Pathway to Sydara: Guardian of the Gate

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II

Ziaxe always thought there was something strange about his walled hometown of Berania. Unlike other cities in the kingdom of Sargenia, Berania was surrounded by what people called the "Great Walls," four famously impenetrable walls of great height, width, and length that formed a square around the city. This city was the capital of the kingdom, but Ziaxe failed to see anything truly magnificent about it. He was sure there were better places in the world where people lived more freely. In Berania, he felt like he lived in a cage. But, despite that, throughout all the places he would ever see in his lifetime, Berania was his only true home. He would see many more wonderful, fascinating, and dangerous places in his life, but none of them would ever have the same secure feeling that Berania once had.

The city was divided into a rich district and a poor district over the span of a few miles. The northern end of the city was the rich and the southern end that Ziaxe lived in was the poor. In the north, Ziaxe could see the tall, grand buildings of the rich district appearing regal and majestic compared to his house and the many other peasants' houses which were small cottages and rundown shacks. The rich district was over a mile away down the dirt road that left the poor district and went through the fields and farmlands in between.

As he thought about the strange things about his home city, he thought of the fact that he had never stepped outside of the Great Walls. It gave him a sense of sadness and longing for the outside world that grew inside him every time he would see a bird fly over one of the Walls. The birds don't know how lucky they are, he would always think.

He got up off his bed and walked over to the window. A new day greeted him as a bright, burning sun peaked over the top of the Eastern Great Wall and shone down from a blue, almost cloudless sky. As he looked out, he could see the other houses of the poor district adjacent to his. The houses stood on each side of the dirt road as it ran around the corner at the end of the street to leave the poor district and return north.

He walked over to his water basin and picked up his small oval shaped mirror that lay on his dresser. Both the water basin and the dresser were bathed in the morning light coming through the window. Looking at the mirror, he saw his dark hair—that was a little too long and in need of a trim—reach out in front of his eyes. His eyes were a deep pool of hazel and he was rather skinny for his age—living in the poor district, he rarely got more than a meager amount of food each day. He was also almost six feet tall and could easily touch his room's short ceiling. He was fifteen years old and his birthday was near the end of the month.

At the age of sixteen, he would be eligible to join the Beranian Army. Usually people were not too excited about joining the army because it was sometimes a perilous career that could cost a man his life, but Ziaxe was curious of the outside world and saw that being a soldier would be the only way out of Berania's Walls. He had been training extra hard for his opportunity to join.

He walked over to one corner of his room and picked something up off the ground. It was a wooden training sword, its wooden blade strong and sturdy. Ziaxe had gotten this sword almost three years ago from his friend Kron. With enough training, both of them would be respected soldiers.

Thinking of his friend reminded him of something…. The sun was slightly over the Eastern Wall so that meant it was nearing late morning. He was late for class.

He hadn’t realized how long he had slept. He quickly got dressed in a ragged tunic and breeches and washed his face in the basin. When he was done, he left his room to enter the main room of the house. In that room, he could see the front door that led outside, the small archway to the kitchen, and the closed door to his uncle's room. A dining table sat in the middle of it surrounded by four chairs; it was a rare occasion whenever he or his uncle actually ate together at this table though.

Ziaxe looked around for his uncle. He didn’t expect him to be there.

"Hello?" yelled Ziaxe, his voice breaking the silence of the house. "Alben? Where are you?" He knocked on the closed door of his uncle's room, but there was no response. "He's probably out drinking again," he muttered to himself.

He always found it hard to believe that he was related to a man like Alben. Alben was Ziaxe's uncle on his mother's side. Ever since Ziaxe’s mother died and father left, Ziaxe was left in Alben’s care. Alben usually sat around the cottage while Ziaxe was doing work and chores. The only time he ever left was when he went to work in the crop fields north of their house…. That is when he wasn’t too drunk to stand.

One of the irritating qualities of Alben was his drinking problem. Rum and ale were Alben's favorite breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was a miracle if you ever saw him without a tankard full of some kind of liquor in his hand. Everyone in the poor district could tell that he had this problem, but he was always too stubborn to admit it. This problem even led to him being considered the poorest of the peasants since whatever coin he brought in was used instantly on the multiple jugs of the cheapest ale he could find the day he was paid. Ziaxe had tried to help him in the past, but he had become accustomed to just ignoring Alben during his drunken rages.

He left his house, skipping breakfast (they had to save their food for the approaching winter anyways), and was greeted by the warm sun. It was a nice morning for Autumn with the grass gleaming with dew and the birds tweeting in delight. He walked out onto the road, looking around at the other houses bustling with people waking up to the new day inside. Many of the buildings were homes to his friends; they were all made out of mostly wood, each with different architectural designs. Some had flat roofs while others had triangular tipped roofs, and some houses had multiple doors and windows while others may have had only one of each. All of them focused on the main priority of shelter above anything else, but they each had their own individuality as their residents did different jobs for the city.

The Great Southern Wall stood to Ziaxe's right, behind some of the houses of his neighbors, while the Great Eastern Wall could be seen in the distance ahead past the large pond at the end of the dirt road, the sun blindingly bright at the wall’s top. Behind Ziaxe's house, there was a field of long, wild grass that stretched a mile or so until it reached the Great Western Wall.

His first neighbor came out of a cottage a few feet away from his house. "Good morning" said the young man as he approached. "We're going to be late. Where's Venna?"

"Still home, I think," replied Ziaxe.

“You lazy children.” The man gave a wry grin.

“Hey, I was having a nice dream.” Honestly, though, Ziaxe could barely remember it.

The young man was a little more muscular than Ziaxe, and Ziaxe had always, in a way, looked up to him. He was already sixteen and ready to join the army. The two of them had decided to go join the army together and try to support each other. His name was Kron.

They had known each other ever since Kron first came to Berania at the age of five. Kron's early childhood was a mystery to Ziaxe because he had never left the city walls before and knew nothing of Kron’s original home. This had always made Ziaxe wonder even more on the fact that there were places in the world other than Berania. In the past, he had tried to question Kron about what life was like before Berania, but Kron would always reply, "I don't remember," and it would greatly irritate Ziaxe.

Kron had short bronze hair that seemed to reflect the sunlight and his blue eyes looked like the ocean that Ziaxe had never seen. His features looked almost chiseled as if he was an artist’s masterpiece of a statue. That was another thing Ziaxe could envy him for. Ziaxe had never felt half as much confidence as Kron seemed to display all the time. But Ziaxe could never hate his friend.

They reached the house on the other side of the road, and a girl walked out. She had long blonde hair, brown eyes, and was fifteen years old. Venna. Ziaxe couldn’t help but smile.

"Hello, you two," she said joyfully in her sweet, soft voice as she joined Ziaxe and Kron in the walk to class. She walked on the left of Kron while Ziaxe was on his right. Kron stood a couple inches taller than the others looking like a true man compared to Ziaxe who always looked as if he walked in Kron's shadow.

"Hello, Venna," said Kron. "How are you today?"

"I'm good," replied Venna with a bright smile. "How are you two?"

"I'm fine, though I am a little tired. Something was in my backyard last night, rustling around in the crop fields. I went to look for it, but I didn't find anything."

"Oh? You too? I heard something last night as well. It sounded like it could have been a person, but I can't even imagine what kind of strange person would be outside that late at night in other people’s backyards."

Kron agreed with a chuckle.

"What about you, Ziaxe? I haven't heard anything from you yet." Venna smiled at Ziaxe, showing her bright, white teeth, and made a gentle laugh.

Ziaxe was staring in the distance at the pond a couple yards away. He had always been shy around Venna because he could not help but think that she was really pretty and nice. He had always had confusing feelings for her, universal emotions that no young man can ever understand. "Uh… I'm good," he replied.

He looked out over the flat fields in the north and could see the Beranian Castle and the more royal buildings and families in the far distance, his thoughts as distant as whatever lay on the other side of the Great Walls.

They walked silently for a couple more feet. Ziaxe was used to the awkward silences around Venna—usually Kron was there to help with conversations.

"So…" Venna started saying, "I hear it's your birthday soon, Ziaxe. How old are you going to be again?"

"Uh… yes," replied Ziaxe, clearing his throat. "I'll be sixteen. Kron and I were going to join the army. Right, Kron?"

Kron was staring ahead with a thoughtful expression when he heard his name. "Right," he said.

"Really?" inquired Venna, her slim brow furrowing. "You guys are really going to join the army? Won't it be dangerous?"

"I guess it will be. But Ziaxe and I want to see the outside world, and this is the only way to leave Berania, it seems. It’s tough for ordinary peasants to just go out the North Gate."

"Outside world? I'd like to see the outside world too, but haven't you seen it before though, Kron? You weren’t born in Berania."

"Well…" Kron continued to look towards the pond with a distant look as they walked, focusing on his destination. "I told you both that I don't remember anything that happened before Berania. That was a long time ago, and I don't know anything about my real parents. I'd like to find out why they seem to have left me here though."

"It is odd. I don't remember when you first came here either. I guess I was only four years old or so when you came. Your foster parents have told us about how you were brought here though…."

Ziaxe remembered it though. The day Kron entered his life. A strange big man in a hooded cloak dragged him to the poor district and offered him to the peasants like a merchant trying to sell a cow. Luckily, one couple was willing to take him in and raise him as their own. Ziaxe thought back on that day often in wonder.

She paused. "It looks like joining the army is a great opportunity to be able to go to whatever great places are outside of Berania." Venna gave another dazzling, sweet smile. She seemed to truly support Ziaxe and Kron.

"Right." Kron paused. "You have to think about what could be out there. Most of the people here have never gone past the walls in their life. I just think it's odd and—"

He was interrupted by a loud crash coming from a nearby house on their left. There was a movement coming from behind it. A boy appeared, pushing an older man in front of him. Sadly, Ziaxe recognized the stumbling man.

"Guess what I found, Ziaxe?" said the boy with a scowl.

The man the boy was pushing walked dizzily toward Ziaxe, obviously intoxicated. He was Ziaxe's uncle Alben.

"Hey… uh… Ziaxe," Alben struggled to say through his drunken state as he swayed back and forth.

"Oh, why me?" moaned Ziaxe softly to himself. He examined the drunken man. His uncle had light brown hair and a big belly that held all of his liquor. He was covered in cuts and scratches from doing his strange drunken antics. His clothing was torn and had dirt stains all over. The tunic was probably clean and white at one time but now that it was covered in dirt Ziaxe thought that would be an unbelievable theory. Alben's breeches were torn at the bottom as if it was ripped off and had a few holes in it. But the one thing Ziaxe saw strange was that Alben was carrying a bunch of random objects like fruits, vegetables, clothes, and firewood.

"It looks like your uncle was having a stealing spree last night," said the boy with the glare. "You're lucky I don't report him to the royal guard!"

He gave Alben a hard push forward. The drunken man tripped and fell flat on his face sending the random objects scattering all over the ground.

"Alben!" yelled Ziaxe, worried despite his annoyance as he knelt down to his uncle and helped him off the ground.

"What's wrong with you, Kycan?" Kron asked the boy heatedly. His hand was in a tight fist, and he looked like he was about to let out a fierce punch at the boy’s face.

Kycan was another sixteen year old boy who always tried to irritate Ziaxe and his friends in any way possible. He had short blonde hair and large muscular arms. Rumors said that he was going to join the army along with Ziaxe and Kron during the next chance they had.

"My problem is that this bastard won't stay off my property!" yelled the boy enraged with his hands in tight fists like Kron's. “This isn’t the first time your drunken uncle has gone around stealing whatever he can find.”

"You don't have to treat Ziaxe's uncle like that!" said Kron, stepping towards Kycan. The two of them were of nearly the same height and size. A fight between them would not end well for either of them.

"What are you going to do about it!?"

"Stop!" yelled Venna as she got in between Kron and Kycan, looking like a rag doll between two stone statues. "We don't need to fight. And besides we're all late to class, and Professor Alavar will punish us if we're not there on time. So let’s go!"

Kron sighed and relaxed his fist. "She's right," he said.

Kycan grinned as if thinking he had won the battle. "All right, Kron," He said through a mischievous grin. "Go along with your little girlfriend."

Kron's ears turned red. "She's not my girlfriend."

Ziaxe looked at Kron and saw him make an uneasy look at him before swiftly looking away. Ziaxe always knew that Kron thought about Venna in a way somewhat similar to how he felt; they had shared their secrets many times before.

"Okay," said Kycan sarcastically.

Ziaxe walked up in front of Kycan. "That's enough, Kycan," he said as bravely as he could.

"Oh, so now the little one speaks," said Kycan as he moved closer to Ziaxe's face, threateningly. "You must be crazy trying to pick a fight with me. I would crush you!"

Ziaxe gulped and took a deep breath. It was probably true. Ziaxe was a small animal compared to Kycan who was a wild predator. "I don't care, Kycan. It's time to get to class."

"Oh, I see. You're trying to sneak out of this fight like you do with all of the other fights in your life!"

Ziaxe instantly thought of all the times when Alben was drunk and he had hidden from his uncle’s drunken, violent strolls around the house. He felt a surge of fury run through him. His teeth ground together, and he glared at Kycan. His hands formed fists as if he planned to punch the other, but he had no thought of what he was doing. Deep in his stomach it felt like a ball of fire wanted to explode.

They stood in silence for a moment until Kycan's eyes slowly started to widen. His jaw went ajar and he seemed to be showing a new emotion: fear.

"Ziaxe…" he said slowly, his voice slightly trembling. "Your eyes….” He suddenly backed away from Ziaxe and ran away to the pond. "Get away from me, you freak!" he yelled as he ran.

Ziaxe blinked and relaxed his muscles, letting his anger be replaced with confusion. The moment passed, the ball of fire dissipated. It was rare for him to ever feel that angry. "What just happened?" he asked Kron and Venna.

He turned around to face them, and they reflected his confusion. "What's wrong with my eyes?" he asked.

After a brief and slightly awkward examination, with her face inches from his, Venna said, "Nothing… that I can see."

"We didn't see anything wrong when you were facing Kycan," answered Kron. "We could’ve missed something, but it's probably nothing."

Ziaxe decided to agree. He had to get Alben safely home, but he would miss class if he was delayed any longer.

He stared at his uncle who was now rocking on his feet, back and forth, dizzily. The poor, intoxicated man, clueless of what he was doing, fell forward back on the ground. Ziaxe sighed deeply at the thought of how pathetic his uncle was.

"That's it," said Ziaxe, making up his mind. He looked at his friends. "Let's get to class."

"But Ziaxe," said Venna. "You can't leave your uncle like this."

"Why not?" inquired Ziaxe. He looked back down at his uncle in disgust. "What good has he ever done for me?"

"Don't say that," replied Venna softly. "He's taken good care of you all these years."

"What are you talking about!" Ziaxe found himself slightly yelling. She didn’t know half of what he did when he was mad and drunk. "He's been nothing but a horrible relative. I don't even see how we could be related!"

"But… Ziaxe…" Venna looked at the ground.

She had always been so nice, gentle, and innocent. At that moment, Ziaxe realized that he may have never seen her act angry before, and she was not going to start now. She had always tried to keep smiles on the faces of others, but now it looked like she might be losing her own smile. Ziaxe knew she was only trying to get him to do what was right... but he didn’t want to help the cruelest man he had ever known.

There was a long moment of silence between them. Ziaxe refused to make eye contact with her.

Kron put his arm around Venna, comfortingly. "Come on, Venna…. Class has started."

Ziaxe looked back at Kron and saw a look that was probably the same disgusted look that he had been giving to Alben. It was like looking in some invisible mirror, and it made him feel disappointed in himself. Kron and Venna started walking away towards the pond.

Sadness overcame Ziaxe while he watched Kron walk away with Venna, the two of them making him feel guilty for what he said. Also, a small portion of that burst of anger returned, but he took a deep breath to stop the ball of fire from growing. They didn’t understand; they couldn’t understand.

Then, beneath it all, he felt a sudden burst of jealousy flow through him. He watched his friends walk away. He knew that Kron knew how he felt for Venna… but he could not help feeling that Kron might have the same feelings….

Taking one last look at Alben, he turned toward the pond and slowly continued his original walk, walking far behind Kron and Venna. He refused to help Alben. I know he'll just wake up and trudge home for even more rum eventually, he thought.

Before the pond there were several boulders on the grass. One huge boulder almost as tall as a grown adult stood in the very center of them. Around the huge boulder was a circle of nine smaller boulders, and outside of that circle was another circle of nine small boulders.

The boulders seemed to have been placed in these specific spots many years ago. This spot was always used for Professor Alavar's classes. The professor would always sit upon the large boulder in the center while his eighteen students would sit on the small boulders around him. Ziaxe was one of those students, and over the years he had learned many things from the brilliant professor.

Ziaxe stared out to the pond beyond the boulders. His eyes gazed to the far end of the pond where the water drifted off into a stream and continued from there through a round culvert in the Great Eastern Wall about a half mile away. The culvert was tall and wide enough to fit the width of the stream. It had strong iron bars that kept out everything except fish, water, or any other small creatures that could fit between the bars.

He saw that the other students were already seated on the many small boulders as the professor’s words lectured over them from the center boulder. Venna and Kron entered the outer circle of boulders and sat on two of them near the pond's edge. Kycan was also there, and he sat on a boulder in the inner circle, giving suspicious looks as the others entered. Ziaxe decided to grab a seat away from the three of them in the outer circle on the opposite side. He sat on a boulder between a sandy haired boy and a dark haired girl, being as quiet as possible as the professor talked on about Vidians and Harvoren Civil Wars.

As he took his seat, the dark haired girl looked at him with big green eyes and smiled shyly. Returning a confused smile to her, Ziaxe awkwardly looked to the professor’s boulder in the middle. He knew this girl but sadly, could not remember her name. They rarely had any real conversations.

On the center boulder sat Professor Alavar cross-legged, speaking in his strong voice. He was a middle-aged man, his age nearing two hundred years old or so, who had white balding hair and a short white beard. He wore half-moon spectacles that covered eyes that shined full of knowledge. This man was one of the only people in Berania's poor district to have had any real education.

The professor was said to have lived outside of the city walls in some other faraway city at one point in his life, but the Great King Broniton Isonil of Sargenia had given him the job of teaching the children of Berania. For some strange reason, the professor had taken a house in the poor district to live in while others might have thought he would pick a rich and beautiful house in the rich district instead. Some said he grew dull of the big rich cities of Sargenia and wanted to live in this small, secluded part of Berania instead. But others said his kind and knowledge loving nature got the best of him, and he chose a small cottage to live amongst his students. Either way the people thought, they could all agree that Alavar was a brilliant and tender man who put the wellbeing of his students before anything else.

His current speech ended as his gaze went down to his students. “Nice of you all to join us, but remember class starts when class starts.” He raised an eyebrow as he looked at Ziaxe and the other latecomers.

All of the eighteen students were silent. Shame seemed to be the only true punishment that Professor Alavar would ever give his students. They knew their mistakes and could only learn from them. It was punishment enough for Ziaxe though. He didn’t like the feeling of others being disappointed in him.

And just like that, Alavar was over it. “Now on to our next topic. Let’s review the history of Berania.”

Ziaxe raised his head to see the professor smiling a joyous smile as if the man thought teaching was the greatest thing in the world. The old man twirled the end of his beard while he gathered his thoughts. "First question… an easy one to start us off… who is our king at this period of time."

Several hands flew up into the air to reply. Alavar searched the crowd and picked someone. "Yes, Nea?"

The girl next to Ziaxe gave the answer in a soft, timid voice. "It's King Broniton Isonil, of course."

Oh, that's her name, Ziaxe remembered.

"Yes, correct," said Alavar with a grin, always pleased to hear a correct answer. "Now… next question… when were the Great Walls of Berania built?"

Another flurry of hands flew into the air. The Professor picked another student. "In the year forty-seven twenty-five, right?" answered the boy sitting next to Ziaxe. "After the Yasson Harvorens ransacked Berania."

"Yes, you're right, Srion" replied Alavar. "Now… what happened in the Vician War?"

The process of the hands flying in the air repeated itself, and Alavar picked another boy. "Uh… the King Vician led the Vidians of Vidala to a war against all of the Sarbenian kingdoms."

"Correct again," replied the Professor. "Now… let's remember… who were the armies in the Vician War?"

Another boy answered the question, "King Vician led the Vidians, the Thrans, the Vilarians, and the Dremuns against King Broniton who led the Sargenians, Zarians, and Mintonite Harvorens."

"Yes, correct," replied the Professor putting on a solemn stare to the answer as he thought about the past events. "Vician had planned this campaign for many years. He called it the ‘Rebalancing of the World’ thinking that with brute force he could take the place of the almighty Nizain and balance the Light and Dark. And so in sixty-nine forty-five, a little more than a half a century ago, he led his armies to the Kingdoms of Sarbenia.

"His followers, the Vidians, led the front, striking fear in all of their enemies with their monstrous appetite for killing innocents and their lust for the power of Darkness!" The professor began shouting in his famous speech voice as he stood up on his boulder with a distant look on his face as if he was remembering the Vician War like it was yesterday. When he got like this, everyone knew they were in for a treat. "The Vidians of Vidala would forever strike fear to the hearts of the people of Light.

"The Thrans! A people devoted almost entirely to warcraft marched behind slaughtering whoever was foolish enough to stand in their way! Their giant blades came down upon the chests of thousands of men! The casualties of that war nearly matched the number of shining stars in the night sky.

"The Dremuns, the people who seceded from Sargenia years ago, betrayed us by joining the enemy! The foolish traitors abandoned us, and they would soon regret it!

"And finally, the Vilarians, the worst of them all! May Sarben's Light burn their King Varlidi to the ground until his soul is dragged down to the Demons below! They gave no mercy for our people even to the poor women and children caught up in the conflict.

"But… when all hope seemed lost, our army grew and conquered! Our cousins in Zaria brought their great armies and their legendary knights to our aid. And with the support of Emperor Yaron the Third of Harvoren, the Army of the North grew menacingly large!

"And so, in the year sixty-nine fifty-three, outside these very walls, the Battle of Berania was fought. After many hours of monstrous fighting between the two great armies, our Great King Broniton came down to the plain just past the southern wall and yelled out, 'If thou art as mighty as the words of the South claim thee to be, take up thy blade and duel with me, Accursed Vician! The senseless fighting ends here!'

"Vician, knowing that he must accept the challenge lest his people see him as a coward, took up his weapon and charged to the center of the plain. His weapon was the scythe with three sharp, deadly blades, the weapon that has brought fear and pain wherever it goes. The only weapon Vician ever needed.

"So King Broniton went to Vician with a weapon so fascinating that it goes beyond all human understanding, a weapon given to him from the gods themselves. It was a sword that gleamed as bright as the sun, tears of pure Light dripping from its blade like fresh blood. The people who witnessed the battle called it the 'Sword of Light.'”

Alavar’s eyes scanned his audience slowly. His voice changed to a soft whisper to add tension to his story. "But the Sargenians knew the history of this weapon. This weapon was the weapon of the Nizain. This bright, shining blade was used—as far back as history can tell—by the very first Nizain, Lexar. The fact that King Broniton had such a mighty weapon suggested to many people that he somehow had obtained the Power of the Nizain since he had no blood ties to the family of the Nizain…."

Everyone sat surprised in a silence so tense that the world seemed to disappear as if the professor’s story was all that mattered to them. No one truly knew what the "Sword of Light" was except that it was the weapon of the Nizain. Ziaxe knew nothing about the Nizain or the Nizain's weapons. He didn’t even know who the new Nizain was at that time period or if King Broniton was truly the Nizain despite the criticism against that idea.

After a long moment of silence as Alavar looked towards the south wall with a distant look, he finally took in a deep breath and returned to his story, breaking the silence, "The true battle began then… with King Broniton and King Vician, with each of their blades spreading fear to both armies. By the end of the battle, Broniton dealt a fatal blow to the Accursed King.

“But alas! before our Great King could end the enemy's life, a Witch came to Vician’s side; she summoned many hideous Demons to attack Broniton as she escaped with Vician's nearly dead body. After the retreat of their king, the Armies of the South were defeated and Berania returned to peace.

“It is believed that Vician died and his body lies at the Vilarian capital of Eyran. But there are many different speculations that have been discussed. Vician could still be alive, having survived his wound. He could be waiting for the right moment to strike…. But I’ll let you all believe what you wish.”

And so the professor's speech ended, leaving all the students wondering about the mysteries of the past. The two circles of stones around him became utterly silent as they were amazed by his story. After a few seconds, a boy in the crowd began clapping his hands, and he was soon followed by the rest of them. A roaring applause with cheers of praise began to surround the professor, all of the audience thoroughly entertained with no one disappointed.

Professor Alavar smiled, adjusted his glasses, and sat back down on the boulder. "I think that is enough for today, children. Good class today!"

Despite the amazing story, Ziaxe was glad to get out of there. He had to apologize to Venna; he couldn’t leave things the way they were. He jumped off of his boulder along with the other students and walked to Kron and Venna.

"Hello," said Ziaxe, a little timid.

Kron looked a little angry but he said, "Hello, Ziaxe, how's your uncle?"

Ziaxe had forgotten all about his uncle during the excitement of Alavar’s story. He was so sure that Alben would just walk back home on his own as he sobered up. His friends probably thought he had taken care of him already. "Oh…" he said, thinking of what to say. "He's fine," he lied.

He hoped Kron could not tell he was lying. Kron looked over past him, observing something. Ziaxe slowly turned around in curiosity, but he didn’t see anything important. He saw where they were with Alben and Kycan before class started and saw that his uncle was luckily not there anymore.

"Okay, Ziaxe," said Kron. "Now what should we do for the rest of the day?"

Several hours later, Ziaxe and Kron were sitting on two boulders by the pond. This was their usual spot where they would take some time to relax after a busy day. Sometimes they would go fishing or practice their sword fighting or even just talk. Today they were just talking. All of the other students had gone elsewhere including Venna and Kycan.

They stared out at the Eastern Wall as the sun set behind them. The Eastern Wall was over a half a mile away, and Ziaxe would sometimes feel tempted to try to climb over it if he had a proper way of doing that. But that would be suicide. The walls were taller than all of the buildings in his part of Berania put together. The walls were roughly more than half as tall as the Beranian Castle….

Ziaxe looked north towards the rich district. The Beranian Castle was almost in the very center of Berania. The castle was enormous, with dozens of towers and turrets and a wall that was smaller than the Great Walls but still strong and massive enough to stop any intruders. Ziaxe had expected it to be full of hundreds of people who could easily get lost in the many rooms and corridors.

"So, Ziaxe," said Kron, starting a conversation. "What are you doing for your birthday? Anything special?"

At the Beranian Castle, Ziaxe could see a huge turret near the top of the castle that looked down upon the whole city. Whoever stood there could probably see for miles over the walls. He had never been in the castle before and probably never will be.

"Uh…" wondered Ziaxe, focusing on Kron’s question. "I don't think so…. You know Alben never does anything fun." He sneered at that thought.

Kron agreed, remembering Ziaxe's many uneventful birthdays. Ziaxe never did anything fun or entertaining on his birthdays mostly because of Alben not giving him an approval for it. "But this is going to be your sixteenth birthday. It’s very important. You'd think he'd be nice enough to give you some gift for it."

"You'd think…. He probably wouldn't even give me any of his rum."

Kron chuckled under his breath. Ziaxe saw him and could not help himself from also laughing.

"Do you ever think about the future?" asked Kron, his smile slipping away.

There was a silence between them for a few moments as Ziaxe thought about that. Ziaxe was unsure of how to answer the random question. "Sometimes, I guess," he replied, meekly.

"What if we don't live to see our futures?" Kron's expression turned dark.

"Hey, don't say that!" said Ziaxe with a serious face, surprised at the sudden turn of their conversation. "We're going to be great warriors in the Beranian Army, and then we're going to retire…" Ziaxe's words slipped away as he was thinking of what to say.

"Or die," said Kron abruptly. Ziaxe looked at him. "For our kingdom's honor."

Ziaxe stared out at the pond then. The sun was disappearing more by the second; soon he would barely be able to see anything.

"Yes, or that,” he had to agree.

They became silent together, dark thoughts of the future on their minds, filling them with uncertainty and fear.

But then Ziaxe saw something. Out past the pond, by the culvert on the Eastern Great Wall, he saw it. Something was moving out there, but he could not make out what it was. It looked like a man, a strong, muscular man. A big man. But how could a man have gotten through the bars of the culvert? The culvert was too short and small and the bars were too close together for anyone to squeeze through.

The figure started walking slowly northward, looking as human as any human. But Ziaxe felt strange staring at this thing. It felt as if this thing put fear into the air, and Ziaxe was being overwhelmed by it.

Ziaxe blinked… and the figure was gone. Though he didn’t know it, this would be the start of Ziaxe's adventures. How was he to know this figure would make up an important part of his past, present, and future?


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