The air lay silent in the night. The time was closer to dusk than it was to dawn when the sound of footsteps started to echo below the storm clouds forming at the edge of the town of Elida. Two sets of boots could be heard on the cobblestones in the quiet night, in between the blasts of thunder. The two sets of boots headed toward the central marketplace. While rounding the corner of a stone building on the outskirts of the market, a man placed his gloved hand on the wall to look around before moving any closer. The man took a few steps into the open plaza before the marketplace, and as he turned, moonlight gleamed off his armor, revealing through the opening of his cloak a star crest that signified his allegiance to the royal family of Damira.
The royal guardsman pulled back his hood to reveal a young man’s face with brown eyes and short red hair, a little less than an inch long, slicked back. “What are we doing here, Kota? Should we be the ones investigating this claim at midnight in a town that is not under the protection of the royal family? Not to mention we are by ourselves and no one has knowledge of our location,” said the man, gesturing behind him.
Kota turned the corner in a similar black cloak. He pulled back his hood, revealing his green eyes and short brown hair in the moonlight. He ran his hand through his hair, slicking it to the left, keeping any strands out of his face, before answering the other man’s question. “Lukas, a letter showed up for me that gives a few details about someone having knowledge of my mother. Just because it has precise directions about a meeting at an inn after midnight in a town that is not protected by the kingdom, with no indication of who sent it, does not mean there is cause for concern. Do not get paranoid on me now.”
Lukas stopped and stared at Kota with a look that Kota knew very well through their various adventures in the past.
“There is no need for that look,” Kota said. “I notified my sister, but she was out training again to enhance her abilities. She knows of our location and purpose. She will come if able, with reinforcements if necessary.” He continued toward the deserted marketplace.
The two of them walked through the narrow corridors between buildings, which seemed to grow narrower the more they moved closer to the center of town.
Lukas suddenly turned around, witnessing the flash of lightning in the distance that signified the movement of the storm toward the town. “I do not like the timing of this storm either,” he said, realizing that even a smaller town such as this one would still have townsfolk walking about even at this hour.
“Are you suggesting that the incoming weather is a tell of what is to come tonight?” asked Kota, walking around a corner while he moved his hand along the wall. He turned back to his friend to continue. “You know I am not a superstitious man. The stars do not hold all the answers.”
Walking up to Kota, Lukas pushed him to move forward, ignoring his comment.
As the two passed a few stores, Lukas gestured toward the buildings and windows before stating, “I am not saying the clouds and stars have any of the answers. The townsfolk are nowhere to be seen, and not even a single candle in a window is still lit. Don’t you find that strange?”
Turning to view his surroundings, Kota noticed what Lukas had mentioned, but he did not let his friend’s mindset bring his hope in the situation down. “You do realize what hour it is,” he said, watching his friend nod in acknowledgment before saying, “These are families, most likely with children and early risers, as farming and trade is important to this town.”
Lukas sighed profoundly as the two continued to walk through the cobblestone streets, and he responded by asking in a demeaning tone, “How do you know so much about this town? This town is under the protection of the Kingdom of Mara. You know they have been more aggressive in their tactics of late …” He paused and in the moonlight pressed two fingers to each side of his brow before asking, “You have no idea about the inhabitants of this town, do you?”
Kota turned around and replied, “You can call it an educated guess.”
“Why do I encourage such behavior from a royal? Why can’t you be like your little sister, with your nose stuck in a book?” asked Lukas as he examined a building in the distance with broken windows and a boarded-up door. Pausing, he thought of what the building used to be before it was boarded up. He wondered whether it had been a shop or home, as the people within the Kingdom of Mara had been known to have a harsh economy. The king’s need of metal was more significant than his care for the dirt that fed his subjects.
Kota turned toward his friend as he silently moved next to him, seeing what he saw. “If my head was always in a book, I would not need you, would I?”
Kota remembered when the Kingdom of Damira had once endured such hardships. The current king, who had to follow in the footsteps of his father, had succeeded to the throne after a time of war, when they needed peace over iron. Shaking his head, Kota remembered the two kingdoms had feuded over the smallest and littlest of things, spilling blood rather than signing treaties to help the two kingdoms flourish together. The new king of Mara had proved to be peaceful but strict; however, recent actions had put both kingdoms on edge, to the point where if a royal was seen entering a town such as this, the consequences could be fierce and severe.
“Just remember, we, as the Kingdom of Damira, are not to be seen in the light of day, or lack of light for that matter in this town. The consequences are unknown and will probably not be kind to us during these trying times.” Lukas stated while reminding Kota what they were risking being in Elida, even for something important.
Seeing the marketplace, Kota continued to move forward while he gestured to Lukas’s armor. “That is why, unlike you, I have nothing visible on my person that signifies my worth to any kingdom—only the ring my sister gave me a few winters back.” He patted the leather armor on his chest, signifying the placement of the ring, before turning around and moving toward the central marketplace.
Lukas continued to follow him while replying. “If I had any idea that this little adventure you have in mind involved entering a town near the border of our land, then I would have prepared differently, but you left out some details.”
Kota turned around, holding up his hand before bringing it back to his side, asking his friend, “Did I not mention the town-protected-by-the-neighboring-kingdom part?” Lukas shook his head as Kota pointed back at him and said, “Next time, I will make sure I mention everything, including the neighboring-kingdom part, for your conscience.”
The two of them reached the edge of the stalls. Kota pointed to a pathway that looked efficient for the two of them before they started to move through the deserted marketplace. Lukas found the narrow gaps in the stalls a little more troublesome, as the royal guardsmen of Damira were meant to wear heavier armor for more protection. Accidentally hitting one of the stalls with his elbow, Lukas caused a hanging sign to fall. He tried to reach out and catch it, but before he could, Kota snatched it out of the air with ease. With the sign in hand, he reached up and reconnected it to the metal hooks it had been hanging from.
“Please be more careful, Lukas. We do not want to leave any impression that we were here, and I am sure this owner would not appreciate his sign broken,” said Kota, glancing over his shoulder as he turned away before walking in the direction of the inn.
“I am only trying to keep up with you, as I am your protector and friend. Who knows why, but I only have your best interests in mind,” Lukas said, catching up to Kota before adding, “I bet your sister doesn’t walk through a dark town at night without more protection. You are not even wearing real armor.”
As they reached the edge of the marketplace, Kota looked down, moving his cloak to the side to see his gear. He was only wearing light plate armor over his right side, and thin leather armor for mobility over protection. “I am not a member of the guard, as you are, plus Alexis is trained in multiple aspects of combat. She is just very protective of me, which is why you are here as a close friend and my personal guard. While you rely on strength, I need mobility to fight. You do not need armor if they can’t touch you,” he said, demonstrating by moving his feet all of a sudden on the ground.
Lukas shook his head in reaction to his naive attitude before pushing him to move forward. “Even your sister wears more armor than you do. Although she is a caller, not all callers use their abilities to conjure magic to help people. Others use it for fear and power.” Pausing, he looked above at the sky, noticing the moon gently disappearing behind the storm clouds that were approaching the town. As another lightning strike lit up the sky, revealing the dark clouds, he continued. “I am your protector, after all. You are making my duties more difficult by the day. I bet she also doesn’t go on unknown ventures, as you do.”
Reaching the middle of the marketplace, Kota directed Lukas toward the left side of the stalls. The two of them kept soft feet, heading in the direction of the inn. Kota looked around, noticing that there was still no sign of lights or townsfolk. Choosing a more spacious path, Kota acknowledged his friend’s earlier comment by stating, “Where do you think my curiosity comes from? Not my brothers or little sister—they are always too focused on the throne and the kingdom, and she is always in her studies.”
The breeze from the storm could be felt through their cloaks, causing a shiver to head down Kota’s spine.
As they continued to move closer to the edge of the marketplace, Lukas asked, “How do you know that the information this mysterious person offered you is reliable?”
Reaching the last of the stalls, Kota put his hand on the pouch at his side, where he kept the letter for safekeeping. “Anyone with any idea of the whereabouts of my birth mother, or any other information about her, I cannot ignore them. I have searched for too long and come up with nothing.”
Lukas placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Just because you are not born of royal blood and do not share the brand of the sovereignty does not mean you do not have a family in the castle.” Walking in front of him, Lukas pointed toward the ring wrapped around Kota’s neck and continued talking. “Your sister gave you that ring on your sixteenth birthday, signifying the royal family accepts you and sees you as an equal. Your brothers know you do not seek the throne, and your youngest sister, Grace, seeks your wisdom in most of her studies. You are well loved.”
“I know I am well loved within the royal family, but my birth mother could be somewhere out there, looking for me,” Kota responded. Noticing that the inn was in sight, he pointed before adding, “There is the inn. Let’s see what this mysterious letter sender knows about my mother.”
Keeping himself in front of Kota, Lukas turned to hold out his hand. “I understand the need to know, but what if this is a trap?” he asked.
Hesitating in the next step he took, Kota glanced down at his friend’s hand. He answered in a tone that Lukas knew well. “We will keep our guard up, but we do not strike until we are attacked first. I am keeping a positive attitude for this, but I am not stupid, Lukas.”
Lukas shook his head after hearing this answer, but he nodded in agreement. “Your positive attitudes are going to get us killed one day. I am going in first though, as a precaution. I am your guardsman, after all.”
Kota agreed as he matched the pace, staying a few steps behind Lukas as they continued down the narrowing street. The light was still fading as they noticed the lantern on the door was still lit, casting strange shadows on the door and walls at the front of the inn. Moving closer in a slower motion, Lukas knelt as he traced with his hand one of the shadows that were being cast. He whispered, “These are claw marks.”
Kota moved next to Lukas and, with his fingers, traced the marks on the door. Even with the light touch of his fingers, the door little by little inched open with a slow creak, leading the outside light into the inn. Lukas stood up in reaction to the door opening and continued to push on it to open it fully. Kota glanced around the faintly lit room, seeing the destruction of whatever had happened inside before asking, “What the hell happened here?”
Stepping into the inn, the two of them grabbed the hilts of their weapons as they saw the wooden chairs and tables tossed across the lobby in a panicked manner. They heard the whispering of the wind through a small open window, and the cold breeze haunted the area. Kota followed behind Lukas, taking in the claw marks and the shattered wooden pieces throughout the room. Even the red rug on the floor was torn by whatever had caused the scratches. Moving closer, the two of them walked to the wooden counter that stood in front of the wall, surrounded by stairs on both sides.
“If there was a battle here with what appears to be some sort of animal, where is the blood or the bodies?” questioned Kota, tracing more of the claw marks against the wooden counter with his fingers. “In all my hunts, I have never seen claw marks like these. They seem more focused than the reaction of an animal wondering inside and attacking at random.”
Lukas unsheathed his longsword while glancing around the room, trying to reconstruct the battle in his head. He paused when he realized what his friend had said, and promptly moved in his direction, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “This was not the work of a normal animal, or an animal at all. For there to be no blood means it was a controlled attack, and I sense a dark intent in the air of this inn.”
Kota continued to investigate the marks on the counter as Lukas focused on the surrounding room to watch for approaching figures. Kota asked, “Is this the reason the townsfolk are inside with no lanterns or torches in the streets?”
Lukas did not answer as he continued to look around the room. He reached his arm around and pulled up Kota’s hood, causing him to rise to his feet. Kota turned back toward his friend before Lukas told him, “We are leaving, Kota. I will not risk your life for any information.”
Kota was ready to protest, but he reluctantly agreed as Lukas pulled on his arm to move closer to the door. Just as they were about to leave, a feminine voice called from the top landing above them. “But you just arrived. Leaving before we even had a chance to talk. I thought that I was the whole reason you came tonight, Prince. And we have a lot to talk about.”
The female figure positioned herself at the middle of the banister, with her right hand placed with refinement on the handrail as she peered down in their direction. The two of them stopped near the middle of the room, keeping their attention on the figure as a black cowl hid her face in the low lighting that the candles in the inn provided.
Outside the inn, the storm crashed down around them, and the sound of rain filled the room. The woman turned her head, noticing the downpour out of a window, before the two parties focused on each other again. Lukas stepped in front of Kota and squeezed the grip of his blade, holding it toward the woman. She stood impeccably still, not reacting to his sword being raised to her.
Moving to Lukas’s side, Kota addressed the mysterious woman. “So you must be the one who sent the letter. Obviously, you know who I am, but who are you?”
She nodded in confirmation but did not answer his question. The three of them stayed focused on each other as the sound of raindrops hitting the wooden roof filled the inn. Lukas did not like the atmosphere of the room and gestured to the whole area while demanding, “Were you the one who attacked this inn? What happened to the people who were here?”
She shook her head, replying, “I do not like dirtying my hands, plus does it look like I have claws? I just needed some privacy with the prince, so no need to worry about those people who were here. They are unharmed.”
Kota moved to the side of his protector while questioning the woman, trying to keep the tension in the room low. “Then what do you know of my mother? The letter said you knew her well. Does that mean she is no longer alive?”
The woman glanced at the window, where the rain was splashing in from the outside, before turning back to focus her eyes on the two men below. She moved her hand with care along the handrail while responding. “I had the pleasure of knowing her once, but that time is in the past.”
Kota moved forward in reaction to her statement and asked, “Is she still alive? What’s her name? I know nothing about her.”
The woman started to take soft steps toward the stairs on the right side of the room as she ran her index finger along the wooden handrail. The two of them followed her movement, positioning themselves to meet her stance as she reached the top of the stairs. She moved her index finger off the rail and delicately shook it, aiming her gaze at Kota. He could feel her stare as she said, “You didn’t listen to my letter though. You were supposed to come alone. Now you’ve added an extra complication. So we will have to continue this conversation in a more private manner.”
Kota noticed that her head was tilted and aimed at Lukas. Casting a glance at Lukas, he replied to her comment. “You didn’t think I would show up alone, did you? I may be rash, but I am not stupid.”
She shook her head before taking the first step down the stairs, saying, “No, it appears you are not completely a fool, but a lady can hope, can’t she? Tonight will get more interesting now.”
Kota and Lukas continued to stare at the woman as they waited for her to make the first move, whether hostile or not. Kota flinched as he noticed a small spark of light forming at about chest height a few inches in front of her. After she took one more step down, Kota hastily pushed his friend out of the way as a lightning bolt formed and struck in between the two of them. Falling away from the blast, Kota rolled as he hit the ground, and watched the burnt splinters scatter around the room.
Kota groaned as he rolled over onto his chest, gripping his ears as they rang due to the blast. He hurriedly maneuvered his body to push himself to stand, only to freeze as he saw the tips of the woman’s brown boots a foot away from his face. He took a deep breath when she did not move closer, and stood up, touching his head due to the ringing in his ears. He glanced at her body, noticing she wore only a little armor below the knee, but her black cloak covered everything else. He continued to gain his balance, stating, “You are a caller. A damn good one at that, conjuring a lightning bolt like that out of thin air. Most people need a channel or time to even attempt a powerful attack like that.”
As he stood up straight, the woman did not move. She stared at him before reaching out her hand in one swift move to grab Kota. He reacted fast to block her attempt with his left hand, only for her to take his wrist with her left hand. He immediately responded by unsheathing his sword, only for her to disarm him, easily swiping his hand down with her right arm and knocking the blade to the ground. Without a second thought, he went to raise his knee into her side, but she met his knee with hers, stopping any attempt.
Looking at her face, he could not see any of her features except her chin and lips. The rest was blacked out by the lack of light. He saw the red of her lips crack a smile.
“What would you know about what it takes to be a caller? You are not one of them,” she asked while watching the change of expression on his face.
He lowered his knee as she lowered hers, and replied, “A noncaller, like me, has to study callers’ abilities if he wants to survive a fight with one.”
Raising his fist, he attempted to punch her side, only for her to effortlessly push it away. Without delay, he continued an onslaught of punches and swings. Even with all of his training, they were all, without difficulty, pushed away and blocked by the woman. As he tried to hit her in the side with his right arm, she raised her own arm, knocking the attack away and forcing him to lose balance. She suddenly grabbed and twisted his left wrist as she directed him to turn around just to kick him in his lower back, forcing him to flip over the small end table near a bench that lay flipped over on the left side of the room. As he rolled over, he watched her move toward him. Her footsteps were light on the wooden floor, too soft to hear.
Suddenly she stepped back away from Kota, dodging the blade that Lukas brought straight down on her from her left side. The force he put on the blade was too much for him to stop midswing, and the sword lodged itself in the floor between two boards. Lukas hastily struggled to get it free, but before he could try a second time, the woman lifted her leg at him, swiping at his head. Ducking, he moved under her leg before quickly jabbing at her left side. She easily repositioned herself to the side, catching his arm. With a twist of her body, she was able to send him stumbling away in the other direction, only for her to grab his cloak and pull it with force. He stopped stumbling forward as he was ripped backward onto the floor with a crash, coughing as the air was knocked out of his lungs.
Seeing his friend on the ground, Kota moved a piece of wood off himself and started to stand as she walked over to him. Struggling to find his footing, he strained a punch with his left arm, but she twisted his left wrist again. She forced it against his back as he winced in pain. Then she moved closer to him.
“Just give up, Prince. You do not have the strength or skill to beat me.”
Kota struggled before she turned toward Lukas lying on the ground, trying to stand up after his fall. She pinned Kota’s arm against his back as she held out her left hand toward Lukas, telling him, “Now you have to watch your friend die.”
While Kota was still unable to free his arm, he raised his right leg and shifted his body, ramming his foot into the back of her right leg, below the knee. With the force of the blow, she fell to her knee as lightning shot out of her palm into the roof of the building. The new opening caused rain to pour in as the charred wood fell to the inn’s floor. Kota wasted no time as he loosened his wrist from her grip. He took the dagger he kept strapped to his right leg and sliced toward the woman’s heart.
With one swift movement, she moved back, dodging the attempt. Kota grunted in frustration as he continued to slash and strike at her to no avail. Moving a few steps back, he took a defensive stance, holding the blade in his right fist closer to his body. “Damn! How is someone this fast?”
She gave a small laugh, and she was about to answer his question when Lukas lunged toward her. She had not been expecting an attack from him so soon; however, she swiftly dodged, moving in between the two of them, but not before Lukas was able to grab the hood of her cloak. She repositioned herself and used Lukas’s own weight against him to force him to stumble into Kota, who tried to brace against his friend’s weight. Unable to gain any balance, the two of them flipped over a table, breaking the small legs as they went crashing into the floor.
Kota looked up after falling over and noticed the mysterious woman had dark brown hair twisted into a side braid that fell onto her shoulder. As she lifted her hood back over her head, he saw the deep-gray eyes that were staring at him, and her face showed that she was not much older than he was. After she flipped her hood back, she crossed her arms.
Lukas used Kota to brace himself as he stood, pushing the wood off them. “I told you this was not a good idea,” he said. “You know, you never listen to me.”
Kota grabbed his friend’s outstretched arm and, as he got to his feet, pushed Lukas, a little frustrated. “Now is not the time for this argument. I will let you yell at me if we survive.”
The woman stood there quietly, waiting to see who would react next. Kota knocked on Lukas’s armor with his knuckles, picking up his blade before lunging toward the woman, who was continuing to play with them.
Kota struck and slashed at the woman as she easily moved around his attempts. Raising the blade above his head, he started bringing it down as he watched her reaction. Seeing her left hand rise to grab his hand in a block, he let her do so before raising his knee into her side.
He felt his knee connect with her side, only to realize that it was not her side but her right hand reaching across her body, blocking him with her palm. As she pushed his knee back to the ground, he passed his blade to his left hand, using his weight and height against the woman. He began to lean toward her, forcing the blade closer to her shoulder, only inches away. Trying to push the metal further down, he gritted his teeth as he asked her, “What do you want from me?”
She looked into his eyes, moving her head a few inches from his face and cracking a small smile in the dim light. “You have something that is of great use to me. You will see in time, my prince.”
She was about to say something else, but Kota smiled as they heard the creak of a floorboard. Forcing his foot away from the floor, the woman made Kota lose his balance before pushing him back, causing him to stumble. She turned to see what was approaching, and found Lukas bringing out a chair from behind his back. She did not have enough time to move aside, so she raised her arms to block the blow as he smashed the chair into her upper body.
Although she was able to defend her body and face from the impact, she let out a grunt of pain as the chair broke into pieces. In the debris of the chair, she fell to the ground with a crash. Lukas watched her fall as he ran over to Kota and helped him to his feet.
“We are leaving,” said Lukas, looking back at the rainfall from the opening in the ceiling.
The mysterious woman began moving to get to her feet gradually.
After Lukas had put away his dagger, the two of them ran for the front door. Kota threw it open in a hurry as the rain poured down around them. They stopped as they considered which direction to run in. Then Kota pointed to the left, and they headed away from the building, splashing through water on the cobblestones with every step. When the two of them moved to the edge of the building, they hurried down the alleyway between two structures to create some separation.
Running alongside the building, Kota turned his head over his shoulder and told his friend, “I will admit I was wrong now. Still, I have never heard of a lightning caller before in my studies and training.”
Lukas was about to answer his comment when, matching the force of nature with the lightning strike that lit up the sky, a lightning bolt burst through the wall, sending wood splintering across the alleyway just a few feet in front of them. The two of them stopped suddenly, causing Kota to slip in the rain, falling onto his back.
The woman walked out of the new entryway she had created, standing in the pouring rain as she turned toward her prey. “Leaving so soon, boys? I don’t think we are done just yet.” She clenched her fists at her side as she stood in their path.