"Mina! Wait up!" A boy's voice called out. "You're too fast."
A girl stopped at a forest clearing and waited for him to catch up. She peered up at him with soft silvery eyes through long strands of messy pale white hair.
The boy was taller than her, though their eyes were the same and his hair was shorter and a shade darker than hers.
After studying him, she laughed. "You're just too slow. Come on, I want to go deeper. We've never gone this far before."
The boy sighed. "It's too dangerous. There is a reason why no one wanders this far from the village."
"Oh come on, brother!" She groaned. "It's not that far. Besides, you can fight if something happens."
He frowned. "Maybe…" She was right. He was skilled with a staff which he carried with him on his back, but he was worried about her. She had no weapon and no armor to protect herself if he failed to shield her from an attacker.
"Come on!" The girl harried him before moving on further into the forest.
The boy hesitated and he wanted to stop her but he only found himself chasing after her. She found a stream of water and he continued to follow as she decided to travel to its source, a monstrous waterfall.
Mina stared up at it in awe. "It's so beautiful!" She turned to her brother and noticed that he was looking at something else. "Zihark? What is it?"
"That tree…" He said, "It's giant."
"Huh?" She turned. "Oh wow!"
Before them was a tree taller than any other. Its branches stretched high and its roots dug deep into the ground all around them and through the forest.
"This place…" The boy murmured. "This place is sacred."
Mina looked back at him.
Zihark's silvery eyes narrowed in thought.
"What is it?" She asked him.
"I don't know," he told her. "Let's get a closer look."
The two made their way across the water to the large tree. They stood at the base and gazed up.
"What is that?" The sister asked.
"Hmm?" The boy looked around and squinted his eyes searching up and down the tree. "I don't see anything."
"That stone. Something is stuck in that tree." She stretched out her arm and pointed to it with her finger. "There."
The youth looked harder until he saw it too. A large stone fragment of some kind stuck in the tree's trunk. It glowed a soft blue hue. "I don't know…" He paused and stood there silently by his sister until a feeling of danger washed over him. "We need to leave. We aren't safe here."
"What? Huh?" Mina squeaked. "What do you-"
"Oh look what we have here…" A voice spoke in a deep guttural tone. "Two Reians all alone."
The two turned to see a group of three balaur approaching from behind them.
Powerful kin of the Drakan, they were neither dragon nor human but somewhere in between. Their bodies were covered in crimson scale plates and their eyes were dark and empty, their sharp teeth bared. The one that stood in the middle was the one that spoke to them. He was taller and appeared more powerful than either of his two comrades.
Zihark swore under his breath. "What do you want?"
The balaur commander laughed. "We followed you here. Thanks for leading us to this." He made a hand gesture toward the sacred tree behind them.
The youth snarled and drew his staff from off his back and held it readily in front of himself. "No. Leave here now."
The commander grinned and spoke to his comrades in a different tongue. The other two balaur chuckled menacingly and drew their weapons, large scale covered scimitars.
"What!" The girl shrieked. "Brother!"
"Mina, run back to the village and get help. I can take these guys. No matter what, they can't find what they're looking for."
The girl hesitated. "But I…"
"You're a brave one, aren't you." The commander told him. "But not very smart."
The boy snarled again and cried out as he swung his staff as hard as he could at the commander.
The balaur blocked his weapon with his own blade and laughed.
"Mina, RUN!" Zihark shouted.
Without thinking, the girl obeyed and darted through the trees.
Immediately, the boy swung his staff back around and delivered a blow right to the commander's chest, causing the drakan to stagger and wince.
The commander shouted something in Balic tongue and his comrades ran off after Mina.
"No!" Zihark cried.
The balaur growled and with one swift swing, he knocked the boy to the ground. "You will die today, kid. Your people will learn quickly not to meddle in the affairs of the Naduka Legion."
Zihark gazed up at the commander, gasping for air to regain his stamina. "No… No, I will not let you."
"That's too bad." The balaur's blade rose high and then came down.
Quickly, the boy rolled out of the way to evade it and swiftly thrusted the end of his staff into the solar plexus of the commander, knocking him back while he got back on his own feet. Before he could recover from the shock, Zihark gave the final blow to the commander's head, sending him spiraling to the ground in blind agony.
The boy sighed a small blessing to soothe his own wounds before finally turning back to the trees. "Mina! Where did she go… Which direction…" He panicked. He started to call out to her as he began his search, running as fast as he could to find her.
The girl ran tirelessly through the forest. She didn't even know where she was going or if her brother was okay. She began to rethink if she should have stayed with him or not, but even if she had, what could she have done? She stopped to catch her breath. She had to have lost them by now. She leaned up against a tree to rest.
"Brother… Please be okay. I know you're strong." She sighed and wondered where to go from there. She was lost.
Then she heard her brother's voice.
Her heart raced. "Brother! Where are you!" She wasted no time and sprinted towards the source of his voice.
"Mina, are you okay!"
"Yes! I'm fine! Where are you, brother!"
He called out to her again. "I'm over here!" he could not see her either but he knew that she couldn't be far. His nerves began to ease until he heard a terrifying shriek. "MINA!"
Before Mina stood the commander. His face was bloody and beaten, but he was there, nonetheless.
One blow to the head and she fell limp to the ground.
His comrades came up behind him and one gathered the girl up and threw her over his shoulder.
"Take her back to the camp with the others. Leave the boy for now. I'll take care of him," the commander told them.
The two nodded and continued off.
"Mina!" The youth continued to call out to her. "Mina!" No answer. "damn it!" He searched ceaselessly trying not to give up hope. He called out to her again and again.
The boy recognized that voice. He turned to see the commander standing there. "You… but how…"
He laughed. "I'm going to finish what I started."
"Where is she!" Zihark demanded.
The drakan drew his weapon and swung it fiercely at the boy. "You won't need to know where you're going!"
Zihark parried the blast with his own weapon, but it was far too powerful, knocking his staff out of his hands onto the ground.
"Die!" The commander lunged again at the youth, this time holding nothing back.
Zihark braced himself for the pain and shielded his face with his arms.
The commander's blade came down, crushing through his armor and breaking his bones until the boy laid defenseless before him. Zihark felt the helplessness wash over him. "Aion… save us…" he murmured.
The commander laughed and his blade came down again.
Immediately, before he could land his final strike, the ground shifted beneath them and a giant wooden root sprouted from the ground, shielding the boy and knocking the attacker to the ground.
"WHAT! What is this!" The drakan cried.
Before he could get back on his feet, the root smashed into him.
The commander cried out in pain from beneath, unable to free himself.
The boy's head was still spinning.
How was he still alive?
The tree... Did it save him?
He couldn't move and his wounds were too grave for him to mend quickly, but he was safe. His sister, however, was not. "Mina…" he murmured. "Mina…Mina…" He repeated her name over and over to try and summon enough strength to keep going, but it was no use. His head rolled back and he gazed at the canopy of foliage above and the sunlight peering through. "Please watch over her… I'm sorry Mina…"