Serafine expected Elona to be quiet and timid, as it always was. The village had a history of being a peaceful sanctuary, a place of comfort and healing. Ever since Serafine and Cail had killed the servants of Kalil, she greatly admired the simplicity of Elona. It was a place where she could find peace in her mind and throw away the worries of the world. She had never known a small, quaint community such as Elona. Serafine was raised in the glorious palace of Aurian, which was the heart of the entire nation. Aurian was a vast city, covering more land than a mountain. Even though beauty and glamor could be found throughout all of Aurian, so too could peril be found. With Serafine being the daughter of the King, it was imperative for her to be protected at all times. She felt trapped, like a chimp in a cage. There were very few moments in every day that she wasn’t surrounded by guards, moments where she could enjoy her own company.
That was why Serafine loved coming to Elona; she felt free. No one knew that she was a princess in her past life, and no one would care if they did know. Her being a princess bore no weight on the lives of Elona. They accepted her for who she was; a Descendant of the gods. Elona gave her a sense of security. Even though she didn’t have any protection, she knew she didn’t need it.
As Serafine walked off the bridge and onto the island, she stood before a great oak tree, towering high above her. The emerald trees shone as radiantly as a queen’s dress, swaying in the gentle breeze. Serafine had spent months inside of the mountain, searching for a way to return to Aithnen, but this tree reminded her of the preeminence of the outdoors, of the fact that everyone needed to breathe the free air. After Serafine had finished admiring the tree, she continued into the heart of Elona.
The village she entered wasn’t the same Elona she remembered, though. There was a raucous crowd in the center of the town, a crowd that sounded hostile and full of anger. The people’s rage roared like a powerful wave crashing onto an unsuspecting beach. Some of the men brought shovels and pitchforks and everyone else was waving their fists in the air. They weren’t mad at each other, though. Everyone was circled around something, or someone.
Serafine sprinted toward the horde of people and shoved men and women out of her way, trudging to the center of attention; a slender man who was slouched on his knees. Shame and guilt were painted on his face, just as anger was on the faces of the Elonians. He was thin, almost to the point of malnourishment, and his long, brown bangs covered his eyes. His clothes were ragged and dirty, stained by no small amount of sweat.
“What is the meaning of this?” Serafine called out to anyone willing to answer. The clamor of the crowd slowly died to a dull murmur. At first, no one dared to claim responsibility for the outrageous gathering.
“This man is guilty of murder,” said a booming voice resonating from behind Serafine. She spun around and saw Cecil with a face matching the anger of the crowd. “Or at least he would’ve been had I gone from my home. He’s nothing more than deceitful scum and he must be punished.”
“I would like to hear from him before we go about dealing punishments,” Serafine responded, taken back by Cecil’s rash behavior. She kneeled down before the man and gently lifted his chin so that she could see his face. His bangs gently slid to both sides of his head, revealing dark brown eyes filled with fear. “You should keep in mind that any lie that slips off your tongue will result in an anguishing death. Now, who are you? Why have you come here?” The man said nothing. He just blankly stared into her eyes, refusing to cooperate.
After waiting for an answer, Serafine’s patience diminished. She held out her right hand and a ball of flame ignited in her palm. The man’s eyes immediately honed in on the fire, but he remained silent. Serafine brought the inferno closer to the man’s face, the sweltering heat summoned sweat from the pores of his skin. Just as the flames were about to touch his face, the man bellowed out, “Stop! I’ll talk!”
Serafine clenched her fist, extinguishing the fire, and shoved the man to the ground. Standing over the man, she said, “Speak swiftly, or I will no longer care what you have to say.”
“My name is Loran—” he started to say but was interrupted by Cecil.
“Lies! That’s what he said to Cail!” Cecil yelled irately.
“It’s the truth, I swear!” Loran responded, his voice filled with desperation. “Loran is my name, however I was sent her to convince Cail to leave Elona and go to Cestmir.”
Serafine swiped down and snatched Loran by the collar of his greasy shirt. Loran whimpered in fear, intimidated by Serafine’s strength. “Who sent you? What do they want with Cail?”
“I was sent by Barok, King of the Blue Assassins,” Loran responded. The name shot ice into Serafine’s spine, paralyzing her bones. She dropped Loran and he fell to the ground with a thud. Serafine looked as though she had seen a ghost, her face as pale as the clouds in the sky.
“You lie,” Serafine whispered, hoping that she was right, but fearing that Loran had told the truth.
“No. The Blue Assassins have overtaken Cestmir and now Cail is their prisoner.”
“That’s not true!” Serafine said shouted as she clubbed Loran across the cheek with her fist. He plopped onto the ground and grimaced in pain. “Barok died centuries ago.”
“Believe that if it brings you comfort, but the truth is that he lives and now he has what he came to find: The Last Descendant,” Loran said with a sinister smirk on his bloodied face.
“What does he want with Cail?” Cecil asked, interjecting himself into the interrogation.
“I don’t know why he needs Cail, but the Master has been possessed by his desire to return to Aithnen. He’s not the same leader he used to be. This obsession has drowned him beneath an ocean of greed. There’s nothing he’s not willing to do to go home, including the sacrifice of his own men. We’re nothing more than his pawns.”
“Yet you continue to serve him,” Serafine said with disgust.
“Only so that I can return to my home as well. Once I do, he’ll mean nothing to me,” Loran admitted. He pushed himself up to his feet and stood face to face with Serafine. “What does it matter, though? After all, you’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”
“It would be the logical decision. You’re a weed that could spread through green pastures. Depravity should be killed, no matter how trivial it is. Still, you could prove to be much more useful alive, rather than dead,” Serafine said pondering over the choices laid before her. She looked to Cecil, seeking his counsel. He did nothing but gently shake his head, signaling for her to kill Loran. She turned her gaze back to Loran and looked deep into his brown eyes. Trust and skepticism blended and swirled inside Serafine’s mind, clouding the right decision.
If he can abandon Barok, the Master of his clan, then he can just as easily abandon me. Still, he’s of more use to me alive than dead. The only question is, will his use outweigh the risk of him betraying us? Serafine thought silently to herself. Having made her decision, she said, “I have found a way to return to Aithnen, but I need Cail to be kept alive in order to do so. If you pledge your fealty to me, I can promise you your home. When you arrive in Aithnen, you’ll be a free man with no ties to the Blue Assassins. What do you say?”
“I’ll be absolved of all the crimes committed by the Blue Assassins?”
Serafine hesitated. She knew of the obscenities to which he referred. Heinous acts had been executed by this gang of criminals. Bearing the entire situation in mind, she said, “Yes. I will see to the pardoning of all your wrongdoing if you remain loyal to me.”
Without any sort of pause, Loran kneeled before Serafine and said, “You have presented me with an offer I simply can’t refuse. I pledge myself to you as payment for my freedom.”
“I can’t allow this!” Cecil interjected. “This criminal tried to kill Laney in her sleep, and we’re going to ask him to join us?” The crowd surrounding them hollered in agreement.
“Everyone, stop!” Serafine pleaded, begging the Elonians to lay their hostility to rest. “You have no idea what the Blue Assassins are capable of. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. If Cail went to Cestmir by himself, then he’s undoubtedly captured by now. Loran is our best chance to save Cail from his imprisonment.” The crowd quieted, mulling over what Serafine said.
Kadir stepped forth and said, “I’ll go with you to Cestmir. Cail must be rescued, no matter the cost.” Serafine was taken back by Kadir’s size; he grown taller and broader since she last saw him. His arms had nearly as much muscle as Serafine’s thighs, his chest was level with the top of her head, and his neck was as stout as a tree stump. Kadir was unquestionably strong, but Serafine knew that he had never faced a formidable foe like the Blue Assassins. Nonetheless, his strength would prove to be a great asset. Serafine extended her arm and shook Kadir’s hand, accepting his offer to serve. His grip strangled her palm, but she managed to hide the discomfort.
“I know Cail will offer you a great reward once we save him,” Serafine said, looking into Kadir’s blue eyes.
“He’s my friend. I don’t need a reward for helping him.”
Serafine cast a smile toward Kadir. She could see the close affection that he felt for Cail, the willingness to sacrifice himself for his friend. For a moment, she was jealous of Cail; she envied the friends that he had, friends who would give everything away for her safety. Then she realized that she did have a friend such as that; Cail. He was the reason that she could breathe the free air; he rescued her from the shackles of Kalil’s servants. It would have been painless for Cail to ignore the girl who was locked away in a high tower, to cast her out of his mind, but Cail did the selfless deed.
“Who else will join me to save Cail?” Serafine yelled to the crowd, trying to recruit anyone she could for the mission, but none stepped forth. Cowardice thrived and no one summoned the courage to say anything. Instead, everyone remained silent and then dispersed back to their homes, leaving Serafine, Cecil, Kadir, and Loran alone in the middle of the village. Serafine was dejected, disappointed by the Elonians refusal to fight for the boy who saved them from evil.
“I would come with you, but if the Blue Assassins are anything like the legends of old, then I would be no match for them,” Cecil said after everyone else had gone.
“And I would never ask you to come,” Serafine responded, wearing a fake smile on her face, but they could all see her discouragement. “We’ll do the best we can with what we have, just like we did against Kalil.”
“As someone who has never heard of the Blue Assassins before just now, I’d like to know exactly what we’re going up against,” Kadir said. He used confidence to mask his fear, but Serafine could hear the trepidation in his voice.
“You’re going against the most fearsome gang in all of Aithnen,” Loran interrupted before Serafine could open her mouth. “Many people claim that the Blue Assassins are the criminals, but the real crime rests in what forced us into being. Aithnen is a prosperous nation, filled with riches and goods for all, yet the rich and powerful hold it from those beneath it. The democracies of the Domain of Fire were born without flaw and protected everyone who lived within its jurisdiction. For thousands of years, Aithnen thrived as a utopian society.
“Then greed consumed the heart of one of the Seven Kings, King Olizar. When he traveled through the streets and saw his constituents, he didn’t see anyone who was his equal, he saw people who should be beggars instead. The greed in his heart morphed into corruption and the corruption turned into hatred. For a time, he didn’t act on this hatred, for fear of being stripped of his powers.
“Having grown weary of seeing those he deemed unworthy, King Olizar no longer ventured through his city and he isolated himself from the very people he swore to protect. Subtle was the sword that he used to slash the privileges from his citizens. One law was changed after another, feeding his greed off us like a leech. The corruption in Olizar’s heart seeped into the hearts of the six other Kings and they also asserted themselves as dominant tyrants. For a while, all the Aithnenians complied, giving in to our Kings’ commands, but not for long.
“Barok, like many of those around him, struggled to survive. He had to fight for food, water, shelter, the essentials of life. Being gifted with astute wisdom, Barok saw what the Kings were doing and was outraged by it. It was disgraceful, in his mind, for him to be forced to fight for survival every day of his life while his leaders sat upon mountains of riches, soaking in jewels and gold. The injustice of the Kings of Aithnen. gave birth to the Blue Assassins. We’re simple liberators.”
“Cail also liberated the nation of Kordon, but he didn’t try to kill innocent people,” Cecil protested, still feeling bitter toward Loran’s actions.
“I was only acting under the orders of my Master. For reasons unbeknownst to me, he wanted Laney dead. I presume because she’s close to the boy,” Loran responded.
Kadir turned to Serafine, who had remained silent throughout the entirety of Loran’s story, and asked, “Is what he said true? Did the Kings of Aithnen do this to their own people?”
“I wish I could say they hadn’t,” Serafine said softly. She refused to maintain eye contact, ashamed by the truth. “Regretfully, my father, Tauril, was one of the Kings who was influenced by Olizar.”
“Your own father did this and you stood idly by? You did nothing to protect your fellow citizens?” Kadir’s anger began to boil in his breath.
“There was nothing I could’ve done!” Serafine exploded, infuriated by Kadir’s accusations. “I was but a child at the time, there were no words that my father would’ve listened to.” Despite Serafine’s defenses of herself, Kadir remained unsatisfied.
“Enough!” Cecil blurted out, annoyed by their bickering. “You can cast blame at each other all you want, but that won’t save Cail. Serafine, come with me and I’ll give you the supplies you need for the expedition. Kadir, you need to stay with Loran, I don’t want him anywhere near Laney.” Loran shot a furious glance at Cecil, but he paid him no mind.
Cecil led Serafine into his kitchen and started combing through the wooden pantries, searching for food. As he looked he said, “So long as Loran is with you, my mind will find no comfort. He’s not to be trusted.”
“You have nothing to worry about, Cecil,” Serafine responded with confidence. “I’ll keep my watchful eyes on him at all times.”
A solid thud pounded through the ceiling, coming from the bedrooms. Cecil and Serafine remained silent for a moment, patiently listening, but there was nothing. Cecil waved his hand at Serafine, giving her the signal to follow him. They crept up the stairs, wincing at the wood creaking underneath the weight of their feet. The hallway at the top of the staircase was dark and silent and all three of the bedroom doors were left wide open. Cecil’s bedroom was the closest, so they snuck through the doorway.
The bedroom remained just as Cecil had left it. Cecil’s striped pajamas were neatly folded and placed on the seat of his reading chair in the far corner, his thick sheets were firmly tucked and his plump pillows remained in their designed places, and the sunlight beamed through the open window curtains. After closely examining his bedroom, Cecil whispered, “Let’s check the other rooms.” Serafine nodded and followed Cecil.
Laney’s room was just across the hall. Through the door was the unchanged bedroom, save for one detail. “Laney’s gone!” Cecil exclaimed. He sprinted to the side of the bed, observing the messy sheets on the bed. Cecil reached down and held the ivory sheet in his fingers. Then anger flared in his mind and he clenched his fist. “Loran,” he growled through gritted teeth. “He followed us back to the house. This was his plan the whole time.”
“That’s not possible,” Serafine said softly, thinking about how Loran could’ve accomplished this abduction. No matter the scenario she ran through her head, none of them added to the outcome of Laney being stolen. “Kadir was with him the entire time. There’s no way he did this.”
“Kadir was with who?” said a soft voice coming from the behind. Cecil and Serafine both spun around and saw Laney standing in the doorway. She wore a white wrinkled gown, her hair was dried and messy, and vigorous color had returned to her skin.
“Laney! You’re awake!” Cecil exclaimed. Serafine looked at Laney in awe, unable to believe her eyes. Cecil ran to Laney and threw his arms around her, overjoyed that she had finally woken from months of unconsciousness. After he let go of Laney, she wore a confused look on her face. As if he could read her mind, Cecil said, “You’ve been trapped in a deep coma for months.”
Laney’s eyes ballooned and she stammered, “N-n-no. That can’t be. I remember everything clearly.” She placed her palm on her forehead, trying to snatch the memories from her mind. Then she recited them as the recollections were displayed in her eyes. “We were bombarded by the zuraks, and they dragged me to Kalil. For three long, excruciating years he tormented me and swung the threat of death in front of my face, but he never gave it to me. At first, I had hope that Cail would return, which offered me the strength to endure Kalil’s torture, but then the days turned sour. Doubt poisoned my mind and dampened my spirit. Every cut, bruise, and scar dragged me farther away from home. I began to beg for my death.
“Then Cail returned. He charged the Iron Fortress, beaming like a sun in a cloudless sky. And then…” Her words drifted off and her eyes glazed. Laney closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead, trying to hone in on her thoughts. She let out a grunt of frustration and then said, “That’s all I can remember before waking up a few minutes ago.”
“Laney, that was six months ago,” Serafine said, placing a comforting hand on Laney’s shoulder. Laney shot an incredulous glance at Serafine, but Serafine continued, “Tarvaris, Kalil’s servant, cast a malicious, powerful spell on you. Cail was able to free you from the curse, and save Kordon from the tyranny of Kalil, but the spell took a toll on your body. We didn’t know if you would ever wake up.”
Laney’s emotions stirred. She felt overwhelmed by the thought of six months of her life passing in the blink of an eye. She held out her arms and looked for any fresh wounds that Kalil had dealt her, but all she saw were faint scars, remnants of her imprisonment. Then her mind turned toward Cail, her savior. “Cail saved us all?” Laney asked. Cecil nodded in response. “Where is he? I greatly desire to see him.”
“He’s gone to Cestmir,” Serafine responded. She carefully mulled over her next words, not wanting to trouble Laney’s mind. “He was told of unusual activity in the Ivory City. Kadir and I are preparing to depart to meet him there.”
“I’ll go with you!” Laney insisted.
“Absolutely not,” Cecil interjected. “You’ve only just awoken. We don’t know if this curse has done anything else to your body, or if it is even gone for good.”
Laney cursed under her breath. Then she said, “When you find Cail please remind him of his promise. He has something that belongs to me.”
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