Nearly two hours had passed since Laney was trapped in her cell. It was agony, watching Laney from afar. Every draining second carved into Cail’s skin, piercing his bones. Dozens of Blue Assassins stood guard, ensuring that no one would stealthily snatch her from their grasp. The black cloaks of the guards were shadows of death swarming around Laney, leaving her in the wake of imminent danger. As desperately as Cail wanted to take on the Blue Assassins by himself, he knew it would only end in him being locked up as well. Patience, as painful as it was, was the only answer.
A sonorous pound resonated throughout the chamber. Cail and Serafine looked at each other, as though to ask if the sound was real or a figment of their imagination. The Blue Assassins silenced as well and everyone waited in burdened silence for another sound. Shrill screams of pain echoed off the walls, coming from a corridor just below Cail and Serafine. The screams didn’t belong to prisoners, but to guards. The moment to strike had finally come. Slowly, the Blue Assassins started filing into the corridor, cautiously approaching the disturbance.
Serafine grabbed Cail’s shoulder and whispered into his ear, “The generals are over there.” She pointed off to the distance. Cail’s heart sunk when he saw that it was in the opposite direction as Laney’s cell. “We need to move down this ledge and release them without being seen. After that, we’ll lead them back here and regroup with the Red Pumas.”
“You get the generals, I’ll free Laney,” Cail insisted.
“Not a chance,” Serafine asserted. Anger was seeping from her whispers. “I need you to release the generals. We cannot defeat the Blue Assassins. Laney must wait until the city is free.” Cail possessed half a mind to protest further, but he knew it would do no good. Serafine was just as stubborn as he was and far more aggressive. She led him down a dirt ramp that wound around the wall the chamber and took them to the floor of the prison. The cells surrounding them were empty and there were very few guards remaining. Serafine swiftly strode with soft footsteps through the prison, peeking around every corner to ensure that they weren’t being watched. Cail followed closely behind, concentrating all his focus on moving as silently as Serafine. Then something tugged on his body, something he couldn’t control. Serafine maintained her quiet movement, soundlessly running in a straight line, but Cail drifted to left. It didn’t take long for him to part for Serafine, and when she realized he had gone, she couldn’t call out to find him without alerting the remaining guards.
Cail had no idea where his body was taking him, or why it had betrayed Serafine; all he knew was he had to follow. He was taken by the wind, a servant to his master. Turning this way and that, his feet pounded against the ground, clouds of dirt puffing around his feet with every step. By sheer luck, there happened to be no guards near Cail, or else he would have been captured immediately. Then he stopped. In the jail cell just before Cail was someone he so desperately wished to see, but not in this prison; Laney. She was sitting in the corner of the cell, paying no attention to the world around her. Every day for six months, Cail had laid his eyes upon Laney’s smooth, resting face, but now she was alive and breathing. The color of life had returned to her skin and her hair beamed like the sun. Her bright eyes were vigorous and beautiful. Cail saw a new person.
Once Laney saw Cail standing just outside of the cell, she jumped to her feet, ran to the bars of her cell, and whispered, “Cail! You’re safe! I was so worried about you, I couldn’t help but come here.”
Cail froze, not knowing what to say. Part of his mind wanted his frustration to flow through his body and out his mouth. After all, why not? He had saved her from the clutches of a malicious, cruel, and evil emperor, and then, as soon as she recovered from her coma lasting six months, she ran back into a seized city, run by murderers and criminals. Her actions were careless and imbecilic, but he couldn’t bring himself to scold her. The sight of Laney brought happiness into his heart, happiness that calmed his exasperation. Cail didn’t care that Laney had put herself into harm’s way, he only cared about her being with him in that moment.
“Don’t worry. I’ll find a way to get you out of there,” Cail managed to say after stumbling over silence. He looked on the ground, hoping to find some sort of object on the ground he could use to pick the cell’s lock, but there was nothing save for dirt and pebbles. Then Cail heard a pair of heavy footsteps approaching. The reverberations were too deep to belong to Serafine. Not wanting to lose any spare time, Cail swiftly darted around the cell neighboring Laney’s and hid behind the bars. The guard that approached was a brute, too stupid to observe the surrounding environment and see that the Last Descendant was only a few meters away.
“Hey, you! Come over here!” Laney called out to the guard, trying to keep him distracted. The guard approached, each of his steps sent a wave of vibration through the floor. This guard was larger than most of the others, Cail noticed. His shoulders were broader, his belly was rounder, and he towered taller. The hood of his black cloak masked his face, but the vexation in his breath could be felt. Laney seemed to be unfazed by the guard and she asked, “How much longer am I going to be stuck in here?”
“You’ll be summoned once the Master is ready for you,” the guard growled with a thunderous voice. Laney carried on a vexing conversation with him as Cail started creeping around the corner of the cell and toward the guard. Then he felt a rock hit against his foot. The rock skidded across the floor, each bounce bringing it closer to the guard. Cail was tempted to dive for the rock, but knew that the guard would undoubtedly hear him if he did so. He closed his eyes, praying to the gods that the rock would stop, or miss the guard entirely; he cursed himself for being so carelessly clumsy. Then he heard a pang resonate off the guard’s iron shin guard. Silence fell upon the conversation between Laney and the guard. Cail had no time to freeze, no time to think. He only had time to act.
Almost subconsciously, Cail thrust his arms and blasted the guard in his side with a violent stream of white wind. The guard toppled over and slammed into the ground, shaking the dirt below him. Moving with unmatched speed, Cail sprinted to the stunned foe and snatched his sword from its sheath. It took both hands to hold the bulky blade. Cail lifted it over his head and then slammed the point of the sword into the guard’s chest. A shrill cry of pain pierced Cail’s ears and ricocheted against the walls of the chamber. Shortly after, a few faint voices conversed in the distance; Cail assumed they were guards beginning their search for the source of the scream for help.
“Cail! Hurry and take his key! It won’t be long before the guards find us,” Laney said with an urgent voice, pointing at the fallen foe. Cail frantically dug through each of the guard’s pockets. He could hear heavy footsteps beating like the drums of war. They were ominous, foreboding. The echoes rung louder and Cail’s lunges stiffened. Then he found the key. It was in a pocket hidden by the sword’s sheath. Only one key was in the pocket; presumably a key that unlocked all the cells. Wasting no time, Cail slid the key into the slot and twisted it. A perfect fit. The cell door opened with a clang. Laney snatched Cail’s thick forearm and dragged him along as she sprinted away. She had no idea which direction to run in, she only knew they needed to run away from the legion of oncoming guards. Her plan seemed to be working. The clamor of the Blue Assassins was disintegrating and pounding footsteps morphed into soft raindrops.
A thick hand snatched the collar of Cail’s shirt and pulled him and Laney to the ground. Cail hit his head on the rough ground and his vision was blurred. Four silhouettes stood over him, four entities as dark as shadows. Cail cursed under his breath for being so careless, for being captured by the Blue Assassins. “Will you quit lying around?” One of the voices said with no small amount of irritation. It was at that moment Cail realized he wasn’t captured by the guards. His vision came back and he saw Serafine, along with three large men, the generals, standing above him.
The generals were rough figures. Cail quickly saw why it was so important to find them. They were giants; towering well over three meters tall, their shoulders were stout foundations, their biceps had pulsing veins, and their legs were immovable tree stumps. As Cail and Laney quickly rose to their feet, Serafine said, “You’re lucky we found you before the guards did. Now, follow me. Our escape isn’t far from here.” Without any sort of fuss, Cail and Laney followed Serafine in the generals out of the chamber and into another cramped crawlspace. The tunnel led them back to the cave in which the Red Pumas were hiding, but Beda and her small battalion were still missing.
Once they all climbed out of the crawlspace, Serafine’s boiling temper took over. “Have you completely lost your mind? Your shenanigans could’ve gotten all of us killed! The objective was to get the generals and get out, not run around freeing whoever you wanted.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me. One moment, I was right behind you, and then before I could stop myself, I was in front of Laney’s cell,” Cail explained, but it brought no satisfaction to Serafine. She angrily snorted and stomped away for a moment.
After Serafine had calmed down, she asked, “What happened? Just as I released the generals, I heard a dreadful cry echoing through the air.”
“I had to improvise,” Cail responded. “I tried to sneak up behind one of the guards, but it backfired and I had to kill him swiftly.”
“And it’s a good thing you did, too,” said a voice coming from behind them. Cail immediately recognized it as being Beda’s voice. She, along with about twenty of her soldiers, walked into the cave. “The Blue Assassins had nearly closed in on us when they heard the scream, then they quickly ran off to find you. I’m happy to see you all made it back in one piece.”
“No thanks to Cail,” Serafine said, still feeling bitter toward Cail’s recklessness.
“Calm down, Serafine. We’re all here in one piece. Besides, if Cail wouldn’t have killed that guard, we would’ve been captured by now.”
Still disgruntled, Serafine asked, “We have the generals now and that means all the Red Pumas are safely in this cave. What do we do now?”
“Now it’s time to take back our city,” Beda said.
A volcano of rage exploded as Barok was delivered the ill news. At one time, he had all the Red Pumas pinned in his prisons. Now, there were none. They were all free and their whereabouts were unknown. For all he knew, the Red Pumas could’ve reclaimed the city outside the White Castle. “Is there a single soldier among you who isn’t completely incompetent?” Barok bellowed. His voice blared like two boulders crashing into one another, cracking the rough surfaces. He was accompanied by his four generals, all of whom remained silent in their shame. Seeing that his generals weren’t going to answer to their mounting failures, Barok said, “Get out of my sight.” Without hesitation, they all darted away, fearful that Barok might take their lives.
Barok was alone, left to his thoughts. He scowled as his anger still clouded his mind. Nearly two thousand years of hardship and suffering had brought him to that moment, and it was being thwarted by the very boy he needed to capture. Cail was turning into a pest, a menace. The boy was a plague that was killing the body of Barok’s dreams of returning to Aithnen. He knew there was no option other than to find Cail and kill him.
The towering doors of the throne room swung open and Loran ran through, his feet clapping on the marble floor and the flames of the torches swaying as he sprinted past. “My Lord!” he bellowed as he approached Barok. “My Lord, I bring good news to you. I know where the Red Pumas and the Last Descendant are hiding.”
Barok cast a glance of intrigue at his soldier who had just returned from his venture to Elona. “Is that so?”
“Yes, my Lord,” Loran said in between deep inhalations. “I’ve tricked them into believing that I would betray you in exchange for freedom. I’ve sent everyone to prepare for an ambush, we just await you, sir. There’s no time to lose. They’re preparing to wage war on us.”
Barok walked closer to Loran and placed his hands on Loran’s thin shoulders. “You’ve done well, my brother. Once this over and we are free to return home, you’ll be rewarded handsomely,” Barok said with a wide smile. Hope had been restored. Loran, the deceiver, had delivered his enemy as easily as a freshly baked pie. “Take me to them.”
Loran obeyed his Master’s commands. He led Barok out of the throne room, past all the hopeless and beaten prisoners, deep into the dark tunnels below to castle, and stopped in a massive cavern. The cave had over a dozen holes along the jagged, charcoal walls. There was no illumination save for a giant burning mound, rising twice as high as Barok, on the other side of the cave, although Loran and Barok were too far away to tell exactly what was burning. Despite the blazing inferno, the air surrounding them was cold; chilled like the wind of a wintry night.
“Where is everyone?” Barok asked impatiently.
“They’ll come,” Loran responded with intentional vagueness.
Perfectly on cue, soldiers filed out of the cavern’s hole, sprinting from the darkness. A legion of hooded black cloaks approached their master, ready to defend their king. Barok’s army stood before him, eagerly awaiting their orders.
“My brothers,” Barok called out with a booming voice, “the Red Pumas have proved to be a formidable foe, but thanks to Loran, they will no longer stand in the way of our return to Aithnen!” He expected to cheer or let out a battle cry, instead they stood in silence.
“You’re right, the Red Pumas are a formidable foe,” said a voice coming from a dark hood in front of Barok, the voice of a man he didn’t recognize. The mysterious soldier removed his hood and instead of seeing the face of one of the Blue Assassins, Barok saw the face of his enemy, the face of the Last Descendant. With a sly grin on his face, Cail said, “You look surprised to see us.”
Barok turned to Loran, who was standing a great distance from his former leader, and asked, “What was the price they offered for you to betray your own kin?”
“I was promised a new life,” Loran responded. His words were a cold knife that dug deep into Barok’s skin, as traitorous words usually are. They’re a smooth blade that slides through flesh and slowly carves into the heart, it steals whatever breath remains in the lunges. Barok couldn’t believe what he was hearing. None of his men had ever betrayed him, none of them ever had a reason to. He wasn’t just their leader, he was their brother, and they were his.
The realization of the inevitable glazed his eyes with tear. He turned to Loran and said, “We were so close to accomplishing our goal. We’ve toiled for centuries. Why would you do this to me now?”
“I suppose I’ve grown weary of living a life filled with bloodshed. The guilt of all the people we’ve killed has weighed on my mind for years. Serafine, the Descendant of our great nation, has opened a door for me to make amends. To answer your question, I’m doing this because you lack the remorse necessary to do what’s right.”
Barok’s sadness caught fire and burst into rage. With a deep, growling voice, he said, “Loran, you will pay for your egregious betrayal; your lies will bring your death.” Barok snatched Loran by the neck and lifted him off his feet. The massive hand of the fallen King of the Blue Assassins encompassed Loran’s thin throat as Loran started gasping for breath.
All the Red Pumas swiftly drew their swords in respond, moving as a singular unit. A legion of glistening blades was now pointed at Barok, ready to strike if he didn’t let go. Even though death was waiting on his doorsteps, he didn’t want to endure any pain that wasn’t necessary, so he released Loran from his grasp. Loran plopped onto his back and started wheezing and coughing, try to reclaim control over his lunges.
Cail stepped forward, still with a blade in hand, and said, “I believe the time has come for you to join your followers.” It was at this moment that Barok realized what was being burnt in the towering mound across the empty cavern, or rather who was being burnt; the Blue Assassins. Barok didn’t beg for his life, he knew it would do no good. The Red Pumas had taken back their city and his fate was sealed. His fiery red eyes locked with Cail’s. Barok reached into his black cloak and retrieved a small item from his hidden pocket. The army of Red Pumas tensed and started moving forward to come to Cail’s defense, but Cail held a hand up, halting them in their tracks. Cail could see that Barok wasn’t drawing a weapon, but something else. Barok removed his hand from beneath his cloak and in his thick, dark fingers he held the last Sapphire Rose. It was a magnificent flower, with petals as blue as an ocean. Barok gave it to Cail, a gesture that was typically done to the victims he had killed.
“I have now given you your death,” Barok said with a sinister grin. Cail’s confidence morphed into confusion. Barok was outnumbered by the hundreds of Red Pumas, his legion of assassins was now a burning pile of ash, and he had been betrayed by one of his own. Even so, he had the audacity to claim that he was about to kill Cail?
“You’re mad,” Cail said with a hushed voice.
“No. I just see what’s hidden from your view.”
“The Hidden King. He’s in the city as we speak, lurking over you like a shadow. I was merely the gardener and he is the seed. The Sages calling his name is a sign that they’re desperate, a sign that you’re a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately for you, you’re no match for the Hidden King. Once he’s ready, he’ll find you and kill you.”
Without a will of his own, Cail swung his fist across Barok’s broad face. A thin stream of blood leaked from the corner of his mouth, but otherwise, he seemed unfazed by Cail’s uncontrolled aggression. “Where is he?” Cail growled, but to no avail. Barok wasn’t intimidated. He simply looked back at Cail with yellow teeth protruding from his malicious smile.
“Undoubtedly, you intend to kill me, so why should I tell you anything?” Barok asked.
“You can die quickly by the blade, or slowly in flames,” Cail threatened, hoping to scare the information out of Barok.
The confident smirk left Barok’s face as fear crept into his mind. He was tempted to give in to Cail’s demands, to spare himself the agonizing pain of fire. With a hushed voice, he said, “It doesn’t matter what you do to me. I will never tell you anything.”
“As you wish,” Cail said with a cold voice. Then he turned to the Red Pumas and said, “Barok, the King of the Blue Assassins, has chosen death by fire. Throw him into the inferno.” The soldiers obeyed his commands, snatching Barok by the arms and dragging him across the floor of the cave.
“The Blue Assassins were only the beginning!” Barok bellowed as he was taken away. “The Hidden King will always follow you!” There was nothing that Barok could that would affect Cail. He didn’t care about the empty threats from an enemy about to be slain.
The Red Pumas tossed Barok into the flames like a log chopped from a tree. His shrill screams filled the cave and reverberated off the walls. The wails of agony continued for just a moment longer, and then they died. Cestmir was free once again. Cail looked over to Serafine and noticed her gaze had not yet left the cracking inferno. Her eyes were lifeless, unblinking, flooded with fear. “What’s wrong?” Cail asked.
She broke off her stare and said with a shaky voice, “Nothing. I just have old memories of them, of what they’ve done.”
“That’s what they shall remain; nothing more than memories,” Cail said, trying to comfort Serafine’s fear, but he sensed that it did nothing to help. Changing subject, he asked, “Do you know anything about the Hidden King?”
“I haven’t a clue,” Serafine responded. “However, my father might. He’s very wise and possesses a vast amount of knowledge about the entire world, not just Aithnen. I think it would be in your best interest to come with me.”
Cail’s mind immediately turned to Laney, who was now waiting in the city. She had just woken from months of unconsciousness, and telling her that he was leaving again seemed unbearable. He would pull a dozen blades out of his skin than leave her. He also remembered the Sages and their constant barrage of enemies they were sending to kill him, to reclaim the Shadow Stone. “I can’t leave,” Cail said, regret filled his voice. “At least not until the Sages of Pazia have been dealt with. They must pay for what they’ve done to the Ivory City. They must pay with their lives.”
“And how do you plan on killing them?” Serafine asked. Cail could hear irritation and anger rising in her voice. “They’re nothing like you and I. The Sages are mystical beings. We cannot kill them with fists or swords.”
“How do we kill them?” Cail asked.
“I don’t know, but my father could tell you. Please, you must come with me to Aithnen,” Serafine pleaded. She was beginning to grow desperate in her attempts to sway Cail’s mind. The Air Rune weighed down the pocket of her robe, reminding her of the leverage she possessed, though she didn’t want to use it so soon.
Even though it pained him, Cail said, “Very well. I’ll go with you. It appears I have no other choice.” Then he looked toward Loran and whispered into Serafine’s ear, “What should we do about him?”
“Leave him to me. You need to rest for the upcoming journey.” Cail nodded in agreement and left the cave, making his way toward the beaming sunlight in the city. Serafine waved to a couple nearby soldiers and they followed her as she walked toward Loran. She said to him, “Your deeds today haven’t gone unnoticed. With that being said, it’s time for you to go to your cell. She motioned her hand, signaling for the soldiers to take Loran into custody.
He immediately protested, “You said you would free me of my transgressions!”
“And I will, when the time is right. Once the barrier between Aithnen and Kordon has been broken, you’ll be free to return to your home, but until then, you’re not to be trusted.” Serafine turned to her guys and coldly said, “Take him away.”
The soldiers dragged Loran, as he kicked and flailed, out of the cave. Serafine was proud of herself. Not for freeing the entire city of Cestmir, but for finding a way to sway Cail’s mind, to manipulate him, to bend him to her will, and she didn’t even need to mention the Air Rune. She decided that it would be best to keep it hidden from view, should she need it in the future. There was no need to let her mind be troubled by the Air Rune. For right now, she could focus on her return to Aithnen.
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