The ground was dry, brittle, and bleak. An encompassing blanket of gray veiled the sun and cast darkness on the world around Cail. Drops of water started falling from the sky and plopped onto the parched grass. The rain was cold, but Cail was unfazed by it. Wet raindrops trickled down his skin as he observed the atrocity around him. Thousands of bodies were piled on the ground, all as dead as a winter night. These weren’t the bodies of warriors or soldiers, but of civilians. Men, women, and children. Not a single soul was spared, not a single body held the color of life.
Cail walked to the corpse of a woman, laying on the ground apart from the mounds of dead bodies. He could see that she was beautiful. Her skin was pale and as smooth as silk, her hair matched her dark brown eyes, and her body was gentle and slender. Cail rested the back of his hand on her cheek, which had rivers of dried blood streaming down to her neck. She felt as cold as ice and Cail could feel that any hope of life had abandoned her.
“What is this accursed land?” Cail asked to himself without looking away from the woman.
“The world around you is imminent,” a dark voice echoed. Cail’s head snapped around looking for the source of the voice, but he saw no one other than the legion of corpses. “There’s nothing you can do to stop fate. Everyone you see is destined to die.” The voice clamped down on Cail’s spine like a vice grip. Even though Cail could see no one, he felt an evil shadow brooding over him.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Cail bellowed into the air.
“You’ll have to find me if you wish to know those answers.”
“Where are you?”
The sun beamed through the bare window on the living room wall. Gentle warmth gradually woke Cail and he started to rise from the soft sofa on which he rested. He rubbed his eyes as he tried to forget about the nightmare which was fresh in his mind.
“It’s high noon and you’re just now rolling off you’re just now rolling off your hind end. I’ll never know how you do it.” Cail turned around and saw his father, Cecil, chuckling while he read a thick book in his rickety, wooden rocking chair.
“I’m sorry, dad,” Cail responded as he rose to his feet. “Nights haven’t treated me well lately. I’ve witnessed dark dreams, visions of death and decay. Destruction beyond measure.
Cecil laid his book on the table next to him, rose from his chair, and walked before his son. “Kalil and his faithful servants are dead, slain by the wind you possess in your palms. The shackles of evil have loosened and Kordon has entered into a new age of freedom and peace. There’s nothing more to trouble your mind.
Cail could refute none of what his father said. Elona, which had endured an age of isolation, was now a part of Kordon, the nation of islands above the clouds. Kalil’s malicious reign died at the hands of his most trusted servant, Tarvaris. Cail reminisced on the battle with Tarvaris Ozean, his ancient ancestor. Even though six months had passed, the wounds were still fresh in his mind. Not only did he remember the fight against Tarvaris, but also the clash against Laney when Tarvaris’ dark powers morphed her into a vicious zurak. After Cail’s victory, Laney transformed back into her normal body, but remained unconscious ever since the conflict.
“If the world has been restored to perfection, then why am I still haunted by dreams of darkness?”
“I don’t know, Cail. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a perfect world. All we can do is shine our light on those who need it.”
“I suppose you’re right.” Cail walked to the open window and breathed in the fresh Elona air. A cool breeze oozed into the house and brushed against his face. He saw a woman working in a nearby garden, a group of ten children playing amongst themselves, and three men engaged in a private discussion. A cheerful revelation popped into Cail’s mind; everyone he saw was saved by him. Every single Elonian, including Cail’s own father, was enslaved by Kalil and suffered under his tyranny, but for no longer.
“I’m beginning to grow worried about Laney,” Cail said without looking away from the window.
“I must confess that I am as well. Her body rested for six long months, recovering from the malevolent assault. Her faint breath flows through her nose, but I can’t help but think that we’re nursing a corpse.”
Cail walked up the rickety stairs and into the bedroom where Laney was resting. He kneeled onto the hard floor next to the bed and took Laney’s hand in his. Her fingers were thin and as cold as frozen water. Her face was colorless and rested as still as stone. Even with all her ailments, Cail admired her beauty and gentleness. He remained by her side, praying that her eyes would open, but they stayed shut.
Then Cail heard three solid knocks coming from the front door. As he sprinted down the stairs, booming pounds echoed throughout the house. Cail yanked the door open and a tall, thin man stood on the stoop in front of Cail. The man was panting heavily, as though he had been sprinting for hours. Sweat streamed down his wrinkled forehead like a rapid river and his brown hair was cast every which way.
“Can I help you?” Cail asked, looking at the man incredulously.
The man took in a few more deep breaths in an attempt to fill his lunges with fresh air. “My name is Loran. Queen Beda sent me from the Ivory City. We’re in desperate need of your help. The city has come under attack.”
Cail was taken back by what Loran told him. “Attack? By zuraks?”
“I wish that were so,” Loran replied. “These attackers stemmed from within the city’s walls. They’re lethal hunters masked by sapphire tunic. The Blue Assassins, as we have named them, move as lightly as a feather, but attack as ferociously as a dragon.”
“Assassins you say? Who have they killed?”
“No civilians have been laid to waste yet, however the Blue Assassins have taken the Red Pumas as their hostages. We can’t help but fear the worst.”
Cail cursed beneath his breath. He anticipated that new enemies would rise, but not this quickly. Kordon was still healing from the venomous leech who was Kalil. Now the Blue Assassins were quickly moving on an injured nation like a vulture brooding over a dying animal. As much as it pained him, Cail saw no option other than leaving Laney to run to Cestmir’s aid. Cail desperately desired to be by Laney’s side when she woke from her elongated slumber, but it was imperative that Cestmir remained protected. It was a stronghold, a beacon of light for all of Kordon.
“I’ll fly to Cestmir and investigate this new enemy. Feel free to stay here and rest. You must be sore from your strenuous voyage,” Cail said to Loran, resting a hand on the traveler’s weary shoulder.
“You are most gracious to me,” Loran said with a slight bow.
Cail ran to Emey, who was resting in an open pasture. Her emerald feathers matched the flowing blades of grass that swayed in the gentle breeze. She looked at Cail, pointing her golden beak directly toward him. She sensed that Cail needed her wings, so she rose to her feet, revealing a patch of matted ground upon which she laid. Cail gracefully hopped onto her back, but just before Emey launched off the ground, Cail heard a faint voice calling out his name.
Cail spun his head around and saw Kadir sprinting through the tall grass toward him. Kadir leaned against Emey and gasped for fresh air. “I’m glad I found you before you left,” Kadir said, looking up to Cail. “Where are you headed, anyways?”
Cail dropped down from Emey’s back and said, “I was headed Cestmir to attend to an urgent matter. Is there something you need?”
“Yes. Lydia sent me to find you. She needs to speak with you immediately.”
“Can’t it wait? The City of Cestmir could be in grave danger.”
“If you leave, you may never be able to speak with her. Lydia is dying.”
Kadir barged through the front doors of Lydia’s home, with Cail following closely behind him. In the far corner of the hut was a bed with a group of people, small and large, huddled around it. “Make way for Cail!” Kadir bellowed. They obeyed his command, moving so that there was an opening just wide enough for Cail to kneel down next to Lydia. Once he did, he was able to see that she was plagued by a vicious ailment, draining the light from her eyes. Her hair was as white as snow, her skin was wrinkled and colorless, and her mouth looked as dry as a desert.
Lydia cracked a smile when she saw Cail’s melancholic face. “You came to see me one last time.”
“Of course I did,” Cail responded, fighting to hold the burning tears in his eyes. “After all you’ve done for me, I couldn’t leave you without saying goodbye.”
Lydia let out a soft chuckle and placed her weak hand on Cail’s broad chest. “Kordon is now free thanks to the gentleness in your heart. As long as you cling to your compassion, the people of this great nation will treat you well.”
Cail could no longer control his emotions. A cold tear of sadness slithered down his cheek to the corner of his mouth. “Why do you have to leave?”
“Because time is calling my name. We would have nothing to live for if we never died. Don’t drop too many tears, young one. I’ve lived a full life, a life filled with purpose and happiness. I will close my eyes so that they may open under a new sun.” Cail could no longer hear her breaths as she stared off into oblivion. The small amount of strength that remained in her hand slowly diminished and her eyes slid shut. Lydia had passed.
Kadir laid a gentle hand on Cail’s shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, Cail. She lived a good life. All we can do is take comfort in knowing that she is rid of pain.” Despite Kadir’s attempts, Cail found no refuge in his words. No comfort would be found while wounds gashed his soul. Tears were streaming down his cheeks and dropping onto his forearms. Cail dried his face and walked out of Lydia’s hut without saying anymore. He clung to the hope that the radiant sunlight would strip him of his pain, but it did no such thing. Sadness stuck to Cail like iron chains, constricting his breath and compressing his muscles. The pain he felt was the same pain he experienced when he watched Lionel, the King of the Red Pumas, die by the hands of Kalil’s servants.
“Miles delivered the ill news to me.” Cecil was standing just behind his distraught son. “I’m sorry you had to watch her drift away, but it’s something all of us must experience at one time or another.”
“This doesn’t feel real,” Cail said without looking at his father. “It feels as though I’m imprisoned in a dark dream. All I need to do is wake up, but I know I can’t.”
“I’ve experienced that same sentiment as well. Your mother was snatched away before my very eyes,” Cecil said with a heavy heart. “For years I’ve clung to memories of her, of our short time as a family, but I know there’s nothing I can do to bring my sweet Ilona back.”
“We’re still a family,” Cail responded, trying to comfort his father.
“Not without your mother. She’s a missing cog.”
“But we’re not without her,” Cail said. An expression of surprise onto Cecil’s face. “I know you’ve felt her presence, just as I have. I’ve even seen her with my own eyes.”
“You’ve seen her?” Cecil’s voice was filled incredulity.
“Her spirit came to me and claimed that she had been sent back by the gods to protect me on my quest.” Cail looked to his father and saw tears streaming down his face. Cecil had always contained his emotions and kept his composure in front of his son, but his feelings rushed out of him like a rapid river. Cail was frozen in shock by the sight of his father openly weeping in front of him. He couldn’t think of what to say except for, “I’m sorry dad.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Cecil said as he wiped his cheeks dry. “I’m happy that you were finally able to see your mother for the beautiful woman she was.”
“That she was,” Cail responded. Even though Cecil’s crying had ceased, Cail could still see that his father was ridden with sadness. He decided shift the conversation away from dwelling on his passed mother, “As much as it pains me to leave Laney, I must make way for Cestmir. A traveler has informed me that the city has been taken from the inside.”
“Yes. Laney’s father offered the man his hospitality after I spoke with him. Do you need someone to go with you?”
“No. I need to move swiftly and silently. Companions traveling with me will draw far too much unwanted attention.”
“As you wish. I must warn you, the Blue Assassins aren’t to be taken lightly. They’re lethal hunters.”
“You know of them?” Cail asked.
“All I know are the ancient tales of their clan. They’re a lawless bunch that originated in the domain of fire, Aithnen. According to legend, they were responsible for the downfall of hundreds of democracies in all four of the nations of the world. They resided all of the nations for years, but fled from Kordon as soon as Kalil rose to power.”
“But the ocean of clouds below us blocks anyone from traveling between Kordon and Aithnen, so how did they pass through?”
“I don’t know, Cail,” Cecil responded with a slight hint of disappointment in his voice. “All I can do is recite stories of old. No matter what, you must exercise extreme caution. The Blue Assassins are a deceptive group, waiting to launch onto their prey.”
“You have my word,” Cail said as he cast a comforting smile toward his father. “Please look after Laney while I’m gone. Even with the safety of Cestmir being threatened, I hate leaving her.”
Cecil placed a solacing hand on Cail’s shoulder and said, “You have nothing to worry about. I’ll ensure that Laney remains in good hands until she wakes.” Cail nodded to his father, who smiled at Cail in return. Before Cail could turn to leave, his father said, “One last thing to keep in mind. The Blue Assassins were known for their speed and stealth, but were easily overmatched by strength.”
“They’re not the only ones who are light on their feet,” Cail responded with a smirk. His confidence faded as he walked toward Emey. Nagging fears creeped back into his mind; fears of the mysterious foe that awaited him in the Ivory City; fears of Laney waking to see that Cail had left her once again.
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