Chapter 1: Meetings
A loud "hello" rung over the through the village before the area fell back into silence. Minutes passed before the call sounded again, louder than the first time. Silence again claimed the snow-blanketed village. A soft hum filled the air as a portal materialized before the high-gated walls. A head hidden within a thick hood and behind a scarf poked through the portal and examined the village. The traveler stepped out of the portal. It shut behind him. A breath escaped into the folds of the scarf as he examined his naked hands, tingling in the wake of warm air.
"Just like they said," the traveler mumbled. He removed the scarf from around his face and stripped a layer of insulation off to ensure he wouldn't overheat. He expanded his consciousness to the wakfu around him, and the energy painted itself a faint, hazy blue upon a black backdrop. He blinked and the black-and-blue vision returned to an array of colors and defined shapes. The stranger frowned, and the feline ears of his hood drooped. "Just like the others."
He shook his head before the traveler waded further into the village. In and of itself, the village appeared ordinary. A handful of cabins and a general store laid inside of the wooden fortification. However, the snow remained untouched by feet, as if it had only fallen the night before rather than a week ago. The thought sent shivers down the traveler's spine as he went to investigate the village.
Exploration of the cabins showed as many clues to the missing inhabitants as the virgin snow. Chairs sat next to their tables, dishes sat clean and put away, and laundry folded tucked into cabinets. Cans piled in cupboards, all marked with the names of fruits and vegetables and dates from autumn. But not a sign of human life. The traveler stepped out of the last house, mentally confirming the locals' stories. Still doesn't make sense, he thought as he shouldered his cloak once again.
He waded back into the roads to a small mound of snow under a windowsill. Snow crushed a weak haze of wakfu. The traveler bent down to scoop away the fluff, but he flinched and wrenched his hands back. He frowned as he shook off the snow and the chill. He put his gloves back on before he continued removing the snow until he found rich brown of dirt and deep reds of crushed flowers. The traveler picked one from the pot. He studied it for several seconds before he tucked it away in his satchel.
He stood up again, and gave his surroundings one last sweep for a human presence.
A pulsating blue stood down the street, staring else where. Without a thought to pause, the traveler raced to the figure. "Hey!" He almost tripped over himself as he fought against the snow. The blue figure—a villager, the traveler hopped—turned to the struggling young man.
The villager then flitted away at such a pace the traveler questioned if they even could sink into the snow.
"Hey, wait!" The traveler discarded his gloves and cloak before he leaped into a portal and flew after the figure in a blue streak of light. After a short chase of zipping between the few buildings, the figure halted. The traveler landed just a short distance away from them. He shivered at the figure's gaze—or glare; it was hard to really tell, since the traveler kept the visualization of the village's wakfu in fear of losing the figure somehow.
"What do you seek, interloper?" snarled the villager in a metallic voice. Their figure bent, and the traveler imagined them baring their teeth.
The traveler held up his hands and called, "I don't mean you harm! I just want to ask you a few questions to ask about the village."
"You gave chase," said the villager. They relaxed slightly, but their stance remained ready with bent knees and fists curled. "How can a hunter guarantee they mean their prey no harm?"
"Er...But I—" The traveler flushed. "I-"
"I have no time for this drivel," the figure spat. They marched away.
"Wait," cried the traveler, running after them. He stopped when his hand pressed against something solid and cold and a soft blue haze glinted among the darkness. The traveler opened his eyes to take in the rough wood of the walls. He knocked against it. Solid as it should be. His mouth dropped. How?
He surveyed the wakfu of the area, but the mysterious figure had disappeared. The traveler hurried back for his discarded cloak and gloves before he jumped through a portal to the other side of the walls. He circled the village three times and found the snow untouched.
Landing back inside the village, he stripped off the outer layer of insulation. He rubbed his hands numb hands together, gritting his teeth. There was no way to imagine what he had seen. Was it a ghost? But...do ghosts have wakfu? In all his travels, he had met a handful of creatures that resembled ghosts, but none of them originated from beyond the grave. I'll ask Adamaï when I have the chance. At least it's new information.
After a final sweep through the village, the traveler dropped by the general store. He picked up a few cans of food and left a few coins on the front counter-in case the manager returned months later. With a full bag, the traveler left the village through portals. Along the way, he tested his stamina by extending his range of portals or zipping around in a streak of blue for longer periods of time. By nightfall, he reached the city in a gasping and damp mess. He trudged through the slushy streets and berated himself to never do such things again. Or at least until winter ended.
Fortunately, the inn sat on the outer ring of town. He raced into the building and waved to the innkeeper. The innkeeper gave him a curt stare about the water the traveler tracked in, but the traveler paid it no mind while he ascended the stairs. As he ambled to the room he and his brother occupied for their stay, the traveler thought about what little information he found. I hope Adamaï had more luck, he thought to himself as he opened the door to the room.
Cinnamon tickled his nose from across the room. A plate of rolls sat between a vague, humanoid creature and a dark-skinned woman. The two turned their attention to him as the newcomer gaped in turn.
The woman arched an eyebrow as she tossed her green braid back over her shoulder. The creature—Adamaï—smirked, indicating to the newcomer with a pastry in hand. "Yugo, don't stand there like that; it makes you look guilty of something."
Yugo took a hesitant step into the room before the chill of metal against his throat commanded him to stop. A shiver ran down his spine, and his hazel eyes followed the thick of the arm holding the blade. A tanned man with long, pointed ears glared at him in warning.
"Enzot!" shouted the woman, jumping to her feet. "Stand down! I told you he would come eventually." The man studied Yugo for a few seconds while Yugo's eyes flickered between the woman and the owner of the short sword. Finally, the chill of the metal disappeared from his skin.
Yugo exhaled in relief, rubbing phantom chill of the blade still lingering across his throat.
Adamaï chuckled. "Bro, you're getting careless."
Yugo frowned at his brother while the dragon grabbed a roll from a plate. The young man opened his mouth to reply when the green-haired woman cleared her throat. Yugo's hood-ears drooped, and his mouth clamped shut before he turned his gaze to the woman. She folded her arms and the corners of her mouth had deepened into a scowl.
He smiled sheepishly. "H-hi, Amalia." His eyes flickered to the door.
A hand wrenched him further into the room. Yugo stumbled into the edge of the bed closest to the door and on the opposite side of where Adamaï and the Princess of Sadida sat. Yugo turned a glare at the long-eared man, who shut the door. The man knelt next to the door, staring blankly ahead.
The addressed froze again before he turned to Amalia, who glowered at him. He straightened up, unbuttoning his traveling cloak. Yugo rested it over the side of the bed before fumbling with ideas to appease the green-haired woman. "You—uh...came quite far." The words fumbled from his mouth. The princess's finger tapped her arm. "I...was going to send you a letter tomorrow."
"Six months." She sat back down before grabbing a roll from the plate between her and his brother. "Didn't you say you would send me letters once a month?"
Yugo waved his hands, fumbled for an explanation. At least until something chirped sleepily. A tofu waddled across the bed to the pastry plate between Adamaï and Amalia. "Az?" Yugo rushed over to the other bed and scooped the tofu up. "Hey, it's been a while!" Az chirped, flapping his little wings in a hello. Yugo chortled in response.
"Uh...bro?" Adamaï began. The low hiss of his name made the young man's smile become rigid. Yugo at the princess and his hood-ears drooped.
Amalia's dark features hinted at red as she glared him down. The tofu hummed before he zipped back to the plate and left Yugo standing awkwardly before the princess. The young man rubbed the back of his head, flushing and looking away. "Ah..." He spread his arms and gave her a sheepish smile.
The princess gave him a raised eyebrow before she lifted her chin. "Really, Yugo? A princess of my caliber accepting a hug as an apology for not keeping contact like promised?"
"Miss," said the bodyguard—Enzot, Yugo remembered—from the other side of the room. "You are factoring in traveling and tracking time."
Amalia gave Enzot a lidded glance before she turned back at Yugo, who turned pink in anticipation. She straightened her back and gave the brothers an angry pout. "Yugo, do you have anything to say for yourself? No visits to your friend in two years and hardly any letters!"
The dragon frowned. "Funny how you just mention him when you say 'friend'."
Her face scrunched up, and she jerked her head away. "I-I mean, don't you two know how hard it is to track down iop-minded brothers who run everywhere?"
"Pretty hard?" offered Yugo, bowing his head. "But...I'm sorry I broke my promise."
"I'm glad you made the trip." Yugo's sheepish smile turned into a grin.
The corners of her lips twitched upwards. She blinked. "Well...I didn't exp—" She shook her head. Then, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Yugo stumbled back, but smiled. "Don't think you're out of the bramble bushes yet," she whispered with a sweet voice.
"Thanks for coming, Ami," he responded.
After a few seconds, a sharp cough broke the peace. "Well, now that you two kissed and made up, let's get to the head of the matter," said Adamaï. The two hastily stepped apart, the princess giving the dragon a sharp stare. Yugo glanced at her in slight confusion. His hood-ears perked up.
The princess sighed, flopping on the bed. She sat up, squaring her soldiers. Her eyes surveyed the room before she said, "I cannot reveal all the details to you two, but—"
"Of course," the dragon muttered. Adamaï set the plate on the nightstand, the tofu following it.
"—but matters are pressing." Amalia continued without pause, much to Yugo's surprise. She glanced between the brothers with a commanding gaze strong enough to make both of them sit up attentively. "Yugo, Adamaï, I must...formally request you to return with me."
Yugo frowned as he remembered the "formalities" in the wake of the Crimson Claws incident. Then, a thought struck him. "If it's so formal, why would they send you? And without a bigger guard unit?" His head indicated over to Enzot in the corner. The man's sharp-green eyes flickered over to the group, but he said nothing.
"I thought you would understand these subtleties better, Yugo." Her shoulders relaxed as she sighed. Waving a hand, she added, "Especially with those months of interrogation."
Both brothers nodded with expressions soured by the memories of the deliberations. Adamaï leaned over to her to give her a scrutinizing eye. "Still, why send you?"
Amalia snorted and waved a hand dismissively. "No one would recognize me," she muttered.
"As long as you didn't say anything," Yugo said. He chuckled at her eye-roll.
Adamaï popped a pastry into his mouth. He swallowed it whole before he said, "Still, why you and not a small band of guards with Evangelyne or Tristepin at the helm?"
"Bro, obviously, it would have taken longer." Yugo shrugged with a large smile. "Pinpin isn't the greatest with maps."
"Haha. That's true, but—"
Amalia all but shouted, "Can we stay on topic?" She glowered at the brothers before she continued with an exasperated sigh. "Look, it took everything to convince my father to let me go." She quickly held up a hand to silence Adamaï's forthcoming comment. "But I can't explain anything right now. It's too dangerous. All I can say is Sadida told me to find the both of you."
Both of the brothers studied the princess in an effort to extract any hint of lying in her posture. She returned their gaze with an earnest one. Yugo edged closer from his end of the bed. "Can you tell us anything about it?"
The princess exchanged a quick glance with her bodyguard before the princess shook her head. "Both of you need to return with me." Amalia fixed her gaze on Yugo. "As soon as possible."
"R-right," Yugo said. He adverted his gaze momentarily. The young man sat up, his voice rose. "We'll leave in the morning then, Ad?"
"I doubt we have much of a choice," admitted Adamaï. Az, momentarily peeking up from his snack, tweeted in agreement. Amalia nodded before she gave her bodyguard a thumbs-up. Yugo pulled Gruffon from his satchel. With a little coercing and a threat of flames, the map spilled the directions needed to get them to the Sadida Kingdom.
With the matters all figured out, Adamaï changed the subject. "So, Yugo, what did you find?"
"Huh? You mean the villages? Well..." Yugo scratched the back of his head. He retrieved the cans and the flower from his satchel as he explained the neatness of the abandoned houses and the hardiness of the snow-crushed plants. He paused as the stranger popped into his head. Now when he thought about, he doubted the person had even been a villager. Then why would someone even be there?
"Bro, do ghosts have wakfu?"
"Dunno," said the dragon, folding his arms. He then cocked his head. "What makes you think they have some in the first place? ...But if you saw someone there, don't you think it would've been—?"
"Srams," said the bodyguard. The three turned to the bodyguard who now stood with a dagger in his hand. "If they are exploring a remote village, it is not to hard to guess they may be in the city." He stood up and pointed to the young man. He mouthed, "Scan the room. Now."
Amalia objected, "Enzot, I'm the—"
Enzot silenced her with a sharp "Miss."
The princess scowled. "Why would a sram explore a remote village in the tundra?"
"Miss, you underestimate the need of information," the bodyguard said. He eyed the brothers critically before he added, "Especially if it involves people such as these boys."
"'Boys'?" Yugo repeated. Adamaï rolled his eyes before he jump from his post on the bed. After a few seconds, the dragon gave a thumbs up. Enzot prompted another search. Yugo checked to see if a collection of wakfu sat outside of the door or sat crouched against the walls. Meanwhile, Adamaï made half-forced complaints about calling them "boys" despite being twenty years of age. After the confirmation that no-one was lurking or spying on them, the tense atmosphere returned to it's original cinnamon-warmed air.
Amalia rubbed her forehead. "Are we going to have to take long routes out of here?" she muttered.
"No, Miss." Enzot sheathed his dagger before he folded his arms. There, Yugo noticed the man's dark red tattoos spiraling up his arm. He blinked for a second. "Yes?" Yugo met the bodyguard's glare, causing Yugo's hood-ears to flatten.
"So, is the flower from a village as well?" asked the princess, waving a hand at the previous subject of conversation. Yugo nodded; he picking it up and passed it to her through a portal.
"Cute, Yugo," muttered Adamaï, resting his chin on his hand and gazing at him in annoyance. The addressed gave his brother an odd look.
The princess took the flower and examined it. "A camellia? Yugo, if you found this in a greenhouse—"
"Not a greenhouse," he said, pulling his hand from the portal. It shrunk and disappeared with a soft hum. "I found it alive and well under a large mound of snow." He waited a minute before he added, "So, what do you think of it?"
Amalia frowned. "I can't tell anything about it. From the looks of it, the flower is pretty fresh, but that's all I can say." She tucked the flower into her hair before leaning back and swinging her feet. "It'll wilt in a few days just like any other freshly-picked flower. Now, if I had an intact plant, that would be helpful."
"Then tomorrow, we'll go—"
"No. here are more pressing matters," said Enzot. "If what the Miss is true, then it would be best to leave and avoid all populated areas."
Yugo scowled. Adamaï and Amalia snickered. Az chirped in agreement. A mass of growling stomachs changed the subject. The princess hugged her stomach and jerked her head away with a pout. Yugo bust out into laughter with his brother. "Time to eat!"
"As long as it isn't gruel," said Amalia in a slight mutter. Yugo laughed softly before he promised to spend a little more than usual since she had taken the time to come and see them.
The woman bowed her head low, her arms crossed over her chest. A hood hid her face from the statue of goddess Eniripsa. Hushed prayers rung around the room as golden ancient letters. Their golden shine danced off the barren walls and off the feline mask, which sat on the trails of the woman's cloak. Eventually, her sweet chants quieted. She connected her fingers into a heart-shape and turned her face up to the goddess' statue, a faint smile warming her face. The golden letters dissipated into the air like smoke.
Warm silence lasted a few seconds. Cold drumming of footsteps caught her ears' attention. The woman snatched the mask from beside her. Her fingers fumbled with the rough ribbon as she knotted the strings together. In her rush, the hood fell back to reveal her feline ears. The door opened as she finally bound her face behind the mask. Her hands dropped from the sides of her head and she slouched forward. Her small feline ears flattened against the side of her head.
"You discarded your mask," said the newcomer with a voice of smooth silk. The woman bowed a little deeper as the sound of his footsteps and the pad of his staff indicated he had come closer. He slowly returned her hood to hide her head beneath its shadows.
After a few moments, the woman straightened her back slightly. "Yes, Master?" she inquired, her voice monotonous.
"By the gods' grace, we have the child's location: the Kingdom of Sadida's worshipers."
The woman nodded. She slowly turned to face the man, but she kept her head bowed and eyes on his boots. "What do the gods beseech for my duty?"
"Go to the eniripsa scholars and retrieve one of the scrolls," he said. His tone lowered as he shifted—most likely to face the goddess's statue. "You are the only one we can afford to use the spell."
The woman winced, curling her tail around the contours of her legs. She hoped the faint light from the large windows behind her did not betray the shifting fabric. "As they command," she said, her voice firm despite the twitching fabric on her back.
The man slammed the end of his staff against the carpet, causing the woman to wince again. "The payment to the gods is a right one, even for those who do not stay by their side. Do not waver in your resolve to end your tribulation."
"Yes, Master." Again, she bowed her head. "May the gods walk with you."
His cloak billowed behind him while he turned and marched out of the room. Once the man with the staff had marched down the hallway and his footsteps faded from her ears, the woman stood. She brushed away dust from her long cloak before she exited the temple of Eniripsa.
She wrapped her cloak tighter around her person as she entered the cold. The woman strode the path to the small town. Pillars of the central castle bit at the sky like the passing glances bit at the masked woman. She kept her yellow eyes on the footpath until she arrived at the library.
The library fell silent as she entered. Glaring eyes fixated on her mask. She requested the scroll she needed, mind focused solely on her task and where she needed to go. The librarian handed it to her with a hiss before they quickly returned to their duties. When she left, hustle and talk return to the library.
Again, she returned to the pathways of the town to head to the central castle. Her face remained blank, even behind the safety of the stonewalls shielding her from the piercing eyes of the townsfolk. Instead, she hastened her descent into the lower levels of the castle. The bright lamps and ordinate rugs of the upper levels shifted to a more modest tone of oil lamps and steep shadows. Stone statues of various creatures and beings lined the long hallways.
She stopped in front of one: a tall statue of a human with a skull for a head and bone-shapes engraved into his appendages. She bowed before it and extracted the scroll from the insider pockets of her robe. While she laid the scroll and its translation, she prayed for Eniripsa's grace to protect her from injury.
Yugo's eyes flew open, a sharp pain coursing down his arm. Darkness clouded his vision, but he recognized the talons, the hand pressing into his arm, and the wakfu pulsing from the owner's palm.
"You had another nightmare?" hissed Adamaï.
"I guess," the young man responded in a weak voice. He jerked his arm from under his brother's grip. Yugo rubbed the throbbing and shivering skin, his fingers brushing over the indents in his skin where Adamaï's nails dug in. "It's nothing, Ad."
"Nothing, my eye." The phrase came in an almost inaudible hiss, giving the other a chance to pretend he hadn't heard it.
Yugo rolled over to give his brother more space of the shared bed. Amalia had taken the other in refusal to sleep on the ground for another night. Enzot had propped himself against the door, acting as a makeshift barricade.
A heavy sigh came from next to him before his brother shifted his position. "Fine. Get some sleep, Yugo."
Yugo remained silent. For several long minutes, he took deep and slow breathes through his nostrils. His eyes focused on the squares of moonlight from outside, but little solace came from them. His mind drifted to maybe talking with his brother—
His eyes fell on general shape of the tofu nestled into a swath of cloth on the nightstand. Yugo smiled, grateful to see his old friend after years. I wonder how many times he had eaten more than his share of food, thought Yugo with an inward chuckle.
His hazel eyes drifted to the other bed where the green-haired woman slept.
How far had she traveled to find them? Months, he remembered though such a span of time could have meant anything. Most of his adventures estimated as a week or so of travel ended up dragging themselves into months or even a half a year. This was, at least, something he could actually claim as not his own fault—despite Adamaï's jokes. Had most of her journey been delayed because of various circumstances?
Yugo smiled. Sure, she came searching for him and Adamaï because her kingdom needed them—for whatever reason. However, Yugo was sure it would be a matter of time before she struck out on her own to find them—accompanied or alone—and not have such a pressing reason to do so.
He reached out to her. "Thanks, Ami," he whispered.
She shifted in her bed, causing Yugo face to warm. He retracted his arm back under his blanket and mentally scrutinized himself about why he had done such a thing then re-scrutinizing himself about the self-scrutiny. Finally, he buried his face in the blanket. Adamaï nudged him in the side and hissed for his brother to get some sleep.
Fortunately, sleep came easier and lasted longer than Yugo anticipated.
The next morning, the four gathered their things and ate a quick breakfast before they left the port city for the stamped out footpaths. Several passersby turned their eyes towards them. A few of them spoke in hushed whispers about the "pale child" marching through the cold with clothes fit for autumn at best. Enzot looked towards the dragon, hidden in his half-convincing humanoid form. "Sir Dragon, I think it would be wise to have you wear a cloak."
Adamaï and Yugo glanced at the bodyguard with perplexed expressions. "I would overheat with anymore clothing," responded Adamaï, with a shrug. The bodyguard turned his gaze forward, surveying at a group passing by. The strangers, in response, hurried their pace.
The princess regarded her bodyguard with a sour expression. "Would you stop worrying, Enzot? No one will say anything."
With a sharp cough, the bodyguard nodded stiffly. "Miss, I do believe we have to return without causing—"
"You're nervous glancing doesn't help any," responded the princess dismissively. She then folded her arms before thinking for a second. "But if it makes you feel any better—" She then turned to the dragon, tilting her head back. "Adamaï, when we get a chance, could you do something...different?"
The dragon snorted before he kicked a pile of dirt and snow with his bare feet. "Fine. I'm sure Az could use some company."
"If Gruffon gave us the correct directions, then you won't have to stay too long as a tofu." The dragon cast Yugo a frown.
"I'd rather not use it," responded Adamaï. Amalia and Enzot said nothing while they continued on their way. When they met a break in the stream of people on the path, Adamaï turned into a silver tofu and rested on his brother's shoulder. The bodyguard gave him a nod before they continued. Along the way, the brothers conversed in low whispers about what could lay ahead for them. Adamaï and Yugo had to assume the circumstances since Amalia still refused to reveal anything to the brothers. "If something is wrong in the Sadida Kingdom, it would be a good idea to head to Emelka to make sure nothing's wrong," Yugo said to his brother.
The dragon had nodded before he added in a low whisper, "It would still be nice to know what we're going to get into." Yugo responded with a shrug.
The rest of the way to the za'ap town had little else happen. At the town, they replenished their stock of za'ap seeds and received approval to use the za'ap portal. On the second day of travel, Enzot continued insisting on Adamaï keeping a disguise in to not attract attention even along empty roads. Begrudgingly, Adamaï accepted with a bowmeow disguise.
While walking along a in-land road along the plains, Amalia fell into step with Yugo, with both Adamaï and Az resting on his shoulders. The princess nudged her friend in the side. "So, why were you two at the village?" she asked.
Yugo's breathe caught. He forced a small smile. "Ami, it's not—Ow!" A pain shot down his arm. The young man jerked his head toward his brother, meeting the glaring black eyes. Adamaï removed his claws from Yugo's shoulder and readjusted himself in Yugo's hood. Adamaï's bowmeow ears flattened. Yugo's hood-ears drooped as he looked away and gulped down a raising bubble in his throat.
"We believe it has something to do with Phaeris's death," Adamaï said, his tone cool. The corner of Yugo's lips twitched.
"Those villages and...Phaeris?" Cocking her head, Amalia studied the brother's expressions. "But how? And who—?"
Adamaï tensed in the cloak hood. His tone became thick and shook as he continued: "That's the problem. We don't know whose behind it, but Phaeris had went to investigate it."
Yugo gulped in air before he gasped, "Adamaï."
The dragon opened his mouth to say something to his brother, but Enzot placed a hand on Adamaï's head. "It's best to change the subject," he said.
Yugo turned his gaze back and up to the bodyguard. The young man blinked with a partially gaped mouth. Enzot gave him a nod before he marched ahead. Amalia's gaze flickered between the brothers and her bodyguard. Adamaï gave him a short glare. Yugo relaxed his shoulders, exhaling a long breath.
"Well!" Amalia clapped her hands twice and tilted her chin up. "It's time to take a rest and make sure that damn shushu has kept us on the right track."
With a renewed smile, Yugo agreed and pulled the map out of his satchel. He readied a new threat to administer to Gruffon if the shushu failed to comply. Flames and arachnees had lost their sway over the last few years.
Chapter 1: End.
I apologize for the inconvenience this causes everyone, but I was (and still highly am) dissatisfied with chapter four. After reviewing all the chapters, I thought it would be better if I just tried again. As much as I love the first chapter and the lighthearted interactions of the first chapter, the more "dire" beginning might fit better. The old version will be moved to my tumblr so everyone can still read it. I will (eventually) post up selected scenes from my canned drafts. I think you all might like some of them simply for seeing what "could have been" for minor scenes. Most of the plot remains the same as how I originally intended it. Hope to see you all later in future updates!