Palpable silence plagued the halls as the three siblings walked through the corridor. Cosena heard their footsteps behind her, but still she glanced over he shoulder for reassurance. Their feet barely left the floor as they walked. Alsen’s arms were wrapped around her chest with her eyes downcast. Naito held his crown in front of him, staring at it expressionlessly.
“Keep your crown on, Naito. Everyone’s sure to be waiting for their king.” Cosena turned around and waited, but Naito stood motionlessly, asides from the occasional tremble of his hands.
Cosena sighed. Gently grabbing Naito’s wrists, she motioned his arms to place the crown back on his head. “There you go. You look like our brave new king now.” She let go of his wrists and smiled at him, patting him on the shoulder, allowing the crown to rest on his head.
“He looks silly.” Alsen said, faking a weak half smile. Cosena knew she was just trying to lighten the atmosphere.
Naito squinted his eyes shut and balled his trembling hands into fists. “How can you call me brave…? I watched father murder a member of my empire…” he spoke for the first time since the coronation, his voice a barely audible, low whisper.
“It’s not like this is the first time he’s killed someone…”
Naito jerked to a sudden halt, causing the crown fall off his head. Silence plagued the halls once more for a brief moment as they watched the crown roll until it came to a stop.
“W-what did you just say…?” Naito asked, his eyes wide with shock.
“N-nothing, I didn’t say anything…” Cosena toyed with her braids like she always did when she told a lie or got nervous. Did she seriously say that out loud?
“Liar. We both heard you, Cosena. You’ve seen father kill people before?” Alsen asked, stepping in front of Cosena and looking up imploringly into her eyes.
“No, Alsen, that’s not what I meant. Remember, father was present during Drazilwalnd’s Demise. Obviously anyone who survived a war would have killed people, and now killing someone like that High Mage just comes naturally to him.”
It wasn’t a lie that she never actually saw their father kill anyone before now, but she wasn’t exactly telling the full truth either. There was one time that he had her caged in his office and started talking to Zart about executing the High Mage’s wives. He must have forgot she was there or thought she was asleep to discuss something like that with her present. What if Zephan interfered with the coronation to try and get revenge?
“I don’t want to kill anyone…” Naito said. Alsen hugged him from behind, pressing her head against his shoulder.
“Naito, you won’t have to. You’re going to create an utopia where we can live alongside Illiterates in peace, not a dystopia. Don’t forget mother’s wish.” Cosena placed her hands in his. It was their mother’s dying wish for Naito to become king and rule over a new utopia. Naito had sensitive spots that Cosena knew just how to play to her advantage, and bringing up their mother was the biggest one.
“Y-Yeah...I’ll make mother proud.” Naito picked his crown up and put it back on his head, “Come on, we have a feast to attend.” he lead the way, walking down the stairs three per step (although he had no idea where he was going so Cosena had to grab his hand and lead him the right way).
Boisterous conversation invaded Cosena’s ears the second they stepped into the Dining Room. Such a grand space, it must have been twice the size of the Throne Room. Nearly six meters in front of them stood the head table, where Sartur and the other two High Mages sat, leaving just four empty seats. No doubt they were for Cosena, Alsen, Naito, and the deceased High Mage. Hanging on the wall above the table, a large framed painting of four teenage boys and a girl caught Cosena’s immediate attention. Acting as a centerpiece, vases of roses sat in the center of each of the many tables. Split into four different, uniquely colored groups, every table was filled with a large variety of different foods, sending a savory aroma wafting into Cosena’s nose. Dressed in robes that matched the color of their group, each soldier had a plate, napkin, glass, and set of silverware in front of them, but their plates and glasses were empty and no one was eating.
Positioned to the far left of the head table was a group of tables decorated with cerulean table cloths that had a wavy pattern that made it look like the plates and silverware were flowing in the ocean. Above their table hung a banner emblazoned with the silhouette of a woman standing in the ocean, controlling its waves. At the end of their group sat a stunningly beautiful mermaid fountain with a serene smile on its face, water gushing out of the mouth.
Standing tall to the right of the mermaid fountain, a sacred tree statuette rained water down from it’s outstretched branches. Adorned with brown cloths, this group of tables had a rough, rocky pattern. It looked as if the dishes and silverware were sitting on bare earth. Their banner had the silhouette of a man with his palm pressed against the cracked earth, boulders floating around him.
Unable to match the beauty of the mermaid or the sacredness of the tree, the griffin fountain stood out with it’s stolid posture. It’s harmonious wingbeat caused the green table cloth and banner to flow with the gentle breeze. This group’s insignia was a man’s silhouette surrounded in a giant tornado.
Lastly was a group with red table cloths lit with a luminous, fiery pattern that looked ready to ravage everything sitting on it. Above their table was their banner, with the silhouette of a woman with her body ablaze, holding a ball of green flames in her palm. Surrounded with raging, eternal, the phoenix gargoyle poured water out from it’s beak, just like the griffin.
The sound of metal on glass silenced the room. Sartur stood, rapping his glass with his fork, commanding everyone’s attention. “Everyone, the king has graced us with his presence!” he exclaimed. All heads turned towards Naito. Sartur lead them all into applause. Naito scratched his cheek, his face flushing a light shade of red.
Three soldiers rose from their respective groups and walked up to Naito, bowing before him. “Greetings, my lord!” they said in unison.
“May I ask who you are?” Cosena asked, arms crossed.
“Oh! I'm terribly sorry, my lady...we should have known to introduce ourselves.” said one of them.
She was a girl that Cosena assumed was around Naito’s age, with long, turquoise hair that hung over her shoulders in waves. Her eyes were violet like the flowers in one of the hall's paintings. Rather than wearing robes like the soldiers still sitting at the tables, she wore an extravagant, dark blue outfit. Her top was elaborately patterned with flowers and reached down to her waistline, connecting to her super short pencil skirt. She also wore a split blue coat that went down just a few inches above her ankles, and thigh-high, matching boots. Cosena had to admit, she was quite pretty.
“I'm Casele, head of the Aquamancer coven.” she seemed to have hard time keeping her eyes away from Naito's face as she introduced herself, quickly looking away the second he felt her staring at him.
The male of the three soldiers stepped up and shoved Casele behind him, running his hand through his mane of crimson red hair. Managing to beat Cosena in height by a few inches, this dark-skinned young man was no doubt a Gaiamancer. His robust figure only made it all the more apparent. Judging by his facial hair, Cosena assumed he was around her age.
“And I'm Zento, head of the Gaiamancer coven.” he knelt before Alsen and Cosena, taking their hands in his and kissing them. His emerald eyes sparkled as he looked up at them.
Alsen giggled and Cosena simply blinked in surprise.
The third soldier stepped forward with her arms crossed. She looked to be around Alsen’s age, with long, straight violet hair and golden eyes. Her outfit was mostly the same as Casele's, except hers was green with a pattern of dandelions, and her skirt went down to her knees.
“Name's Alile, head of the Aeromancer coven.” she spoke calmly, her expression stolid. She flipped her hair then walked back behind the other two. What was her problem?
“Nice to meet you three.” Cosena said, “I see that you soldiers are divided into covens for each Elemental Sign?”
Depending on someone’s Zodiac sign, they also had one of the four Elemental Signs, which would make them either an Aeromancer, Gaiamancer, Aquamancer, or Pyromancer.
“That's right. The High Mage's and the heads of covens, that would be us, teach our groups separately. It makes things a lot easier, you see. Imagine a Gaiamancer trying to teach an Aeromancer.” Zento glared back at Alile with a look of disdain. She simply rolled her eyes at him.
“And as the head soldiers,” Casele cut in, “We've been given the task of accompanying the three of you on your journey. It's our duty to keep you safe and follow your every command, no matter what it may be.” she said, lightly blushing.
“Hang on,” Cosena said, “There's four Elemental Signs, but only three of you. Where's the head of the Pyromancer coven?”
The three soldiers shared a meaningful look before Alile said, “There isn't one, my lady. We don't know why.”
“It's commonly believed that the masked b-” Zento started, but Alile elbowed him in the gut. “The hell?!” he spat at her.
“What he was going to say is that it’s a popular, silly if you ask me, opinion that your father hates Pyromancers.” Alile said.
“There sure are a lot of you.” Alsen said, staring at the hundreds of soldiers in awe. “I thought we were endangered?”
Zento chuckled. “Don't be silly, my lady. There's only ten wizards left alive. The three of you, the three of us, and our fathers, the four High Mages. The rest of these chumps? They're just simple magicians. You know, Illiterates trained in magic. Of course, they're nothing compared to us, since they aint born with a Grimoire.”
“Oh, so the High Mages are your fathers?” Cosena asked.
“Yeah. I don't know where my father is, though, he should be here by now.” Zento said, looking back at the entrance.
The only High Mage that wasn't there was Zephan. Zento didn't know that the reason his father was absent was because he was murdered for treason and fed to Cerberus puppies.
“We’ll talk with you some more later.” Alile spoke, jerking her thumb towards the head table, where Sartur was leering impatiently at them, his chin rested on his interlocked fingers. Cosena winced. Whenever Sartur had that look, it meant someone was going to get their ass beat.
“We apologize for holding you up, my lord!” Casele said, bowing.
“Don't be so dramatic.” Alile said with another flip of her hair. She and Zento bowed as well before the three of them returned to their seats.
Once Cosena, Alsen, and Naito took their seats at the head table, Sartur tapped his glass to get everyone’s attention again. “Everyone, I know it's hard to resist the temptation to dig in and fill our rumbling tummies, after all, this is a feast! But before we can begin, I have a very important announcement.”
Don’t say what I think you’re going to say… Cosena pleaded in her head.
“I'm sure you all noticed that we are short of one High Mage today.” Sartur cleared his throat, pausing for a brief moment. Zento rose from his seat, slamming his palms down on the table, knocking several plates over from the impact. He leaned forward, eyes wide with terror and fury.
“During king Naito's coronation, we discovered that there was a traitor among us. It pains me to say, High Mage Zephan betrayed us all in a futile attempt to sabotage the coronation! But fear not, the traitor has been put to justice!” Sartur exclaimed, smiling from ear to ear, hands raised high.
There was a chorus of cheering and applauding. Cosena couldn't tell if they were really happy Zephan was dead, or if they were just trying to satisfy Sartur. Zento's face contorted into an expression of pure hate and fury. Was Cosena imagining it, or were his hair and eyes changing color? It looked like his hair kept flashing from crimson to black, and his eyes from emerald to red. He kick his chair aside and began storming towards Sartur. Casele rose from her seat and ran over to him, trying to hold him down.
“Zento, don't!” she whispered.
“That bastard killed my father!”
Sartur either didn't notice this or simply chose to ignore it. “Now, since we found a traitor among the High Mages, I can't help but feel there might be another wolf in sheep’s clothing here. We can't have that, now can we?” Sartur said, smiled wryly, then shouted, “OH PUMPKIN!!!”
Pumpkin's ferocious, bestial roar could be heard from above. The chandeliers swayed from side to side and the ceiling rumbled from the Cerberus's footsteps. Alsen clung to Naito in fear at the sound of the beast.
“What...? What the hell is that?!” Zento glanced from side to side frantically. His hair and eyes were no longer glowing.
Pumpkin burst through the door, causing many of the terrified soldiers to scream at the sight of her. She ran through the dining hall, leaving her massive footprints on the previously immaculately clean floor. Her tongues hung out, dripping with saliva, and her tail swung from side to side, nearly knocking tables over. When she reached Sartur, she licked his face happily.
“You've been a good girl, Pumpkin, so daddy's got a game for you.” Sartur scratched her behind the ear. “All you have to do is sniff out the traitor! Easy enough, no?” he whispered something in her ear. Cosena wouldn’t be surprised if he told her exactly who he was looking for. Having his Cerberus sniff everyone to find this supposed traitor made no logical sense, and he was an Aeromancer. Aeromancers were supposed to act entirely out of reasoning and logical deduction, opposite of Aquamancers, who act out of emotion. Was he doing this just to get some sick type of pleasure out of it? Knowing her father, that wasn’t a farfetched conclusion.
Exited, Pumpkin walked around the room, stopping at each table and sniffing each soldier individually. The soldiers shivered in fear as she did so, though some remained still and looked the beast in the eye, trying to avoid showing any signs of fear.
When Pumpkin stopped next to Casele and Zento, Casele backed up but tripped and fell. Zento stood in front of her with his arms spread out as if to defend her, gritting his teeth at Pumpkin. Pumpkin took more time sniffing Zento than she did with anyone else. Once finished sniffing him, she looked up at Sartur, panting
“Oh, found us a traitor, have you? Good girl!” Sartur clapped.
“I didn't do anything!” Zento shouted, backing away slowly.
“We shall see about that!”
Zento attempted to take off running, but Pumpkin wrapped her tail around his torso and hoisted him into the air. Slowly raising him above her heads, she opened her mouths wide, as if to swallow him whole.
“No, Zento!!!” Casele cried, eyes wide with terror, reaching her hand out.
“Bad girl Pumpkin, no! Daddy did not give you permission to eat yet!” Sartur yelled reprimandingly. Pumpkin lowered Zento back to the floor, covering her eyes with her ears, whining.
“You may not eat him now, girl. How about you show him your playhouse while you wait?”
Pumpkin panted like an excited puppy over a new chew toy, then ran off with a struggling Zento still wrapped in her tail. How could Sartur trust that hungry beast to not eat him, without any supervision? Or was she being supervised in her ‘playhouse’?
“Zento...” Casele said, still sitting in the middle of the floor, crying.
Alile got up from her seat and helped Casele back to her feet, escorting her back to the Aquamancer table. “He'll be fine.” she whispered. Her face was still stolid, showing no signs of concern.
“I apologize for the delay everyone, I know our tummies are roaring like Cerberus puppies right now!” Sartur laughed at his own sick sense of humor. The blue-robed High Mage, Zart, guffawed, and the brown-robed High Mage gave a rather forced laugh. “Now that we've got that clear, let us dig in, shall we?” Sartur clapped his hands and sat, then everyone began to eat as if nothing happened.
There was an endless amount of food on the tables, ranging from roast turkey, bread rolls, mashed potatoes, and every vegetable Cosena could name, to all sorts of foods and beverages she could not name. Were they all even safe to digest? She decided to just put a slice of fish and some fries on her plate, although she simply moved it around with her fork rather than eating. Naito and Alsen were doing the same, their eyes glued to the painting above their table.
In the painting, four boys and a girl stood under a great oak tree. It couldn’t have been any more clear that the four men were the High Mages. Without that ominous mask on his face, the young Sartur strongly resembled Naito, with that same head of messy, frosty white hair. But there was one distinct difference: his eyes were blood red rather than cerulean.
Towering over the others, the boy to Sartur’s right posed flexing his bulging muscles. His bangs of violet hair hung over his gleaming golden eyes. Wearing a sleeveless muscle shirt only made him look all the more gangly. Cosena wasn’t sure what his name was. She heard Zart and Zephan’s names during the coronation, but not his.
With the way he grinned, stroking the tiny little hairs under his chin, the young Zart must have thought he was so handsome. Winking, he, ran his right hand through his slick, oily turquoise hair. He wore a fancy, purple dress that matched his smug posture.
The scarlet-haired boy, Zephan no doubt, to Sartur’s left stood leaning against the bark of the tree, nudging Sartur on the shoulder with his fist, a toothy, boyish grin spread across his face. The way Sartur smirked back at him with his arms crossed gave Cosena the impression that those two were once best friends.
That wasn’t what drew Cosena into the picture, though. No, it was the girl standing behind Sartur with her arm’s wrapped around his shoulders from behind. She was a pretty young thing, dressed in a yellow sundress with a pink sunhat and a pair of red sunglasses. With that unique mix of magenta and golden hair, Cosena knew she could only be one person. Her mother, Freylar.
The five of them looked so happy together. Their unity must have been rock solid for all five of them to have survived Drazilwalnd’s Demise together. But now Freylar and Zephan were gone forever. Who would be able to guess that the white haired boy in the painting would turn out cold blooded enough to murder his old best friend without any remorse?
Cosena felt her father’s hand on her shoulder. Despite his touch being gentle, Cosena felt the urge to jump out of her skin. “Your mother always was an amazing painter.” he said.
“M-Mother painted this…?” Naito asked.
“That’s right...ah those were the good old days. Little did we know we’d be in a war just six months later.” Sartur sighed, touching his mask. Cosena didn’t know the story behind why her father always wears that mask, but it had to be a result of the war.
“We were just five innocent, rebellious kids. No one could tell us what to do, we did what we wanted under our own rules. Of course, a sound beating always awaited us back home, but that wasn’t enough to stop us.” Sartur took a sip from his glass, staring up reminiscently at the painting.
‘The First Remnants…” the brown-robed High Mage spoke, lowering his hood for the first time. There were several bald spots on his head of violet hair, and his bushy beard went halfway down his neck. It wasn’t hard to assume that he was Alile’s father. “After Drazilwalnd’s Demise, we called ourselves the First Remnants. Your mother came up with that name.”
“My children, allow me to introduce you to my fellow High Mages.” Sartur said, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin. “This is High Mage Volzar, High Mage of the Gaiamancer coven, and also our very own wandsmith. He’s the best there is! Crafted your wands himself.”
“Sartur, you give me far too much credit.” Volzar said, although he was unable to hide his grin. He bowed to Naito.“It’s an honor to meet you, my king. I hope Cieseroe has been holding up well for you?”
From what Cosena knew, a wizard became a High Mage upon reaching the age of one hundred. When they did, much more powerful magic was recorded in their Grimoire and their mana was enhanced even further. Any ordinary wizard wouldn’t stand a chance against a High Mage.
“I’m Zart, High Mage of the Aquamancer coven.” Zart bowed his head to Naito as well.
“Aren’t you going to tell them about your jewelry crafting?” Sartur asked, nudging his friend’s shoulder.
“Oh, very well then. I have quite the talent in crafting jewelry, if I do say so myself. I’ve got my own jewelry store, which is the main source of our money.” Zart explained.
Sartur finished off his food before speaking again, “In our little group, Volzar was the muscle, Zart was the charisma, Zephan was the burning passion, I was the intellect, and Freylar…” he cleared his throat before continuing, “Your mother was the love, the peace, the glue that held our unit together.”
“We would’ve fell apart without her. How many fights between you and Zephan did she break up?” Volzar asked.
“She broke up fights between you and Zart too!” Sartur said defensively.
“Too bad Zephan decided to betray us. We should’ve seen his treason coming, with all his complaining…” Zart said, a look of disgust on his face.
“Yes, well, he’s gone now, is he not? Let it go already.” Sartur said, dismissing Zart’s complaint with a wave of his hand.
Cosena wasn’t very comfortable talking to her father, but there was a question she just had to get the answer to. “Father...why did Zephan interrupt the coronation?”
The High Mages all looked at her, probably surprised she spoke. “That old, senile bastard...he was always jealous about how your father’s son would be king, and he questioned your father on every little thing...we could have dealt with him a long time ago!”
“What evidence did we have against him before now?” Sartur asked. He took another sip from his glass, then continued, “We can’t be sure what his motives were, but we will question that son of his later.”
“So...you think his son might be in on the scheme?” Cosena asked, subconsciously toying with her braids.
“We can't be sure, but I would surely hope not. If he’s innocent, we will let him go. Now, Naito.” Sartur said, placing his chin on his interlocked fingers.
“Y-Yes?” Naito stuttered, finally looking away from the painting.
“I'm sure you are wondering why we had to have your coronation two years ahead of time? Allow me to explain.” Sartur took a swig from his glass and sighed in delight, then stood, sauntering from side to side with his hands behind his back. “High Mage Volzar here is in charge of monitoring the behavior of the moltrogks. Although they've been minding their own business for centuries, we never know if or when they might take action. And it seems they have finally took action. It seems a good number of them have left Nohegimat and are making their way to Tirdipsowl.”
“What's Tirdipsowl?” Naito asked.
“If our fathers taught us correct, the chaos from so many wars left great sin in the souls of the deceased. Before their souls could be reincarnated, the sin was removed from them, giving birth to a new land, Tirdipsowl. I have traveled far across this world, but Tirdipsowl is one place I am yet to journey to. Never saw a reason to get so close to such a dark place.” Sartur paused, taking another swig of his wine, then continued, “I wonder what about Tirdipsowl could interest the moltrogks enough for them to leave Nohegimat after so long...maybe I shouldn't have overlooked it after all.”
“But what does that have to do with Naito's coronation?” Cosena asked.
“If the moltrogks are acting, we must be ready to act as well, and since it's moltrogks we're dealing with, chances are we will need the power of Nircogard on our side sooner rather than later. We need Naito, along with you two, and soldiers Alile, Casele, and Zento, assuming he's not a traitor, to travel there and see what they are up to.”
That didn't make any sense. Why would the king be put on the frontlines like that? What would he do if Naito were to die? Naito wasn't exactly replaceable.
“S-So we have to fight the moltrogks?” Naito asked.
“I would hope not. If all goes as planned, they shouldn't even notice you. Just stay invisible as long as possible, lurking where they won't notice you, invisible or not.”
Sartur's plan sounded far too risky. If the moltrogks noticed them, they would have to run for it or fight. It wasn't as if they had no combat experience. Once a week Sartur would use advanced High Mage magic to turn their bedroom into an arena, where he would make them fight the spirits of deceased wizards and magical creatures. Nothing they had ever defeated could compare to a moltrogk, though. Not even the blizargwins were ever able to conquer the moltrogks. Not to mention they had no clue what this land was like. There could be far more problems there than just moltrogks.
“As I said, we will need the power of Nircogard on our side as soon as possible if the moltrogks have decided to make us their enemy again. Once you return from Tirdipsowl, your next destination will be Kricade, where you will search for the corpse of Nircogard, and fuse your soul with it. Just as the wizard king Nircogard did. This is the plan we High Mages have agreed on together. How does it sound to you, son?” Sartur asked.
Sartur never would have asked Naito on his opinion about anything before, but he didn't have a choice now, did he? Naito was his king, and didn't have to agree with a plan that put his life in so much danger.
“Good. Excellent.” Naito said confidently.
“What?” Cosena asked, briskly turning her head to face him. She should have known he would agree to Sartur's plan. He always knew of his destiny, and it was their mother's dying wish for him to fulfill it. To Naito, the sooner he would make her dream reality, the better. And an opportunity to see the creatures that started all this bloodshed in the first place with his own eyes wasn't an opportunity you could count on Naito turning down.
“But father,” Cosena turned back to Sartur, staring at her hands as she spoke, “How can you be sure Naito will be able to return to his own body at will? Nircogard died before he could return to his wizard body!”
Alsen stared at Cosena with her mouth hanging open, clearly thinking you mean “Naitey might be stuck as a blizargwin forever?!” Cosena wanted desperately for Sartur to confirm that wasn't the case. He finished off his wine, pretending to have not heard her question.
“Naito,” Sartur said finally, “Now that we have all agreed, I think it's time we put these things aside and celebrate! It is your birthday after all! Alile, cake please!”
“C-Ce-Celebrate? C-C-Cake?!” Naito spluttered. Alsen nearly choked on her juice. Cosena was just as surprised as them, if not more. The last time she could remember them having any sort of celebration for one of their birthdays was sixteen years ago, on Alsen's second birthday. After that, Sartur never even told them happy birthday.
Alile left the dining room and was back seconds later, pushing a cart that carried a sixteen layered cake. The top layer had 'Happy Birthday, King Naito' written in frosting, encircled by sixteen lit candles. She bowed before returning to her seat.
“Everyone, please stand and sing the birthday song to our king! We all know how it goes!” Sartur exclaimed. The soldiers all stood and began singing, with Sartur waving his hand in the air like a conductor in an orchestra. As they sang, Alsen hugged Naito as tight as she could, tears streaming down her face.
“Happy Birthday, to you
Happy birthday, to you
Happy birthday, dear king Naito Raizu
Happy birthday to you
How old are you?”
All eyes were on Naito, waiting expectantly. Naito pulled at the collar of his robes as if it were too tight, looking down at his feet. Sartur conducted everyone into singing the final line, “How old are you?” three more times before Naito finally spoke.
“Sixteen...” he whispered. Cosena barely heard him, and he was sitting right next to her.
“Louder, they can't hear you.” Cosena whispered to him, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“SIXTEEN!” he shouted as loud as his lungs would allow.
“You're supposed to blow out the candles now.” Cosena whispered.
Naito blew them all out in one blow. Everyone applauded and cheered, then Alile began slicing the cake. Alsen, Cosena, and the High Mages all got considerably large slices, but Naito's was naturally the biggest. He stared at it skeptically and looked up at Sartur, as if he feared it might be poisoned. Sartur smiled at him, then Naito dug in. It was a chocolate cake with mint flavored icing. Naito loved anything mint.
Once everyone's plates had nothing but crumbs left (except Casele's, Cosena noticed she hadn't touched hers), Sartur stood and tapped his glass with his fork. “PRESENT TIME!!!”, he shouted in such a happy, singsong tune that Cosena nearly jumped out of her seat in shock. Alile pushed in another cart, this one stacked with wrapped presents, which she sat on the table. I'm dreaming, Cosena thought.
“Let's see what you've got, shall we?” Sartur grinned, showing his shiny white teeth.
Naito didn't need any further approval. He hastily ripped open the first one his hands could grab. It was three cellphones. One for each of them, Cosena figured. Naito held them up, squinting curiously at them. He obviously had no idea what they were, so Sartur explained.
“You'll need to keep in touch with each other at all times, and I will need a way of contacting you as well.”
Naito ripped open the next one. Three bank cards. Sartur had to explain what they were and how they worked.
“I've made each of you your own bank account. Money is the most important resource in this world. You'll need a fair amount on you at all times in order to survive in this world.”
Sartur handed Naito the final present. “This last one is very special.” he opened this one for Naito as if he thought Naito might damage it. It was three necklaces. The one Sartur gave to Naito was shaped as a star, while Alsen's was the moon and Cosena's the sun.
“These belonged to your mother. I've been keeping them as something to remember her by, but you three need them far more than I ever could.” Sartur's voice was full of grief. Cosena had to pinch herself to believe she wasn't dreaming when she saw a tear trickle down his face.
“Naito, always remember your mother's one wish for you. 'He has to go on to rule the world and lead us to a peaceful new beginning.' Whenever you look at that necklace, remember that she's always up there with the stars, watching over you. I know you'll make her proud.”
Sartur embraced Naito in a tight, fatherly hug. Naito gasped and froze in surprise. “Cosena.” Sartur looked up at her, “Always keep your little brother and sister safe. I can't afford to lose anyone else I love...”
Cosena nodded, covering her mouth to stop herself from crying, resisting the tears as much as she could. Hearing her father say he loves them was her biggest surprise of the whole day. It was something she hadn't heard in sixteen years.
“We'll always be one big, happy family...” she whispered to herself. Naito's destiny was to rule the world, but hers was to keep her family safe and sound.
Naito threw off his oversized king outfit the second he returned to his room. It felt good to change back into his regular pair of black sweatpants and white shirt with holes from being chewed on at the collar. Alsen changed back into a pair of blue jeans shorts with a short sleeved, yellow shirt. While they waited for Cosena to come out of the bathroom, Naito scanned the room. Although most of his memories here were ones he’d rather forget, he still needed something to remind him of home. He grabbed his skateboard and slung it over his shoulder. It was perfect. After all, it was the first birthday present he ever received. Once Cosena came out of the bathroom, dressed in a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt, the siblings left their room.
They walked down what felt like thirty floors before going down the spiral staircase to the Entrance Hall. Being down on the first floor made Naito wonder just how tall this castle really was. He looked up, but the ceiling was so high he couldn’t make it out even when he squinted his eyes. Alile and Casele stood at the bottom of the staircase, both with duffel bags draped over their shoulders. They both bowed.
“Are we all ready to go?” Alile asked.
“I suppose Zento isn't back yet, then?” Cosena asked. Casele blotted at her damp cheeks at the mention of Zento.
“Zento is fine. I assure you he will be back tomorrow.” Alile said confidently.
“How can you be so sure?” Naito asked. He couldn't imagine anyone being 'fine' after being carried away by Pumpkin.
“I'm psychic.” Alile replied simply. According to the book “The History of Magic and our World”, Aeromancers had excellent intuition to the point of some of them even having psychic abilities. It was a trait that only one out of every one hundred Aeromancers were blessed with, yet Alile said it like it was an everyday thing.
“Psychic?” Alsen gushed, “You mean, like, you can see the future? That's amazing! Can you tell me my future?”
“My apologies, lady Alsen, but I prefer not to use my power, nor talk about it, if possible.” Alile said grimly, averting her gaze to the side, showing the slightest sign of emotion for the first time.
“Shall we go now, then?” Alile was quick to change the topic away from her power. Naito nodded, so the five of them walked over to the magnificent door in front of them, where two magicians stood guard. Dressed in brown robes with the Gaiamancer insignia on the chest, the male of the two sentinels had his arms crossed and his eyes shut, snoring softly. Unlike her fellow guard, the female sentinel was wide awake, dressed in red robes with the Pyromancer insignia on the chest. She gasped at the sight of the group approaching them and elbowed her partner in the ribs. He awoke with a groan, rubbing his ribs where she struck him.
“Sleeping on the job again, Stan?” Alile asked, the lack of any emotion to her question surprisingly making it feel like a threat towards the sentinel.
Stan grunted groggily, rubbing his baggy eyes. “I was just resting my eyes…”
The female sentinel elbowed him in the rib again, then bowed before Naito. “I apologize for this man’s lack of devotion, my lord!”
“M-my lord…? Oh shit…” Stan whispered under his breath, blinking at Naito, apparently just now noticing his presence. He followed his partner’s lead, bowing as well. Naito could see a bead of sweat dripping down his forehead. Did he think Naito was going to punish him?
“If you’re tired you can go take a nap. Tell someone else that your king told them to cover for you.”
Stan stood back up to his full height quickly, but the Pyromancer magician was quick to interject. “B-But my lord, his shift doesn’t end until three more hours!”
“It ends when the king says so.” Naito surprised his own self with how much confidence he was taking in his role as king already.
“The king’s word is absolute.” Stan smirked at his partner and bowed to Naito one more time before running off, leaving the girl balling her fists and gritting her teeth in apparent anger and envy.
“Did you want a break too?” Naito asked with genuine concern. He didn’t want his servants standing in one spot like that for hours.
She shook her head. “No, thank you my lord, but I’m fine…”
“Then open the gate already, Selena. We don’t have all day.” Alile said with crossed arms, tapping her foot impatiently. Selena muttered something under her breath as she strutted over to the lever. She grunted as she hauled at it with all her might for a brief moment before getting it to budge. The door creaked as it slowly spread open, letting in a gust of fresh, warm air.
As they walked out the castle, Naito stared up in awe at all the wondrous outside sights he had only seen in books before. It seemed that the castle was in a forest. The ancient trees stood like skyscrapers reaching up to the heavens, their leaves and branches blocking out the sunlight. Squirrels scurried about in search of food, while birds chirped, flying freely. Naito couldn’t help but stretching his arms out to his sides. He felt just like the birds, finally spreading out his wings and taking flight. He heard the gate shut behind them and briskly spun around, but there was no castle in sight. “Where did the castle go?” he asked.
“Uhm, it's invisible, my lord.” Casele spoke for the first time since the feast, “It's protected by many enchantments. You can't see it without speaking the password.” she sounded confused by Naito’s ignorance.
“Right...I knew that.” Naito scratched his cheek in embarrassment at his stupid question. The gentle wind murmured, rustling the leaves on the ground. Alsen nearly jumped out of her skin, clinging to Naito's arm.
“T-There's not any...dangerous creatures here, right?” she asked.
“Creatures? Let's see...there's some wolves, bears, rabbits, deer, snakes, moose...oh, did you mean magical creatures? If you're lucky, you might spot a wolpertinger, a unicorn, a hippogriff, or maybe even a black shuck.” Alile listed them off on her fingers and Alsen shuddered. Naito didn't think Alile was exactly being helpful.
“Do not fear, lady Alsen, we are here to keep you safe.” Casele said reassuringly.
“By the way, I've been meaning to ask, what's in those duffel bags?” Cosena asked, pointing to the bags on Casele and Alile's shoulders.
“Supplies. We have a long journey ahead of us.” Alile replied, “We shall head out to town now, then tomorrow, when Zento is back, we head to Tirdipsowl.”
“We're walking all the way to town?” Alsen asked, clinging onto Naito even tighter.
“It's not far, do not worry. It’s just straight ahead from here.” Casele said. As they walked through the glade Alile explained to them that this was Fisdworetza, the forest where their fathers and Freylar hid during the war, then built the empire together. Alsen eventually seemed to lose her fear and walked over to Casele, giving her a compliment on her hair, which led to the two of them talking about silly, girly things. Naito rolled his eyes when he heard Alsen mention that she does Naito's hair for him because he's too 'little' to do it himself. Cosena took an interest in inquiring Alile about Aeromancers, which left Naito feeling quite bored. But he had just the idea.
“Animal Spirit – Wolf.” he chanted, lagging behind the girls. “Think you can beat me to town, Shadow?” Naito asked, setting his skateboard down.
“Are you challenging me to a race? It's on!” Shadow’s tongue hung out in excitement. Naito counted to three, then he and Shadow zoomed right past the girls.
“Naito, get back here! You need to stay with the group!” Cosena shouted after him.
“We're just going in a straight path aren't we? I won't get lost!” Naito laughed.
“M-my lord, I strongly advise that we stick together!” Casele exclaimed.
“Catch me if you can then!” Naito knew he was being childish, but it was just too much fun. Once he and Shadow were so far ahead of the girls that they couldn't see or hear them anymore, Naito rested against the bark of a tree, clutching his chest in laughter.
“Hey, why'd you stop? I thought we were racing?” Shadow complained, running back to Naito.
“Let's give them a chance to catch up a bit.” Naito sat under the tree with Shadow resting in his lap.
“Naito, I've been thinking more on what your dreams could mean.” Shadow said with a yawn.
“You're going to get your blizargwin form back soon, right? Maybe since the time is coming closer, you're starting to get your memories from your past lives back.”
“That's what Nircogard's doing for me, is it?” Naito chuckled, “I think I already have enough memories I'd rather forget.” They waited a while longer for the girls, but still heard no signs of them. Naito stood and started pacing nervously. What if they got lost? Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. It sure wasn't funny any more. Shadow howled to signal their location, but ten more minutes passed and still no one came. “Let's go back.” Naito suggested, hopping back on his skateboard. He and Shadow began walking back the way they came, but as they did, Naito thought he could hear someone's voice. He came to a halt and listened more carefully, hoping it was his sisters or one of the soldiers. But it didn't sound like either of them. It was a faint, distant female voice. From what Naito could hear, it sounded like she was singing.
“Do you hear that, Shadow?”
“That voice, over there…” Naito pointed to the direction it was coming from. The voice felt as if it was drawing him towards it, his feet naturally straying from the glade and through the thicket. The further Naito went, the more clearly he could hear the voice. He felt a strange, warm resonance within him that felt somewhat familiar, making him even more curious. After several minutes he found the source of the voice. Ahead of him was a girl, sitting on a boulder by the river, tossing pebbles into it, singing while watching them go down the waterfall.
“No more empty paths to take,
Left with just these shadows,
I won't be forced to crawl,
Vengeance on blood betrayed,
Out of control, anything goes,
And I'll be the cause of your fall,
Hell rides on my shoulders tonight,
I'll trudge through your winter storms,
Down the path of a red moon paradise”
Although her lyrics were eerie and cryptic, she had a beautiful, captivating singing voice. Wait, where did she go? She was just right there, wasn't she? There was a light tap on his shoulder. Naito's heart skipped a beat. He spun around and was face-to-face with the girl. She was just about two inches shorter than him, with straight black hair, wearing a short, sleeveless black dress and black leggings underneath. Her eyes were heterochromatic: one a deep shade of scarlet, the other a soothing cyan. She held her purse in front of her, smiling innocently.
“I take it you liked my song.” it was more of a statement than a question.
“H-How did you...?” Naito blinked his confusion.
“Singing? It's not hard, really. Would you like some lessons?”
“No, not that! Didn't you just teleport behind me? How did you do that?!”
“Oh, you mean this?” she teleported behind him again, swiping his skateboard from under his feet, causing him to fall on his butt.
“Hey, that's mine! Give it back!”
“You wouldn't mind me taking it for a spin, would you?” she did not wait for his permission before hopping on it and riding circles around him. Shadow barked and chased after her, but she reacted instantly by digging into her purse and, unless Naito's eyes were deceiving me, she pulled out a wand. “Animal Spirit – Condor.” she chanted, summoning the spirit of a condor. The condor spirit swooped down from the air, picking Shadow up with it's talons. It circled around the trees with him before flying up higher and dropping him. Naito caught him before he could hit the ground.
“Magic...are you a wizard? A magician?” Naito staggered back in bewilderment. The girl in black ignored Naito's question, continuing to ride around him.
“This is a nice board you've got. You wouldn't mind if I keep it, would you?”
“No you can't keep it, it's MINE!” Naito shouted, getting back to his feet.
“But I like it~”
Frustrated, Naito pulled out his wand and pointed it at her, but before he could even cast a spell, the girl in black teleported a good few feet behind him. She chanted “Ethyfescir!”, and he briskly spun around to see her wand transforming into a scythe nearly twice her own height, imprinted with a ghastly pattern of skulls. Naito had no idea what was going on, but if this girl had a transformed wand, he thought he would need to transform his as well.
“Cieseroe!” he chanted, transforming his wand into a rifle that strongly resembled a rose. It’s stock was a light shade of mossy green, while the barrel and muzzle were a dark scarlet. He pulled the trigger several times, shooting a barrage of ice missiles at her. She swung her scythe in a wide arc, creating a wall of brilliant purple flames in front of her, melting the ice missiles before they could hit her. She laughed mockingly at Naito's puzzled and frustrated expression, leaning against a tree with her scythe raised above her head. Dressed in black with the skull-scythe, all she needed was a hood and Naito could have mistaken her for the grim reaper itself.
“Oh my, did you intend to hurt me with that toy gun?” she giggled. Naito was ready to pull the trigger again, but a loud ringing suddenly blared from his pocket. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his cell phone and saw that Cosena was calling him. Wow, he was stupid. Why didn't he think to call her?
“Cosena!” he said, answering it.
“NAITO!!!” she shouted furiously, “Where the hell are you? We've been lo-” Naito felt his nose crunch under the impact of the girl’s foot. He fell to his knees and dropped his phone, clutching onto his blood-smeared nose. The condor spirit swooped down from the sky and grabbed Naito’s phone, giving it to the girl in black.
“Not very smart to attack someone then take your eyes off of her, is it?” the girl in black licked her lips teasingly, hanging Naito's phone up. “Don’t worry about those two, you have me to play with now.”
“How do you know my name? Who are you?!” Naito demanded, pointing Cieseroe at her head.
“Who cares? Certainly not you, nor anyone else.” she said cryptically, sticking his phone into her purse.
“Thief!” Shadow barked, pouncing at her, but she simply teleported out of the way then stomped on his head. Shadow whimpered in pain.
“Don't you dare hurt Shadow!” Naito shouted, shooting a second barrage of ice missiles at her. Once again she protected herself with a wall of flames.
“Why not? It's fun. Oh my, have I made you upset?” she cocked her head to the side, pressing her finger to her lipss.
“Yes! Yes you have!”
“If it bothers you so much, I'll just hurt you some more instead.” She teleported behind Naito, kneeing him in the back. He fell to his knees, wincing in pain. The condor spirit flew after Shadow again, but Shadow leaped, tackling it in midair and biting down into it's neck. The condor's body evaporated into nothing more than gray mist, floating away.
“Shadow, you...” Naito knew what happened to an Animal Spirit upon being killed once more, but that was his first time seeing it with his own eyes.
“Tch, useless spirit.” the girl in black pinched her nose and waved the mist out of her face as if in disgust.
“I'll protect you no matter what, Naito.” Shadow snarled at the girl in black. “Give my friend his stuff back, now!”
“Silence, stupid mutt! Why don't you go back to being dead too while I play with the king?” she kicked Naito in the chin and he fell to the ground, feeling blood swell up in his mouth. She rose her foot to strike him again, but Shadow's fangs bit right into her leg. “AH!!!” she hissed in pain, “Stupid mutt, now you've gone and made me mad!” she thrust her palm down at Shadow. Her palm began to glow with a radiant purple aura. Naito quickly transformed Cieseroe back to it’s wand form and unsummoned Shadow, right before a huge burst of flames shot out of the girl’s palm, scorching the grass where Shadow had just stood. The girl in black transformed Ethyfescir back to it’s wand form. Pointing her wand up towards the sky, she chanted, “Krifarde!” Her wand began to glow with an even brighter purple aura. Slowly, the light from her wand formed in the sky, shining down on them. It didn't take a genius to figure out she was charging up her most powerful spell. Naito spit out a mouthful of blood before cloaking his fists in jagged ice and charged, swinging them at her face. She didn't even need to move from her spot to kick Naito in the gut, knocking him right back down. Naito thrust his palm forward, causing sharp, spiky icicles to shoot up from the ground where the girl in black stood. She was left with no choice but to give up on charging her attack and teleport out of the way. She pointed her wand down and whispered something under her breath, and the purple light shot down. Naito jumped back and put his arms above his head instinctively, but the light didn’t shoot down at him. It shot down at her. Rather than scorching her on the spot like Naito imagined it would do to him, she seemed to absorb it, and it protruded from her back, forming the shape of a pair of malevolent wings. Once her wings were finished forming, she spread her arms out to the side, levitating above the ground.
“What are you, a demon?!” Naito asked, his hands trembling.
“Naito!!! Naito, are you there?!” it was Alsen's voice. Naito could hear her footsteps, along with the others, getting closer with each second. The girl in black's spell must have gave their location away.
“Alsen, Cosena, I'm over h-” he said, but the girl in black swooped down at him, kicking him in the chest, followed up by a kick to the jaw and an agonizingly painful stomp to his temple. Naito cried out in pain.
“Lucky you, it seems the rescue team is here.” she landed and her wings evaporated. She pulled a vial out of her pocket, filled to the brim with a black liquid. “Be a good boy and drink this for me, will you?” she sat on his back and yanked his head up with a fistful of his hair, shoving the vial into his mouth. He tried to resist, but she was still able to get some of the bitter liquid down his throat. Within seconds he was thrashing around on the ground, pulling at his hair and howling like a tortured mutt. “I wish we could play some more, but I don't like being outnumbered. Sweet dreams, my little king.” she kissed his forehead, then rode away on his skateboard, finishing her song.
“We'll meet by the river at twilight,
Down the raging waterfall,
Throw your stones,
I'll drop a mountain,
Who will be the one,
To lose it all?”
Hell rides on my shoulders tonight,
I'll trudge through your winter storms,
Down the path of a red moon paradise”