Fortress of the East
1. Death of a Knight
Heralding the fan chants of the excited crowds, fanfares blared and the tournament was at its full swing. A dark knight, face deeply furrowed and sweating beneath the bird-shaped helmet had his left knee upon the ground, trying to regain the last of his breath after an unsuccessful budge to assail his opponent in defeat. Kai, the prince of the Eastern Royal, could not afford a defeat, after knowing that the Royal family sitting atop a pedestal of the grand chairs, watching their eldest son. Kana, his young and frail sister, beautifully adorned with diamonds upon her head, stood from her seat at an impulse, her eyes wide when the Royal Prince was now on his knees. Kai slowly stood up nevertheless, adjusting his helmet, scrutinizing his opponent.
His opponent was his own subordinate of the Eastern Army, on whose backwater mind had decided to challenge his captain to a duel of death. Kai had dismissed the battle and thought that he would easily beat the young knight within minutes. However, minutes had passed, and Kai was in such a predicament where he now had to endure an injured leg. The tournament was now at its peak at the thought that Eastern Prince would lose this battle. However, Kai had something the young knight lacked.
The young knight attacked with great speed. The crowd held their breath as their distance was near and the subordinate had drawn his blade inches to the prince's face. Kai stooped down, his blade that was held on the other side was reversed and swung to the back of the subordinate's knees. It caught him by surprise and his knees were forced down. Kai wasted no time and batted the young knight's sword and it flung in the air before he fell on his back with a loud thud. His helmet was inadvertently removed and rolled to the side as Kai also removed his, beads of sweat and dark bangs plastered unto his forehead as he leered over the young knight. The crowds chanted in unison, demanding the death of the man that dared to defy the royal prince.
Kai gazed up the chanting audience. Face unreadable, as though ridiculing their impregnated lust for blood. Their screams became louder, until his sword stabbed the barren ground. The audience fell into stunned silence, the Royal Family included as Kai exited the stadium through the large gateway, leaving the subordinate in confusion as he watched his form disappear into the darkness.
The gateway led him to a weapon room. Kai banged his helmet on the table, looking annoyed and tired with shadows forming below the crinkles of his face. He turned to the door when another presence appeared, and Kai's hardened face then softened at the sight of his sister "Kana," he mumbled "What are you doing here?"
"Why did you let him live?" she mused softly, her hand placed gently on the doorknob "Father is furious,"
"Then let him," he said harshly, but Kana remained unperturbed and was used to his mood. He sat on the nearest seat, taking off the clumps of layered gauntlets in between venting "Rail was a loyal subordinate of mine, of the kingdom," He stopped fiddling for a moment, letting his words sink in "This is very uncharacteristic of him to ridicule a royal family,"
"Perhaps for pride?"
"Where is he?" he stood up, staring at Kana "Let me speak to him,"
The princess was silent for a moment "At most he is probably in confinement," at her answer; Kai immediately went for the door, with Kana trailing just behind him to pull at his armour "Brother,"
A scream echoed through the hallway, followed by a discord of shouts, halting their struts. They remained immobile in their position for a moment, until Kai whispered to Kana "Stay here," and hastened his walk.
"Brother!" she called after him, but he was already far ahead of her. Kai continued to follow the sounds of the screams until it became fully audible to his ear, leading him outside of the arena, where the camping grounds were. His head swiftly turned about in search of that commotion until he found a crowd circling around on what seemed to be the source of the noise.
"Make way!" Kai's voice was a resounding command, and the crowd obeyed, letting in for the prince as they converse in hushed voices. Kai slowly approached what seemed to be burnt flesh, by its smell, however, upon closer inspection had the prince' placid expression a mix of bewilderment, and horror.
The burnt flesh was none other than his subordinate Rail, face distorted by pubic boils, and oozing pus wafting that burning stench. His eyes were the most prominent; eyeballs bulged as though he himself was not aware he could befall such an unfortunate demise. Some faces were churning about in disgust, while others had their eyes wide as saucers. Kai narrowed his eyes at the sight of the young, impish child trying to touch one of the corpse's pubic boils.
"Do not touch it," he said, and the impish child cowered to his mother. The villagers backed away at the sight of the soldiers hovering over the corpse, staring at it in distaste. One of the soldiers turned to the prince, as though awaiting command. Kai noticed this, though he was much too bewildered.
"Sire," the soldier urged "What should we do?"
"Remove the carcass," he said eventually "Burn it...and have the ashes be given to me,"
The soldier was surprised by his command, but did not question it as his hand signalled to the others for a method to remove the corpse. Kai silently observed the display and fluidity of the way his soldiers were operating, kneeling close to the decease until his glove-covered fingers were touching his eyes. He gently closed them, so that once Kai had backed away from the carcass he would seemed in peace despite his gruesome death.
Kai removed his gloves, and threw it towards the decaying carcass before leaving the scene.
"Is there a disease epidemic in the kingdom?"
"Should we notify the villagers?"
"Are you absurd, man? The villagers would be thrown into a fit!"
"This is a conspiracy!"
Kai scrambled with his own documents and rolled parchments stacked together in front of him, musing off from the meeting of the men who passed on one idea to another. His eyes were languid, musing off everything that had happened within that room. He had no interest in what the Eastern Government had to say on the matter. If the disease was contagious, then that corpse would have spread to other areas days ago. Knowing that fact these meetings they've held would be rendered useless. However it became an epidemic that involved the kingdom, and thus, he watched all of his father's men batting their opinions of the death of one knight.
"Men, I have no doubt that we have managed to make this less than what it is," Tau, the elderly advisor, said while stroking his beard "If such an event was fresh fully in our mind then it would be a crisis, however, days have passed, and the people have moved on. I doubt we would have anything to worry about,"
"You fool," Kain, his father's right hand, spoke up "If that were the case, then we would not have this meeting. The problem lies with the source of this epidemic. Where did it come from? How it is that only one person has managed to contact this ailment? If none of these questions are answered then I do not see the reason that we should have this meeting,"
"Calm down, Kain," his father, Tougen spoke up after an hour of silence "I am sure you are worried about this predicament, if not you would not propose an urgent gathering between the leaders of the Great Nation. However, as of now we have no source and details of this death, and so we should leave it at that. After all, one dead man does not warrant much heed,"
Kai's eyebrows furrowed, rubbing his temples in slight exasperation. His father obviously did not care that this one man was a loyal captain of his, his cousin.
Kain, however, was not done. He slapped his hand against the table, in which caused Kai to turn in his direction from his flaccid moment.
"Your highness! This ailment, this monstrosity is much more than what it seems, with due respect. What if-" he paused sharply, eyeing the prince in what he assumed to be a cautious manner. For the first time Kai was paying attention to what had been said, and he noticed the atmosphere was oddly dim.
"What if?" he said and all eyes turned to him, including his father. He sat at the far corner of the table, inclusive eyes staring in each of their faces for signs of furtiveness. Quite a few of them displayed awkward hand gestures, clearing their throat at dispensing the silence and instinctively touching their necks at discomfort. They gave each other knowing looks, and Kai had no doubt it was information they would not divulge in an outsider such as him.
"We will sort this at another time," Tougen spoke, in what appeared to be the final statement to the meeting. Kai sat there for awhile, trying to catch his father's attention, yet eyes not meeting both ways.
He knew it would end up like this in the meeting. An hour of congregations of nothing but airy, careful words floated around the prince as though he were a foolish man, leaving out the important bits out of his earshot. He hated this. These were not his people that he trusted, but his father's men alone. In spite of the fact that his coronation was in a month, Kai had not felt as though he were an actual contributor to the kingdom despite being a prince and future king. He had hoped that once the coronation was nearing, he would finally be involved in the internalized issues of the kingdom, but that was not the case.
Instead he was given the usual duties of carrying out a test to his loyal subordinates for a new captain. Kai exited the meeting. His long coat whipped briskly behind him as he strutted along the castle halls, paying no heed to the number of timid servants that have passed his intimidating figure. He was in his usual sombre mood, his dark blue bangs shadowed above his dark, crimson eyes.
"Mogol!" a young voice called and as if on cue a fluffy white dog ran out of a room in front of him, halting him in his steps as he lowered his gaze to it. Another girl followed closely behind, seemingly in distress seeing as the hems of her white dress was slightly torn "Give that back!"
Kai narrowed his eyes at the dog, now softened as it stared at him through those large, luminescent eyes "Kana," he said, and her annoyed gaze turned to him "I'm sure you have more frivolous things to do than to entertain that pesky creature,"
Kana closed her eyes, her hand on her forehead as though she had a headache that was stricken by a powerful force "Your pesky creature ruined my dress, brother!" she corrected, exasperated "How do you expect me to stay calm?"
The maid was behind her, bowing fervently to the prince and the princess "I'll fix that dress for you, your highness,"
Kai raised his hand to the maid in satisfaction "Well there you go," he replied "Problem solved,"
"My mood is absolutely ruined," she sighed "I shan't be going to that ceremony,"
"Kana," Kai said, a little softly this time "You must,"
A sympathetic look grazed across her features as she observed the fine lines on her brother's forehead. She stared, her eyes coloured in the same crimson as her brother's, but with a much softer and rounder shape. While Kana had been busy readying herself for the wedding ceremony to the Southern Kingdom, Kai had lost his captain "Brother,"
"I'm sorry," Kai interrupted, and Kana held her tongue. Both knew each other well enough to not dwell much on each other's matters "But there's nothing you can do,"
In spite of so, she gave a sigh "What else?" she noted, and disappeared inside her chambers along with the maid. The dog laid, wiggling its tiny tail in a carefree manner. Kai cupped the dog easily in his arms, stroking the soft curvature of the dog's body. Admiring its silky fur as the dog growled slightly at his touch. Ignoring the soldier that graced its presence, his hand delicately placed on his stomach, back bent slightly in a bow to the prince. After a moment Kai casted his eyes sideway to the soldier while staying stoic.
"Your highness," he said, back still bent avoiding the prince's gaze "Sir Vale and Count Maxillion have arrived,"
"Tell them to come to my chambers," he answered.
"I'm afraid they've requested you meet them in the stables, your highness," he said carefully "Said it's a must,"
Kai gave a sigh "Very well," and handed the pup to the flustered soldier as he briskly walked from the chilly hallway to the stables. Despite the trivial message, Kai's strut was urgent, his hurry pressed beneath the pent-up frustration he had accumulated through these past few days. As he arrived, he saw both of them, one casually leaning against his horse and the other sitting atop the large squared hay fed for the horses.
"What is it?" he said, his voice coming off more aggravating than expected.
"How cold and indecent, Kai. In the midst of your kingdom too," the one leaning against his beast replied in a cool, husky tone, unfazed by his friend's petulant nature "You should welcome us,"
Kai eyed him with an irritant look "I think I have much important things to do than to entertain you both on a little dawdle with the stallions. Especially for a royal prince like you not to concern yourself with the meeting, Vale,"
Vale fiddled with his dark tousled hair and scrunched his nose in distaste "You know me, Kai. I have no reasons to attend. A meeting full of stiff people," he replied, wiggling his fingers nonchalantly in the air "It's nothing but elitists concerning themselves with little privy matters that I could not fathom to care,"
"What about you?" Kai turned expectantly to the blond-haired count sitting atop the hay, as his knuckles sounded in response "I expected you to come at least, Max,"
Max shook his head "My previous involvement in that meeting had been somewhat…indifferent. I have no reason to attend such where my voice was not taken into consideration,"
"You should at least attend for the sake of the Northern Kingdom," Kai said wearily, his voice softened once his attention was on Max. While Vale had attended none of the meetings, Max had chosen to succumb and accompany his friend. Kai knew that their presence were not compulsory, but, and Kai refused to admit, he just simply needed reassurance.
"I would prefer my voice to be heard, thank you," he said softly.
Vale gave a light scoff "Oh believe me; you've had enough talk, especially about the trivial wonders of Gorsnip and their reproductive systems. If you ask me, you need to use more of that instead of poking in pretence holes of other creatures,"
Max gasped as though he had heard something scandalous "Vale!"
"Shut it, both of you," Kai spat out, and both turned to him expectantly "Now why are you at the stables?"
"To play dress ups," Vale answered, and once the look of aggravation was evident on Kai's face he spoke again "What else? You must be frustrated in that meeting. Perhaps we should blow off some steam by hunting a few animals to bring in to the kitchen,"
Kai buried his left hand into his pocket, staring incredulously at Vale "You think hunting animals will ever bring me in any mood?"
"That's ridiculous. Obviously nothing will ever bring you in a mood," Vale corrected him, and Kai grunted in response "But it's good fun,"
A look of his usual irritancy passed over, but faded as he mulled over for a moment.
The clip-clop of the horses' hooves echoed against the hard ground as they clattered their haughty bells in stylish walking motion. Vale, Max and Kai began their journey inside the woods just near the kingdom, their heads towering from side to side in search for wild beasts that are amongst them. When they've noticed a deer covered amongst the bushes, Vale adjusted the arrow in his bow and fired somewhat haphazardly, missing the deer. The deer immediately alerted itself and hopped in the other direction. Max's horse huffed; the front of its legs suddenly rose in the air.
"Oh you missed that!" Max said once his horse calmed down.
"I almost caught it," Vale hissed, lowering his bow.
"Archery is your least likely skill, Vale," Kai raised his bow towards an unsuspecting stag from afar, adjusting his arrow in place, focusing its target, and letting go in one swift motion. The arrow penetrated the surface of the stag's flesh, rendering it immobile for a moment, but hopped to another area in reflex, not far from Kai's view before he cocked his head to Vale in a haughty manner "See?"
"Stop showing off," Vale said callously.
"Just admit defeat Vale," Max brushed his palm against the sleeves of his friend's dark coat but recoiled quickly and giggling when Vale darkly turned to him.
Kai tapped his saddle against the stallion's abdomen, pulling the reins and its head whipped to another direction as its feet hopped towards the stag away from his two companions "I change my mind, you girls wait at the castle while I go and get the stag myself," and with that, his stallion clobbered in the depths of the forest, leaving both of them in the midst.
"I wondered why we brought him here," Vale voiced as amusement heavy in his voice.
"We should knock some sense into our friend," Max replied with equal measure, and Vale grinned in response.
"We shall, dear friend,"
Their search for the Eastern prince passed by without trouble. After a few moments of silence, Vale spoke of what had troubled him for the longest time, seemingly waiting for Kai to disappear "I wonder why there have been a few meetings lately,"
"Perhaps it's just my gut feeling, but when I was at the meeting it seemed as though they held on more than what should've been let out," Max replied, evident that he was also troubled by the many meetings "The time when they spoke of an unfortunate death within the hearing, I had inquired a few things I find puzzling. There were very few answers to my questions, and even then, most of it was baseless,"
"Whose death is it?" Vale enquired.
"Of a notable captain within Kai's knight division," Max replied, earning Vale' utmost attention as their stallions' saunter slowed down slightly "From what I gathered, it seemed that it was an untimely death,"
"Someone killed him?" Vale replied agape.
"Worse. A disease of some sort," Max lowered his gaze, seemingly in deep thought "Difficult to tell the true source of the disease. And from what I gathered the disease did not spread, which made it all the more worrisome,"
Vale inhaled sharply. He was now starting to wonder whether he needed to worry about the possibility of a plague as well. Max continued "It was one of the reasons Kai seemed off-put during these past few days,"
At this, the Western prince snorted as though he heard a terrible joke "He seemed in his moody self," he retorted "Usual mood swings, see. One day, he's a grump, the next he's catching stags on his own,"
"I supposed he merely needed support," Max explained "You know how traditional and rigid the system is within the kingdom. Considering his coronation is so near, he would have to supervise in finding another captain,"
Max waited for a response, but none came "Vale?" he called, and realized Vale had been staring at nothing in particular. His head swivelled left and right, looking bemused "What is it?"
"Did you hear something?" was all Vale had uttered.
"Hear what?" Max asked, lifting his eyebrows slightly.
Vale gave a small sigh "Perhaps my imagination,"
"What did you hear?" he coaxed, curious.
"A bird, of some sort," he said simply.
Max gave him a condescending smirk "I supposed it's because we are in a forest, Vale so obviously you will bound to hear an animal,"
"Max," Vale said with an annoyed look "I know what I heard. It's much too shrill to be just an might you think? I never knew a forest so near to the kingdom could have such am impression,"
A dim light flashed from the depths of the forest in front of the two Royals, their heads cocked at the direction with faces of mildly surprised men. Max's horse backed a slight click from their buckle, but the count simply shuffled his horse forward. They stared. There's no sound. No animal noises voicing in the forest except for their neighing horses. Everything is as silent as if abandoned. other bird,"
"Vale," Max mumbled, his light blue eyes focused on the outskirts of the forest. Vale did the same, and a faint light illuminated from afar.
A light cast in a ray so luminous that Vale and Max had to shield their eyes for protection with their arms, trying to pry in of what's behind the glow. When the light became dimmer, both lowered their arms and stared at the clicking sound of the horse' buckling shoes, a figure of a man and a robe that seems to be dragged by the wind revealed a uncharacteristically frenzied Kai running towards the knight and the count.
"Run!" Kai screamed, voice thick with fear. He passed them and both followed behind, an odd shrieking sound like a phoenix echoed violently around the forest. As they tilted their head they could see, to their horror, a large black bird flew atop them as their horse hooves clatter, the bird's shadows covered in titbits by the leaves of the conifer trees, the tails behind it that looked to be like strings of grey feathers let out black ball of flames emitted from each feather and towards the three men in an alarming motion. Vale and Max had no idea what was going on; they looked around fervently for the bird and stared wide-eyed at the fire coming before them.
"What the bloody hell was that?!" Vale screamed as his voice was muffled by the sound of the forest releasing animalistic growls.
"What did you do?" Max shouted in vain, a tone of desperation as the sounds of the screeching monster was nearing.
"Well obviously I've attracted myself a really large bird!" Kai replied with equal measures.
Vale cursed under his breath "Next time have yourself be chased in the opposite direction!"
"Sod it, Vale!"
They stopped, trapped in the black flames. Vale's horse raises its front legs hysterically, causing Vale to fall out of the horse. The impact of the horse caused him to faint. Max jumped out of his horse, feeling weakened by the fire, and Kai stayed with his, its legs bent down as Kai tried to shield away from the fire. The only one who hasn't fainted yet is Kai, but his eyes are tired from the exceeding scorch, until a swirling light and a lingering dust flew around them, the black fire deceased and another white bird flew in, a figure of a girl revealed before him, but Kai had fainted afterwards.
There were two shadows murmuring words of anxiety and anticipation, mostly female voices "Is he alright?" one said in a cool voice.
"He should wake up by now," Another one said in a younger voice.
Kai's cold eyes were opened in full extent, his spine clicked in a sudden jolt. The two women stared at Kai boldly, unblinkingly; as if looking afraid would cost a sentenced-death "Morning," one of them spoke up after a few moments silence.
"Who are you? Where am I?" he stared accusingly at both of them, and neither responded.
"We saved your life," Kai turned, and suddenly he is in the strangely familiar green eyes of a long brown haired woman. Unlike many fair women Kai had seen, hers were fair, so fair, she was almost white. The shabby background behind the muddy field of the forest serves only to magnify her beauty, even though her dress is a rag with uneven hems "Be thankful,"
He noticed, they were in a tent, sufficient for four people to enter. However Kai was livid, his palms fisting at the sole idea of this unfamiliar setting "Who do you think to kidnap a royal within the Eastern borders?"
"Sorry to disappoint you, your highness," the woman gave a knowing smirk "But we're not in an Eastern forest,"