is to forge Obsidian.
Avery: That’s it exactly. I have some designs for a new type of weapon, but it needs Obsidian to work properly. Now, I have to meet with a comrade regarding his plan to reach Harl through the mountains.
Brier, Arco, and Coleen were waiting at the western mountain gate.
Brier: Just in time, Avery.
Avery: I do my best. Now, what’s the plan?
Brier: Well, this is the gate we’ll be using. Past it is a clear mountain path direct from Croadin to Harl. Only Harlian soldiers and those granted special access can use it.
Coleen: And who has special access?
Brier: Basically, messengers and merchants with important goods. Speaking of…
Messenger: Let me pass! I have important news to deliver to Chief Arbel of Harl!
Harlian Guard: You have no pass. State your news, and we’ll send one of our men if it’s truly important enough.
Messenger: The Dark Lord Balken has been resurrected and built an army in Etrium! In response, King Kruseid sent an army into Etrium and had the town burned to the ground. Lord Roegen of Verdant sent his army to Etrium and the two armies are currently engaging in battle for control of the town. Balken’s army was routed west, where Balken was captured by Queen Meuri.
Harlian Guard: You heard that?
Harlian Guard: So, Balken’s locked away in Sakar. Alright, I’ll send another messenger owl.
Messenger: That’s all you’re reporting? You mean you already knew about the war?
Coleen: Balken was in Etrium? But…
Avery: I understand if you wish not to accompany me to Harl.
Coleen: N-no… There’s no way the real Balken could be beaten that easily. Right?
Brier: Anything’s possible, I suppose.
Coleen: Either way, I can’t believe Etrium’s gone.
Brier: I’m more interested in those Hero jerks squabbling over ancient grudges. Hahahahaha!
Coleen: Shouldn’t you be worried about the trouble you can get into saying such things?
Brier: Well, I don’t think you have to worry about that fake Balken. If the real Balken showed his face, you’d know for sure, wouldn’t you?
Coleen: I think so.
Brier: So… let’s head to the outskirts. That’s where my plan starts.
Chief Arbel of Harl received a messenger owl informing him of events in Etrium. By now, Arbel had forged himself a full set of Obsidian armor, which was a massive feat considering the man’s hulking size.
It was Harlian tradition to grow out your hair and only cut it after being defeated in battle. Because Arbel was bald, he grew out his beard, which extended to his chest. As Arbel bellowed in laughter, his beard appeared to be an upside-down bonfire.
Harl Chief Arbel: The little man really went and done it. He truly is his father’s son, isn’t he?
Elder Hammond: The Rieve Elan mercenaries we hired have sustained considerable losses. It could take them considerably longer to retrieve the goods.
Arbel: Then the longer this war goes on, the more we’ll profit. It’s time we started mining Obsidian.
Hammond: Sir, there is no more Obsidian left to mine.
Arbel: Not now, there isn’t. What do you think all my planning has been for? The timing is perfect. It has been 25 years since the last Dragon Hunt.
* * *
Men, women, and even children stood atop a small wooden stage, baring all they had to a large group of spectators. Their ankles were shackled and connected to iron collars around their necks.
Coleen: Why are we here?
Brier: This is my plan.
Avery: I wish I could say I was surprised.
Brier: Don’t worry, I’m not selling anyone off.
One of the younger slavemasters walked toward Brier and greeted him. Unlike the people around him, he didn’t appear to have any physical strength. He was moderately handsome in the face, but thin and wiry. He had built up a reputation of holding slaves of exceptional quality, even if they didn’t appear so during initial inspections.
Shelby: Well, if it isn’t Lord Brier.
Coleen: “Lord” Brier?
Shelby: Heh heh… Ol’ Brier here set me up with the foundation I needed to build my business. I don’t know how a kid his age had land in Croadin, but… Say, you haven’t aged at all, have you?
Brier: Physically, no.
Shelby: And I thought I was good about keeping my looks. You’re downright supernatural, you know?
Brier: Shelby, my party needs to get into Harl. We plan on using the mountain pass.
Shelby: I get it. Just for you, I’ve got some new chains I think you might like.
Shelby snapped his fingers, and an attendant silently brought a small cart around. Shelby rummaged through its contents and pulled two collars out.
Shelby: Specially made slave collars. Brier, why don’t you fasten one on the cutie. Don’t worry babe, it won’t hurt.
Avery: I believe I’ll pass.
Brier: This is part of my plan.
Coleen: We’re going to pose as slaves to pass through the mountain route. That’ll work?
Shelby: Of course it will! The slave trade between Harl and Croadin is one of the most profitable businesses there is. Years of history and tradition in it. A lot of the slaves here are Harlian prisoners. Or children of Harlian prisoners. I could talk hours on end about the process of breeding Harlian stock…
Coleen: Well, let’s not.
Coleen: Hm. That wasn’t bad at all. Is it really on?
Avery: Yes, you can hardly notice it, can you, Brier?
Brier looked down and saw the black collar around his neck.
Shelby: Oh, boy…
Avery: The runes on these collars… One of them is a Lorathian rune that translates to “slave.” Appropriate, yes? But Lorathian runes have specific powers to them.
Shelby: Only the person that fastened the collar can remove it.
Avery: Not only that, but there’s a power limiter. Normally, you don’t want a slave to have lower work efficiency, but I assume this was built for especially strong ones that are a threat to their masters.
Shelby: True. I had these commissioned after a few such cases.
Brier: Oh, you reap what you sow…
Coleen: Brier, you take this collar off me.
Brier: After Avery takes this collar off me.
Coleen: What do you care? It’s not like it’s having much of an effect on you.
Brier: It’s the principle.
Avery: I’ll take the collar off when we reach Harl.
* * *
“Be like me? You don’t want that. I’m not the hero type. You, on the other hand… Your future’s too bright to follow in my shadow.”
* * *
Guild Clerk: Yes, that’s where the Quest rewards were awarded. Just this morning.
Nutmeg: I don’t suppose you know if that party is going to be staying there a while?
Guild Clerk: We’re not allowed to give out such information.
Nutmeg: Great… He could be staying there or moving to Harl or Wynn. Well, if he’s heading to Harl, he’ll have to go to Wynn first anyway…
* * *
Nigel: Good Lady, I bring news from Etrium. A war has broken out between the forces of Astoria and Verdant. Lord Roegen has sent a request to attack Astoria.
Chelsea: . . .
Nigel: I understand that either way you would be attacking a close friend of yours, but we have a closer relationship with Verdant, and Astoria was always seen as a threat. This could be our chance.
Chelsea: Too busy with Duvall. First one enter forest dies, but no one leave.
Nigel: I… I’ll spread the order.
Chelsea’s adviser left, wondering how best to phrase the edict.
Riona: (He’s right. This could be your chance to take out that threat once and for all.)
Chelsea: (There’s no need to acknowledge the requests of a dead man.)
Riona: (Is Duvall worth our time?)
Chelsea: (He means to defy Nature. I know he’s looking for the other roots.)
Riona: (We control the skies. We have not seen him move past our cordon around Lorath.)
Beatrix: (His Undead can’t break through. It’s not possible.)
Bob: (But if he’s underground, there’s nothing we can do.)
Chelsea: (Then get some burrowers to investigate.)
Bob: (The soil beneath Lorath is poisonous. If we send burrowers, we’re sending them to die and accomplish nothing.)
* * *
News of the events in Etrium and the supposed revival of Balken reached Wynn at around the same time as Croadin. It was regular discussion at the bars, and led to more than its share of bar fights.
Drunken Warrior: I’m tellin’ ya, it’s just another one-ah them fake Balkens!
Drunken Mage: Yeah, well I heard that fake Balken got torn to pieces, then pulled himself together. Who else but the Dark Lord could do that, if he ain’t Balken?
Drunken Warrior: I never heard of the real Balken doing that in the first place! Hey, Karen! Whaddaya say?
Karen: Oh, I don’t know… Maybe it’s some kind of shadow monster that looks exactly like Balken.
Drunken Warrior: HAW HAW HAW! Yeah, maybe that’s it!
Drunken Mage: Yer talkin’ about a Doppelganger, right? If that’s true, doesn’t that mean there’s a real Balken still out there?
Karen: I guess it does…
Drunken Warrior: If that’s true, then how come he don’t make himself known and start somethin’ up? Unless that fake’s part of his plan?
Drunken Archer: Hey, if the fake showed up in Etrium, maybe the real one’ll show up in Wynn, eh! Think he’ll recruit?
Karen: Recruit, nothing. If he shows up in Wynn, I’m fine with him just sitting down for a drink.
Drunken Warrior: If for nothing else but the business, right? At least we’d know he’s got fine taste!
* * *
“We may be mercenaries, but you always have the option of turning a job down.”
“I know. But that’s not what he wants. Ever since Astoria, I knew it was always going to end like this. The kid’s too idealistic for anything less.”
* * *
Hayle: Damn you, Lunette… Even with the spirits to guide me, I can’t do this…
Hayle had been awake for days, detecting hidden forest traps and avoiding patrolling soldiers from both sides. He barely made any progress traveling.
Hayle: I can’t go on like this much longer. I’ve… got to… take risks… I… Wait… I think that’s it…
Hayle fixed his blurring sights towards a cave. No one else would have been able to notice it at first glance. It just so happened that Hayle was staring at this spot for the last hour while trying to gather his thoughts.
Hayle: That’s the cave Lunette told me about.
The boy detected the traps in his path and navigated as quickly as he could toward it. He didn’t bother checking for patrols. There were none. Even so, just as he reached the mouth of the cave, an arrow struck him in the leg.
???: What have we got here? A straggler from Etrium?
???: He’s just a kid.
???: But he’s been alive longer than anyone else. I bet he’s been skimming from us.
Hayle: I haven’t…
???: How many soldiers did you kill to stay alive?
Hayle: I’ve never…
???: Check his bags. He’s got to have something good on him.
???: There’s just a book. Not even a potion or a can of rations.
???: What kind of book?
Hayle: G-give that back!
???: You’re not in any position to bark orders at us, brat.
???: Is he really from Etrium? This could be another one of those damned traps. How else could some kid have survived this long?
???: Well, he’s not surviving long on that leg. If you know a way out, tell us.
The two soldiers were obviously from Astoria. Maybe they got lost and separated. Whatever the case, I had no empathy for their plight.
Astorian Knight: If you’re not going to talk, we might as well kill you. You’ve just been a waste of a bolt.
Astorian Archer: At least we can use the book for kindling.
I’m going to die, anyway…
* * *
The book read like a diary. Multiple diaries, actually. Hopes, dreams, emotions, all whirling around in a chaotic mess held up by one single unified thought. It was a desire. Not a specific desire, but a strong one.
Greed. Lust. Ambition. Power. Safety.
Something that was wanted so badly, one was willing to sacrifice reason.
Accept us. You will have power unrivaled.
Accept us. You will be renowned eternally.
Accept us. We will change the world.
The oldest voices of the book. If they didn’t want anything in return, they were lies.
Every other voice started out unique. The further into the book I read, the more they started to blur. Their fears were all the same… and they only ever voiced their fears.
All of them except one. It was the newest voice written into the tome. It stood out from all the others because he never forgot who he was. There was a special kind of dignity to it. As his story came to a close, rather than resist his inevitable fate, he embraced it. He took it into his hands and forged a weapon out of it, and he delivered one final attack.
“Before you take up this weapon, be mindful of why you do so. A blade without conviction will fail you. An unworthy master will have his blade turned against him. Become one with your weapon, and it cannot turn against you. Always have your goal in mind, and the weapon will not take over. Don’t lose sight of who you are.”
The final page was a contract and a signature. The details of what was involved in the trade were graphic and left nothing to the imagination. It was a wonder anyone would choose to go through with it after reading the entire tome. Then again, perhaps that was how it chose its master.
Conviction or Desperation.
It was almost always the latter.
* * *
Hayle: …Protect it with my life… To think this is what he meant.
Astorian Knight: What’s he on about?
Hayle: I invoke the former bearer, Jegan Eiric. My body becomes your vessel and the vessel of those before you.
Astorian Archer: What is this, a spell?
Hayle: Grant me the power to enact my will! Engrave my name upon thee, for I am your new bearer!
Astorian Knight: Shoot his throat.
Astorian Archer: Right.
Hayle: Hayle of Aria, the Cataclysm of Wind!
Immediately, strong gusts of wind swirled around Hayle’s body, picking up everything. The soldiers, loose dirt, rocks, leaves… Then the wind grew stronger. Boulders, logs, uprooted trees… The vortex continued to suck in material from further and further. The shrapnel tore the soldiers’ bodies to shreds – but they felt nothing because the vacuum had sucked the life from them long before.
Hayle was carried into the air, above the vortex he created. He looked down and saw a perfect circle, one kilometer in diameter, carved forever into the Verdant Forest. The boy felt nothing.
He reflected on his newfound power. He only had one thought in mind: keeping the promise he made with Balken, the only man he respected in all of Aria. Now it was a promise that was impossible to break. With that one act, his motivations were exhausted. Voices whispered to him, telling him he could conquer kingdoms, take revenge on both Verdant and Astoria, rebuild Etrium, restore Aria… but in his heart, he knew he had no interest in these things.
The arrow once lodged in his leg was now in his hand, and his wounds were healed. With no understanding of how, he grasped the winds of the vortex and called them into his palm, forming a bow. He drew the cord and aimed directly above him. The words of Jegan Eiric echoed in his head. Without direction, the Cataclysm would tear him apart – and the direction of those voices could not be trusted. He put all his faith into the wind, and let go.
* * *
“With this power… you could have easily defeated me. All of this was meant for you!”
I was seconds away from death. I wanted desperately to tell him I knew. And to let him know I rejected his script. Not that it wasn’t appealing.
I could tell he didn’t want to kill me, and I didn’t want to kill him. That’s why the battle lasted so long. But for just a second, I decided to play the villain. It was a hunch, but it proved true. That’s what killed me.
Maybe one day you’ll see that it was worth it, Balken. That it was the real you in that split second. That, benevolent or not, none of us are slaves to a fate written by someone else.
* * *
Harlian Guard: Are these your slaves?
Avery: Yes. That is, I have more, of course, but my client only purchased these two, and any more would be a hassle to transport.
Harlian Guard: Alright, alright, we don’t need to know every detail. Just show me your credentials.
Avery: Of course.
Coleen: This is really happening.
Brier: Yes it is.
Brier: This is humiliating.
Coleen: And whose fault is that? Whose plan was this again?
Brier: Shut up.
Next time, on Bardass! Rieve Elan is the cutthroat desert oasis kingdom and the sister city of Aria. Half of its population exists in light, and half exists in a realm of shadows. Its ruler is the hero Raven, the master of disguise. Has anyone even seen his true face? Learn more about the most mysterious of the Seven Heroes in Break 5 – Raven the Unseen.