Like statues Cloud and I stood staring at weakling guards training on the large grass field. It brought me immense pleasure to watch the soldiers squirm and, better yet, try to hide their worm like tendencies from us. After only two months, the rumors about the Duke’s wizards had reached every open ear in the entire city. Even the more isolated villages attached to the Duke’s strings had heard a thing or two.
I wasn’t the only wizard the Duke had enlisted. He’d been able to scrounge up five of us. Cloud and Sarah had been enlisted the same way I had. Rayan had sought out the Duke after unlocking his powers and Jared was the Duke’s nephew.
My urge to abandon the Duke was strong and I would be lying if I said I hadn’t looked into it. I didn’t know how much the Duke actually knew, but he knew that he had to keep me and the other wizards away from the Nexus. I had been denied access to the garden even after I presented my military pass.
Crom was a ghost, gone from my life and everyone else's. The Duke had no recollection of him ever being in the city. The city planner Crom had worked under said he had just vanished one day. Whether or not he had reached the Nexus, I didn’t know. I just hoped to be reunited with him one day.
“Hey!” shouted Cloud while poking me with his finger. “I was gonna ask you to spar but you zoned out again.”
“Sorry. I just have a lot on my mind. We should spar. I definitely need the practice.”
I wasn’t the most skilled fighter, although having access to a wide variety of martial art instructors had definitely increased my proficiency. I hadn’t soared through the skill ranks like I had with smithing, but I managed to climb to apprentice 1. I must’ve had a higher aptitude in smithing than hand to hand combat. The bruises Cloud had kindly gifted me was enough evidence for that to be true.
“Hah, just because I always beat you doesn’t mean I’ll go easy on you.”
“There’s no need. I’m going to win.”
Within seconds my skin transformed into armor, standing still, waiting. Waiting for Cloud to begin. My muscles tensed. Adrenaline coursed through my body telling me to flee, that I had made a mistake. The barrage would come, I needed to outlast.
I coaxed the magma from beneath the ground, convincing it to surface.
Large lances of ice rained down from the sky. I tried to evade the onslaught of ice, avoiding a direct hit at all cost. A cold chill ran through my body as lances grazed my obsidian shell. I screamed in agony, my core searing with pain.
I felt the pressure in the ground. I knew it was time. I let go of the magma laying right below the surface. The earth sprayed hot molten liquid into the sky, melting the icicles before they reached the ground.
I heaved. The sickness would soon enter my body. I had to finish the fight now. I pulled the hot goo upwards into a thin needle like point and flung it towards Cloud. In a fraction of a second, Cloud dropped from the sky, crashing onto the burning hellish aftermath.
I stood bent over the ground, my lunch had already left me. Overusing mana came with a cost and for me that cost everything. Well, everything in my stomach.
Sarah strolled over to me with Rayan close behind her. Jared was excited since healing opportunities were few and far between so I wasn’t surprised to find him tending to Cloud’s wounds.
“Are we throwing a party. Is that why you’re here?” I asked sarcastically.
This caused Sarah to frown.
“The Duke wants to have a word with everyone.”
Changes were coming, especially if the Duke wanted to meet in person. He rarely ever did that. He usually siphoned his orders through Jared, preferring a more hands off approach. I never wanted to be part of his war so I dreaded what news the Duke had. Tension between the King and Duke had escalated over the past few months, soon he would head to war.
Soldiers would die. Civilians would die. Villages and cities would burn. No one was a winner in a full scale war, except maybe the Duke or the King depending on who came out on top.
I was in no shape for the long trek back into the city, not with how ill I was feeling. But I trudged on. It was unwise to keep the Duke waiting.
I swung the large door open, entering the Duke’s throne room. Not surprisingly I was the last to arrive. I didn’t mutter a word while quickly kneeling where the others had gone to kneel. I was uncomfortable kneeling in front of the Duke but the alternative was worse.
“I’m tired of the King and his unjust rule. For too long he has mismanaged the people and neglected his noble brethren. It is time to march to the capital. In a months time, we will lay siege to the beloved capital and bring it back into deserving hands.
Eric. Cloud. You’ll lead the charge, inspiring our troops from the frontline.”
This was bad. It didn’t matter how much power I had as a mage or how well I was trained, in front of thousands of enemy troops I was cannon fodder. I could tell the Duke was multitasking. Cloud and I would kill his enemies before they killed us.
“Sarah, Rayan, and Jared, you’ll command my battalions when the time comes. We’ll leave tomorrow at dawn,” commanded the Duke.
I looked over to see Cloud’s pale face and solemn expression. Probably similar to how my face looked. Things would be simpler if we could desert the army but Rayan was an expert tracker. He’d find us. There was no room for deserters in the Duke’s army. Those who were caught were lynched, hung for days as a reminder of what disloyalty meant.
“You are dismissed.”
I slowly walked out of the Lord’s manor and into the busy city streets. Before I left I wanted to say farewell to Obran. I had rarely seen him during the last couple of months. The Duke had kept me busy and away from the city for most of my time under his service.
I made my way to the familiar forge where I had learned how to Smith. I wasn’t sure where I stood with Obran so I was nervous when I entered his shop. I found the loud violent sound of the hammers smashing into the anvils calming.
Obran stood by the counter, as I entered the shop. I didn’t speak nor did he. An awkward silence followed and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel tempted bolt away. This was something I had to do, so I stood waiting for Obran to speak.
“I have your horseshoe.” where the only words to come out of Obran’s mouth.
“I’m leaving. The Duke marches south to the capital to take the throne.”
“Be safe and come back safely. You’ll always have an open anvil here.”
I could see the tears stream down Obran’s face, even when he tried to hide them. I knew he cared for me, it was heartwarming to see him care. I hadn’t grown up with a father figure but I considered Obran to be the closest thing to a father that I had. It was going to be hard to leave him.
I nodded before embracing the big man into a large bear-like hug. I would definitely miss Obran. I probably wouldn’t ever see him again, whether I succeeded in escaping or died trying to escape.
I walked through the city one last time. The busy city streets were calming in the way that mother lions were calming to there lion cubs. I had learned in and outs of the city, who ran the city, what places I should avoid, how to navigate through it. The city had changed significantly since the first time I had entered it. Barricades were commonplace and guards now constantly patrolled the streets, halting any behavior they deemed out of line.
I didn’t like these new changes. I was afraid of what would happen if the Duke won. His paranoia was growing and I didn’t think it would get any better when he took the crown.
I was up before dawn when I prepared for the long trek. I didn’t have many possessions so it didn’t take long to pack my leather bag with my essentials. I was conflicted about packing my horseshoe Obran had returned to me. It was useless and only added extra weight but it was the first pinnacle item I crafted. In the end, I figured it wasn’t worth carrying since I didn’t have a use for it. I gave it to the stable caretaker for the city guards. I didn’t care what they did with it or even if they used it. It wasn’t mine anymore.
Cloud was waiting for me when I exited the city gate. Like me, he had few belongings, maybe even less than me. His bag was draped over his shoulder and a smile was plastered over his face. His mood had changed drastically since the discussion with the Duke.
“Hey Erik. Excited to lead the charge.” Cloud said as he chuckled.
“About as I excited as I’m sure you are.”
Cloud dropped the cheery smile on his face, forming a frown.
“The Duke wants us dead. I’m not looking to die. We’ll escape.” said Cloud.
“Neither am I, but we can’t leave now. Rohan would find us in days and you know how he feels about the Duke.We have two months to figure out an exit plan.” I replied.
Endless rows of wagons and horses and soldiers waited for me and Cloud as we made our way to the other Duke’s mages. We were the last to arrive and I could tell that the others were itching to begin marching.
Rohan, Jared, and Sarah left Cloud and me to go order their battalions. It was agreed upon that we would reconvene in a half days worth of marching and figure out where to set up camp for the night. Cloud and I had no obligation to anyone in the army and really no power apart from ordering a guard or two to do what we say.
We walked near the front just behind the first battalion and in front of the second, a large gap was between them so Cloud and I had an abundance of room away from prying ears or the deafening sounds of troop’s boots stomping across the hard dry dirt road to the capital.
Trees on either side of the road provided much needed shade. The gentle breeze that occasionally visited felt cool as it touched my sweat covered skin. It had been hours since I had left Hedvor and not much distance had been made. Travelling quickly wasn’t something that armies did, especially when suited in heavy iron and leather armour.
I chatted for some of the journey but Cloud and I eventually ran out of things we could discuss in public. Cloud told me the series of events that led him to unlocking his core. Cloud had an obsession for reading and often weaseled his way into the city library. He hid behind the bookshelves and devoured as much information as he could. His sole focus was on what he read, often entering an almost trance-like state.
Clearly Cloud’s style of reading was similar to the meditations Crom had taught me except his outlet were books rather than breathing exercises. I asked him what made those pages so interesting. I didn’t understand Cloud’s fascination with books. As an orphan, I didn’t have access to books or formal education. I learned from the streets how to survive. That was all the education I needed. Books were frivolous things only the rich could waste their time on.
The first battalion came to a halt as the sun started to descend from the sky. Cloud and I moved to the side as the second battalion closed the gap between itself and the first battalion. It wouldn’t be long before the others showed up and the troops settled down for the night.
The night was calm and those were sparsely numbered. Soon the Duke’s army would clash with the King’s army, creating chaos. For now though, I would enjoy starry night sky, the rustle of wind, and the occasional chirping of birds. I might even share some stories and hopefully receive some in return. A storm was brewing but tonight was not the storm’s night. Tonight was my night, one I was going to enjoy.