‘Cyp’, snap out of it, the elders would banish you if they caught you sleeping on the job old man,’ Drake said, laughing, his dark skin vied only by his deep, mocha eyes. ‘Travellers are arriving from the west; this is no time to catch up on lost dreams brother!’
Cyprian was leaning against an oak tree at the top of the hill, legs crossed, chin held in his hand, deep in thought. It wasn’t long since he’d left Alyssa sitting on the plinth waiting for Edna. She’d never looked so alone. Celestria had told him she’d have the nightmares, but he never expected it to be so soon. It only meant dark times ahead for her, and he wished it weren’t so. She had questions, and he only had some of the answers, yet it wasn’t time for her to know. Her life had been a lie, and his conscience stabbed his heart to ribbons on a daily basis for his deceptions. He felt her turmoil; it rang like a bell inside him. Sometimes he wondered how he’d kept so many secrets from her over the years, it was for her own protection wasn’t it? How could he possibly tell her the meaning of her birthmark, and the truth about her mother and father, and even himself? It would be too much to bear, and her life would never be the same again. Must it happen so soon? She was just a child for heaven’s sake!
His troubled gaze found Drake. His friend was clad in an assortment of hides, black boots, and a black handled sword jutted from a black scabbard. Drake was smiling, as he always did, and his tone was full of light-hearted jest, which sometimes annoyed Cyprian, though only because his mind was constantly elsewhere. Life wasn’t much fun when a hundred burdens weighed your spirit down.
‘Forgive me,’ he finally conceded. ‘I had a bad night.’
If only Drake knew the half of it, he mused.
‘Hey, I’m only kidding, it’s not like we have much to do anyhow. It will just be another day, and another gold piece. Times are peaceful considering the age we live in. Check it out,’ Drake said, offering Cyprian an eye-piece wrapped in worn black leather. ‘The Toads are out early this morning.’
Times were peaceful, Drake had said. If only he knew what was coming. If only all of them knew.
Cyprian took the binocular, and looked to the west. The pastures went on for miles, dotted with red poppies along the northern side, and white and yellow flowers on the south. Carpets of wheat and corn unfurled on both sides of a gravel trail, where a small band of the To’aaj rambled towards Cobbington: six strong. Closer to the valley, more sentries stood aloft various hills and ridges, and Cyprian knew more walked the valley, ready to be called into action at the first sign of trouble.
Rieje was further west, and so was a plethora of other villages and settlements, with the Broadheart Wood flanking the south until Lochwood, where the forest declines.
‘Their obsession for shiny things never ceases to amaze me,’ Drake said.
‘There’s a reason for that you know,’ Cyprian said, still holding aloft the binocular. ‘Their power lies in knowledge of charms and amulets. They are always seeking out rare items, for their race is under threat of extinction. Did you know that? They call their foe The Scourge of the Eastern Seas, and have been at war with them, or it, for generations. They have survived thus far by sailing the oceans in invisible ships, cloaked so by a talisman of some sort, whilst they seek out the item that will defeat their enemy,’ Cyprian said, lowering the eye-piece, and returning it to Drake, who looked somewhat befuddled by his insight.
‘And how do you know all this, oh great sage of the West?’
Cyprian hated it when Drake referred to him that way. He’d always done so, for the sixteen years he’d known the Lyconiese warrior, who was ten years his junior. ‘I’ve had dealings with them in the past, and overheard snippets of information from time to time.’
‘Well knowledgeable or not, their demonic faces aren’t the first things I wish to see when I take up my sentry, and those beady eyes, they way they squint when looking up at you, it makes me wonder what they’re thinking’ Drake retorted.
‘You sound like a Human,’ Cyprian said, shooting Drake a cold stare. ‘Why such hatred for demons, not all demons are evil you know. Plus you’re of different origin, and folk welcome you?’
‘Relax; I have my reasons. And also, that reminds me, I heard the Human cities have come under attack lately, and Ardonia was all but destroyed no more than six moons past.’
Then it truly has begun, Cyprian realised. ‘Who told you this?’ he asked.
‘The Beasts of the forest in southern Mainland, their realm lies east of Ardonia, and saw the whole thing. Demons took the city by storm, and left the same day, weapons bloodied, and disappearing further south. The Beasts claimed the demons have some deep hatred for the Humans as they have slowly attacked all the cities from the furthest north to the south. What this means I don’t know. Man, I hope they don’t cross the ‘Doom.’
This really was disturbing news. He needed to get a message sent to Celestria quickly, that it’s started, and he’ll be bringing Alyssa to her as planned. Cyprian never expected it to happen so fast. She was far too young to handle what would become of her.
As morning graced Cobb, a plethora of travellers and surrounding townsfolk began making for the trading village. A high log fence stretched from the ends of one precipice to the other, over the flowing river, and cut in the middle by a gate, which was at present open wide, and ready to receive folk. All the sentries had to do was be on guard just in case trouble did come about. And Cyprian realised that trouble was indeed coming, whether today, or tomorrow, or the day after. It was coming, they were coming, and so was the end. Somewhere out there forces were gathering to seek out what was lost to them a long time ago, and soon, chaos would be reborn.
Cyprian barely spoke hereafter, he just stood against the oak, legs crossed, chin in hand, deep in thought.
Midmorning came, and through the steady influx of travellers, Cyprian felt something: a familiar presence, a force he couldn’t quite locate amongst the crowds. A small wave of Elementals from the east, north, and west merged together at the foot of the hill, and bled through the open gates and into the valley. A small group of six in particular caught Cyprian’s watchful eye, as they traversed a hill, marching towards the entrance to the village. A man kitted out in white wolf skins led the brigade, which included a woman in brown fur, and four children, one of which trailed the group, and was shrouded in a black cloak. The hood was pulled over his head. Cyprian took the binocular off Drake and had a closer look. The young boy’s face was cast in a shadow. The rest of the party talked amongst themselves, yet none of them seemed to be taking notice of the boy. Cyprian felt a stir in his belly, something wasn’t quite right. That foreboding familiarity lingered in the air, he needed to get closer. He took stone steps down the hill, and made for the group, urging them to stop.
‘Where do you hail from, and what is your business in Cobbington?’ he demanded.
The male dressed in wolf skins spoke. ‘We come from Silverdale, we set out last night. We come to visit the marketplace. Is there a problem?’
‘I’d have the rest of your names please,’ Cyprian said.
‘My name is Gerald Heatherton, and this is my wife, Beatrice, and these are our three children: Flora, Sapphire, and Doris.’
‘What about the boy, he doesn’t have a name?’
The girl Gerald introduced as Flora piped up. ‘This is Damien. We found him making for Cobbington alone, claiming he was lost. So my father said he could come with us, as we were headed there also.’
Cyprian thought her tone sounded as if she was trying to sound older than she was, and judging by the way she looked at him, giggling and blushing, she obviously had a crush on him.
Gerald looked curiously at his daughter redden around the cheeks, whilst the boy held a stare at Cyprian, one that unnerved him deeply. Just who was this boy?
‘Damien said his mother was sick and his grandfather sent him to Cobbington in search of a cure from the village alchemists,’ Beatrice said. ‘We found him wandering around to the north of here, and thought it best he come with us.’
Cyprian eyed the boy in black, who was still persisting his gaze. ‘You were sent alone? Sent without even a horse to bear you?’
The boy held his glare, and simply nodded, remaining silent.
Cyprian suddenly wondered if he’d made a mistake coming down to question the group. He had a feeling deep in his gut that something wasn’t right, but what was he to do?
He had no choice but to let them pass, and Cyprian took the steps back to the top of the hill to find Drake staring at him, eyes filled with questions. ‘What’s gotten into you? The way you took off down the hill was a tad peculiar. What if you fell and broke a bone old man?’
‘Don’t let it trouble you,’ Cyprian grunted, turning back to the Heathertons and the boy in black.
They passed through the gates and Cyprian felt that foreboding in his gut lessen the more distance was put between him and the boy. Realising that his instincts might have been true after all, he decided to follow him, if only to see what he did in the marketplace.
Once again, he was pacing down the steps, this time making for the valley, leaving Drake more confused than ever.
His instincts had been hazy but true it seemed. He followed the boy into the marketplace, where he slipped away from the Heathertons without them realising, and strolled around looking at people and not goods like others. Cyprian did well to keep out of sight as the boy trailed the aisles and eventually stopped behind Mr. Dimpleton’s stall. The boy then turned and faced Alyssa, who was dealing with a rather agitated looking Cyclops woman. Cyprian hid a few aisles down, and saw everything, the boy stirring when Alyssa noticed his presence, and for whatever reason touched her birthmark. And then he watched the chase through the aisles as Alyssa stepped out and made for him. Cyprian watched it all happen. Afterwards, when Alyssa was being questioned by a trader in silks, he waited for the boy to make his next move, which came when Alyssa went to the riverbank.
Alyssa didn’t know this, but the boy hid behind a nearby bush playing with some sort of talisman. Cyprian didn’t know what its use was, but it must’ve been magical because Alyssa became very anxious to get away from the stream, and she began talking to nobody in particular. Cyprian then watched the boy step out from his concealment and touch Alyssa’s shoulders, and begin conversing with her. Alyssa became distracted again, and the boy hastily made for cover, leaving her by the river deeply perplexed. Whoever this child was, he was playing with her. Cyprian thought about springing out from behind the watermill and taking hold of the boy, to bring him before the elders, but just as soon as the thought entered his mind, a guard ran from the marketplace, hailing him in urgency.
‘Cyprian, Drake has called for you, it is most urgent. There’s activity at the gates.’
His eyes focused back to Alyssa, who was now making for the marketplace, and the boy nowhere in sight. With a grunt of frustration Cyprian retreated back towards his post, vowing to seize the boy on his departure from the valley.
Cyprian paced through the open gate of the valley and up the stone steps to the brow of the hill. Every sentry this side of the valley had congregated there, countenances painted with distress. Drake stepped from the throng, and spoke, his voice jest-free and brimming with solemnity. He said:
‘Glad you could join us.’ Drake handed Cyprian the binocular. ‘Look to the north,’ he said simply.
Cyprian did. Across the northern fields, still quite some way into the distance, a battalion of green demons were sprinting towards the valley, their agenda realised by golden tridents glaring beneath the pre-noon sun. Tails whipped to and fro behind them. They had come.
All around him the sentries were checking their weapons, preparing for the inevitable. He wanted to make a dash for Alyssa to escort her to safety before the demons stormed the valley, but he couldn’t leave the already frightened guards to face them alone. This village had done a lot for him since that night sixteen years ago, and he had taken a vow to protect the people with his life. A promise he would now fulfil. Live or die, he would not abandon his duty.
Panic was escalating around him. Drake, on the other hand, would probably enjoy the battle, Cyprian mused.
‘We need more sentries,’ Cyprian informed Drake, lowering the eye-glass.
‘Already taken care of, they’ll be here shortly.’
‘Good. As soon as they arrive we are to shut the gate.’
Fortunately, only a few lone travellers were making from the east, which Cyprian ordered two of the panic stricken guards to usher into the village promptly. They ran down the steps to fulfil his command.
Cyprian turned to the rest of the sentries. There were at least twenty, all pacing left and right, preparing for battle. ‘Listen up,’ he demanded. ‘We are to make our way down the hill, and await the rest of the sentries. When they come we are to seal off the valley, and wait for battle. You must stand firm and show courage, for you will need every ounce of strength and wit you possess. We will need to work together to overcome this foe.’
The guards were now in attention. ‘What are they?’ a tall, light haired sentry asked. His sword was pre-emptively drawn. His face was knotted with fear.
Cyprian owed the village a huge debt, and decided it was best to tell them what they needed to know. ‘They’re Reptoes,’ he proclaimed. ‘The most savage of all demons that tread upon Gaia. They move swiftly for they are greatly agile, and will show no mercy. You must not hesitate to strike. Their weakness is their necks, for the area is softer there, little more than serpentine skin. When you strike, you must strike true or it will be your end, not theirs.’
‘Are they what I think they are?’ Drake said. ‘Are they the demons that have been attacking the Human citadels of late?’
‘Yes,’ Cyprian acknowledged.
‘What do they want with Cobbington?’ a voice rose from the throng. ‘We are peaceful folk for heaven’s sake!’
They want her, Cyprian knew, but he wasn’t about to inform them of that. ‘Destruction,’ he proffered. ‘And death to Humanity.’
Drake turned towards the north. ‘I don’t care what they want. All they will find here is death,’ he spat, unsheathing his sword and flicking the haft around his wrist in a three-hundred-and sixty degree axis.
A score of guards arrived at the gate, some on horseback, and some out of breath from the run. Cyprian led the sentries abreast the hill down to meet them. More were coming still. Drake pulled Cyprian aside and spoke. He said:
‘I think you know more about the demons than you’re letting on, old man.’
‘If we live through this, I’ll tell you,’ he said, turning his attentions to the valley where more guards were approaching the gates.