I spent the night outside in the forest, a blazing bonfire to keep myself warm. I didn’t fancy staying in those houses for the night, their roofs strained under the weight of the snow. It was only a matter of time before they collapsed upon themselves. I gathered up more branches, wiping off the snow and poking at the flames, before settling onto a cloth I’d laid over the snow.
I know exactly what I had hoped to find here, clarity of action, purpose. Maybe just someone to validate the things I’d done, but in the end I’d half assed everything, and that made this impossible. If I accepted that staying to aid the war effort had been the right thing to do, if I accepted that what I’d done as an irregular was right, then I also had to damn myself for not taking action sooner. In the same vein I could just as well turn it around, if I hadn’t been so invested, so… involved, so passive to be dragged along… I’d be gone, and the world would still be saved.
That left me here, with no real resolve to stay or run away. What was there to run from? Everything that I wanted to leave behind was in my mind and there to stay. I scowled, laying myself on the ground. I fumbled at the Aesor, pulling it out and flipping it in my hand. The runes were an ornate mix of colours, white, yellow, blue, red. Part of me wanted to reach out in the aether and tear the magic to pieces, but it was Gaven’s last work, and perhaps his finest.
The next day I found myself moving towards Soren, long before my brain could tell my feet that it was a stupid idea. “My my…” Teb said as I approached, a small smile on his face. “The hero returns.” I snorted, shaking my head. “Come on in, I’m sure the lads would love to hear your recounting of what happened at the battle of the scarred lands.”
[Not particularly imaginative name that one.] Page observed. [They could’ve called it ‘Reinuvain’] It noted. The word had religious connotations… it was supposed to be about casting a light into the dark, only instead of light it was cleansing flame and the full might of Eca.
I can’t imagine that ever catching on. I thought back, it had been a close call, surely all the military knew that. Oh right. I realized, the Aerathi had appeared on the battlefield, not even counting the fact that they’d been driven back by an aether sword. Yeah, I suppose if you think about it, it fits.
When I sat down for the meal I realized I was surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Lanth remained, as did Baen and Caio, but otherwise I knew none of the people here, and it showed… Many of them looked at me in awe, seemingly dumbstruck that I would even be here, let alone be dining with them. Of course, I wasn’t meeting everyone, the children needed to be put to bed, regardless of how much they wanted to see ‘the Masked’. “Welcome back.” Lanth said, patting me on the shoulder. “I’d heard terrible stories about the war, it’s good that you set it all straight.” Lapi nuzzled against me, and I ran my hand across her head, eliciting a content growl.
“I heard you called the Aerathi down from the sky!” One of the unfamiliar faces called out, leaning forward to get a good look at me. “Izzat true?” She asked, turning away for a moment to receive a tankard of ale that a man was passing around.
“Did you really fight a spectre the size of a building?” Another interjected.
The woman scowled at him. “Come on, there’s na way, spectres can’t get that big in the first place.” She said, taking a sip of her drink.
“I hear he tore his way straight through the army.” Someone else said, miming a cutting motion with his hand. “Fought their general in a duel, man to… demon.” He pulled his hands up into a boxing stance.
“You believe anything a pretty girl tells you.” The man laughs, then turns to the girl. “And you believe that he sent a message to the Aerathi and called them to help us?” The man shot back, a hearty grin on his face.
“We don’t know anythin’ about the Aerathi. It could’ve happened, they coulda come down with harps and blazing sunlight behind them for all we know.” She said hotly. “But we all know ghosts and spectres, there’s no way.” She repeated, a scowl on her lips.
“Well settle down so he can actually give us an answer.” Lanth chided the group, turning to me. “After all the rumours I really want to know how it happened in your own words.” I arched an eyebrow at him, and he smiled. “Rumours spread faster than anything when it’s this interesting Kael, we’ve heard almost a dozen different stories, tell us yours.”
I snorted, shaking my head. “You want me to start from when I arrived at the camp?” I asked, taking a sip of beer. At their nodding I gave a tiny smile. “Alright then…” I told them about the scarred lands that had been between us, the sheer size of the armies, with dragons, lamias, Kithar, wisps all gathered to present a unified front. When I got to the spectres a loud grunt of triumph came from the man who’d asked me about them, shooting a smug grin when the woman looked back with a withering glance. I left out my dealings with the elementals, left out my doubts and the portal, but just the story of me pushing into the Edratchi lulled the group into silent, rapt attention.
They grimaced as I told them of the injuries I’d sustained, cheered as Numen’s arrow knocked the Edratchi leader from the sky, and grinned as I finally executed him, even if I left out how he had failed to see me. I framed the Aerathi’s arrival as practically a miracle, coming as I was about to be torn apart by the rest of the Edratchi army, ending with my return to the army.
“Boy, that was kind of more impressive than I thought.” Caio remarked, breaking the silence that had fallen over the table as I sipped at my drink. The others nodded, a few chuckles breaking out amongst the group as others called in a few bets. I arched an eyebrow “Don’t get me wrong, the rumours have you doing some unbelievable crap, but having known you I thought most of them were exaggerating.” He shook his head. “You cut through the entire bloody army.” He breathed
I shrugged. “I had help. That and a weapon that cut through them like a scythe through wheat.” I said, pulling out the Aesor. “I’m sorry about bringing a weapon this destructive to the table, but there really isn’t any other place I could leave it without someone accidentally killing themselves.” I said. “This is what cut through the Edratchi, if anything I just guided its path.”
The others looked at it with surprise and interest. I flipped it over in my hand, letting the group see the intricate runes that shed soft light onto the table. “Huh, I expected it to look a lot harsher.” Lanth remarked. “It looks more like a work of art rather than a tool of destruction.” Lapi snorted a little, yawning to reveal her teeth. Lanth rolled his eyes at her.
Now that I’d had time to think, destroying it, or even just setting it aside, was an attractive proposition. A weapon this powerful shouldn’t be free in the world now that the enemy it had been created to fight was beaten. Sooner or later someone would figure out how to use it on another person, or the weapon might just mark me as ‘in the way’ of someone else’s expansion or power grab. I slid the weapon back into my armour. “I guess it does.” I agreed.
A loud roar filled the air, coming from the forest, and as one we all turned to face the direction it had come from. “Chimaera.” Baen said what I had immediately thought, and I reached where my pick would’ve been. Right, lost it. I thought to myself. An equally loud road came close behind it, this one sounding more like an ettin instead. Lapi growled a little, turning to face the forest as I ran my fingers into her fur. Easy.
“Territory dispute.” I explained, pursing my lips. “That’s… really close by.” I remarked worriedly, turning to Baen. He shook his head, these were new to the area then, I frowned a little. There’s not much we can do about it honestly. I thought to myself, forcing myself to relax with an exhale. I deliberately turned back, moving to finish my meal. The others quickly followed suit, Baen following suit, albeit reluctantly.
The rest of the meal was hurried and silent, punctuated by distant howls of pain and angry grunts. When those at the table had left for home Baen allowed himself to look warily towards the forest. “That’s going to be keeping them up all night.” He observed. “I hadn’t even realized that there was a chimaera and an ettin so close.”
I gave an uneasy smile. “At least they’re not likely to be coming this way.” I said. “And if a bit of lost sleep is all they have to suffer through we can count them lucky.” I shook my head. “We can’t exactly go hunting them right now anyway.” I continued. “Not unless we want to get ambushed by a walking mountain.”
He frowned a little at that. “I suppose your weapon isn’t supposed to be used just like that then?” He asked. I shook my head. The Aesor had a time limit, and switching it on would paint a bright bloody beacon on me, and probably scare everything away. Though that might not be a bad thing considering all the creatures out there trying to kill everyone.
[The ecological ramifications could well be devastating in the longterm however.] Page cautioned. Right, I know… That’s another issue with wielding a superweapon, ‘pollution’. I snarked. It sighed. I get it. I replied more seriously. I distinctly remember studying biology. [It needed to be said.]
Baen and I both stayed to watch the forest for the night, even after the howls fell to silence. “So why’d you decide to come back?” Baen asked, turning to me after a particularly long stretch.
“I didn’t feel like being an irregular anymore.” I replied simply. “But I don’t really know if there’s anything else I could do.” I sighed. “Or rather, I know what I can do, I’m just not sure what I should.” I snorted. “Doesn’t make much sense eh?”
Baen nodded cautiously. “It doesn’t, not really. Well… at least not to me?” He ventured.
I laughed. “Don’t need to be so placating. I’ve never even once tried to bite your head off.” I said. “Don’t worry about it, as I said, it doesn’t even make sense to me.” I smirked.
“Well… maybe try explaining out loud?” He said. “My father always said it was good to voice your thoughts, trim out the excess.”
“Heh.” I sighed. “I suppose.” I ran my hand across the back of my head and through my hair. “I didn’t really choose to be an irregular. I stumbled across this.” I gestured to the armour. “I can use the aether sword by pure luck. If I hadn’t, I would’ve just been a bloody scholar. It’s like… destiny? Fate? And I feel like I’m just being dragged along, I know what I want to do, but I can’t help but feel like I’m getting played either way.” Lapi snorted, resting her head on my lap and looking up at me. “Well… I suppose I did make a choice with you.” I grinned.