Chapter 33 - Fifteen Years Ago

The Raime villa in the Kingdom’s capital was very different compared to the other noble villas in the district.  The estate was just as extensive as the others, but whereas the other nobles would fill their land with gardens and guest houses, Artorias’ villa was surrounded by a dense forest of exceptionally tall trees and thick bushes.

The other nobles’ villas were large and sumptuous, filled with magical trinkets and lavish decorations.  Artorias’ was luxurious to be sure, but it was much smaller, more intimate, and eschewed the gaudy golden trappings of his neighbors in favor of a much simpler and cleaner aesthetic.  The walls were bare, bereft of the intricate mosaics and reliefs that the nobility loved.  There were no marble statues, no grand columns covered in runes, no multicolored magic lanterns.

It was a small place, built for a private family.  The furniture wasn’t fancy, and the floors were a dark wood with a shiny finish rather than marble.  But that wasn’t to say that the place was cheap, either.  The land itself was just as large as the other estates in the neighborhood, and the building materials were of a very high-quality, despite their simplicity.  Even though he had been exiled from his family, the twenty-two-year-old Artorias was more than wealthy enough to afford this noble estate.  He was a newly made knight in the service of King Julius, and the king was generous to his men, especially when the knight in question was the son of his best friend.

The road leading into the villa was small, and it wound through the trees like a snake.  Few people bothered going to the villa given the attitude of its residents, but on a seemingly ordinary night fifteen years ago, two men stumbled down this road.

One of these men was tall, with golden hair and equally golden eyes.  He was well-built and handsome.  The other was shorter and thinner, with sandy hair and light blue eyes.  He was covered in blood and was half-carried, half-dragged by the first man.

“Hold on, man, we’re almost there.” the first man said to his injured comrade.  He had a small glass orb in his free hand, with a single drop of blood floating inside.  The drop was being pulled in a certain direction, leading the men straight towards the villa.  It was almost touching the glass, indicating that they had almost reached their destination.

The first man glanced at the man he was carrying.  This was his cousin, Fain.  He was one of their clan’s few experts on spatial magic, and it was by his power that they had gotten so close to their princess.  Unfortunately, the spatial tunnel he created had begun to fray and destabilize near the end of their journey, forcing them out within the capital several miles from their goal and leaving Fain severely injured.

After a few more agonizing steps, the two finally came within sight of the villa.  Ryker—the first man—spread his magic senses over the entire estate and saw the family within.

Artorias was in the front courtyard, practicing his techniques with his trusty longsword.  Serana was in the bedroom, rocking baby Leon to sleep.

When he saw the baby, Ryker felt his blood begin to boil in fury, but he quickly clamped down on it, proceeded to the imposing front gate, and loudly knocked.

Artorias narrowed his eyes in confusion.  ‘Who would come calling at this hour?’  Night had long since fallen, so even at a more social household, they wouldn’t be expecting visitors.  He sheathed his sword, strode over to the gate, and opened it a crack to see who it was.

Ryker immediately pushed the gate open even more, shoved past Artorias, and walked into the villa’s courtyard.

Artorias, in surprise and shock, drew his sword.  “Stop right there!” he shouted.

Ryker stopped right there.  Then, he slowly turned his head and made eye contact with Artorias.  His boundless killing intent spilled out and hit Artorias like an avalanche, forcing him to his knees and driving all the air out of his lungs.  Artorias hit the ground, unable to lift his arms, or even draw breath.

“What’s going on out here?”  Serana heard Artorias’ shout and came out to investigate.  When she saw Artorias on the ground, she immediately grew enraged, her hands turned into fists, and she moved to attack Ryker.  But, when he turned back around to face her, her face became one of shock, and she came to a stop.

“Ryker?” she asked.  Then, she finally fully processed what she was seeing, and noticed who he was carrying.  “Fain!”  She rushed forward and took his other arm, then glared at Ryker.  She didn’t need to say anything for him to get the message, and his killing aura abated, allowing Artorias to stand back up.

“These are my cousins, get our first aid kit!” Serana shouted to him.  Artorias stared daggers at Ryker, but after a brief moment of hesitation, he quickly ran towards the bathroom.  Then, she addressed Ryker again, with a cold and angry edge to her voice that sent shivers down his spine.  “And you, come with me.”

They carried Fain into the living room, just off the courtyard, and gently laid him down on a large sofa.  Artorias joined them after a few seconds and began applying healing spells to Fain’s wounds.  Once the bleeding began to stop, Serana turned her full attention to Ryker, who was sitting straight as a board and looked more than a little nervous.

“Speak.  Why are you here?”

Ryker’s gaze briefly wandered over to Artorias while he thought about the correct words to say, something that Serana didn’t miss.

“He’s my husband.  You will treat him the same way you’d treat me.”

This made Ryker’s heart go into turmoil.  ‘This filthy thing has dared to touch the princess?!’  But, fortunately for him, he didn’t say that out loud.  Given how coldly Serana was treating him for even threatening Artorias, he felt she’d beat him into the ground if he did.

“Lady Serana, the Patriarch has ordered us to find you and escort you back home.”

Serana’s eyes widened in anger, and she began shouting, “What?!  No!  He promised me that I could be gone for twenty years, we’re not even a quarter through that yet!  Who does he think he is, going ba-“

But Ryker cut her off with a single sentence.  “The clan was attacked!”

Serana quieted down.  Her beautiful face was one of shock, but it very quickly turned back to anger.  “What?  Who would be so bold as to attack us?”

“We… don’t know.  But, many of our warriors are dead, and the Patriarch was advised by the Council of Elders to recall every clan member from their adventures.  He agreed, and he sent us to you.”

“Is that why Fain is so badly hurt?”

“No, the Patriarch ordered us to get you with all haste, and he gave us a dislocation crystal to return.  Unfortunately, we didn’t possess any crystals that would get us here, so Fain had to create a spatial tunnel to get here as fast as possible.  But, this place was a little too far away, and Fain ran low on mana, causing the tunnel to begin collapsing while we were still in it.  He struggled to maintain it, but in the end, we were ejected a few miles to the south, right in the middle of the city.  At least the people here are beyond weak, so we made it here without being detected.”

That derision in Ryker’s last comment made Serana give him a dirty look, but she looked away and began pacing in thought.  She had many questions, but this wasn’t the time for it.  Ryker and Fain were her cousins, they wouldn’t come so far just to lie to her.  So, if the clan was under attack, then as much as she might hate it, they’d have to go home.

“Very well.  You can take me back to my father…”  Ryker’s face relaxed in relief, but immediately tightened up from discomfort and disgust when she continued.  “… but my son and husband will be coming with.”

Ryker was about to try to protest, but when he locked eyes with Serana, he froze.  She was smiling, but it was a sinister challenge rather than an expression of happiness.  She was daring him to try and refuse.

He was no fool.  He reluctantly nodded in agreement.

“Good!”  Her face lit up with a genuine smile, one which could make the sun pale in comparison.  She then gracefully walked across the room, to where her husband was finishing up tending to Fain.  She hugged Artorias from behind, pressing her ample chest into his broad and muscular back, and whispered into his ear, “You won’t refuse to come with me, will you?”

Artorias looked around.  He loved this place, but his home was still Teira.  If he did leave the only regret he might have would be leaving his father and brother behind.  They didn’t leave things off on the best terms, with the two almost literally throwing him out of the palace, but Artorias was confident that after a few years away, or maybe a few decades in his father’s case, they’d be able to reconcile.

Serana noticed the slightly conflicted expression on his face and knew what it meant.  She reached around and took his face in her hands, turning him to look at her, and gave him a sweet, tender smile.

“It won’t be forever, my love.  We’ll come back as soon as we can, I promise.”

Artorias only took one more moment to think, then smiled back at her and pressed his forehead to hers, whispering his agreement to her.  Then, he turned to go to the bedroom to pack a few things and to get Leon.

After he walked out of the room, Ryker spoke up.  “My lady, you are the princess of the clan, the Patriarch’s only daughter, why would you stoop so low as t- “

“You will not finish that question.”  Serana gave a look that could cause a tree to wither and die, and Ryker immediately shut his mouth tight.

Right then, the front gate was blasted inwards with a tremendous roar, crashing through the courtyard and into the wall of the villa.  Ryker sprang to his feet, while Artorias ran back into the room holding Leon.

“Were you followed?!” Serana asked her cousin.

“Impossible!  No way Fain’s spatial tunnels can be tracked!”

“But you said it started breaking down at the end…”

Ryker knew she was probably right as he thought about it, as Fain usually only made short jumps with his spatial magic, but longer jumps were far more complicated.  A jump as long as the one they made to get here, there would be no way to completely mask it.

He immediately charged out the door to confront whoever attacked the gate.

Standing in the courtyard were half a dozen men, all dressed in black with their faces covered in featureless masks.  There was absolutely no way to tell who they were, but Ryker didn’t even try.  As soon as he saw them, he opened up with a blast of crimson flame, swallowing up half the courtyard.

The attack did little against their attackers, however.  A wall of ice appeared between Ryker and the men, dissolving away the instant the fire died down.  The men in black then went on the attack themselves, conjuring enormous blades of wind and spikes of ice and rock to fly towards Ryker.  Or, more accurately, to where Ryker had been before the smoke from his flames obscured his position.

Their attacks tore into the villa, tearing it to pieces, but none came close to Ryker.

Ryker took their moment of blindness to send a fireball careening towards the closest of the attackers.  Just as it was about to explode on him, a shield of light appeared in front of him, preventing any injuries.

“Tch” muttered Ryker.  Even in this brief exchange, he could tell that his opponents were strong, perhaps almost as strong as he was.  Maybe he could take them on one-on-one, but this…  He sent out another gout of flame, but it collided with an eruption of ice.  The two attacks tore up the courtyard beyond recognition but did little to either side.

Before Ryker could follow up with another attack, the ground beneath him cracked open and he lost his balance.  It created a brief moment of distraction, but a moment is all that’s needed in a fight.  Before Ryker could right himself, two wind blades and a beam of light hit him in the chest, throwing him backward and completely destroying that wing of the villa.

Meanwhile, back in the living room, Serana was just about to head outside to help Ryker when two more attackers burst in through the windows.  She reacted quickly, though, and sent them both flying backward with a kick.

This stunned Artorias.  He knew she was far stronger than he was, but she was so fast he barely even saw her!  His awe grew even more when black flames sprang out from her arms, setting both attackers alight.  These flames gave him a palpable feeling of dread, and he held his son close.

These two attackers were injured, but with a quick gust of wind and a flash of light, the flames were extinguished.  They threw themselves into attacking Serana, but she responded in kind.  Black fire was met with blades of wind and light, and the villa was torn asunder.

Hearing the fighting, Fain blinked awake.  It took him only a moment to realize what was happening, and he pulled the dislocation crystal out of his soul realm and began activating it.

Ryker pulled himself out of the rubble of the villa and attacked those outside again, but as soon as he felt the magic of the crystal, he put all of his magic into a single attack.  All the ground around him in a twenty-foot radius went up in a tornado of crimson flame that stretched over sixty feet high, and the six men outside briefly retreated.  This gave Ryker the space he needed to fall back to the living room.

Serana, for her part, had thrown back her two opponents with a pair of black fireballs, and Fain stumbled over to her side.  Ryker burst in and joined them.  Artorias wasn’t too far away, covering Leon with his body, but when he saw the other three group up, he made to do so as well.

Unfortunately, Fain didn’t give him the opportunity.  Ryker had enough time to give him a disdainful look, while Serana reached back to him in terror after realizing what Fain was doing.  The crystal in Fain’s hand conjured a deep black sphere, with a hint of blue in the center, and enveloped them.  The last thing Artorias heard before the sphere disappeared was Serana’s voice shouting, “No! Wai- “

And they were gone.

Artorias stared in disbelief, but the two men struggling to put out Serana’s black fire brought him back to reality.  He wasted no time and grabbed what he had packed, held Leon closer, and sprinted out of the villa’s back door.

Ryker’s flame tornado died down as soon as he left, and the six other attackers burst in through the ruined walls.

“Shit!  We missed them!”

“The Great Lord damn it!  Even their princess was here!” another shouted.

“Enough!” the man who was evidently their leader said.  He waved his hand, and a spinning ball of wind helped the last two men beat out the last of the black flame clinging to them.  “There were two more here, a man and a baby.  I think that might’ve been that woman’s husband and child.  We’re going after them.”

That implication was not lost on his men.  If they killed those two, then this mission wouldn’t be a complete failure.  They’d have to kill them eventually anyway, or the child at least.

But, before they could spread their magic senses out over the city and find them, they all felt the attention of those far to the south. 

Six people had seen them.  Four of their magic senses faltered in fear when they felt the strength that came from these eight men.  The leader didn’t pay those four any mind, but the other two came from a giant stone tower in the center of the plane…

“Wait!” he shouted in panic, “It seems the Grave Warden and his disciple have spotted us.  We must leave now!  Prepare the crystal!”

One of the men pulled out a dislocation crystal of their own and activated it.  The group huddled around it and waited.  This crystal was clearly inferior to Fain’s, as it charged much slower than his.

“What are we going to do about those two that are still here?” asked one of them worriedly.

“We’ll just have to let Lord Kamran know.  He’ll take care of it.  Probably send a vassal like Korintholos or Isynos to deal with them.  We should worry more about what he’ll do to us, though.” the leader responded.  Indeed, they had failed.  They hoped they’d get off light.

The crystal finally activated, surrounding the eight men in a black sphere, then vanishing.

The battle was exceptionally loud, but it was a very large neighborhood of wealthy people, all with private security.  Consequently, it took a little while for the local garrison to arrive.  When they did, they found the Raime villa in ruins, with the rubble still burning and immense spikes of rock and ice jutting up from the ground.

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Chapter 34 - Artorias' Last Breath

Chapter 32 - Serana