The people of Eriden call Lightdale the most beautiful place in the continent, but Rosekeep was simply paradise. It was the land of flowers. Different blossoms grew in what seemed like endless fields. Even the mountains were splashed with color.
There was also the monthly parade of flowers in the town proper of Rosekeep which was something that tourists and locals alike did not miss. Beautiful ladies and gentlemen dressed as prince, princesses, elves and fairies, carriages and wagons decorated with blossoms in all arrangements, shapes and sizes... It was a sight to behold.
Kassia was eighteen and Xander was fifteen when they first stepped foot in the town, just a day before the parade. Back then, both of them did whatever odd jobs they could find in whatever town they were currently in, just to get by. They simply made enough for food and necessities plus traveling expenses. If they were lucky they'd manage to get a room in an inn. Otherwise, they pretty much slept in the wild. Mostly, they preferred sleeping in the wild to save up - spare coins enough for Kassia to buy little souvenirs and send letters home, or for Xander to buy scrolls, pen and paper, or herbs, potions and bandages to stock up on his supplies.
When they arrived in Rosekeep, they found a job. Well, Xander found it and didn't want to go through because it wasn't their usual thing, but Kassia accepted. He didn't give that much of a fight because she was right - it paid really really well.
The job was to help guard an item. They were joined by three of their employer's own men, there were to serve as substitutes for the two members of the group who apparently got drunk and got in an accident the night prior.
While they would miss the parade on the streets, they had a good view from the balcony of the inn where they were assigned to. The man who hired them didn't want to keep the package in his home any longer and reserved a room for the people who were coming to fetch it. He said it brought bad luck to his manor and he was lucky that he was finally being relieved of it. Kassia, Xander and the other guards were to keep an eye on it until it was picked up, and then they will get paid in full. While they were guarding it, they had free food and lodging. It sounded like a fair trade.
"What do you think it is?" Kassia asked, standing by the balcony of the inn room. The package was in a table in the center of the room, Xander sat on a chair at the same table, reading through a scroll. The two other guards were sitting on the floor by the door, playing cards, while one stood outside the door.
"He said it brought bad luck. Must be some kind of cursed... thing." Xander answered absentmindedly.
"Are we really expecting people to target this?" Kassia asked, this time addressing the question to the guards playing cards by the door.
"The master's just being really careful, miss." one of them answered. "That thing's been guarded for months but he won't tell us what it is. Now, no more questions. We probably dunno the answer anyway."
It was almost nightfall when they all changed shifts. Kassia was now the one standing guard by the door, eating some grapes that were offered to her by the innkeeper. Xander was still on the table reading, joined by another guard who was sharpening his knife.
That was when the attack happened.
The other two guards were on the balcony, and were knocked out first. A group of bandits came in the room, stepping over the unconscious bodies of the two guards. Xander dropped his scroll and quickly moved to grab the package they were supposed to protect, while the remaining guard moved to attack the trespassers. However, the guard was sent flying backwards, slamming against the door. Xander had to dodge the knife and couldn't get the package on time before one of the bandits grabbed it.
The door opened only for Kassia to see the bandits leaving through the balcony.
"Go after them!" the guard said. "Don't lose them! I'll follow!"
Kassia needed no further instructions as she grabbed her sword and called out, "Xandy, let's go!" and then she jumped from the balcony.
The guard gaped as he struggled to sit up while Xander grabbed his pack of supplies. "Did she just-"
"Some of us don't need stairs." Xander mumbled. "Bring back-up!" - and then he burst out the door. He wasn't one of those people who jumped down the fourth floor of buildings.
He had to run with all his might to catch up to Kassia, and even then they almost lost the group of bandits. The wild chase somehow led deep into the woods. Xander shouted for Kassia that they should wait for the others to catch up to them since it was getting dark and they were almost in the Orod Forest. That forest was known for its dangerous creatures, even during the day. What more in the night time?
"We can't lose them!" Kassia insisted.
"How many are there?"
"Four! We just have keep track and try not to die before the others catch up with- SHIT!"
Before Xander knew what was happening, Kassia had quickly whirled around and tackled him, leaving them rolling together in a heap on the ground.
"What the hell-"
Xander stopped abruptly when a blast of energy landed a feet away from them. Kassia stood up quickly, cursing. Xander looked up at her, then at the spot where the blast landed.
Kassia scratched her head, grabbing the younger teen's collar to help him up. "We didn't know that when we started chasing them, right?"
"We have no way to fight these guys, I mean I'm a freakin' healer-"
"-but we can't let them get away!"
"Guess what, we just did!"
He was right. Both of them looked around them warily. The forest was dark and silent - it was lucky that the moon was bright and full.
Xander sighed. "We should go back. Tell 'em we got attacked-"
He got cut off when Kassia grabbed his arm and shoved him behind her, at the same time drawing her sword out to clash against the blade of a knife.
But the bandit who attacked her was stronger and was able to push her backwards. Kassia stumbled but didn't fall. She simply attacked again, trying to match the enemy's blow.
"You don't know how to use a sword, do you, miss?" the bandit laughed. Kassia was being pushed backwards, and when her back met a tree, she had to crouch down to avoid the enemy's slash.
She glanced to her right, only to see Xander helplessly running around, trying to dodge fireballs sent his way. The blonde grabbed a rock from the ground and threw it towards the direction where the attacks came from. He stopped momentarily when he heard a yelp, followed by the sound of someone falling to the ground.
He got lucky. "I think I got him!"
"Two more!" Kassia shot back, still engaged (and losing) in her own swordfight.
Xander wasn't able to dodge a ball of energy and he got blown away towards a nearby tree. He tried to stand up, but before he could, he had to jump out of the way again, this time to avoid a ball of fire.
Kassia grunted against the man who had cornered her against another tree. "Give back our damn-... thingy-... asshole!" Then she raised her knee and kicked the bandit in the stomach, pushing him away before charging again, trying to knock him off balance. She succeeded in that, and was about to knock the bandit off completely, but then another man came charging in, this time holding an axe.
Kassia knew then and there that there was no way her sword could shield that hit, and she barely managed to dodge. Doing so made her lose her balance and she fell on the ground, revealing more than enough opening for the fourth bandit to knock her skull open-
All of a sudden, her attacker was blown away by a gust of wind. He was slammed against a nearby tree, falling unconscious. The bandit with the knife got up, but was similarly sent flying towards another tree before passing out.
Kassia looked around to see Xander dodging a fireball. Then, from the direction of the attacks, the bandit went flying forward in plain sight. He sat up quickly and raised a hand to send a fireball towards whoever his attacker was, but as soon as he casted the spell, an arrow came flying straight towards him. The next thing they knew, Kassia and Xander were watching the man scream as his attacking hand was pinned to the ground by an arrow.
"Don't move too much, or you'll lose that hand completely." an unfamiliar voice was heard.
Kassia and Xander turned to see a short, lithe young woman step out from the shadows of the trees. She didn't look like one of the bandits. She had dark skin, golden eyes, rose pink hair in a braid and a purple ribbon tied to her hair neatly at the back of her head. She wore a dark red cape and held a dagger in one hand. The two watched her lift an arm and hold her dagger above it, then bring it down. As soon as they thought she was going to stab herself, the dagger simply disappeared in a faint light and then a tattoo in the shape of the dagger formed on her skin.
The bandit shouted back at her. "YOU LITTLE-!!! I STILL HAVE MY OTHER HAND-" but then the newcomer kicked him on the head, knocking him unconscious.
She looked at Kassia and Xander, smiling a friendly smile. "Are you guys okay?"
The two slowly nodded. Then they turned when they heard another voice, from the direction of Xander's first attacker, the one he knocked out with a miracle throw. "We got it!"
Another young woman approached them. Like her companion, she was dark-skinned and golden-eyed, but her hair was dark red, falling into curls on her shoulder. She wore a light green hooded jacket and on her shoulder was a bow and a set of arrows. She carried a book, together with the package that Xander and Kassia were supposed to guard.
Kassia finally came to her senses and stepped forward. "Hey, that-... thing-... That's ours!"
The pink-haired girl crossed her arms across her chest. "Not anymore. We'll take it from here."
"You must be the guards? Thanks for holding these thieves off." the red-head said, addressing the duo. "We couldn't have gotten in here on time."
Xander raised an eyebrow. "Who are you, exactly?"
"I'm Aoife." the one with pink hair replied, then she pointed to her red-haired friend. "That's Enda. We came here to pick that up but the others said it was stolen, so we decided to follow you."
"You're the ones supposed to fetch it?" Kassia asked, a hint of doubt in her voice. No matter how she looked at it, the two looked like fair maidens in hunting or traveling attire. They were both shorter than Kassia was, and looked too gentle to be the ones shooting arrows and kicking bandits on the head.
"Yep." Enda said, smiling softly as she looked down at the package. "But to be sure, let's check."
She then unwrapped the package, only to reveal a thick old hardbound tome. She blew on the cover before wiping the remaining dust off.
"A book." Xander said, shaking his head in disbelief as he sat on the ground. "I almost died for a book."
"You don't like books?" Aoife asked, her hands on her hips, raising an eyebrow at him.
"No, I just... uhh..."
"We thought it'll be something more... awesome." Kassia said, leaving her sword stuck on the ground. "You're mages? Come to pick up that cursed book?"
"Don't be mean. It's not cursed." Enda said softly, already engrossed as she scanned the contents of the book. "It's just misunderstood, that's all."
"Misunderstood." Kassia repeated, brows furrowing. The red-head seemed kinda out of it, mouthing the words that she was reading.
"Don't distract her, she's trying to focus." Aoife said, sitting down as if preparing to wait as long as necessary. "She's a librarian."
"In-training." Enda added quickly, then was back to her reading.
"Librarian as in one from Spellhall?" Xander asked, watching the reading girl curiously.
Aoife answered for her friend, "Yep, we're supposed to bring that book there. Enda's just making sure it's not dangerous. We're in the Orod Forests and that book seems to be attracting negative elements, so we better make sure it's safe before we go crossing the woods again."
"What about you?" Kassia asked, eyeing the markings on the girl's arm.
"I'm just tagging along." she said with a smile, then turned her gaze towards the sword that Kassia stuck to the ground. "Don't do that to your sword, it's not good for the blade. Also, your posture was terrible, weren't even holding it properly. No wonder you were losing to a knife a while ago."
"What?" Kassia asked, narrowing her eyes at the stranger.
"The thieves were right." Aoife said, all-too nonchalantly for Kassia's liking. "You don't know how to use a sword. You were just striking blindly and trying to force your way through. An axe or a mallet would've done you better, given the way you fight. I mean, I haven't fought with a sword ever but I can see that much." She sighed, twirling a pink hair on her finger.
Kassia was about to talk back when a faint glow came from the old book that Enda was reading. They turned in time to see the glow fade away, and Enda finally smiled and closed the book again. She looked up. "I think we can head back safely now."
"What did you do?" Xander asked. He had not looked away from her even once as she read through the book.
"I just read it properly." Enda said.
"Why do you need to do that?"
Enda smiled in amusement at the boy's curious questions. She extended a hand towards the blonde. "I'll explain on the way. We should get going."
Xander accepted her offer and let her help him stand back up before picking up his bag and dusting off his pants. Enda wrapped the book again and tucked it under her arm. Aoife also stood up, flipping her hair behind her shoulder. Kassia followed them as they started to walk through the woods, back to the town.
As they got into the darker parts of the forest, Aoife complained about the lack of light. They stopped to watch Enda take out her own book, open it, and then place her hand above the page. She whispered something, and a little ball of light surfaced from the page and hovered above the open book.
"Whoa." Kassia breathed.
Xander agreed, "That's seriously cool."
Enda laughed gently. "Want to hold it?" she asked the boy.
"May I?" he said, very eager. Enda passed the book to him and he held it carefully in his hands as they continued walking. Enda began explaining to the blonde all about the old book they all risked their lives for. Xander listened intently, never letting a learning opportunity pass.
Kassia watched them warily as the two led the way while walking. Beside her, Aoife giggled. "Looks like she found another nerd to hang out with."
Kassia nodded coldly. "Seems like it." She still thought that the girl sounded overconfident when she was commenting on Kassia's swordsmanship.
Aoife stretched and yawned, complaining. "Man, I'm beat! Imagine we just got here and then the guys at the inn are knocked out and they just said follow the blonde kid and the girl with the big sword and we had to drop everything and run. Hey Enda, you oughtta ask for the ol' geezer to pay us extra!"
Enda didn't stop walking, but she tilted her head to look back at her companion. "He's already paying us more than enough to take the book, and we're doing just that..."
"Well, chasin' crazy-ass thieves was not in the job description!" Aoife complained.
"I don't know, really..." Enda said, sounding tentative as she went back to looking forward to the woods ahead of them.
"We're gonna ask for extra too..." Kassia sighed. "They didn't tell us that fireball-throwin' jerks were in the package."
"They were weak, though. I mean, knife dude and axe dude were big, but they fight shitty. Blondie there knocked one out with a rock and he never got up. Those guys were easy peas. How did you land this job?" Aoife asked, skeptical. "'Cause you kinda suck with the sword-"
Kassia snapped. "Alright, what's your problem with me?"
They stopped walking.
Aoife blinked. "Me? Nothing, I was just sayin', I expected better-... err-... skill-"
"Oh. Better skill. Says the little girl who let the librarian over there do everything until she can push a wimpy mage forward and kick him on the head when he was about to lose anyway."
"Oh hell no, you ain't talkin' about how we do things 'cause you don't understand-"
"Well you don't get to talk about how I fight either!"
"It's 'cause I just thought you'd be better if you're takin' jobs like these!"
"Well I'm sorry if I'm not good enough-"
"You better! 'Cause you're holdin' a sword, and swords – real swords - are not toys, and they shouldn't be carried around by amateurs! You have to be trained, and prepared, and you should at least know how to hold it, how to stand while holding it, or you're just going to kill yourself-"
"Oh yeah, and have you ever used one before?"
"Okay, that's enough!" Enda's voice rang, gentle but scolding, making them both stop and look at her. The red-head looked at her traveling companion. "Aoife, I think you've made your point." Aoife huffed, looking away. Then Enda turned to Kassia. "We apologize if we offended you. But she's right. A sword isn't a toy and it's really dangerous to use it without proper training-"
"Oh, I thought the point's been made-"
"-but if you're self-taught, it's a completely different matter altogether."
Kassia stopped. "What?"
Enda sighed. "It's alright to choose a sword for self-defense while simply traveling, training or no. Many people do that. But you have to let your smith or your dealer know. There are swords made to cater to untrained people. If your weaponsmith knows that you don't have much experience, they can make the hilt easier to hold, make the blade lighter and less riskier while still maintaining the sharpness, and other factors that would make using the sword easier."
"R-Really?" Kassia asked, this time surprised at how simple yet very informative that sounded.
"Yes. May I see your sword?" Enda asked, extending a hand. Hesitantly, Kassia handed her the sword, still in its scabbard. The red-head immediately frowned as she weighed the weapon in her hands. "Too heavy." Then she drew it out, giving the scabbard back to Kassia. "Still heavy, even without the sheath. The blade... hm. Not bad, but not right for a beginner. Too thick and wide." Then she reached out for Kassia's hand. The brunette blinked in surprise but didn't withdraw as the red-head lined up her hand with the sword's hilt. "And not fit for your hands. Too big."
Finally, the librarian gave the weapon back, and Kassia quickly sheathed it. "That sword is well-made, but it's fit for a seasoned fighter. It's too heavy and the hilt is an awkward fit for your hands, so you'll probably strain your wrists too much and I'm pretty sure you can't use it properly with just one hand. You're also lucky you haven't cut yourself in your fights. You should get something with a thinner and lighter blade, and a smaller hilt. Preferably shorter, too, matching your height and your fighting experience. Start with that and train until you're used to heavier weapons. By then I'm sure you'll be able to put this one to good use."
"Uh... okay. Thanks."
Enda smiled happily. "You're welcome."
"Told ya." Aoife quipped with a sly smile of her own, looking away when Kassia glared at her.
"You could've given useful critique without offending, you know." Enda said, scolding her friend lightly as they all began walking again.
"Alright, alright. I'm sorry." the pink-haired girl groaned. "I was just sayin' what I noticed, y’know – stock knowledge. Not my fault you're the expert."
Kassia kept silent after that, but couldn't help but adjust the sword strapped on her back every now and then. Yes, it was indeed heavier than what was convenient. Kassia always assumed that swords were really made that way, though.
"Are weapons part of your training? You know so much about 'em." Xander asked the older teen walking beside him.
Enda chuckled. "No, it's not that."
"We're from Falconport, kid." Aoife answered for both of them. Then she caught Kassia's surprised look at her and winked. "We know our weapons."
When they came back in the inn, the rich old man who owned the book apologized for his guards' utter uselessness on their tasks. He invited Aoife and Enda for dinner in his manor, while he left Kassia and Xander with his deep gratitudes after giving them their pay (with extra!) and also paying for their food and lodging at the inn, covering up to the next few days.
That night, Kassia found herself sitting on her bed in silence, staring at her sword while Xander laid on the other bed, writing something on his journal.
"Hey, Xandy, what d'you think 'bout me trading this thing for something lighter?"
When she received no reply, she turned to look at her companion only to find the younger teen sleeping soundly, pen and journal still in hand.
The next day, as they stood among tourists and locals in the streets of Rosekeep watching the beautiful parade of flowers, they bumped into the two girls again.
They weren't wearing their traveling outfits from the night prior. Instead, Enda and Aoife had their hair down and were donning matching white dresses as they stood among the crowd. Kassia and Xander did not recognize them at first, not until Aoife turned towards them and said, "Hey, it's you two!" Enda also turned and gave her own bright smile.
Kassia couldn't help but smile back. In the light of day, the two looked even prettier, with their olive skin and bright hair standing out from most of the people in the crowd. She also noted the necklaces on their necks. Aoife's was a gold one with an intricate design, laden with a pink crystal. Enda's was a simpler one, but it also had the same pink crystal. Kassia guessed it was fairystone. Some families still held to the old tradition, even in her hometown in Pineshore.
Xander asked them, "Enjoying the parade?"
"Of course!" Aoife answered cheerfully.
"The sketches and paintings don't give it justice." Enda nodded, then paused abruptly. "Come to think of it, we never got your names." she continued, looking guilty. "I'm sorry, that must be rude of us…"
"No problem! I'm Kassia." the brunette answered, then gestured to the blonde beside her. "This is Xan-... Huh?" She blinked, as the boy was nowhere to be found. She looked around. "Where did that little brat go?"
Then Kassia heard the boy's familiar voice coming from behind the librarian and her companion. "Xander. Nice to meet you. Thanks again for saving us last night."
When Enda and Aoife turned around, the boy was holding out two roses, a pink one and a red one, the same colors as their hair.
"Aw, shucks! You're welcome!" Aoife said, accepting the pink flower before glomping at the boy, wrapping her arms around him and squeezing him against her.
Enda took the red one, smiling at him sweetly. "This is terribly sweet of you."
Then both girls gave the blonde a kiss on each cheek.
Kassia gaped before coming back to her senses, and she said, "You smooth little shit, I take my eyes off you for a while and you're already hitting on girls!"
Aoife and Enda laughed, Aoife still not letting go of the boy.
"W-What?" Xander shot back at Kassia, visibly blushing. "It's thanks for last night!"
"You could've just said 'thank you', though!"
"I thought it'd be nice to give nice flowers to nice girls, unlike you!"
"You have a crush on these girls, don'tcha?!"
"W-W-Well, I-..." Xander stammered, looking at Aoife, whose pretty face was too close for comfort as she was being very comfortable clinging to him, and then at Enda who looked stunning, just looking at him with an amused smile. Then finally he pouted defiantly at Kassia, blushing as he said, "Well, why not?!"
Kassia rolled her eyes, admitting defeat, while beside her, Enda giggled. Aoife laughed heartily and ruffled the fifteen year-old's hair fondly, commenting about how cute he was.
Kassia and Enda remained standing together as Aoife dragged Xander with her in the crowd to get a better view of the parade, saying something about wanting to see the adorable little children dressed like pixies up-close.
"So, last night, about the whole sword thingy..." Kassia started, catching the librarian-in-training's attention. "Since I wasn't thinking too much 'bout it when I first brought that sword to keep with me while travelin', I thought, why not follow your advice and get a new one, right? And I was thinkin' to save up some money, I'll just trade that sword for a better one, y'know, something actually fit for me like you said."
"I think that's a good idea." Enda replied, nodding. "People don't always trade a fighter's sword with a casual one, but I think it'll still be a fair trade. Swords for beginners aren't that easy to make, either."
"Oh. Great to hear that. I hope I can strike a good deal."
"Ummm, and so... uh, there's some decent weapon sellers at the market, y'know..."
"Yes, I've heard of those too."
"And I was thinking, err..." the brunette scratched her head, fiddling with the end of her ponytail. "I was thinking if you'd, uh, want to go with me? Um, y'know, I mean, I think I could use some advice from... someone like you. I was thinking I could treat you something while at it, too... as... thanks for last night. Ah, but if you're busy it's fine! I'm sure you have other stuff to do and-"
"Sure." Enda answered with a smile. "I'd love to go with you."
"Mm-hm." she said, looking down as she played with the single rose that Xander gave her. "It looks like Aoife's taken a liking to your friend, anyway. Once she starts that, it'll take a while before she leaves him alone."
Kassia mentally pat herself on the back. She didn't know why, but she felt like doing (well, thinking) so.
By then, Kassia thought that all four of them leaving Rosekeep and setting off for the same neighboring town at the same time was just a coincidence.She had no idea that they'll be sticking together for much much longer than that.