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chapter 2: the bandit of ridge pass

The pair waited until the following morning to set out from town. It gave both time to clean up from the battle, see to their affairs, and to gather supplies. It was during the supply phase that Stark laid out one major rule for Seraph: No carriage.

She had been taken aback; they had driven the carriage all the way from the Order’s Headquarters, through countless towns and villages, around mountains, and through countless plains with that carriages on their journey thus far, she was very against of this. It was after she pointed out her slew of coming from everywhere with the carriage, Stark pointed out the fact of a dead lumbering beast in the middle of town.

The city had not been attacked by a beast before; it had been attacked by bandit, but never such a dangerous beast. Whatever could have pulled such a creature there? Well, what else but a shiny gilded carriage pulled by a set of steed pulling the carriage with silver chaining. It wasn’t just Stark who had come to that conclusion; even the captain of the guard had reached the same conclusion during the clean up the previous night when Stark checked in on the square and the man actually spoke with him.

It was a beast which saw something shiny and followed it but lost its target. It had probably flittered around the day before finding something else to torment, probably wild animals, before finding the town and the shiniest object that drew its attention there: the chapel’s bell.

It was no coincidence that the beast attacked whilst they were there; the beast attacked because they had traveled so openly. They could have, mostly likely, brought similar trouble to other towns and cities they had passed only they just were not aware.

The knowledge hit Seraph hard but she heard the logic there. She was not happy with walking. She had lived such a plush lifestyle: they Order keeping her like a doll how else was she to react?

The debate over the carrage also brought Miriko into their debate over steath and the lure that it was. It was then Stark brought another demand.

“You need to change clothes.” Stark thated.

“I need to what?” Seraph asked, looking at him sharply. “What is wrong with my robes?”

“Firstly, they look poor for long travel; we’ll be going through mountainous areas.” Stark explained. “Secondly, you look like a walking sack of gold. I mean, the bandits wanting to sell you is only one problem that you’ll have with you being a woman but still.”

Seraph flustered, “First you want to rid me of my comfort in travel and now my comforting clothing.”

“Lady Seraph,” Miriko stated, “He is only stating what is best, I am sure of it.” The man was sitting in an arm chair, his leg propped up upon an ottoman in front of him, wrappings laid over his skin.

Stark looked at Miriko, nodded, and then looked back at Seraph, “Look, I am sure that you’ll be able to find some comfortable clothes to replace those really quickly before we leave and we can be on our way. You want something easy to move in; that doesn’t make you stand out quite so badly; and something that is a bit more protective to the elements than a very thing dress or robes.”

Seraph sighed. She knew Stark made a good point. Only, she liked her robes and dress; they were comfortable and pretty. But the pilgrimage wasn’t a fashion show: it was a mission to go the Holy City and breach the seal upon the city and enter it for the first time in years. After all that is done and connections were reformed between the Order the Holy City, she could wear whatever she wanted: once prosperity was back. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll go buy some clothing. Gather everything else together while I’m gone; when I return, it will be time to leave,” she stated.

“Undertstood,” Stark stated.

Seraph excused herself, leaving Stark with Miriko.

“It’s amazing,” Miriko stated.

Stark was perplexed momentarily and looked towards the ailed Priest. “What?” he asked curiously.

“I did not want to mention in front of the girl, but it is amazing how similar your circumstance is with hers, Stark Everlast.” The priest stated pointing at him. “I think that is why she trusts you unconsciously and you of her. The blankness there connects but it does not know what to say. I think there is something in common with the pair of you but I do not know what it is, boy.” The priest met him dead in the eye; him being only one of four people to dare to do so in the town as it was. “I do know what it is, but all I have to ask of you is to please take care of her.”

The priest crossed his arms, said no more, and left Stark to ponder. Stark decided to take this as a cue to leave the room, to gather the things. The blankness? Did the priest mean that to mean the memories? Did Seraph also have a blank past such as he? It meant little as it was and really it had nothing to do with the mission at hand so Stark let it slip from his mind.

Seraph had returned near to an hour later. She had a large ivory colored bag hanging from her shoulders, which she had retrieved from the carriage. Instead of her blue robes and blue dress she was wearing crimson colored corset that was laced up over a long-sleeved black top; a long black skirt that was decorated with fancy embroidering; and instead of her slippers she wore boots that went half-way up her calves and were also a crimson color.

Stark sighed, and pointed out that she still looked like a walking money sack but she scoffed at him. She declared in that instant that she would give way for practicality but she was not going to dress in some ugly clothing just because they were cheap and the pretty stuff cost money. She also proceeded to tell him that these were the less fancy of the stuff she wanted from the store.

Miriko enjoyed seeing Sereaph’s enteration with another “child”. Sure, Stark and Seraph were both teenagers coming into adult-hood, but Seraph had always grown up around people much older than her. The closest to her age in the Order was fifteen years her senior: old enough to be her mother and treated her such in a way until she passed away two years ago.

Seeing Seraph happy and enjoying herself on this bleak pilgrimage pleased the middle-aged man; even if he would have to let the pair go alone from this point on.

And that is what was done.

Stark and Seraph bid their dues and left the town. Stark, at first, felt as if it was just like any trip to the ruins in the caverns but this time he knew: he was going much further. He was going to go into uncharted territory.

He knew of the territory: of the bandits and the regions of the North. He had read about them and heard about them through merchants and traders by listening through the walls of Jay’s shop when merchant’s came. Knowledge was a trade good that was only good to traders since no one traveled after all; but Stark relished it. It was his dream to leave that place, after all.

And there he was: leaving. Bidding the city farewell behind him: wondering if he would come back at all.

As they traveled, the conversation between the pair became Seraph marveling over fauna and flora. She would rave about them, telling what she knew about them from what she had read about them in books at the Order Headquarters. She would do that a lot about a lot of things she saw; clearly she read a lot of books and learned lots of different things.

Eventually, the topic came up about the Order and her mission and Stark could not help but ask:

“What is the purpose of this trip of yours?” he asked. “What do you hope to gain when you reach this city?”

Seraph looked over at him, placing her hands behind her back, “Oh, well, as I said, they think I have the power to break the seal on the city. They want me to call upon our Lord’s powers to bring back prosperity to the lands and banish all evil.”

“Lord?” Stark asked, curious.

“Well he’s some sort of God-King to some.” Seraph explained to him. “To others he is a savior. There are many stories about him but I don’t know how many are true; the Order grew around him is all I am truly aware.”

“He didn’t make the Order?” Stark inquired.

Seraph shook her head, “No, not at all. It was created by the people who followed him from what I am lead to believe.” She explained. “The Order Headquarters only based away in order to spread the prosperity to neighboring areas; trying their best to base themselves in the middle. This was quite a very long time ago.”

“And this ‘Lord’?” Stark inquired, “Is he still there in this ‘Holy City’?”

“From what I understand: yes.” Seraph stated. “The only reports we have is that the city was sealed. There have been no reports from anyone inside the city itself; not from the Lord; not from the High Priests that live there; and not from any of the citizens. Upon noticing the lack of letters from the High Priests around seven years ago they figured it was just a fluke but they sent an envoy and found the city sealed nice and tight: the towering walls and gates locked up tight with a barrier preventing entry from all sides. Ever since then, the world has degraded more and more, things breaking down and trust in the Order wavering. All the Order can do now is try their best to break that seal.” She explained.

“And you just assume it’s just a nice lovely place at this point?” Stark mentioned. “Perhaps it was sealed for a reason.” He noted.

Seraph glanced over at him, “I do not doubt the teachings. I have nothing to doubt. The Lord brought a peace to the land and is said to reside there that is all that matters.”

“What if he wants to keep people out?” Stark asked.

Seraph glares at him a little. She’s not sure if she should be insulted of amazed by his assumption, “That’s really presumptuous of you.”

Stark shrugs, “No one from that town has been seen for, what…how many years now…?”

Seraph glanced around the ground before murmuring, “The last letter from the priests was from ten years ago; short and brief with little information.”

“And the time before that?”

A pause, “…Five years; another short letter.” She stated, “It pretty much says nothing; I’ve read it…”

“And before that?”

“Look,” she looks up at him, “I see you’re trying to rattle me, but I’m still going. If I can break it on my own, that’s fine, but now that you, and that medallion, are with me as well, I can try to channel through that as well to see if I can just put one tiny hole in that barrier. When we get inside we can ask the Lord everything and find out if you’re right or not. Until then, all we know is that the place is sealed shut and I need to get there.”

The pair had been walking and talking with little paying attention where they were and how far they had traveled. They knew where they were going and that they were heading in the correct direction but they were not aware of just how far they had come until they both stopped.

They were there. They were at the location that Stark had been worried about: Ridge Pass. It was like a scar through the mountains, high cliff edges on either side, and a road leading down in between. Remnants of broken guard towers existed at the entrance to the pass, probably just as old as the walls of the city Stark had lived in his tiny shack. They would have to be guarded from that that moment forward as it was bandit territory now.

To go any further North in any reasonable time, this was the only passage by land. All the sea route was even more dangerous so really the pass was the only choice. Carefully, cautiously, Stark began to lead the way. There was never a guarantee for an attack when you went to the location but, the flashier your entry, the bulkier you travel and entourage, the more likely you were to be stopped by the bandits. Stark hoped that, considering their light carryings, they won’t look so juicy a target; his only concern being the girl beside him.

They walked and walked, quietly proceeding the road through the passage through the mountain. It seemed so quite; almost too quite. No wildlife even though little caverns dotted the insides of the passage; it was unnatural, almost like the wildlife knew not to be there in that moment.

And then fears were realized, and Stark silently cursed himself for not noticing. Yet, he did not know these lands, this terrain and is secrets. From in front, three men stepped out from a small crevice in the mountain; behind came four more. It was a pincer move and executed brilliantly; these bandits weren’t fools.

Stark quickly reached for his sword and drew it; his reaction usually fine for beasts of the underground but one of the bandits had tossed some sort of a smoke bomb to the wall of the ridge beside him. It burst instantly upon contact with the stones and thick black smoke covered the air. The smoke was made to blind and disorient not to choke and it did just that; it was not something that Stark had expected.

He heard a shriek from his side, it was Seraph. Through the blackness he could see but shadows of figures but because he could not tell if one was Seraph he could not swing his sword; thus the disadvantage of not traveling alone.

In a moment, Stark realized that the target was the girl; Seraph was the objective. He was not something the bandits wanted to concern themselves with. They were not stupid, after all; they knew better than to pick a fight with an unknown opponent.

Stark dashed forward after the shadowed figure he saw move from the smoke before only to finally clear the smoke a moment later. One of the bandits had gathered up the girl, tossed her over his shoulder and the whole lot of them had dashed into the crevice into the side of the ridge as he exited the smoke.

Stark was both flustered and furious. He hated that he lost so easily to the bandits and allowed the girl to be captured, but…at least they weren’t injured. He wouldn’t just stand around; he’d just have to go after them. The only issue he had: he didn’t know the terrain; he would have to be cautious as he tracked them through their territory.

The bandits had startled her to say the least. She had struggled against them as they carried her through the expanse of tunnels but she really didn’t’ have any strength to do so, so it was fruitless.

The little cave systems led to a little valley that lay hidden within the mountains. A series of wooden huts stood built next to a flowing stream. One larger wooden hut stood at the back of all the buildings; clearly the leader’s building and that was precisely where the bandit group had taken Seraph.

The lot put the woman down in a corner of the room; two men stood by the door, presumably to stand guard, and the others left. Seraph fidgeted, crossed her arms and was at a loss of what to do: Stark would come, she knew it and would just have to wait.

After a few minutes, the silence was broken by another man entering the building from the outside. He was a tall man, not quite as tall as Stark was but he was tall; and his skin was pale and had almost a slight almost gray hue to his skin-tone. His hair was black and cut roughly at the base of his neck; it was cut uncleanly as if it had been cut using a sword of a knife and not really carefully as it was tousled and not in even layers. The man’s eyes were a forest green with lighter green speckles in them and he looked at her curiously.

“You smell like fine dining and wine,” he stated to her.

It was a very weird way to say “hello” and that is why Seraph did not respond to him.

The man walked forward and stood just a few feet in front of where she was sitting on the floor. He placed a hand on his hip, “So what is someone like you doing in an area such as this?” he asked.

“My reasoning is none your concern.” Seraph responded.

“What befuddles me is that my men,” he pointed towards her bag over towards one way, “they searched your bag and only found basic traveling supplies. They figured you were some sort of noblewoman and would have jewels, but no; and then,” he pointed to one of the men by the door who had come in behind him, “I’ve been told by the pick-up crew that you have magical powers but you didn’t fight. What kind of magical girl doesn’t fight when she’s kidnaped? And then I come in,” he motioned towards himself, “and was expecting to find someone who just happened to find a dress of a noble for my people to even come to the conclusion but the first thing I come into is the smell of fine dining and wine? So pardon my confusion to wondering what someone like you, as you are, are doing in an area like this, as you are.”

One of the bandits burst through the door, “Domera! The man, the one that was with her has arrived; he doesn’t seem very happy!” the man stammered.

The man who had been talking to her, Domera, smiled, “Good; maybe he’ll be up for some talking.” He said as he turned and exited the building.

Stark good outside, surrounded by the bandits, somewhat standing in the center of the area of the houses upon a laid stone pathway.

The bandit leader, Domera, had walked out of the larger house and waved his hands, motioning at the rest of the bandits; the whole lot of them seemed to back off.

“Hello there, traveler.” The bandit, Domera stated.

“Where is Seraph?” Stark asked sharply, anger evident on his face.

“Oh so that’s her name,” he said before motioning to the hut behind him, “She’s sitting on the floor in there.” Domera spoke clearly never breaking a constant eye contact with Stark. “It’s very strange, I say, the pair of you. The girl as she is… and then you: smelling of caves and blood. From totally different worlds.”

“She’s on a mission; I’m her body-guard,” Stark stated, pointing his sword at Domera, “Let her go.”

Domera motioned to a simple fact, he was unarmed, “I promise you one thing, you don’t want to do that.”

“Your men attacked me and you’re telling me to back off!” Stark snapped. He’d honestly never remembered a time he’d never been so angry before.

The bandit leader seemed amused at Stark’s evident anger; he smiled, quirked his head and flexed his hands oddly as he met Stark’s gaze.

“Give me the girl.” Stark stated.

Domera halfway shook his head, taunting him, “Take her,” he stated.

It was clearly something Domera had wanted to happen; and it did.

Stark charged the man, sword drawn, but as Stark channeled all his training to strike at the man Domera simply caught his double-handed strike, catching one of Stark’s wrists in each of his hands, managing to hold the blade cleanly away from him.

“Didn’t I tell you that you didn’t want to do this?” Domera asked with a smirk and in one quick motion he squared up a kick and kicked Stark back several feet causing Stark to hit the ground; causing Starks’ sword to clatter out of his hands and slide away from him.

Domera walked over to Stark, kicking Stark’s fallen sword around, “Now,” he began with a deep breath, “Would you care for a drink?”

Unexpectedly, in that moment, Domera then held out a hand in motion to help Stark stand.

Stark stared, in confusion.

Within about fifteen minutes Stark, Seraph, and the bandit leader, Domera were all sitting cozy around a table. Domera, clearly more comfortable than the pair that had been brought here though an unexpected detour on their venture.

“So, I suppose we shall start on a better foot this time: Hello, my name is Domera Garret.” The dark-haired man stated. “Welcome to our little hide-away. Petty thieves we are.” He stated.

“So that explains the kidnapping.” Seraph muttered.

“I introduced myself, aren’t you going to do the same?” Domera scolds.

Seraph took a deep breath, “My name is Seraph Liana.” She replied.

“…And…?” he pressed.

Seraph sat up straight and continued, “I’m a Priestess and youngest member of the Order.”

“Oh, so that explains the sense of nobility.” Domera stated. He looked at Stark, “And you, pretty boy?”

Stark rubbed the back of his head slightly, it aching from how he hit the ground earlier, “My name is Stark Everlast; I’m nothing more than a treasure hunter and adventurer. I’m pretty much her bodyguard at the moment.”

Domera nodded, “I see, that explains why the pair of you do not match and why you both have absolutely nothing but scrap change to your names at the moment.”

“So you’re not going to rob us?” Seraph asked, curiously.

“Well I could sell you; but that’s really annoying work; other than that, you really don’t have anything for us to steal.” Domera stated. “I’m personally also not into that kind of work. We usually just jack the goods and run for it; honestly, I don’t’ know why I’m even telling you this. You’ve both been free to go since I knocked him flat; actually before that when I told him he didn’t want to attack me.”

“You knew you could over-power me?” Stark inquired bluntly.

Domera looked at Stark, “Yes.”

“How?” Stark asked.

“I’m not a random beast from a cave, you know; I have a brain.” Domera stated. “I may not be very smart but I’m not stupid either. I may be a beast as well but I’m not like them.”

“Beast?” Seraph almost seemed confused.

“So interested when you have a quest?” Domera mused. “I said that’ you’re free to leave at any time. You have nothing of value to these people.”

“You’re not human; that’s how you knocked me flat.”

Domera laughed, “Of course I’m not human. I’m called the ‘Scaled Bandit’ by some; I’m a Draken.”

A Draken: that explained it to Stark. A Draken was a magical beast similar to that of a dragon; in fact it was a half-dragon, in a sense. The Draken race were quite similar to Drakes as well but, also, not…. Drakes and Draken were both part dragon, but Draken held human-like forms as well as their beast forms many preferring to retain the human shape to interact with other beings; Drakes, however, did not have a human shape to retain and only held their dragon form. The fact that Domera was a Draken explained his strength; and thus explained why Stark underestimated the man and was knocked flat to the ground by the unarmed man. Domera’s “weapon” was his strength and that was all there was to it. Stark had thought he was fighting a man, not someone who was kin to dragons.

Domera shifted, leaning back in his chair, seemingly looking more curious than he was before, “I’m just thinking; I’m wondering what the deal is with you, Pretty boy,” he said to Stark. “You’re quite strong for a normal mortal.” He noted.

“My name is Stark,” Stark stated trying to deter the pet name Domera had already called him a couple of times already.

“I know that,” Domera replied. “Say, I have a question. To sate my curiosity and my boredom from lingering too long in this ridge: do you perhaps need another bodyguard on this venture of yours?”

“What?” It was Seraph who had asked.

“You kidnap her and now you want to tag along?” Stark inquired. “That’s a strange way to get in our good graces.”

“How much do you know about the lands on the other side of the ridge?” Domera asked. “How far is the next town? I know; do you?”

Domera had a point.

Stark simply relied on the tales from traveling merchants; he had no map. Seraph knew the way but also had no map. They knew where they were there were going but neither knew the best route or the best stops along the way.

Domera seemed to know he found the trigger to find his way into their group. He smiled, knowingly. “Good; we can rest here for the night as I have kept you too long. We will leave at dawn.”

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