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Sword Quest of Enigmatic Souls – Volume 2

Blonde Bandits

 

The sound of suede shoes softly pattering along the fine brick road made the only noise in dead night of High Town. The owner of the shoes stared down at his feet, inattentive to anything except the sound of his footsteps as he walked alone through High Town’s back roads, a bow and quiver of arrows hung over his shoulder.

The lanky teenager, sporting a noble air that matched his impressive head of blonde hair, paid no heed to the magnificent villas he passed along the road. Thinking how annoying it was that his friends would always take the time to admire the showy homes, complete with over-done stain glass windows that nearly rivaled the castle chapel, he made a point not to look upon the houses he passed.

Having lived in an even more exquisite home his whole life, he didn’t understand what made them so remarkable. It was simply something normal to him, and didn’t deserve as much attention as his friends gave them.

While they seemed to covet a more luxurious life, his values were much simpler. The things he held dear, and the things he wished for, stemmed from the very core of the Teuton will.

To cherish one’s land.

                                To protect one’s place in life.

                                In other words-

“Good evening, young master. Out quite late, aren’t we?”

A voice he’d never heard sounded in front of him, causing him to look up in a surprised frown.

Even though there’d been no traces of anyone being around just a second before, the owner of the voice stood just meters away.

A man, nearly as tall as him, and cloaked in something brown and raggedy, yet somehow stylish. His voice and figure made him seem young and lax, but the presence he bore gave him an experienced and intimidating air.

“Who are you?” the frowning boy demanded of him, showing no signs of fear.

“Heh, I’m not important at all. Ya see, you’re the one that’s special, young master Mel Eraldin.”

Mel raised his furrowed brow instinctively, unable to hide his surprise.

“And exactly why, if I may ask, am I special?”

“Ohh, hehe, well ya see… You’re the only child of an important noble family, right? You hold the duty of carrying on the Eraldin name, which makes you veeery special indeed!”

The man exaggerated his slick, loose way of speaking even while talking about his family, which caused Mel to clench his fists in anger.

“Just what are you getting at…”

“Not only that, but you’re quite obviously being groomed to marry the young Cillavier daughter once you’re of age. Therefore, you have two very esteemed families who value your life veeery highly!”

The man stepped closer to him, revealing a devious grin that eerily matched his youthful face.

“Like I said, just what-”

“And when you have such a backing, that backing is likely to pay a veeeery steep price if it means keeping you alive.”

“What?!”

“Heh…”

As Mel attempted to reach for an arrow, the man raised his left arm slowly, drawing the boy’s attention.

Yet, the attack came not from the man, but from behind. By the time he felt the stray rope on his neck, he could only grasp at it while it seamlessly coiled itself around his throat.

As he struggled, the rope’s momentum pulled him backward, throwing him onto the ground. He tried to tear the tightly bound rope, but his panicked hands had no effect on the strangely sturdy rope. As he began to comprehend the sensation of being strangled, another rope wrapped around his legs like a whip. The rope then pulled him in the opposite direction, cutting off his ability to struggle.

The feeling of pressure seemed to explode, and his vision became static blur. He tried desperately to remember what he was thinking about before he was attacked, but his mind and body thrashed about too chaotically for him to form any thoughts. As his consciousness cut out, the only thought his mind could muster was the image of a beach.

_______

 

 

Waking with a start, Mel immediately took stock of his situation. He was in a dark, close quartered room that resembled a cell without bars.

The only thing of notice in the room, other than the burning pain he felt around his neck and throat, was the girl standing against the door, holding a lantern. The only light in the room, the lantern cast a weak glow over the petite girl. Her exceedingly slim figure, along with her small, expressionless face, gave the impression that she was a few years younger than him.

More notable than that, however, was her shoulder length, golden-blonde hair. Her bangs hid a good portion of her face, giving her an air of shyness, which, along with her blonde hair, paired oddly with her thin brown pants and hooded cloak.

As he attempted to sit up, he realized his arms and legs were bound tightly, causing him to slump down the wall he’d been sleeping against.

“You-you’re…are you people nobles? Yet, you’re criminals?” Mel blurted out, not sensitive to his own position.

“Bandits.” The girl spoke softly and curtly, not bothering to look at him.

“Bandits, huh? But, you didn’t answer my question-”

“Shh.”

Her short, deadpan response caught him off guard, and he could only stare silently for a moment, trying to figure out how to go about talking to the girl.

Tch.

I don’t do well with this type…

                                This is exactly why Selmy is perfect, as much as I hate to admit…

“Uh..”
“…….”

“If possible, I’d like to speak with your boss. Would that… be too much trouble?

“Hm.”

Mel waited patiently, as the girl seemed to be thinking silently over which option would cause her more trouble. And then, without regarding him at all, she suddenly exited through the door, to which he sighed heavily.

Shortly after, the door opened, and the man who seemed to be the leader stepped in, followed by the quiet girl and one more, a girl who closely resembled the first. The man had dressed down to an even more raggedy set of robes, revealing moderate scars along his shoulders and chest. Now without a cloak, his features were striking. Golden locks that were swept out of his sharp green eyes, and a cunning smile underneath freckled cheeks.
The newest girl took her place on his left, opposite the girl who seemed to be her sister, if not her twin. Her figure, hair color, and facial features were strikingly similar, the only remarkable differences in that her hair was pulled back, and that she wore a devious smirk the other girl surely wasn’t capable of wearing. Both of their eyes looked to be the same shade of green as the man, whose baby face put him no older than twenty, to their fifteen or sixteen, he thought.

“Um…could we not talk alone?” Mel asked, overly conscious of the two girls.

“Ohh no, see, we’re a family, the three of us, so all business must be conducted with all three of us present. You understand, right?”

“Ah, sure, whatever. Anyway, who are you people? It’s bothering me, but you don’t look like the type to be making off with nobles for money.”

“Hmm, like I said, I’m no one important. Just a side character, if you will.”

“You’re talking about a play in this kind of situation?”

“Haha, but plays are quite nice, aren’t they? I’m sure you know, as a noble. I myself have a friend who happens to be a Black Shlank from Shraunts Island, and he’s shown me a few reeeally good performances in various places. The guy knows plays well, as expected of a Shraunts native. By the way, you ever wonder why all the interesting new things like that come from Shraunts? Those Black Shlanks sure are impressive, hehe.”

“For a side character, you sure run your mouth about irrelevant things…”

“Oh, hehe, that’s right. You wanted to talk negotiations, I presume? I can’t wait to hear it. You’ve gotten my hopes up, so you better come up with something good~”

“Hahhhh…” Mel sighed deeply, before straightening his back. “So let’s get this understood. You’re planning on demanding ransom money for me, right?”

“Well yes, that much is quite plain to see, no? We send a letter, do some scary threatening stuff, and meet at a safe place to exchange you for a bunch of gold. Oh, and you’ll be in a potato sack, of course.”

Mel scowled at the jovial look the man wore as he said this, but chose to ignore it to prevent the conversation from remaining at his pace.

“Whatever it is you’re trying to get for me, I’ll do you one better….” He paused to allow himself to fully regain his composure. “…I have a proposition for you.”

“Ohh? Better than half your family fortune?”

“Much better. I’ll give you more work than you’ll find on your own.”

Seeing how serious he was, the bandit raised his brow, nodding for him to continue.

“I’ll supply you with information on the best potential targets. From how much money their family has, to where you can find them at various times. How’s that sound?”

The three bandits lost their daunting air in an instant, their jaws all dropping in sync. His words drenched in ice cold bluntness that matched the look in his eyes, Mel knew he’d successfully taken control of the conversation’s pace.

“What the…how old are you again, kid? And wait, were you somehow planning on being kidnapped today? Even though you’re our first target?” The bandit regained his exaggerated tone, but remained stupefied by Mel’s forthcoming onslaught.

“Both ridiculous questions. Tell me what you think.”

“Ah…hmmm? Well, yeah, it’s not a bad idea at all, but what makes you think you can get all that information so easily?”

“My father is the chief of security. There probably isn’t much I couldn’t figure out, so thirty to forty young Teutons shouldn’t be much of a problem.”

“Wow, do you have ice running through your veins or something? But, certainly, I like it, though! But, then again, what reason would you have for doing that? Wouldn’t it be just as easy to pay the ransom and be done with us? Hmm, there’s a catch, isn’t there? Tell me, what’s the catch? Eh?” The bandit rapid fired over-excitedly, leaning closer to Mel with every word.
“Yes, there is. In return, all I ask is that you bring the targets to the lake at the middle of the forest, preferably drugged and blindfolded.”

“And… we’re doing what, with them, now?” He asked with a dubious look, taking a step back.

“We’ll have them try to pull the red sword from its seal.”

“Ohhh… and, if they do it?”

“Then you’ll help me deliver the sword to the Wolverine army.”

The bandit was now scratching his head, face twisted in perplexity.

“I can explain the details of it all later, if you like. Ideally when I’m not tied up in a dusty old cell of a room.”

“Yeah, yeah, never mind that, I’ve more questions. Why are you talking about multiple targets? Aren’t you one of the three heir candidates? Assuming you’re no good, why don’t we just go after the other two?”

“Shut up. That’s… a last resort. Point is, it isn’t set in stone that it’s one of us. Everybody’s so damn vague or completely in the dark about how the heir is chosen, and our race feels more political than anything, so as far as I’m concerned it could be someone totally different, even multiple people. I’ll find targets that fit the bill in terms of a strong will, family history, and the like. All you need to worry about is kidnapping and moving the target, I’ll handle the rest.”

“Hmmm. As crazy as it sounds coming from a damn rich kid who should seriously be a lot less calm right now, I like it. You’ve got a deal, pal!” The man stooped down even lower, and stuck his hand out while forming a wide, close eyed grin.

“Could you stop mocking me, now? I’ll gladly shake your crime-stained hand if you’ll get these damn ropes off me.”

“Oh, what’s that? Somebody at the door? Okaaaay, we’ll all three be right there to answer! The man sang out in an over the top voice, and proceeded to prance out of  the room with the girls in tow, one having a harder time fake-prancing than the other.

“Oy!! Damn bandits! Get back here!”

____

 

Later in the night, Mel had finally been freed from his restraints. Reconvening in the main room of what looked to be an old mountain lodge, the two men sat at an old dining table, where Mel explained the details of his father’s inner circle, and their belief. The bandit remained surprisingly quiet through the whole thing, listening with an interested look.

The two girls sat around a small fireplace near the table, half-listening to Mel’s speech. The livelier of the two would occasionally let out a long yawn, to which Mel would shoot an annoyed look.

“Sooo, basically, get it out of here and let the Shlanks and Red Wolves fight over it, eh?”

“That’s the idea, yes. There’s no reason to harbor something like that when it will continue to make us a target, is there?”

“Hmmm, I dunno. You might be right. But, ya know, what if the Red Wolves go back on their word and turn the sword on all of you? You’d look pretty stupid then, wouldn’t you?”

“I’ll admit there is that possibility. Trusting any non-Teutons is a dubious thing, but that’s why the Shlanks are key. We’ll find a way to hurl them into the fight at the right time. They’ve counted on our hesitance to use the sword all this time, but if it were to be taken by another state and used as a weapon, they would surely throw all their military might into recovering it. That would allow us the time and space we desperately need to rebuild our strength.”

“Yeah, you’ve certainly given this a lot of thought, I see. Not that I care one way or another, hehe.” Mel frowned at the man’s nonchalant attitude regarding his state. He wanted to ask him how it was possible for him to have such a deviant will, but he held his tongue.

“Weell, I suppose it’s time for you to go for now, pal. Girls, be dears and grab the potato sack, will you?”

“Again with that?!”

“Haha okay, okay. But, you know, we can’t go trusting you with knowledge of our hideout just yet, so we’ll have to take you back to town blindfolded. You understand, right?” He asked with his cheeks rested in his hands, the same close eyed grin plastered to his face.

“….yeah, I get it. Let’s just go, then. Ah-” As he stood up with a sigh, Mel suddenly paused.

“Would you mind dropping me off in the desert village ruins, instead of High Town? There’s a certain person who sticks quite ridiculously close to me, and is undoubtedly waiting for me, and I’d like to avoid letting them see us together. You understand, right?”

“Mm certainly, that would be troublesome for us as well.”

“Good. And, if by chance we still run across her, please do not do anything stupid. She won’t tell anybody about you if I tell her not to.”
“Ho-ho, the controlling type, eh? True, you do come off a bit that way…is she into tha-?”

“Shut up. Anyway, it’s unlikely, I just thought I’d cover that just in case.”

_____

 

“Mel! Are you okay? Who are these people?!”

Dammit.

“It’s quite alright, young miss. Just a precautionary measure, nothing to be worried about at all. Boy, you sure weren’t kidding about the girl, huh?”

“What? What’s he talking about, Mel?” The petite girl looked back and forth confusedly between Mel and the bandit as he removed the blindfold.

“Don’t worry about it, Selmy. They’re new business partners is all. I’ll explain everything later.” Mel sighed as he approached the girl, noting the amount of dirt she’d accrued on her frilly dress and thin boots.

“Well, you’d better get back before your parents begin to worry about you being kidnapped or something, hehe.” The relaxed bandit turned and walked away, the girls following, glancing warily at Mel and Selmy.

“One more thing.” Mel directed his voice and glance at the back of the man, paying no attention to the girl clinging to his sleeve.

“Hah?” The bandit slowed his stride, leaning his head back without turning around.

“Do you not have a name?”

“Hmmm, a name, huh?” The man pondered, raising his left pointer finger.

“I’ll tell you once I feel I can truly trust you, as a partner of a bandit. How about that?”

“…whatever,” Mel spat, turning his back. “I’d feel pretty tainted the day I’ve gained the trust of a bandit, anyway.”

“Hehe, I’d bet you already feel a bit tainted, though. Bye bye, now, young master, and young miss~” The man waved loosely as he continued on.

Mel frowned at his words for a moment, before responding.

“See you later then, filthy bandit.”

___

After lessons the next day, Mel found himself in his father’s study, a candlelit chamber in the basement floor of their home. Full of shelves adorned with old books and flasks of red liquid, the place had always been strictly off limits and locked.  His father would make very few exceptions, and only when he was in the room himself.

“Father, I’ve got something to discuss with you.” Standing before his ever-composed father as he sat silently staring down at a stack of papers on his marble finish desk, Mel took a breath.

“To tell you the truth, I overheard you and Shae talking the other day.”

“Oh, and just what did you hear, my son?” Wendell Eraldin looked up with slight interest, maintaining his composure without any hints of being upset at his son eavesdropping.

“You were talking about Shae’s father-about Melvin…having a contact…and that contact getting impatient.” Mel gulped as his father stared at him un-phased.

“You were talking about me, weren’t you?”

“Oh? And what makes you think that?”

“Because you’ve taught me well on your beliefs and intentions, father. And…you’ve told me many times that you want me to bring you the red sword someday. I haven’t forgotten those words, even if you stopped saying them four years ago.”

As he said this, he couldn’t escape the image of his thirteen-year-old self crying into bloodied hands. A scene that changed his life, and should have had an impact on his father. He paused to check, but his father’s composure hadn’t waned at all.

“I’ve tried to pull it many times since then. And…even if I can’t, I’m thinking of ways that I can still bring it to you. Therefore, I’ve met up with a man skilled at executing kidnappings, and with him I plan on finding someone who can pull it, no matter how many people we must use. So, I’d like you to let General Melvin know, so he can make plans with his contact.”

Wendell remained quiet, seemingly in thought, for a moment. As Mel began to grow impatient at his father’s straight face, he finally spoke up.

“Well, I must say I’m surprised. You’ve grown into a strong young man, Mel.” His father smiled warmly, but he couldn’t help but take it as distant.

Not even going to ask how I got involved with someone like that, huh..

                                Let alone scold me..

 

“It’s true that is something we’ve talked about as a last resort, but we seemed to be lacking the resources. I will discuss this with Melvin of course, but I’d ask you to be very careful, keeping in mind the people your actions represent. This is a very delicate matter, so if anything were to go wrong”-

“I’ll make sure nothing goes wrong,” he firmly interjected.

“Very well. It’s true, however, that the war is reaching a critical point, and tensions are at an all-time high on both sides. Let me ask you then, if it came to it, would you use those friends of yours? Surely you aren’t forgetting that they are the most likely candidates.”

Mel looked down, grimacing.

“…I’m…certain I would.”

 

___

That night, Mel walked down High Town’s road with a sidelong frown.

“Do you absolutely insist on coming with me?”

“Of course, I do! You’ve gotten yourself in such a situation, how could I not go with you?”

“Ugh, you won’t be of any help though. Honestly, you’re like an annoyingly attached little brother.”

“Even though I’m older than you! Hmph…”

“Oy, then maybe try to act like you’re older, for a change.”

“Gosh, don’t be so prickly just because you’re embarrassed. Besides, you like that side of me, don’t you?”

“Oh, look at that, she admits to her facade. And just who the hell is embarrassed?”

“You just don’t realize you are! Of course, it isn’t cool to bring your girlfriend to your secret criminal meeting, but you just couldn’t refuse me since you actually really wanted me to be there with you!” Having tried her hardest to keep her voice to a high whisper, Selmy leered at the frowning boy more precociously than he could bare. Forced to hide his embarrassment, he resorted to palming her face so she couldn’t see him, and proceeding to squish it around playfully.

“Who are you calling whose girlfriend? I don’t remember signing off on anything like that.”

“Beelll, zats by vaaaace!” She blubbered about, flailing her arms uselessly. Mel couldn’t help but chuckle at her helpless figure. Pulling his hand back, he continued his stride, gazing forward with a soft smile.

“Heh, looks like you’re a bit more energetic. Now just who was it that couldn’t possibly be of any help?” She said with a smirk, holding her index finger to her cheek sarcastically.

“Well…I guess that side of you isn’t so bad,” he whispered softly, his gaze remaining ahead.

“Ah..” her façade came down once more, and she was unable to keep her smirk through her reddened cheeks.

_____

 

Having met up with the bandits in the desert, the two were briskly escorted, blindfolded, to the same hideout. Mel and the male bandit sat at the table, plotting over a map of East Takanova, while the girls sat around the fire, half listening and half in their own conversation.

Eventually, Mel noticed that the girls were getting along, even surprisingly well, he thought. The bandit twins were showing Selmy some technique that seemed to aim at lowering her energy level, which caused him to look up several times, thinking the girls had left the room. He thought about joining them out of interest, but his focus was on planning with the bandit leader. He had a very short span of time in which to do so, so he refocused himself on the map, thinking he would just ask Selmy about it later.

____

 

Two nights later. The first target.

Mel and Selmy met up with the bandits at the appointed time. The trio lugged a bulky potato sack into the forest’s clearing, and rolled it into the grass.

“Alright pal, let’s do this quick and easy, and on to the next one, I’m sure. This guy was pretty pathetic, so I kinda hope he isn’t the one, heh. We set the exchange for an hour from now, just as planned.”

“I don’t plan on making a scene out of it, so don’t worry,” Mel grunted as he approached the water and readied the small log-raft they’d hidden the night before. “A simple go at pulling it, and we’re done. How dazed on medicine is he?”

“Oh, huhu, let’s just say that he was a loud catch, sobbing, pleading, screaming, the whole ball of wax- until we bubbled some opiates into his system. Thank goodness, because the girls were having a preeetty tough time with him.”

“He actually kicked me in the face, and then screamed apologies for the next ten minutes,” the more lively of the two girls added.

“Mm, he made me thankful for cooperative victims like you,” the quiet one threw in, glancing expressionlessly at Mel as he steadied the raft as the bandits rolled the victim onto it.

“The way you word that is a bit alarming,” he mumbled back. “Alright, let’s go, bandit.”

The two men settled into the raft and pushed out from the edge, leaving the girls behind. Using small paddles to wade their way to the center, they kept a close eye on the motionless potato sack as they paddled.

“You sure weren’t lying about there being no patrol out here, eh? Say, Mel-boy, why do you think that is? I mean, if this sword is the most valued artifact in Takanova’s history aside from the green sword that’s been sealed who-knows-where, shouldn’t it be, ya know, guarded?”

“Well, it’s actually a well-kept secret that the red sword can be pulled by a Teuton. Most people think it’s a Shlank relic, and nothing more, so it just sits there uselessly. Honestly, I believe it myself to some extent. The only reason I can’t pull it must be because my soul is far too green for that filthy red thing..”

“Hmmm, but what if a Shlank snuck in aiming for it? It’d be Velagoras all over again, wouldn’t it?”

“That would never happen, though. My father knows about every person who travels through the walls, as well as the mountains. For example, he knew about three mysterious figures entering through the cliff region just beyond the volcano.”

“Hohh, not bad! And here I was, thinking we were totally under the radar here!” The bandit was genuinely surprised, though he didn’t seem bothered by the news in the slightest, his tone as loose as ever.

“Yeah, you’ll have to tell me what the central wall is like, sometime. Anyway, that’s just one of several reasons why there’s no guard. These days, certain people in the castle might want there to be, but we don’t have the resources to do it. Another reason, well it’s just my opinion, but I think the whole ‘race’ idea is a farce. There isn’t any concrete way that the heir is decided, and the sword isn’t some trial, just a possibility. It seems to be someone’s preference that they let things play out naturally, the opposite of what we’re trying to do. It pisses me off how vague people like Gambell and Valblin are about the heir race, which has led me to think they believe in a grand will that naturally guides one of us to heirship. He can teach the ignorant fools that nonsense, and I’ll take matters into my own hands. I’ll retrieve the sword, use it to end the war, and prove myself as the heir in doing so.”

“My, you sure have thought a lot about this, eh? Anyway, looks like we’re here.”

The two stepped out onto the small patch of weathered land, dragging the potato sack with them. As the bandit opened up the sack and shook it as if the contents were actual potatoes, Mel scowled at the idle red sword before him. The many times he’d tried to unearth it came to mind, causing his lip to quiver with suppressed rage.

Turning away from the sword with a flustered look, he looked upon the teenage boy whom he’d marked as the first target. He was a noble who Mel knew well, someone that, despite being older than him, he knew would be an easy target due to being a messenger. The bandit had already untied his bound hands, and was unraveling a thick wrap around the boy’s eyes and ears. Stopping with just enough to keep his sight cut off, the bandit clapped his hands close to the boy’s ears. The victim jumped at the sound, and proceeded to flounder about like a newborn calf, groaning incomprehensibly.

“Looks like he’s as alert as we need, yeah?” The bandit looked up and Mel with a grin. He approached the boy, and gave the bandit a firm nod, leaving the talking to him.

“Alright friend. We’ll be very quick here and get you home before you know it. All you have to do is pull this stick out of the ground for us, okaaay?” The boy gave a weak nod.

The two dragged him quickly to the sword, and lifted him up. Placing his hands over the hilt, they then stepped back, bracing his wobbling shoulders.

“Alright, now, with aaallll your might~”

Putting all of his focus into his own Teuton will, Mel grasped both of the boy’s shoulders, as if to channel his own will into the boy’s.

___

 

The experiment was over as quickly as it started. As expected, it resulted in resounding failure. After several sheepish attempts, the boy began badly whimpering, and Mel decided to end it there.

As the bandits packed up their victim like he was an important piece of baggage, Mel and Selmy lugged the raft into the woods, and proceeded to toss it into the thicket of bush and branches.

“Well then, we have to go and pick up our day’s pay now, so we’ll see the two of you tomorrow night for a strategy meeting, yeah?”

“We’ll be waiting in the ruins. I already have an idea for the next one.” Mel threw back to him, brushing his dirtied hands clean. He then watched as Selmy patted her hands on her thick pant legs which didn’t suit her, before trotting back to meet the retreating bandits. Hearing her exchange goodbyes with the two girls, he let a small chuckle out, before offering a vicious glance to the slightly moonlit sword in the middle of the small lake.

“Meeel, you coming?”

“Yeah, I am… let’s try out that new technique of yours on the way, yeah?”

“Mm, okay!”

 

As the two sneaked their way back into the walls of High Town, they stopped at a grassy hill that overlooked most of High Town’s extravagant villas, as well as the distant castle, basked in distorted moonlight. Wiping sweat from their brows, they seemed to be exhausted to a point of concern.

“Is this…the trade off?” Mel panted, holding his head as he sat, elbows on his knees.

“It is…pretty difficult to keep up…isn’t it?” Selmy was in no better shape, leaning her right side lazily into Mel’s bent back as she rubbed her now bare feet.

“Yeah…I don’t think it’s worth the results. I need to be focused on other things, so you can continue practicing on your own, if you feel like it.” His labored voice sounded oddly warm to Selmy, which caused her to raise her face, propping it against his sturdy back.

“Mm, I think I’ll do that,” she whispered, hiding a soft smile.

“Say, Selmy.” As if spotting her smile, he broke the brief silence.

“Ah-yes?”

“I’ve put off asking this, but…how are you okay with… what we’re doing? I mean…” he paused to lower his voice, “kidnapping innocent people, forcing them like that, working with criminals…how can you smile through all that?”

Her mouth open as if confused by the question, Selmy shifted to a slightly more upright position.

“Umm…if you’re talking about right and wrong, then what about you, Mel? You’re not a criminal either, you know?”

“I certainly am now, for conspiring this whole thing.”

“In that case, so am I for going along with it!”

“But what I’m saying is, you were only dragged into it. You aren’t a conspirer or-”

“Weell, weren’t you dragged into it, too? If you hadn’t been kidnapped, you wouldn’t have had to come up with this idea. Even if you act so strong about it, you’re still a victim, yourself, you know?” Her tender words cut straight through the back she whispered into, rendering Mel silent.

                This girl…

                                How is it… that she can make me feel like this?

                “Well…I can only do it… because I believe in my father’s ideals.”

Nobody else…makes me feel safe enough…to talk about these things.     

                “Hmph, well then, I can put up with it because I believe in you. Will that answer do?”

“Yeah…for now.” Mel buried his face into his arms, hiding a smile of his own.

 

___

 

Two nights later. The second victim.

Another noble, this time younger, found himself sacked up and thrown onto the makeshift raft.

“Well young master, the good news is that our friend from the other night seems to have no recollection of our little late night rendezvous. The girls did some investigating, and he doesn’t remember a siiiingle thing! So, as you were hoping for, we took care in lowering the dosage tonight! The bandit’s cheerful voice sent a chill down Mel’s spine, as the two prepared the raft just like the first time.

“And, the bad news?”

“Weeeeell, it’s just my opinion, buuut I think, probably, this one’s another dud, hehe.”

“Stop throwing my focus off with your negative assumptions… if he has the power within him, I’m going to draw it out.”

“If you say soooo~”

 

Another failure. This time, the victim was more aware, but still didn’t seem to grasp the idea of pulling the sword like his life depended on it. Mel chose to believe it was simply another case of the subject not having the will of an heir, as the bandit had foretold.

Two nights later. The third victim.

This time it was a spunky villager whom Mel had only heard about. The dosage had, as planned, been lowered once more. As a result, the subject seemed to understand his mission, and tried of his own accord to pull the sword.

Yet, another failure.

Four nights later. The fifth victim. The fifth failure.

Eight nights later. The ninth victim.  Once more, a failure.

The bandit maintained his grin. Selmy stayed positive, and supported Mel with her radiant smile. Even the twins grew more friendly with them. However, Mel only grew more frustrated. By this ninth attempt, his level of coercion of the victim gradually grew, once he felt he’d channeled enough of his own will into them. Even though he stayed quiet just in case this victim retained his memories despite the medicine, he found himself throwing dirt and water on the man, while the bandit verbally spurred him to try harder.

 

Two nights later. The tenth victim-  Edward Hanon.

A well regarded noble soldier, newly graduated from military training.

Mel and Selmy both knew him well from childhood, and always revered him as an older brother type. Therefore, this night’s Mel and Selmy bore a solemn demeanor.

This was a last resort for Mel among potential targets. From what he’d learned through the previous nine, he’d come to realize someone like this was the best he could hope for. A strong background from a noble family, Edward was also a sworn soldier with the ambition of becoming a Knight-General, and the skill and knowledge to back it up. But most importantly, he had a certain sense of righteousness when it came to the Teuton’s group will. His caring, helpful attitude aided Mel throughout his childhood, and helped instill in him the will he held dear.

What does the Teuton Will mean to you, Mel?”

His words of long ago reverberated through Mel’s memory as he and the bandit rowed toward the small patch of land.

“How should I answer? I cherish this place I have here, so it’s my will to protect it, right?”

                                “Then, don’t ever forget about that. Even when you’re older and you learn more about Takanova and the world, always make sure to cherish that place that you’re thinking of.”

                                “O-okay…”

                                “And, if that place should ever change, cherish it for what it once was, but even more for what it has become. And do everything in your power to protect it. Can you remember that?”

                                “Yeah! I can! I’ll remember that, Ed!”

 

                                …I’m sorry, Ed.

                                It’s because of that will…

                                Because of the place that I cherish…

                                That I must do this to you.

 

Understanding his instructions despite his confusion, Edward tried to pull the sword to no avail. With some inciting, he tried harder a second and third time. Mel put more focus into the attempt to channel his will then any other time before, to no avail, and begrudgingly began his combination coercion with the bandit, ramping up their intensity with each failed attempt.

When Edward still failed despite water being violently thrown in his face, Mel finally snapped. Slapping his drenched face, he grasped his shoulders.

“PULL THIS DAMN THING UP RIGHT NOW, OR WE’LL KILL EACH AND EVERY PERSON YOU LOVE! RALHP, MAIER, SAYA, MEL, SELMY, EVERYONE YOU HOLD DEAR!”

The bandit seemed to forget his job, as he could only stare in genuine shock at the screaming Mel. Selmy looked on with tearful eyes from the other side of the lake, while the twins stared, dumbfounded. Mel continued shouting furiously at the blindfolded man, even grasping his arms and neck as he urged him on.

“Oy, oy, if you’re that loud then someone might actually be drawn out here!”

The bandit’s words fell on deaf ears, Mel’s vision going white with a desperate rage. As he began to wrench the sword upward along with the struggling Edward, his mind blacked out, and memories of that rainy day submerged.

The pounding rain assaulted the eleven-year-old boy, who did his best to keep his shaggy blonde hair out of his face as his planted feet bore deep into the new mud.

“With all your might, Mel! You can do it!”

                                His father’s muffled words hardly reached him, yet they conveyed his expectations thoroughly.

Despite the pouring rain, and the battle that was being fought on the eastern end of the island that threatened the lives of many of his friends, his father expected him to thrust the long, daunting red blade up from its resting place.

Because his father expected it, he expected it of himself, and therefore gave his all, ignoring the cold rain that felt like it was soaking through his thin bones.

Maybe it was because of the battle being fought, he thought, that his father became so desperate now. He realized the weight this battle carried, and understood the sense of desperation.

He remembered Edward’s words to him just days before, and felt the sense of desperation grow within him.

Therefore, he threw every ounce of strength his small frame could expend into his tensed arms, thrusting upward as if his very life depended on it.

However-

 

Returning to himself, Mel opened his eyes. He was laying in the dead grass, just feet away from Edward, who had also collapsed and lost consciousness. The sight of his limp, bloodied hands reminded him where he was.

Too exhausted to move from his back, he brought his palms before his eyes. From his shaking hands fell a drop of blood, cascading like a lone tear down his cheek.

Ha…it’s just like that time.

                                That time too, I failed to take it.

                                I laid like this, too beaten down to even shield my face from the rain.

                                Unable to squeeze my worn hands in the slightest.

                                Too ashamed to show him my face.

                                Ah-that’s right, Selmy was watching from the trees, wasn’t she?

                                Father stood there… waiting for me to get back up.

                                When I didn’t, he took me back home, never showing me his face.

                                Ever since then…

                                It’s like he hasn’t shown me his face, even once.

                                He completely gave up on me.

                                Well, I am this pathetic, after all.

                                I still can’t pull it, yet, no matter how strong my will.

                                Maybe I’ll never be able to?

                                If I can’t do it by tomorrow, then…

“MEL! Are you okay?!”

He returned from his childhood self once more to see Selmy’s small figure crouched over him.

“Your hands! I’ll wrap them, so stay still!” Fighting tears that dripped down onto Mel’s cheek, Selmy retrieved a roll of wound wrap from her soaked brown cloak.

Ignoring her order, he sat up, allowing her his hands.

“You swam over here, huh? Rather bold of you,” He said blankly.

“Shut up!” she cried, her façade nowhere to be found.

“Sorry…that you had to see me like-”

“Shh!” She placed a finger over his mouth, before gently wiping his bloody, teary cheek. Trying her best to stop the tears that were running down her quivering cheeks, she gave a messy smile, her facial features unable to relax due to the crying.

As she continued to wrap his hands calmer than her face conveyed, he leaned his forehead into hers with a sigh.

“Can you really still put up with this?” He asked in a whisper.

“Of course,” she replied softly.

“I couldn’t bring it up earlier, but you know that people have died because of copy-cat abductions, right? Even then?”

“Yes, even then.”

“Look at what I’ve done to Edward. Can you really still smile at me, with this?”

“Mmhm. Because, I still believe in you,” her smile lit up before him, as If warming his cold soul. “That won’t change, and it’s time you understood it.”

He could only chuckle lightly in response, his eyes still pointing down.

“Oy, let’s get this show on the road, lovebirds.” The bandit spoke up in his usual relaxed tone. Mel looked up to see that he’d already stowed the unconscious Edward away and prepared the raft.

“Thanks to you, we need to drug him a bit more to blot out any impression he got out of this, plus we should probably fix his hands up before exchanging him…”

“Yeah, you’re right. Anything that could lead someone’s attention here at this crucial time needs to be taken care of.”

“Yep, yep…ah, by the way,” he turned back to face the two.

“The name’s Hastor. Now you can stop looking into it, yeah? I’m no one special, after all, hehe.”

Mel’s eyes widened, and he looked away from the bandit called Hastor.

Ah, man…

                                Shouldn’t you both be scolding me for doing something like that?
At this rate, my character is going to turn to something irredeemable…

“Hah, didn’t I tell you before? I don’t need the trust of a filthy bandit. Besides, I’m too busy to bother finding out about you right now.”

“Ohh, that so, is it?” Hastor responded to Mel’s scoff with his most sarcastic pitch, before ushering the two onto the raft.

 

After cleaning up, the groups prepared to separate one last time.

“Take care of him, will you?” Mel requested sincerely.

“Aye aye, pal. Say, will we still plan strategy tomorrow? I’m not sure where you’re looking to go from here, after all.”

“Yeah, tomorrow will be the last, and most important one. Everything depends on how we handle things two nights from now.” [include explanation of why tomorrow won’t work]

“Ahh, got it, though I don’t really care one way or another, hehe.”

___

 

The next day, in the apothecary ward. A certain someone had needed to go to the infirmary, and Mel was forced to escort his brute of a friend.

“Really, how did you manage to slip in a puddle that small?”

“Don’ bake vun of be, ogay? You would hab slibd, too!”

“Whatever, just pipe down, your dumb voice is going to force all the blood in your head to escape.”

“Why so bean to a hurt berson, Bel? Cedric would be nicer, at leasd.”

As the frivolous boy continued to whine, Mel brought him into the infirmary, where the puddle’s culprit was quickly discovered. After Tess left, the three boys sat quietly. The injured idiot fell asleep quickly, while Mel sat in silent thought. The culprit, lounging on the infirmary’s bed despite there being an injured person in the room, peered at him suspiciously.

Ahh, there’s that look of his.

                                As if he’s peering deep into my soul.

                                Even though…he doesn’t even have much of a soul of his own.

                                So it isn’t as though he can understand mine.

                                I really hate that about him…

                                Although… if he wasn’t like that…

                                We probably wouldn’t be friends.

Annoyed, he shifted his glance to his sleeping friend.

And this one…acting so oblivious all the time.

                                Yet, he’s the most observant of all of us.

                                I wonder…if he’d actually fake sleeping like this…

                                Hahh..these two fools are who I’m up against.

                                There’s no way I shouldn’t be able to take it before them.

                                Well…tonight’s my last chance…isn’t it?

 

___

That night, the motley group of bandits and nobles held their final strategy meeting. This time, the girls sat at the table, just as focused on the discussion as the two men were.

 

“Soo, the idea is to draw them out to the lake and have one of them take it, yeah?” Hastor asked with a smirk.

“Yes, and you can leave getting them out there to me,” Mel answered, his hands clasped in front of his nose.

“You think you’ll be able to do it?” Selmy cut in, staring firmly into Mel’s eyes.

 “Well, I think Cedric is starting to suspect something. If I throw him a little bait tomorrow, he and Quentle should act as we need them to.”

“So then, what’s the tactical layout for this one? I have a feeling you’ll say it won’t go like the others, ehe.”
“You’re correct, Hastor,” Mel responded, his gaze narrowed.

“I’d like us to force one of them to take the sword to defend themselves. I’d only like one of them to be captured, so that the other will have a reason to desire the sword immediately. Besides, we won’t have time to knock them out and do things the way we have been.”

“Ahh? Why’s that?”

“Well, according to my father, there will be Red Wolves in our midst once the night’s battle has reached a certain point.” Mel said this without pause, closing his eyes to the shocked faces around him.

“The enemy…will be in the walls?”

“Yes, they will. This will force whoever pulls the sword to either fight or give the sword up, which is what makes your involvement important.”

“Ohh? Why us?”

“I’ll say this now. You’ll only receive payment for this particular job if the terms are fully met.” Mel opened his eyes as he said this, and glared at Hastor, who grinned silently in response.

“Also, the terms will be non-negotiable.”

Hastor raised his brow at Mel, who paused and took a slow breath.

“Equally as important as retrieving the sword and delivering it, you are to assist me in ensuring the survival of the targets.”

Selmy wore a soft smile as he said this, while Hastor chuckled.

“Ho boy, I can’t wait to talk about the pay for this one, huhu.”

“Yes, it will be sufficient. And I understand this is a demanding job to take, so we’ll wait however long we need to while you three talk it over. If you decide not to, we’ll break our ties here tonight and that will be it. You have my word that I won’t concern myself with you lot anymore, as long as you stay away from the names on the list I gave you the other night.” Mel’s stern expression didn’t budge as he said this.

“Ahh, so cold toward your partner, Mel-boy! Well then, we’ll go ahead and take your offer to discuss this in private.” The last half of Hastor’s response lacked his usual loose tone, leaving Mel with a sense of just how dangerous the man was.

 

After the bandit trio moved to another room, Mel turned his hard gaze to Selmy.

“Selmy, it should go without saying, but I’d like you to stay home for this job.”

“H-huh? Ah, I guess I had a feeling,” Selmy brooded, looking down at her enclosed hands with a bitter smile. “I assume there’s no way you’ll budge on that, is there?”

“Right. The danger involved this time is on another level. I won’t argue this matter. Do you understand?”

After a short pause, Selmy finally looked up, regarding him with her warmest of smiles.

“Yeah, I understand.”

Mel kept quiet, nodding back in response.

 

After some time, the trio returned to the room, and stood before them.

“Well?” Mel demanded, his tone as frank as ever.

“Hehe, looks like we have a deal, young master Mel.”

 

____

 

 

The next night.

Mel leaned against a thick tree at the forest’s center, where it met the small lake. He thumbed the string of the spare bow he’d brought, quietly waiting. Hearing the violent sounds of siege battle coming from the far end of the forest beyond the cliffy region, he stared out into the vacant, moonlit lake, thinking back on his last conversation with Selmy.

“Do you think Hastor and the girls will really protect them?”

                                “Yeah, I believe they will.”
“Then…what about you? Will they protect you?”
“No need. I’ll stay calm and take care of myself. The Red Wolves should know not to attack me anyway, unless something were to go wrong.”

                                “And…if something went wrong?”

                                “Well, it isn’t as if I haven’t planned for that.”

 

Selmy hadn’t seemed any less tense after he’d explained the involvement of the guys from class, but didn’t question him any further once he’d finished.

Farum should be arriving at the ruins with my bow any time now.

                                There’s no doubt, they’ll notice the message.

                                They’ll make it here, without fail.

                                Farum, Berd, Kaolo, Geraint, Jorge... how about you?

                                Will you meet my expectations as well?

 

 

_____

 

 

The plain night’s sky exploded in red light, showering the forest’s opening in a mural of moonlight and ruby red glow. The sounds of the battles in the distance seemed to disappear for a moment.

Mel stepped to the edge of the lake, observing the spectacle in silence.

He’d understood, after watching his friend struggle, just how pointless his previous attempts were. He’d sullied his own hands, ruined the lives of others, and forced his friends into this dangerous situation. He could only look on at the result of his work with steadfast focus.

While Cedric turned slowly in his direction, his aura doused in that daunting red light, Mel could only look straight ahead, resolving himself once more.

 

“MEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!”

 

Alright then, Cedric….let’s begin.