Episode 2 – How it all began
A mysterious woman is confined in a room with no way out. She is dying, yet she can’t die in peace because she is the only one that knows a dangerous secret.
After a fierce battle with an unknown mage, Kiel and Elaru were buried under an avalanche of rock. Moments before their fall, Kiel recalls how his life changed into its current chaotic state.
That fateful day, a large hazel blur could be seen flying skillfully between the canyon pillars. The scales which adorned the creature glittered brightly under the desert sun, contrasting sharply with the black clothes worn by the rider. The powerful sweeps of its wings rose soft red sand all around them, but Kiel Rroda didn't mind. On the contrary, the wind hitting his face felt very refreshing in the summer heat, carrying an earthly smell of burnt sand which he could still feel, even though his nose and mouth were covered by a scarf.
It had been a calming, enjoyable ride. What Kiel Rroda didn't know back then, was that this ride would be the last bit of real peace he would feel in a long, long time.
Kiel pulled on the leather reins of the dragon, making it stop gracefully in front of an orange house in the upper Beyd. This part of town was filled with tidy medium-sized houses which had small green gardens and whose roofs were covered with orderly rows of red brick.
Upper Beyd stood still, covered by a veil of silence with no person or creature in sight. Kiel looked at the small wooden porch just in time to see a figure emerge behind the vivid multi-colored drape hanging above the entrance to the house.
Kiel pretended not to see the approaching figure and dismounted gracefully, removing his goggles and scarf. He breathed in the faint scent of roses spreading through the dry desert air and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his glove. The dragon puffed through its nostrils releasing hot air.
His gaze unconsciously drifted to the high cliffs on the southern side of the canyon towering above the town. His eyes focused on the distant figure sitting on the highest pillar of the canyon, next to the small blue flag marking it as the highest point in the entire town of Beyd.
She was still there, staring right at him. Or, at least, in his general direction - he doubted that she could actually see him as clearly as he could see her. Her elibu eyes weren't capable of 'zooming in' on distant targets like his argel eyes. He could tell that she was an elibu because of the long pointy ears protruding through her hair.
Beyd was an argel town. There were no elibu in Beyd. Consequently, she was by default an exotic creature to Kiel, who rarely left Beyd.
Did she perhaps want to come to town, but was afraid that the townsfolk would be hostile to her? Was she raised in an elibu city and didn't feel comfortable around argel? That was certainly possible, considering how only the big cities had residents of both races. Many halneans lived their entire lives without contact with the other race.
Kiel was not a people's person. Showing genuine interest in others was not something he often did. And yet, this girl, who sat in the same spot every day, under the harsh sunlight from morning until dusk, managed to pique his curiosity.
Perhaps he felt intrigued because of his natural attraction towards mysteries – he liked being challenged, the process of finding a solution to a problem amused him greatly. Maybe it was because he longed for something new and exciting to break his everyday monotony.
Or perhaps his innate sense of danger was trying to warn him that his life was about to take a sudden turn. It could have been a premonition of fate, for the wheel steering his life might have already been far beyond his reach, firmly in the hands of another.
Either way, whenever he stopped his work to take a rest, his gaze would drift towards the mysterious girl.
"Kiel! Did you come to see me?" A high-pitched voice called out to him, making him snap out of his daze and divert his gaze back to the house.
Piala was waving her hand frantically, evidently delighted to see him. Her unremarkable blue eyes were ogling him disturbingly. She flipped her long blonde hair with brown highlights seductively. Or rather, in a manner she thought was seductive. Kiel disagreed. Though, the issue might have been on his side since he remembered Piala being rather popular in the Beyd academy.
Her father was a well-known merchant, which led her to believe that she was of a higher social status than everyone else. She had been in the same grade as him so he knew her… well, as well as he could know someone who he was discreetly avoiding as much as possible.
Kiel walked up to her with a package in hand. "I did come to see you… " as much as it pains me... - Of course, he left that last part unspoken.
"Doing deliveries again? Poor Kiel, why do you need to start from the bottom? You should just throw a pool party instead of wasting your time on these meaningless quests. Leave quests to plebs!"
Kiel didn't expect a little pampered stuck up princess, that hadn't worked hard a day in her life, to understand that everyone did quests – lower social class and nobles alike.
The entire economy of Halnea revolved around quests. Whenever someone wanted something done, they would put up a quest in the quest lodge. Quest seekers, who met the skill requirements of the quest, could then take it and complete it for the bounty or glory.
Ironic how a middle-class nobody like herself could be so pompous and condescending. He would have expected it from a noble like his father and brother – they had reasons to be arrogant and patronizing. Piala, on the other hand, was full of hot air.
Kiel had to exert extra effort to keep the scowl of disgust off his face and instead, smile his trademark gentle, charming smile.
"I don't want to take advantage of my father's influence to advance in quest seeker rank. I want to do it with my power alone, just like everyone else." Kiel lied.
He had no intention of mentioning that his father didn't approve of his life plan. Hence, he offered no help in getting him the credentials needed to challenge the 'fun' quests.
"Besides, spending the whole day relaxing by the pool gets dull quickly."
She giggled and fluttered her eyelashes attempting to be charming. "I would not let you be bored!"
Kiel swallowed down the bile silently, trying to ignore his gag reflex as he handed her the package addressed to her name.
Piala, from the moment she first saw him, had designated Kiel as her prince charming.
He had shiny, straight yet slightly messy hair, the color of the midnight sky, the ends of which reached past his chin. Thick locks of deep blue strands on the left side of his face made his piercing icy blue eyes look even more striking. All argel had multi-colored hair – a racial trait of which Kiel was no exception.
She remembered how his eyes scanned the room back then. As his diamond shaped pupils that argel were known for met her eyes, she felt her heart skip a beat. She could swear his eyes lit up as well. It hadn't occurred to her that it was the optical trick of light caused by the contrast between two black rings spreading around his pupil and the rest of his pale blue iris.
She had never seen anyone as gorgeous as him. Of course, she had heard that most nobles were gorgeous, but still, she was sure that Kiel was stunning even by noble standards, since she couldn't possibly imagine how anyone could be more dazzling. It might come as a surprise, but Piala wasn't known for being imaginative.
Later that day, when she came to introduce herself, he shook her hand. Her knees almost gave out when she felt his pale, smooth, flawless skin against her own.
She thought that Kiel must have felt shy because he never asked her out, even though she followed him around all through the academy like a mana wyrm. ( Leech-like creature that feeds on mana. Upon finding a good mana source, it sticks around it until its depleted.)
"Kiel, do you know that elibu?" Piala nodded her head towards the girl sitting on the cliff, her jealousy rearing its ugly head.
"No, why do you ask?" He wondered, mild surprise spreading on his face.
"She has been rudely staring at you for days!"
How do you know that? Have you been stalking me again? - was what he wanted to ask. Instead, he kept this play of politeness and dignity. "Really? I haven't noticed!"
Kiel knew she had been staring at him a lot. It was impossible not to notice, but he had been staring at her just as much.
Kiel knew what Piala was implying without her voicing it out loud. Nonetheless, he didn't agree with her view. He was used to all kinds of stares - admiration, desire, greed, jealousy or despise. However, he did not recognize the stare that girl directed his way.
"She has been stalking you for the whole week! You should report that creepy elibu to peacekeepers and have her arrested!" Piala shared her great 'wisdom'.
As opposed to you, who has been stalking me for years. - Kiel snorted inside his head. – I'd take her over you any day!
Instead of saying what he honestly thought, he hid once again behind his lovely smile and flawless lies, pretending to be someone else: "We mustn't be quick to judge. She might have a good motive for coming here each day." He reasoned with a soft understanding smile.
Though the calculating, selfish monster concealed behind his cold eyes would never say it in such a way, this time, his words weren't all a big lie. Piala clasped her hands and looked at him with admiration.
"As expected from Kiel! You are always so understanding and gentle!"
Kiel barely managed to mask his bitter smile.
Yes, that's what is expected of him. To be picture-perfect. No one was to know the real him. To everyone, he was a well-mannered son of the influential and prosperous family of mages from the noble bloodline. A person who everyone liked, a person who had many friends.
The sad truth was that while many might have considered themselves his friends, there were none he considered as friends. It wasn't just because everyone had an ulterior motive for befriending him. It wouldn't have mattered even if their intentions were pure because Kiel didn't like people. People were selfish, noisy, tiring and complicated. Kiel found the most joy in quiet solitude.
Understanding and gentle! What a joke! – Kiel thought.
He imagined twisting Piala's scrawny little neck. He hated her. He despised pretending to be such a person. And yet, all he ever did was bury that hate deep down and smile his signature smile:
"You flatter me, Piala. Take care. I must continue my work."
Piala giggled and waved. "See you later! You are welcome to stop by anytime!"
He nodded and waved back in a friendly manner, knowing inside that he would never, ever, take her up on that offer. He straddled his dragon and high-tailed it out of there as fast as he could without revealing that he didn't want to stay there a second longer than he needed to.
He could feel Piala's eyes checking out his behind. He never looked back.
* * *
In the middle of the canyon, surrounded by rocks, a mesmerizing female sat motionlessly like a statue. The only part of her that showed that she was not a flawless sculpture were fingers of her left hand, they seemed to be playing with a strange crystal.
She was twisting the crystal and passing it from finger to finger. The crystal seemed to be a different color each time one looked at it. It was an interesting object. However, her enchanting eyes weren't focused on the crystal, they were focused on someone or something far away. She didn't seem to mind the distance at all.
Inside, her excitement bubbled until it finally showed on her face in the form of a smile. No one was close enough to be able to see that smile, which was a good thing, for the beauty of that smile could cause the earth and the sky to rumble, flowers to wither in shame and the sun to shy away.
"What is it?" - she murmured. "Are you asking me to come closer or are you telling me to stay away?"
She didn't stop to ponder, nor did the smile leave her face. "Call of life or call of death, it matters not. Those that are not truly alive need not fear death."
* * *
The sun had already started coming down when Kiel was done with his work.
He breathed in the fresh evening air, basking in the soft pink and red light of the sunset. Kiel looked up at the bright white moon high in the sky, the smaller of the two moons circling Halnea was also hovering on the horizon, crescent and glowing orange.
What should I do now? - Kiel wondered.
There was no place he wanted to be. There was no one he wanted to see.
He instinctively looked up to the cliffs.
She was gone.
The elibu girl was no longer sitting on the cliff! Kiel searched the horizon for her silhouette, but he couldn't find her.
What's going on? She never leaves before the sun sets! Did the summer heat finally get to her? When did she leave?
He exhaled and quieted his thoughts. - It is none of my business what she does. I don't care if she falls down the cliff and dies.
He walked towards the deciduous forest to the west of Beyd, thinking of taking a long way through it to the Rroda mansion like he always did. Although the woods were not dense enough to completely shield him from view, at least the wildlife was not abundant in the proximity of Beyd, so it still provided him with peaceful seclusion. And since the trees were about twenty meters high with sturdy branches, he could avoid monotony by switching between walking and jumping from branch to branch.
The rustling of dark green leaves in the soft breeze relaxed him. With each breath, he could smell wood and dried leaves, it was a melancholic and refreshing scent. He strolled, dragging his feet, while enjoying the silence and solitude of the forest.
Night had already fallen by the time he came close to the other side of the woods. It's not like someone was waiting for him back home, or that he really wanted to go back there. Therefore, it's no wonder he took his time.
Suddenly, he felt a presence - an aura, foreign mana. His eyes widened. It appeared out of nowhere. He wouldn't be careless enough not to notice it before, which means that the person had concealed their presence intentionally.
The body of every living thing constantly let out mana, which created a unique aura. Like breathing let out hot air – mana was the breath of life. Most living creatures had the ability to sense foreign mana, detecting the presence of other beings in their proximity. It was difficult to sneak up on a creature with an acute mana sense.
To combat that perception, predatory creatures had come up with a technique to conceal their presence. To prevent their mana from being detected, it had to be hidden behind a carefully crafted barrier.
For creatures with slow mana flow, it was easier to control the mana leaving the body, keeping it just under the barrier. Controlling the movement of a few mana drops was simple. However, the technique became exponentially more difficult with the increase of mana flow turning extremely hard extremely fast.
For most mages, hiding the presence was a formidable skill that required a precise and proficient mana control.
Kiel remembered the time his father took him hunting many years ago. He ordered him to capture a small dragon and left him alone in the forest.
Dragons had keen senses (they were predators that relied on hunting other creatures), so they could pick up mana from hundreds of meters away. The direction of wind had little influence on mana since mana had no physical form, it was pure energy. (Though, he had to watch for the wind too because even if he hid his presence, it would be in vain if the dragon caught his scent.)
It took him the whole day before he managed to control his mana well enough to conceal his presence from the dragon. Luckily (or unluckily, as it turned out later on), he didn't have a lot of mana that he needed to keep in check, or else the task would have taken several days.
Kiel turned quickly to the source of the presence. It was close by!
Argel eyes had great sight, even in the lack of light. However, Kiel struggled to see any movement besides soft wavering of the leaves. His hearing didn't help him much either - the only sound Kiel's ears could hear was the rustling of the leaves as the breeze passed over them. Everything else was completely silent and still. Maybe it was just a hunter returning home from a hunt? He debated whether he should just ignore it and continue home as if nothing happened.
His internal struggle was interrupted by a smooth and melodic voice.
"Do not be alarmed. I mean you no harm."
A female figure stepped out from behind a tree. She was surrounded by dense mana forming an invisible layer of protection that marked her as a mage - Mage Armor.
"If so, why conceal your presence?" Kiel asked her.
She revealed a guilty smile. "If you knew I was approaching you, you would have avoided me."
So he was her target! Kiel's mind switched to full alert. His body reflexively stepped into a battle stance.
He inspected the female thoroughly.
Her hair was a deep carmine red. It was slightly curly, thick and long. It was tied up in a high ponytail that reached her waist. It looked a bit messy in an attractive way. Surrounded with thick black eyelashes, her eyes glowed in the moonlight.
The edge of the iris was rimmed with a thick black ring. From the ring spread a sea of teal towards the iris. Before reaching the pupil, teal suddenly changed into bright golden yellow. Her eyes glittered with golden and orange lights which resembled little suns. Since the contrast from black to teal to yellow was sharp, they looked like they were glowing, or perhaps they were?
He had never seen such eyes before. If magic was something that could be seen, he imagined it would look like her eyes.
Her facial features were soft and beautiful. Her body was slim, perfect hourglass proportions, curved in all the right places. She had a narrow waist, generously sized chest, slim long legs, and slender arms.
Her skin was sun-kissed like she spent a lot of time under the desert sun. (Which she did, considering her actions of the past week.) Her naturally red lush lips were forming a soft smile.
She had dark curvy markings framing the left side of her face, extending down her neck to her shoulder marking her as an elibu.
From her attire, Kiel could tell that she was a professional quest seeker. She had a water bottle, few small bags, and many needles and daggers strapped on her belt and limbs. Her robes were stylish and they showcased her attractive body in an eye pleasing yet modest way. They hugged her curves as only a custom made attire could.
This girl was probably the most beautiful female he had ever seen. Compared to this girl, Piala looked like a scarecrow.
She was unmistakably the elibu girl who he had been watching, sitting on the top of the Southern canyon for the past week.
"Can I help you?" Kiel inquired.
He didn't know whether to hope for a 'yes' or a 'no'. This one female caused him conflicting emotions. Part of him wanted nothing to do with her, while another part was hopelessly curious.
She chuckled lightly.
"Not quite. However, I can help you."
Kiel raised his eyebrows in a genuine surprise. "I wasn't aware that I needed help."
She smiled a knowing smile. "Then let me stir your awareness."
She stepped closer to him, her smile never leaving her face.
"You need my help to become a first class mage and a student of Ashar University of Magic."
His breathing became shallow, although the air temperature was warm, each breath stung him as if he was breathing in pure ice.
She put her hand lightly on his rapidly rising and falling chest.
He was completely aware that he should run. If he stayed in her net any longer, he would not be able to escape.