Four armed men walked down the dirt road as the sun approached the highest point in the sky. Coming all the way from the capital, they were now nearing their destination, the town of Rizuke. Their job description sounded simple: Stop any possible rebellions before they happen. However, things were never easy. Especially on this particular assignment. Another squad, a better and stronger one, had already been sent out to this town. They were told to report in a few days ago and yet, they haven’t been heard from since leaving the capital. It’d be a safe bet that the perpetrators behind this incident were formidable opponents, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out it wouldn’t end well. What no one would be able to guess was that this event would help further a plan that had already been set in motion before the war even began.
“Did you know his father is Van Travis, the famous general who vanished during the war?”It was Drex Kozen who asked the question. It had been asked to no one in particular, but it was Ryxor Borx, the squad leader who answered.
“You mean Vanen? Yeah, I know. Why does it matter?”
“Just curious. Hey, Hughes. What about your brother Eric?” By some stroke of fate, Hughes’ brother was a member of Vanen’s squad.
“What about him?” Hughes asked back.
“Aren’t you worried about him?”
“Not one bit. He can take care of himself.”
“But they haven’t been heard from in several days. What if something serious has happened? Doesn’t that make you concerned?”
“Nope. Not sure how I’d react if we found them all dead. I’d probably stand over his corpse and say good riddance.”
“Man, you’re that cold told your own – “ Auras Thompson, the fourth member of the squad put a hand on Drex’s shoulder. Drex was about to ask what he wanted, but the look in his eyes said it all. Shut the hell up. He wasn’t sure if Auras was concerned for Hughes or was just annoyed himself, but he took the hint and quieted down. The guy doesn’t know when to keep quiet, Ryxor thought to himself. He’s been like that as long as I’ve known him.
By now they could see Rizuke on the horizon and what they saw wasn’t pretty. Smoke could be seen rising up into the sky. By the time they reached the edge of town, the smell of smoke mixed with the smell of burning flesh. They searched the buildings that still stood for survivors, but none were found. The entire town had been decimated and burned down to the ground.
“This whole thing stinks,” said Ryxor.
“Really, you think?” said Drex.
“I’m not talking about this, smart ass.” He gestured to what remained of Rizuke. “Where the hell is Vanen’s squad?”
“For now, we can only assume that whoever did this has also taken them out,” said Auras.
“But who did this? Vanen was no pushover, and we’ve yet to see a body that could have belonged to him or anyone in his squad.”
“Maybe they got burnt to crisp like almost everything else?” It was Hughes who made the suggestion.
“Maybe. But that brings up another problem. All of this smoke, and the guys over at Stronghold didn’t notice a single thing? I find that hard to swallow.” Stronghold was a nearby military fort. “Our next move should be the fort.”
“But what if that place got destroyed as well?” asked Drex. It was definitely possible and it would certainly explain why they hadn’t made a move yet.
“We’ll figure it out when we get there. Let’s move out. There’s nothing we can do there, and the more time we waste, the farther away those responsible get away.”
The march toward Stronghold had been a short one. The smoke from the smoldering town of Rizuke could still be seen behind them when the fortress came into sight. Hughes looked back at the town and then turned to face the fortress. It stood still in perfectly good condition.
“And sign number two that something is off,” he said. The guard raised his weapon as they approached the gate.
“Identify yourselves,” he ordered.
“At ease soldier. We’re here on General Ruaidhri’s orders.” Ryxor held out a paper signed by the general confirming what he just said. The guard lowered his weapon.
“I see. Go on ahead.” Ryxor thought he’d take a moment to study the orders. Instead he gave them the ok without evening giving it a second glance. The squad looked around after stepping in beyond the gates. . All of them except Drex had passed by the fort at least once in the past, but it was the first time any of them had been inside. Ryxor motioned for a nearby soldier to come over.
“I need to talk with the commanding officer here. Where can I find him?”
“His office is set up in that building over there.” He pointed behind them.
“Thank you. We’ll be on our way now.” As they walked over to the officer’s office, Drex leaned closer to Ryxor and started talking in a hushed voice.
“This whole place seems off. They’re out and about like nothing’s wrong when a whole town not even a mile away is up in smoke.”
“You don’t think I didn’t notice that?”
“If you’re one step ahead of the rest of us, then what’s your plan?”
“I go ask the guy in charge some questions while you guys stay quiet and don’t do anything that would attract attention.”
“Did you see that guard’s reaction when I showed him our orders?”
“Exactly. He didn’t even bother to look at them. Don’t you find that strange? If four armed men not even dressed in uniforms approached your fort, wouldn’t you want to see some proper identification first?”
“You think these men are responsible for Rizuke?” Drex asked.
“I’m saying they are responsible.”
“You think they also took out Vanen’s squad?”
“Possibly. We can’t tell for sure yet.”
“If they actually killed them, then they gotta be stronger than your average guy,” said Hughes “I can’t imagine Eric going down without a good fight even if he was ambushed.”
“Is it really a good idea to get separated if these guys are so strong?” Drex asked.
“I’m willing to bet they won’t try anything until we are separated. Besides, we still don’t know for sure that these guys did kill them. We only know that they’re involved.” By now they had reached the door to the office. The guard outside watched them talking, but couldn’t make out what they were saying over the other noises going around the fort.
“Hold it right there,” the guard said. Only one person is allowed in at a time. The rest of you have to wait outside.”
“Very well,” Ryxor said. He motioned for the others to do as they were asked while he stepped through the door. The commanding officer stood behind behind his desk staring at him. Ryxor offered him his hand. “Ryxor Borx. I’m here on orders from General Ruaidhri.”
“Nash Morrow,” the officer said, ignoring Ryxor’s hand gesture. “How can I be of help?”
“I’m looking for Vanen Travis. He was supposed to check in at this fort a few days ago, but the people at the capital haven’t heard a word. What do you know about this matter?”
“No one bearing that name has showed up here in a month, let alone a few a days ago. If he’s gone missing, I don’t know anything about it.”
“Are you sure you haven’t heard of anything at all?”
“I’d tell you if I had. Is that all you wanted to ask?”
“There is one more thing I’d like to ask you. It’s about the town that used to exist west of here.” He saw Nash put his hand on the handle of his sword. Ryxor got ready to grab his own weapon.
Outside, Auras stood over at a corner of the fort examining the ground. Hughes had asked to see the dungeons beneath the fort and Drex was off somewhere else. Why was this spot dug up recently? Auras thought he knew the answer to that question when there was a loud crashing noise inside the officer’s building. He turned just in time to see a man fly through the window. At that moment, everyone dropped what they were doing. Two guys nearest him had their weapons drawn and pointing at him while the rest were focused on the building. The door was kicked down from the inside and Ryxor walked through the open doorway. Flames began to dance around on the blade of his drawn sword.
“Auras! Take care of the rest of these buffoons while I beat some answers out of our new friend Mr. Morrow.” Following his cue, Auras sprung into action. He punched the guard in front him in the face so hard he heard his nose break. The other guard charged at Auras, but he grabbed the one that was down and spun around just in time for him to get stabbed by his own friend. He disarmed the guard still standing before taking him out, and then tossed the sword into another running up to help out. He gave Ryxor a thumbs up as the remaining guards approached much more cautiously.
Hughes was down in the dungeon when the fighting broke out up top. One guard was leading the way with two more brining up the rear and Hughes in the middle. Geez, I thought I was a visitor here, and yet they’re acting like they escorting a prisoner. When the sound of fighting reached down there the guards drew their weapons. Only one of them has a gun. The man with the gun fired away at Hughes, but the bullets never made contact. Instead, it appeared as though they hit an invisible barrier in front of him.
“What the hell?” One of the guards said. They heard a rush of foot steps behind them and turned around to meet their attacker face to face, but were too late. Drex was upon them and smashed through both of them in one strike. Hughes whistled as they fell to the ground. The remaining guard took several steps back, but it did no good. Hughes pulled out his revolver and pistol whipped him across the face causing him to drop his weapon. Hughes put the barrel to his head and pulled the trigger. It was all over in a matter of seconds.
“I doubt these weaklings killed Vanen. They aren’t even prepared to deal with energy users,” said Drex. He looked over at the one Hughes killed. “Well, I wouldn’t have pegged you as the cold-blooded type.”
“C’mon. Let’s go help out the other two.” Hughes ran past him, revolver still drawn.
“Fine then, ignore me.”
Up on the rampart, Nash jumped at Ryxor but he blocked the attack. As their swords made contact, Nash’s began to melt. He jumped back and tossed it aside, and pulled out his pistol.
“How the hell is your sword still fine!?” Nash shouted.
“Unlike yours, mine is made out of a special metal that can take temperatures far beyond that of steel.”
“Can you spill the beans already, man?” The voice came from behind Nash. Drex was sitting on a crate. He shifted his attention from Ryxor and pointed his gun at him. “Careful where you put that thing. Someone might get hurt.”
“How did you get up here and where the hell are the rest of my men!?”
“Dead or dying.” A gunshot went off in the background. Hughes reloaded his revolver as he and Auras made their way over.
“Damn it! This isn’t happening!” He shouted frantically, pointing his gun at Drex and then back at Ryxor.
“Drop it,” Ryxor said. “You can tell us what we want to know now or we can have a little chat after we break both your arms.”
“Shit.” Nash tossed his gun to the ground.
“All right then,” said Drex. He hopped off the crate carrying some rope. He brought it over to Nash and tied his hands behind his back. “Shall we talk things over in your office? “
Drex sat behind the desk while Auras and Hughes looked through everything. Auras turned to Drex who looked like he was enjoying himself.
“Well? Are you gonna help us or just sit there?”
“Now, tell us what you know about Vanen and Rizuke,” said Ryxor. Nash was up against a corner of the room.
“The people that hired me have him and his squad captive.”
“Odikai. A town northeast of here. It’s less than a day’s journey from here on foot.”
“If that’s all you’ve got then you’re of no use to us.” Hughes pulled out his revolver and pulled back the hammer.
“Wait! There’s more. The people that hired me are from Kazere. They’re a band of mercenaries led by a man named Oren.” Kazere was a town in the mountains to the west on Arabi’s border.
“They’re the ones that destroyed Rizuke. They’re also responsible for clearing out the soldiers at this fort. My men and I weren’t hired until after that. After making us bury the bodies, they told us to pose as the soldiers and deal with anyone who came snooping around.” Ryxor motioned for the others to follow him outside.
“Don’t think you’re off the hook yet. We will kill you if you try anything,” Ryxor told Nash before leaving.
“What’s the plan Ryxor? If that scum is telling the truth, Kazere and Odikai are in two completely different directions,” said Hughes.
“Yeah, I know. You and Auras stay here and watch over our friend. Contact Ruaidhri and give him an update. Drex and I will head out to Odikai and see what we can find out there. If he’s telling the truth, then we need to get to Vanen’s squad before it’s too late.”
“All right then, let’s get this show on the road,” said Drex.
“Wait,” Auras said. “Do you really think splitting up is a good idea? “
“No, I don’t. But we need to make a move and I’m not about to leave a prisoner by himself.” There was a moment of silence before anyone spoke again.
“Be careful. I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s still something that’s got me worried,” said Auras.
“Yeah, the feeling’s mutual.”