Once Walked With Dragons

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Chapter Sixty

The Mortags started making their way back to Sharzak’s castle. Their fear of light had sent them back into the forest where only darkness lurked. They had no remorse over what they had done only a short while ago and they also had no remorse over failing to carry out Sharzak’s commands. But it would be several days before they again reached the gate of the Haunted castle.

It was getting colder by the day. It would start snowing soon. Caitlyn had pulled out the warm blankets from the Ravens’ cupboards. Since they were not yet allowed to go home, she decided to raid their cupboards, hoping she could provide some entertainment for her grandchildren and keep them warm at night. She, her daughter-in-laws and son-in-law had also started making warm coats for the children out of some of the blankets. They had not anticipated that they would be at the castle this long and so did not bring clothes for the winter.
Joseph made sure that they always had enough wood to keep the fire going. Saresse tried her best to keep everyone’s spirits up and helped them out where she could.
Due to the accusations placed upon the Ravens, almost everyone in the kingdom kept their distance. Only a few people, such as Deryck, the stable workers and a few soldiers were now visiting them. These few people believed in the Ravens’ innocence.
Deryck came by as often as he could, bringing along toys for the children. He also hoped that he would receive news on Keara’s whereabouts and find out if she was still okay, but every day it was the same; no messages.

Two days after the attack, the Ravens were still in the abandoned town. As long as their father was still healing, they would not travel. They were anxious to get to the bottom of all the rumours that had been spreading from the coastline, but they would not risk their father’s wellbeing. Keara was sitting on the steps just outside the door by the time the darkness started to fade. The mist was still hanging heavily over the town and though she could not see it, she knew the sun was not shining brightly. Jonathan and Michael were still in Reverie when Alexander sat down next to Keara.
‘We can’t stay here much longer.’ he said, handing her a cup of tea.
‘I know. But we can’t go anywhere until dad can travel.’
‘Jonathan and I are now completely healed. We could speed up dad’s healing process.’ he suggested.
‘That might not be a bad idea.’
‘It will take some time, though.’
‘He’s human. They heal much, much slower than we do. Even with our help, we would probably be here for at least another day.’
‘I’m sure one more day won’t make a difference. I just don’t wanna make mom, Joseph and the others wait longer than they need too.’
‘Do you think Artemis would’ve tried to imprison them after we left?’
‘I don’t think he’s stupid enough to try that.’
‘Really?’ Alexander wasn’t so sure, ‘Cause a few months ago he never would’ve listened to such rumours.’
‘I know.’ Keara said, rubbing her forehead.
‘It just doesn’t seem normal that he could turn on us so quickly and so irrationally.’
‘He’s human. Sometimes that’s what they do.’
‘And people call us twisted.’ Alexander said sarcastically.
Keara couldn’t help but smile. But he was right. Humans called the elves evil and didn’t want anything to do with them because of their particular values, but most humans had none.
They enjoyed the rest of their tea in silence, pushing any bad thoughts out of their minds.
A few hours later, Alexander had rested his back against the doorframe and Keara was leaning against the side of his chest with his arm around her shoulder. She had put her feet up against the other side of the doorframe and was playing with Deryck’s pendant that was still hanging around her neck.
Jonathan approached them, ‘Dad’s awake.’ then he turned around and went back inside.
Keara and Alexander looked at each other, then got up and followed. They sat down by their father’s side.
‘How are you feeling, dad?’ Keara asked.
‘Like I was run over. But I am fine.’ Adin answered, ‘Are we still in the abandoned town?’
‘Yes. We’ve been waiting for you to wake up.’ Michael answered.
‘You should have gone on without me.’ Adin said.
‘We wouldn’t leave without you, dad.’ Keara stated.
‘Why not?’
‘But I won’t be able to travel with you now. I’m much too weak.’ Adin argued.
‘Well, dad.’ Alexander started, ‘Jonathan and I could speed up your healing process.’
‘Yes.’ Jonathan agreed, ‘It will take a few hours, but at least by tomorrow morning, you’ll be able to travel with us again.’
‘How long have I been asleep?’ Adin wanted to know.
‘Two days.’ Keara answered.
‘No, you have to go now. You can’t stay with me any longer.’ Adin protested.
‘We’re not leaving without you, dad. And one more day isn’t gonna make a difference.’ Keara stated.
‘But...’ Adin started but Keara interrupted.
’No ‘buts’, dad. We don’t leave anyone behind.’
Jonathan and Alexander prepared to start the healing process, engulfing Adin in a light green glow for the better part of the day.

By the next morning, Jonathan and Alexander had regained their strength and Adin was almost completely healed. They gathered their things, led the horses outside the inn and finally continued their journey. The mist had not let up yet and the air was just getting colder, but they put it out of their minds, more worried about their family back at the kingdom than their own wellbeing.

Deryck was walking along the inside of the castle walls, gently holding his hand against it. He tried to concentrate; trying to feel the weaknesses and strengths in the ward. When he concentrated hard enough, he could sense a faint pulsating energy flow under his hands and every now and then, the energy was more faint. He knew that the work the mages had done was already starting to lose effect. He only hoped that it would last long enough for them to find the dragons.

‘They are wasting time.’ Kydriel said while watching Keara and her family on their quest.
‘They are hunting thieves, Kydriel.’ Adriel said, not paying attention to Kydriel’s annoyance.
‘Keara should be looking for the dragons; she shouldn’t be hunting petty thieves.’ Kydriel argued.
‘It’s important to her and her family.’ Adriel stated.
‘She won’t have a family left if she wastes any more time.’ Kydriel was losing his patience.
‘She will go searching for the dragons when she’s ready to do so. Neither you nor I can dictate how the future will unfold.’ she remarked.
‘We can dictate how the future will unfold, Adriel. We can see everything.’ Kydriel argued.
‘We only see a possible future. It can always change.’
‘I only see death in the future.’ Kydriel mumbled.
‘You can’t fool me, Kydriel, I know what you see.’ Adriel said.
‘Then you understand why I worry.’ he said.
‘Yes, I do. But you have to be patient. Everything will happen the way it’s supposed to; even if it’s not the way we want it.’ Adriel spoke.
‘That’s what I’m afraid of.’

‘We’re getting close.’ Adin said as he walked out of a building towards his children.
The Ravens were still on their horses, waiting for their father to return. When he approached, they all looked at him.
‘Rumours have reached this town that fifty-odd bandits are heading this way and they go by the name of the Ravens.’
‘At least that means we’re heading in the right direction.’ Keara said, her hood pulled over her eyes. Even with the mist and the cloudy skies, the daylight still hurt her eyes.
‘Yes. That also means that beyond this town, we will only be met with hostility.’ Adin added.
‘It’s not like we go looking for trouble, dad.’ Michael replied.
‘In fact, what we are doing now is exactly that.’ Adin said, ‘Looking for the bandits, is looking for trouble.’
‘But it can’t be avoided.’ Keara stated.
‘No, it can’t.’ Adin agreed, ‘With the future being so unclear, we can’t allow any more bad rumours to be spread about us. Especially not if there are people who depend on us.’

Caitlyn was outside with her daughter-in-laws, son-in-law and her grandchildren. They didn’t allow the children to go play outside by themselves while they were still at the castle or until their innocence was proven. They felt that it wouldn’t be safe for the children.

Joseph was with Deryck. They were training in the courtyard; teaching some of the soldiers who were still willing to learn from a Raven. Despite the freezing cold, most of them, including Deryck and Joseph had removed their shirts and beads of sweat were dripping from their bodies.

Artemis was in the throne room carrying out his duties as usual. He tried his best to ignore the rumours that were still pouring into the kingdom regarding the Ravens, robbing villages and towns. Instead he focused more on the stories of pale white men with porcupine needles for hair running through the forest; all seeming to be heading in one direction. He had never seen these beings before. He had only heard stories. Even when Deryck and Keara were attacked during the mending of the ward, he did not see the beings.

‘At least we’ll have a few strong soldiers who might be able to stand their ground against our enemy.’ Deryck said, wiping the sweat from his face with a towel.
‘We would have more if people weren’t so afraid of coming near me all of a sudden.’ Joseph said, taking a sip of water.
‘It’s just because of false rumours.’ Deryck stated, ‘They should warm up to you again after a while.’
‘It’s been almost three weeks, Deryck. They aren’t warming up.’ Joseph pointed out.
‘Then we should just wait for Keara to return. Once they have disproven the rumours, everything will be the same again.’ Deryck said foolishly.
‘No, Deryck. It won’t be.’ Joseph started, ‘The trust people placed in us, was hard earned which was almost completely desolated after Keara lost control of Salerra. She managed to regain that trust, despite all the hatred. But with rumours spreading of the Ravens stealing from people and forcing others to become bandits themselves, the people around us have now chosen to believe the lies instead of the truth.’
Deryck didn’t know what to say.
‘Even your brother tried to arrest us in our sleep; only a day after my wedding.’
‘If I had known that would happen, I would’ve stopped it.’ Deryck responded.
‘I know. None of us blame you. It was your brother who acted irrationally.’
‘I just don’t understand why he didn’t talk to you about it first. That’s what he usually would’ve done. He was never the kind of person to just jump to conclusions; that’s why he’s the king.’ Deryck tried to figure out what was going on in his brother’s head.
‘You’re brother doesn’t seem to be the same person anymore.’ Joseph pointed out, ‘I know that with everything happening, he is under pressure, but even with impending battle, he should not have turned his back on us.’
‘He didn’t turn his back on you.’ Deryck tried to defend his brother, but even as he said it, he knew it wasn’t true.
‘He tried to arrest us the day after my wedding, with no explanation whatsoever. He turned his back on us.’

Night had fallen upon them earlier than usual, and the rain was pouring.
‘The snow will be coming soon.’ Michael said through the roaring rain, ‘If we don’t find the bandits within the next few days, we should turn back.’
‘We’ll find them.’ Adin stated.
Soon they reached another town called Talinie; lights in every window and very few people on the muddy streets. They looked for an open stable for their horses. Finally finding one, Adin asked the person standing inside if their horses could stay there for the night. Before agreeing, the person first asked his name.
Adin hesitated for a moment then said, ‘Sedryck.’ and shook the man’s hand.
‘I will need to know the names of your companions if their horses are to stay here as well.’ the man said, after quickly looking everyone up and down.
Adin looked at his children, then putting his arm around Keara’s shoulders, he said, ‘This is my daughter, Ashei.’ then he looked at the others and continued, ‘Those are my sons; Caleb, Ethan and Jarvis.’
The man looked at all of them again, then nodded, ‘Very well.’ then he took the reins of all five horses and led them inside, ‘Pay me in the morning when you come to fetch them.’
The Ravens turned and headed towards the nearest inn. They stepped inside, immediately drawing the attention of every patron inside. They paid no attention to the people around them and walked towards the bar. Soon everyone went back to doing what they were doing and Adin requested the biggest room available. He paid for the room and they immediately made their way to the stairs, going up to their room for the night.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Jonathan said mischievously, ‘So dad, which one of us is Caleb, Ethan and Jarvis?’
Adin just smiled, ‘You can decide amongst yourselves.’
‘Until we find the bandits, we should continue to go by those names.’ Keara suggested as she sat down in one of the chairs and finally removed her hood.
‘Easy for you to say. You have a very nice name.’ Alexander said, jokingly.
‘True.’ Keara said with a smile.
‘Let’s all get some rest. Then we can be on the road again early tomorrow morning.’ Adin said.
They just nodded in response.
‘This is not really the biggest room, dad.’ Michael pointed out.
‘I know, but it was all they had available.’ Adin explained, ‘And besides, when you were children, you all used to sleep in a pile. You never wanted to be away from each other.’
‘It’s still not easy being away from each other.’ Keara admitted.
Adin looked at her, ‘You miss Joseph.’
‘We all do.’ Jonathan said.
‘The five of you will be together again soon.’ Adin tried to reassure his children.

Despite the heavy rain, the bandits were riding through the night to the next town. Camping was not something they enjoyed doing and with the freezing rain, they knew they couldn’t stay outside the entire night.
Before long, they reached the very same town the Ravens just happened to be staying in. Their numbers had already grown so much that they needed more than one stable to house their horses for the night.

Hours later, Keara was lying curled up on one side of the only bed with Jonathan leaning back against propped up pillows next to her and Alexander sprawled across the foot of the bed. Michael had taken up one of the lounge chairs and Adin had taken the one nearby. He was asleep and his children were all in Reverie.
But their rest was soon interrupted by a commotion going on downstairs as well as outside. They all got up; looking out the windows to see what was going on.
People were running around in the streets, being chased by men in black coats, yelling that the Ravens were in town.
‘Well now, I’ll be damned.’ Alexander said as he listened to the frantic screams.
‘They came to us.’ Keara stated.
‘I say we go greet them.’ Michael said.
‘Way ahead of you.’ Jonathan said, already heading towards the door as he strapped his weapons to his body.
The others quickly followed, strapping the weapons to their bodies, grabbing their coats as they went. They were fearless, but that didn’t mean they were immune to the cold. Within a few short minutes, they arrived downstairs and stepped into the chaos. Some of the bandits saw the newcomers and immediately attacked. But they didn’t expect these ones to fight back.
Moments later, the four siblings burst through the front windows as they kicked four opponents in the chest.
Three huge men in the streets, each of them going about their dirty business, even trying to steal more than just a kiss from frightened women, surrounded by many more bandits, stopped what they were doing as the siblings landed in the mud with unnatural ease. The rain poured down on them, but it didn’t seem to bother them. Their weapons shimmered as the light played across the drenched blades. They stood there, just looking at the men who had been running rampant around the streets just moments ago. One of the three huge men looked them all up and down. None of them could quite understand how these four strangers could be so calm in the presence of the so-called ‘Ravens’. These three bandits were the leaders. They weren’t completely unattractive, but an entire life of hurting people had started reflecting their dark souls on their faces. These three were called Belegard, Veldin and Gunther.
‘All of you only have ONE chance to give up your despicable lives of thievery and go back to where you came from.’ Michael commanded.
Adin joined his children outside, standing at the top of the stairs at the door of the inn. Having a chance to look upon his children before a fight, he no longer saw them as the siblings he was so used to seeing. For the first time, he saw them as comrades. Fun and games had been set aside. Nothing else existed except the moment they were in.
The bandits laughed, thinking it very amusing that four patrons from the inn were threatening them. Because the light was at the backs of her and her brothers, their features could not be discerned. But judging by their silhouettes, the bandits could see that they were elves.
‘And what if we don’t want too?’ Veldin asked.
‘Then we’ll just have to make you.’ Alexander stated.
The bandits laughed again.
‘We don’t think you wanna fight the Ravens. Why don’t you just go back to where you came from.’ Belegard spat, still laughing.
‘We've come to take our name back.’ Jonathan added.
The bandits stopped laughing.
Veldin stepped forward, ‘I suggest you four leave this town before you get hurt.’
‘We have no intention of leaving without our name. And you will be the ones getting seriously hurt.’ Keara spoke.
They let go of their frightened hostages and attacked the four elves. With little trouble, the four elves moved out of the way; Keara, Michael and Alexander slapping each of the three bandits with the flat side of their swords. The bandits were thrown off balance by that simple, but forceful blow. The elves were now in the light. Veldin was the first one to regain his balance and seemed to stop breathing for a moment when he finally saw the features of the elves. He slowly raised one hand, pointing at Keara.
‘You’re; you’re Keara, the demon.’
‘Crucis Salerra.’ Keara corrected.
‘We are the Ravens and we are taking back our name.’ Michael stated.
‘Good luck trying.’ Belegard said after gaining his composure, folding his arms and becoming a bit cocky, ‘There are over fifty of us and only four of you.’
‘Five, actually.’ Adin said as he climbed down the stairs and came to a stop next to his children.
‘You’re not an elf.’ Belegard said.
‘I am Adin Harpstrom, father of the Ravens.’
Veldin chuckled, ‘I don’t care who you are. The five of you aren’t walking out of this alive.’
And quickly the battle ensued. And just as quickly, it was over. Many of the people who had been forced to join the bandits, immediately turned on them and helped the Ravens battle the bandits. Many of those people were injured, but thanks to the Ravens keeping watch on everyone around them while fighting, no one was killed. Others who had been forced to join cowered behind walls and under buildings that were built on stilts, until the battle was over. Most of the bandits had been rounded up and tied down with vines and roots in the center of town. The Ravens scouted the rest of the town, searching for bandits who were hiding from them after they realized that the battle was lost. Keara and Michael were on the rooftops, deciding it would be the only approach that none of them would expect. Veldin had managed to escape the chaos and there was no way that the Ravens would allow him to disappear to start his trouble again.
The rain had finally stopped and the sun was slowly starting to peak over the horizon, though it didn’t provide much warmth.
Keara stood still on the highest roof in town. She heard movement coming from somewhere nearby, close to the ground. She looked down at Alexander who immediately sensed her thoughts. He bent down and put his hand on the ground, closing his eyes for a moment, listening to the voice of the earth. A moment later, he stood up and looked up at Keara. He gestured, using his head, to the building next to the one she was standing atop of. There was enough space underneath the building for Veldin to hide without being seen, even as the daylight approached.
Veldin watched from his hiding place, not sure what Alexander was doing; he didn’t even understand what he was looking at or what the gesture was.
Keara walked to the edge of the roof and jumped down, landing softly between the two buildings.
The sudden shadow next to him, startled him, but he managed to stay quiet.
‘Hello.’ Keara said as she quickly bent down and peered under the building.
Veldin was startled again. He slithered out from under the building opposite to where Keara was standing. By the time he got to his feet, both Keara and Michael were already waiting for him.
‘You two are really fast.’ Veldin managed to say.
‘We’re Dark Elves.’ Michael stated as he took hold of Veldin’s arm and dragged him to the center of town.
Of course he refused to go down without a fight, but Michael was just not in the mood for another fight. He countered Veldin’s attempt to break free, allowed a root to grow over his hands and bind them behind his back.
‘Now sit down and be quiet like a good little bandit.’ Michael said as he pushed Veldin down to the ground.
Veldin mumbled insults under his breath, thinking that they wouldn’t hear him, but Keara looked at him, ‘There’s no reason to get mad at us. It’s your own fault for getting caught.’
‘That’s what happens when you steal the Ravens’ name.’ Alexander added.
Adin addressed the entire town, as well as the people who had been forced to join the bandits, but had fought back the previous night.
‘We are obviously not gonna leave them here. We can’t allow them to spread their evil again, but we do need to return to Varden Castle, with them. And though my children are very powerful, we cannot keep constant watch over them by ourselves. If any of you would accompany us in bringing them back to justice, it would be greatly appreciated, and we will see to it that you are also rewarded for it.’
The town was silent, but after a few moments, most of the people who had been travelling with the bandits against their will, stepped forward, gladly offering their help. Some thanked the Ravens for their help, but apologized, saying that they wished to return home to their families and take the horses with them that were rightfully theirs. The Ravens had no problem with that. They also wanted to return to their family and these bandits had no right to tear them away from their loved ones. Some of the townspeople also volunteered to travel back to the castle. They wanted to make sure that these bandits wouldn’t cause trouble again.
Though they expected the people to be angry and want revenge, the Ravens did not anticipate that so many people would volunteer to take the long journey back to the castle. They told everyone to ready themselves as they would be leaving very soon. They did not wish to waste any time in returning home.
By the time everyone had taken their horses and headed home, there were just barely enough left for the volunteers. Though they were willing to walk the entire way if it meant bringing the bandits to justice, the townspeople provided more horses on the condition that they be returned once these people made their way back home.
Adin offered to pay for the damages that were done to the inn during the fight that raged through the night, but the innkeeper refused to take any money from them, saying that they had saved them from hardship at the hands of the bandits and that was payment enough.
The stable keeper had also decided that payment wasn’t necessary. He was just happy that they had been saved from the bandits.
Several of the townspeople had given the Ravens and the volunteers some food for their travels, though it wouldn’t be nearly enough for all of them and it wouldn’t last for many days. But everyone appreciated the gesture.
The Ravens had requested that everyone spread the word of what they had done here. People needed to know the truth and hopefully things would be made a little easier for them.
They spent most of the morning preparing to leave; getting their new prisoners ready, making sure they remained bound and wouldn’t be able to simply escape without them knowing. The bandits’ weapons had been divided among the volunteers, though most of them had never even wielded a sword or even held a dagger in their hands until now. Even so, they gladly accepted the weapons and hoped that the Ravens would provide some help if it became necessary to wield them.
A short while before noon, they were finally on their way. Adin and Jonathan were riding in front. The volunteers had been scattered around the outside of the prisoners, making sure that they couldn’t simply just get away. And Keara, Michael and Alexander were at the back, deciding that it would be the best place to keep watch over all of them. No matter what, they would not allow any of them to escape.
But this time, they didn’t travel along the coastline. They headed straight into forest, hoping to shorten their travels by a number of days.

Sharzak had grown tired of Keara’s uncanny ability to rise above every situation he laid out before her. He decided that if he couldn’t beat her head-on, he would try a different approach. He had sent out a small army of demons once again. But this time he ordered them not to simply attack upon finding her or he would make them suffer for it. They all desperately wanted the heart of Crucis Salerra, but Sharzak had become very unforgiving towards his subjects each time they failed him. They decided they would obey him; as long as they could resist the urge to cut out Salerra’s heart anyway.

Keara had thrown her head back, and was looking up at the trees, seeing a flicker of light passing through the trees every now and then. She seemed to be very calm, but she was also quite bored.
Michael looked at Keara and smiled, ‘You enjoy looking up at the trees?’
Without looking down, she answered, ‘Oh yes, definitely.’
He kept smiling, happy that his sister seemed to be so calm for a change. For the first time in a long while, he didn’t feel a storm brewing inside her mind.
‘I took the liberty of sending Joseph a message.’ Alexander informed.
With her head still thrown back, she just turned it sideways to look at Alexander, ‘Yeah?’
‘Yeah. I just thought he should know.’
Keara looked up at the trees again, ‘He should know. At least then our family will know that this will all be over soon.’
‘And they will be able to go home before the snow starts falling.’ Alexander added, ‘I don’t want our children to travel in the snow.’
‘They won’t have too.’ Keara said softly.
Alexander looked at her while she stared up at the trees and just gave a soft smile. He sure hoped she was right. It had become extremely cold during the last few days and judging by that, snow would surely follow very soon.

Deryck was at the Raven barracks, sitting by the fireplace, playing with the children. He didn’t have much else to do and not knowing if Keara was alright or not, he needed to do something that would keep his mind occupied. And since the children demanded his undivided attention, it was the perfect distraction. He also preferred being around the Raven family at that stage. They were the only people that didn’t ask any negative questions about the accusations.
Joseph was sitting against Saresse’s legs. And she was sitting in a comfortable chair, reading a book. He wasn’t doing anything, aside from playing with the children until their attention was completely drawn to Deryck again. He was no longer thinking about anything else other than his family, hoping that they would return soon or at the very least, that he would hear something from them. His sister-in-laws and brother -in-law had also started doing as much as they could to keep their minds occupied. Their husbands were still out there and they deeply wished to see them again.
Caitlyn didn’t know what to do with herself anymore. She had done everything she could possibly think of to keep her mind from wandering to the worst case scenario of her husband and children, but now she could no longer keep her mind in check. It had been a very long time and they hadn’t heard anything since the day the Ravens left.

Artemis had finished his duties for the day and had been wandering around the great halls of the castle since then. He was feeling guilty for accusing the Ravens and trying to deal with it so irrationally and it showed clearly on his face. He just hoped that they would be able to prove their innocence and that the Ravens would be able to put this whole thing behind them. But he knew that they weren’t very forgiving when people accused them, and so irrationally too.
At the same time, his feelings started changing. He suddenly felt that he was justified in what he had done. He was the ruler of this land, and he would decide what was right and what was wrong.

Saresse had started stroking Joseph’s hair while she was reading. He took her hand, moving it towards his lips and softly kissed it before letting go again. She smiled at him sweetly and continued to stroke his hair. He closed his eyes, enjoying the attention from his wife.
An abundance of golden leaves with a pink substance scraped against the window of the common room, just behind Saresse and Joseph. No one paid attention to it, but the leaves kept scraping against the window, swirling in a circle. Joseph opened his eyes and looked up at the window. He watched it for a moment, realizing that it must be a message. He quickly got up, told everyone that he would be right back, then grabbed his coat and walked outside.
He walked towards the swirling leaves. When he came closer, the leaves started swirling around him. A moment later, he heard Alexander’s voice, informing him that they had apprehended the bandits who had been using their name and they were heading back to the castle. He smiled softly, relieved to finally hear from them. Once the message was finished, the leaves slowly swirled towards the ground, landing softly, no longer moving. He immediately walked back inside and informed everyone that Alexander had sent them a message and they were heading back. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, finally knowing that their family was still alive and well.
‘I’m gonna tell Artemis.’ Deryck said, getting up.
‘I’ll come with you.’ Joseph said.

Artemis seemed more delighted by Joseph and Deryck’s news than either of them expected. He stated that he was glad to hear they were returning and smiled broadly. Joseph frowned, not sure if Artemis was being genuine or just pretending.
‘Did they say when they would be back?’ Artemis asked.
‘No.’ Joseph was still wary of Artemis’s unusual attitude, ‘They just said they’d be cutting through the forest, which should shorten their travels by a few days.’
‘That is delightful news.’ Artemis said, ‘Hopefully they’ll be back before it starts snowing.’
‘Yes.’ Deryck frowned. He didn’t understand why Artemis suddenly had a different attitude, ‘What’s going on?’
‘What do you mean?’ Artemis didn’t seem to understand.
‘A few weeks ago you were still obsessed with the possibility that they were lying and now you’re saying you’re happy to hear they are innocent.’ Deryck explained.
‘Of course I’m happy to hear they are innocent. But it’s my job to protect my people from others who may have committed a crime.’ Artemis said.
‘That’s not like you.’ Deryck stated.
‘You’ve never acted so irrationally before. And your actions were never dictated simply by rumours.’ Deryck pointed out.
‘I did what I thought was right, Deryck. But now they’re innocent. And now we can put all of this behind us.’ Artemis said.
Joseph looked sharply at him, ‘This is unforgivable, Artemis.’
Artemis turned to look at him. Joseph continued before he could say anything.
‘You accused us of hurting and killing the people we’re trying to protect. You tried to arrest us without even giving us a chance to prove our innocence. And if I wasn’t here, my entire family would probably be sitting in prison right now.’
For a moment Artemis realized the kind of person he had become. And he felt remorse, but just as quickly, it passed, and he again wore a mask of indifference and ignorance.
’What you did was wrong, Artemis. No matter what you say.’ Deryck added.
‘The only reason we’re still here, is because we have the same enemy that’s trying to destroy us all. And we won’t let that happen.’ Joseph said after a moment of silence between the royal brothers.
‘But I’m sure that in time, we can look past this and still work together.’ Artemis said.
‘Because of you, my sister, brothers and father have been travelling for weeks, facing who knows what kind of dangers, just to prove that we are innocent. I don’t even know how close they may have come to death in this last while and there’s nothing I can do about it. They may be on their way back now, but I still don’t know if their travels will be safe.’
‘But you Ravens face danger every day. What difference does this make?’ Artemis wondered how their current quest could’ve been different from any other.
‘Because this time, they are risking their lives for a selfish reason.’ Joseph was losing his temper.
‘Proving your innocence is not selfish, Joseph.’ Deryck interrupted.
‘We took an oath when we became Ravens, to protect everyone around us, and only then, ourselves.’ Joseph informed, ‘We are on the edge of war. This quest, was not supposed to happen.’
‘But that doesn’t make this situation unforgivable.’ Artemis argued.
‘No. Your irrational behaviour and malicious actions based on rumours, makes this unforgivable.’ Joseph said, ‘Now, excuse me please. I must see to my wife and my family.’
Joseph turned on his heel and left without another word.
Once he was sure Joseph was out of hearing range, Artemis spoke, completely nonchalant, ‘He has no reason to be so mad at me.’
‘He does, Artemis.’ Deryck stated.
Artemis looked at Deryck in disbelief.
‘You’re my brother and I love you, but I won’t take your side when we both know that you’re wrong.’
Artemis still couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
‘You’re the king, Artemis. When did you become so irrational? When did you become so childlike, that you would believe such rumours?’ Deryck wanted to know.
Artemis didn’t know what to say. He was not used to Deryck attacking him in such a way.
‘If your actions lead to me losing the woman I love, I will never forgive you.’ Deryck finished, then turned and also walked away.
Artemis was left alone, standing on a balcony, looking out at the few stars that were visible. Even his brother had turned on him. Had he really made such a big mistake? Why did he make such a big mistake? It certainly wasn’t like him. He looked up at the stars, and his eyes flashed crimson red.

The demons were travelling through Ber Mara forest at great speed. They only had one destination, and it was nearing rapidly. They could not fail Sharzak this time; he would make them suffer dearly for it. And despite their great lust for power, they would obey his orders to the very end, or at least, try.

Adin pulled the reins, making his horse come to a complete stop. He looked around, deciding their location would suffice for the night. He announced it as loudly as possible so every volunteer as well as his children at the back could hear him. None of them complained, not even the Ravens.
Not much time had passed before they had a fire going. Their prisoners were huddled together; some lying down, some sitting up straight, but none of them were happy. Some of them tried to make unpleasant remarks towards the Ravens, but it all merely fell on deaf ears. Some of the volunteers were insulted by the prisoners and wanted to react, but Keara and her brothers just told them to calm down and ignore them completely; it wasn’t worth it to get worked up over stupid remarks.
The Ravens divided their food up amongst themselves, the volunteers and also the prisoners. Some of the volunteers protested, but the Ravens simply said that they weren’t gonna starve the prisoners just because they could.
Much later that night, when most of the people had fallen asleep, Alexander sat down next to Keara who was just staring into the fire, letting her thoughts flow through her mind.
‘Am I interrupting a deep internal conversation?’ he asked after looking at her for a moment.
‘No. Just random thoughts running around.’ she answered, resting her chin in the palm of her hand.
‘So we can talk?’ Alexander enquired.
She just stared at him, slowly nodding her head.
‘I’ve been thinking about what Artemis did before we left.’ he started.
‘Yeah?’ Keara replied without looking at him.
‘It’s very unlike him to act so irrational.’
‘It made me think a little bit.’
‘About what?’
‘He’s not himself.’
‘Well, I could’ve told you that.’ Keara finally looked at him.
‘What I mean is, I don’t think his actions are his own.’
‘You’re saying he’s not in control of his own thoughts?’
‘I’m saying, I think he’s possessed.’
Keara just looked at Alexander. She realized what he was trying to say, ‘You’re referring to the demon that invaded his mind.’
‘I am.’ Alexander paused, ‘He must have left an imprint of some kind.’
‘It’s possible that he did.’ Keara considered, ‘Then this imprint is starting to manifest.’ she folded her arms.
‘Then we gotta get back quick before he starts relaying information to Sharzak.’ Alexander said anxiously.
‘We don’t need to worry about him relaying information.’
‘But what about the demons and Mortags that attacked us in the abandoned town? How could they have known where we were, if he wasn’t informed?’
‘Even Artemis didn’t know where we were at that time. Remember we have many enemies and Sharzak has spies everywhere. He would’ve found out about our travels eventually. We don’t need to be concerned about Artemis in that regard.’
‘But, then why did Artemis try to arrest us?’ Alexander wanted to know.
‘The imprint probably took advantage of the opportunity when it heard about the rumours.’
‘What do you mean?’
Keara held up her hand, lightly touching the side of her head with two fingers, ‘According to Queen Ethera’s memories,’ she paused for a moment, ‘the imprint no longer has any of its previous goals or desires. It is only concerned with self-preservation.’
‘Meaning, what?’
‘It’s after power.’ Keara stated, ‘I suspect it’s growing stronger by the day, but not fast enough for its own liking.’
‘So it wants your heart.’ Alexander realized.
‘It probably does.’
Alexander was silent for a moment, considering everything they had just figured out, ‘So how do we get rid of the imprint?’
‘I don’t know.’ Keara admitted.
‘You don’t know?’ Alexander couldn’t believe it, ‘Queen Ethera’s memories must have some way of getting rid of it.’
‘I have every memory of her; from the very moment she became queen, until the instant she died. But nothing is in order. It’s very chaotic up here.’ Keara pointed at her head, ‘Finding the answers I’m looking for from her, takes time.’
‘Right. I’m sorry. I sometimes forget that those memories aren’t your own.’ Alexander apologised.
‘It’s okay.’

The demons’ pace never slowed. They never stopped to rest, eat or drink. Their only goal was to complete their task. Soon they would reach the nearest village.
Deep in the forest, they were the only people for miles around. Living very isolated lives, they didn’t know very much about the world around them. They grew their own crops and built everything themselves. Not many outsiders ever passed through here, so the only stories that they had to tell, were their own. And even though they were so isolated, they would always be able to protect themselves if it ever became necessary. But nothing could prepare them for the horror that they were about to face at the hands of the most evil beings they could possibly imagine in their isolated lives.

It was past midnight when the demons streamed into the quiet village. The gate guardian had died before he even knew what was going on. Within minutes, everyone in the village was awake; every man fighting to protect his family; children cowering in corners and under beds; people pleading for their lives. But no one was spared. The chaos ended faster than it had begun. The village had been raised to the ground. But the demons hadn’t pillaged the village simply for the fun of it; they needed a way to hide their extreme auras and using the body of a human was the only way to do so. They used the bodies that weren’t terribly injured before death as they could only heal minor wounds once inhabiting the body. There were not enough adult bodies for all of them, so several resorted to using children’s bodies. Those that weren’t able to get a body, decided that they would keep their distance, but still remain near enough should the need arise and when they would become ready for an attack.

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