Scenes of the memories I thought I had forgotten flashed in my head at every blink, haunting me in broad daylight as we prepared to make our way to the designated location where we would meet with the messenger.
‘Are you okay, Arthur?’ Sylvie’s concern touched my mind.
‘I’m fine, Sylv. Other than the fact that you call me by my name now,’ I replied, scratching her small ears.
‘Grandfather said that it’s important that I uphold the dignity of the dragons.’ My bond held her tiny snout up high, she sauntering beside me as we came out of the teleportation gate that Aldir had conjured.
We just had arrived near a small fishing town called Slore more than a dozen miles south of Etistin.
‘Well, I can’t say you weren’t cuter before when you used to call me “Papa,”’ I smirked.
‘Don’t worry. I still see you as my papa!’ she comforted, rubbing her side against my leg as we walked.
“I still don’t feel right about doing this meeting without any backup,” Virion said warily.
We were in a small clearing on a rise just above the town of Slore. The occasional moist breeze carried with it a strong smell of the sea, making me sticky despite the frigid air.
“If this messenger has the audacity to act against us, I will have every right to intervene,” Aldir assured, a slight smirk appearing from his lax expression as his single opened eye stared straight ahead.
“With the way the Vritra’s side has been planning everything—breeding asura half-bloods, creating mutants with our continent’s mana beasts, and now the ships—I can’t imagine how long Agrona has been planning this. And I can’t shake the feeling that this war is more of a game to him than some passionate endeavor.”
“If Agrona was so easy to predict, he never would’ve gotten this far,” Aldir acknowledged reluctantly. “Since he, like all the other asuras residing in this world, is prohibited to participate in this war directly, he’s been coming up with ways to go around that by being the almighty hand that moves his chess pieces—at least for his side.”
“And who is the almighty hand that moves the pieces for our side?” Virion asked with a raised brow.
“You are the one leading this war, are you not?” Aldir reminded.
Virion shrugged skeptically. “That’s what I tell myself at night.”
“All right,” I intervened. “Is this the meeting place?”
“Of course not,” Virion let out a sigh, tying back his long white hair.
“This is the farthest I can take us before we traverse to our real destination,” Aldir clarified. “Our destination is in the middle of the ocean.”
“Lead the way,” I gestured.
Aldir’s feet slowly rose from the ground as a milky aura covered both him and Virion. Soon, the aura lifted Virion into the air as well. Virion’s lips shut tight as every muscle in his body tensed like a cat picked up by its scruff.
As the two of them shot up above the clouds, Sylvie suddenly scampered towards the edge of the cliff.
‘Jump!’ Sylvie chirped as she suddenly leaped off the edge.
Without a second thought, I followed my bond. As I propelled myself up off the steep edge, I took the time to admire the hawkeye view of the bustling town directly below me.
Just as my body began to descend, Sylvie’s massive figure appeared below, scooping me up from the air with a snap of her powerful wings. I patted the base of her long, black neck as we sped through the clouds.
‘Sylvie, did you gain weight?’ I joked, spotting the two tiny figures of Aldir and Virion ahead of us.
‘That joke is getting old, you know,’ Sylvie grumbled.
‘Not to me.’ I let out a refreshing whoop at the top of my lungs that was blown away by the harsh wind slicing against us as we sped faster.
Sylvie stayed a few dozen meters behind Aldir as we surfed the top of the clouds. This far up in the sky, the only sound that could be heard was the sharp whistle of air around us, making the journey peaceful despite the purpose of our trip.
As I stared in a daze at the blue and white scene around us, my mind wandered back to Epheotus after I had just finished my training. The brusque king of asuras had wanted to see me before I headed back to Dicathen. That was the second encounter I had had with Lord Indrath, and also the moment I realized who Myre was.
The elderly asura that had healed me and taught me how to read spells using Realmheart had been seated right next to the stone-faced Lord Indrath with an amused grin on her now-youthful face.
As I stood speechlessly with my mouth ajar, Lord Indrath beckoned me with a simple, “I’m sure you remember my wife, Myre.”
Needless to say, the meeting hadn’t gone as I had thought it would. For one, Lord Indrath had been much less critical this time compared to the first time we had met; he’d even—barely—acknowledged my improvement, although he had added that if I hadn’t learned with Myre’s help, then I would’ve been a lost cause.
Before leaving, Lord Indrath had left me with one piece of advice. What was odd was that he had activated his aether ability, freezing time for everyone present—even his wife—except for the two of us. As I stared blankly at the king of the asuras as Myre, Sylvie, and the guards remained static, he had left me with a cryptic message:
‘It’s wisest to close your heart to the elf princess’
That was all he had said before withdrawing his powers and having the guards escort Sylvie and me back to Windsom and Wren who were waiting for us outside.
‘We’re almost here,’ Sylvie announced, snapping me back to the present.
Aldir and Virion had stopped above the clouds, waiting for us to catch up.
“I’m sure I don’t need to say this to you but I will anyway. No one knows how much the Vritra actually know so it’d be wise to keep your true strength hidden during this meeting.” Aldir’s voice rang uncomfortably in my ear as if he was whispering right next to me.
“What about Sylvie?” I shouted, unsure if Aldir would even hear me.
“Lady Sylvie will have to transform back into her miniature from,” Aldir answered. “I will carry you down, Arthur.”
‘I’ll lay low for now, but I’m not going to stay hidden during the war. If I want to protect you, it’ll be so with you on my back,’ Sylvie declared as she turned into her white fox form.
Not long after I began free-falling, Aldir dipped underneath Sylvie and me, wrapping us in the same aura that was covering Virion.
As we fell beneath the layer of clouds below us, plummeting through the blanket of white, the moisture in the air dampened our clothes, until we spotted the shimmering ocean gently rippling in all directions.
Despite the phenomenal view of the never-ending stretch of water, my gaze instantly focused on the dark specks littered across the ocean to my right. About a few dozen miles north, I could see the fleet of Alacryan ships heading toward the shore near Etistin City, the capital of Sapin.
‘Look below,’ Sylvie pointed out. Floating on top on of the ocean was a pitch-black platform about the size of a small house.
As we descended just a few dozen meters above Virion and Aldir, I could make out two small figures that had blended in with the platform they had been standing on from afar.
Suddenly, a shiver ran down my spine. Every hair on my body stood on end, and I could feel my heart beating faster the closer we arrived toward the platform.
“They’re there,” I said aloud to no one in particular. “But I don’t think they’re ordinary messengers.”
Arriving atop the platform with a soft landing, the three of us with Sylvie behind me walked toward the center, my jaws clenching at the sight of the two supposed messengers.
By the familiar pale grey skin tone and striking red eyes, I knew they had to be part of the Vritra Clan.
“Welcome to our humble abode,” the taller of the two sneered, his lanky arms spread wide open.
Virion narrowed his eyes. “We assumed that we’d be meeting with a messenger. That position seems to be beneath both of you.”
“I’m flattered, but at this moment we are mere messengers!” he replied with an exaggerated smile while his companion remained silent.
Examining the two Vritras separately, despite their ancestry and blood, the two couldn’t be more different. The one on my left stood just a bit taller than me with a ramrod straight posture. The Vritra had deep-set eyes underneath heavy lids, giving a mysteriously charming quality to his stern face. With his neatly-cropped head of ash black hair and his tight-fitting black armor underneath a lavish purple cape, the Vritra looked like someone out of every female’s dreams if it weren’t for the pair of horns jutting out just above his ears.
The other Vritra—the one that had been talking—stood well over two meters, towering over everyone here despite his hunched posture. His long, thin arms dangled by his sides as though his arms had popped out of their sockets. This Virtra didn’t wear armor; instead, his body was wrapped completely in thick dark bandages underneath a shabby black mantle that perched on his shoulders. Messy bangs peeked out from underneath his tattered hood, accentuating his peculiar appearance.
This was my first time face to face with a Vritra, so I was surprised to see how much smaller the horns of the Vritra wearing the purple cape was compared to the Vritra that had attacked Sylvia in the cave during my childhood. However, the fact that I couldn’t sense the level that these two messengers were meant they were either purposely hiding their auras or were just that much stronger than I was.
“I am Cylrit and this is Uto. It is an honor to meet you, Aldir. We retainers have heard much about the famous asuras in Epheotus.” As if Virion and I didn’t exist, Cylrit’s gaze locked onto Aldir’s, but even that wasn’t out of respect. “I trust that you will uphold the pact and remain a noncombatant?”
I couldn’t help but be surprised at how casually he had mentioned that he was a retainer. That meant that he was one of the leading figures in this war that were actually allowed to fight—just beneath the Four Scythes.
“Assuming that your side will do the same? Then yes,” Aldir answered, his stare just as piercing as Cylrit’s.
“It’s a shame. I wanted to try fighting an asura, but I guess I’ll have to settle for slaughtering a few thousand of you lessers,” the Vritra named Uto spat, locking his eyes on me.
The lanky Vritra took a step toward me, craning his neck down with a sneer. “I get why Mr. One-Eye and Grampa Elf are here but I didn’t expect to see the boy wonder, Arthur Leywin, gracing us with his presence.”
I wasn’t sure how the Vritras had heard of me, but I maintained my cool facade. “I could say the same for you. To what pleasure do we owe the retainers for showing their faces here?”
“Like Cylrit said, we just didn’t want to send an innocent messenger to get captured and tortured for information. Because that’s what I’d do.” Uto’s slanted red eyes peered into me, searching for signs of fear or anger.
Instead, I returned his provocation with a smirk. “I can’t wait to find you on the battlefield.”
He replied with a murderous gaze, his lips spreading into a wicked grin. “Why wait? I love slicing through children’s flesh the most.”
“Uto! Enough,” Cylrit reprimanded.
“What?” Uto shrugged innocently. “Mr. One-Eye here can’t touch us anyway.”
“Neither would I want to touch any filthy lessurans,” Aldir answered apathetically as he peered into the lanky Vritra’s eyes. “Now. Since we didn’t come here to exchange frivolities, get on with your message and disappear from my sight.”
By the slight twitch in Uto’s brows, I could tell his attempt at provoking Aldir had backfired. However, before the lanky Vritra had the chance to respond, Cylrit stretched an arm in front of Uto to stop him.
“The message that His Majesty has tasked me to deliver to the leaders of Dicathen is simply this: Surrender the ruling family and mercy will be given to those who deserve it. Continue resistance and our army will eradicate everyone on this without discretion,” Cylrit recited, his gaze still only on Aldir.
“You call those terms?” Virion burst out. “That’s a one-sided ultimatum!”
Uto revealed a cocky sneer as he dipped his head lower to be eye-level with Virion. “Be thankful you even have the choice. Don’t worry. If you decide on the first option, I promise to be extra gentle when slicing off your head.”
Cylrit stared daggers at his companion. “We weren’t sent here to incite a fight, Uto.”
“That was never my intention, just a friendly warning of the upcoming battle,” the lanky Vritra replied but then turned to Virion with a perverse grin.“I hope to meet you and your granddaughter, Elf King. I’ll make sure to enjoy myself thoroughly as you helplessly watch.”
Disregarding Aldir’s warning, I stepped forward, ready to draw the sword in my dimension ring, but in that instant, Virion moved first.
In a flash, his fist made contact with Uto’s jaw. Tessia’s grandfather had already activated his second phase, a shroud of black covering his entire body and head, but I could still make out the rage in his eyes.
Uto’s head immediately snapped back at the blow, lifting him off the ground and blowing off the hood that had been covering his head.
“That kinda tickled,” the lanky Vritra growled, cracking his neck. Uto’s nose jutted out at a weird angle, but my eyes were glued to his horns.
It wasn’t the shape or the size of his horns that had stunned me.
No, it was the familiar chip on his left horn. The chip that the Lance, Alea, had made with her dying breath.