Coming out of the darkness and into daylight, Yazmin’s whole field of view was taken up by the most lavish buildings they had seen yet. Splendor covered the people that walked beneath the buildings from head to toe. Stellan had seen well-furnished buildings on the outside but never to this degree. All manner of colors ran across their facades, and the ground floor windows didn’t even have bars on them. The wealth disparity between this side of the wall, and the other, was staggering. Standing just at the entrance to the main gate, and gawking, prompted the people walking by to begin pushing them aside. Stellan grabbed Yazmin’s shoulder and gently steered her to the side. Looking at her, he could almost see actual sparkles of wonderment in her eyes. She continued to peer at everything and was not the least fazed by her plain brown pants and tan shirt. Stellan thought she looked very good in those, and as they moved through the people, he noticed all the extravagantly clothed ladies had so much makeup on their faces that he couldn’t see their actual skin. Some of them looked far too alluring to be wearing so much of it, but that seemed to be the leading trend, so all followed it, even if it made them look downright silly. With all the beautiful highborn ladies around him, Stellan realized that Yasmin was at least as beautiful, if not more. She walked as gracefully as them but had an unassuming manner and was easy to be around. Stellan smirked to himself and thanked the gods for rewarding his hard work and sacrifice with such a rare person as her.
Snapping out of his thoughts, he began looking around for a seeker, just as Dayspine had advised. The street they were walking had signs pointing to a nearby market, but nothing about the square was visible. Stellan’s pace became brisk when he saw a guardsman at a corner, watching the passerby with vigilance. The man noticed Stellan and began walking his way until they both met midway.
“Hello,” Stellan greeted, “we’re looking for the Riftseeker evaluation. Could you point us towards it?”
The guardsman cocked an eyebrow and gave a suspicious look at Yazmin, then her clothes. Stellan rolled his eyes and found the note written by Dayspine. The guardsman took the paper and waved for them to follow him. Walking to a house nearby, they encountered an older, stately woman.
“Good day, Lady Silveroak,” the guardsman said, bowing slightly. “Might I trouble you for a moment? I need someone of unquestionable character to read this note for me.”
“Of course constable,” the woman said in a raspy voice and took the piece of paper, then read.
“The venerable scribe Dayspine, my my,” the woman lowered the paper just enough so her eyes peeked out from underneath. “Constable, take good care of these travelers as they are vital to the kingdom’s survival.” The woman casually threw the paper to the side and moved her index finger in Yazmin’s direction.
The paper gently flew through the air as if carried by an invisible wind. Yazmin grabbed it without much effort and bowed to the passing woman who gave her an almost imperceptible nod. The constable, now face to face with both of them, grit his teeth and walked them to the Riftseeker gathering.
The square that housed the gathering was large, easily the same size as Yazmin’s whole village. The constable led them as promised and then, without a word, turned around and walked away. Stellan started making his way through a crowd of people dressed and equipped in a similar fashion to him. Some of them he knew, some of them he’d heard about, but most were unfamiliar. As big as the king’s domain was, it was dwarfed by the vastness and dangers of the Outlands. Being taller than most everyone gathered allowed Stellan to see where the evaluation was happening. Yazmin began to lag behind him, so he gave her his right hand to hold and used his left to cleave a path to the center.
Guardsmen were stationed in a circle around the colorful pavilion that stood inside the inner ring of people. He saw a man in bright blue robes inspecting a blade similar to his. The guardsmen blocked Stellan’s path, and he handed them the piece of paper. The man took it to the nearest person who could read and they, in turn, took it to the man performing the inspection. With visible annoyance, the man read through the words handed to him and then waved them over.
“Highly irregular,” said the robed man in a croaky voice. “This sword you claim to have is in our records, yes, but it has not been registered in neither the proper manner nor the proper time.” He gave Stellan a once over, and after a moment’s thought, continued.
“Come on then, hand it over,” he said and extended both of his arms forward.
Stellan did as instructed. The man who’s evaluation he had interrupted, eyeing him all the while with anger.
The robed man made a gesture with his hands, and a droplet of water jumped out of a cup he had nearby. The droplet moved in the air and settled on the lower end of the blade, then moved along its length all the way to the tip. The robed man made another gesture, and the droplet jumped off the tip, then traveled in an arc to the gem inside the pommel where it disappeared. The men behind the table, observers probably, held their breath and watched. Stellan found it odd how everything almost stopped moving all together from the combined anticipation.
“No outflow,” the robed man said and leaned in even closer, “this appears to be a genuine Breachthorn.”
“Run it again,” a man from behind spoke with an imperious tone.
The robed man made no protests and called over a young man who had a piece of cloth over his left index finger. The cup of water next to the robed man was changed with a new one, and once that was done, the young man removed the cloth and teased out a few droplets of blood from his finger. The robed man lifted the cup afterward and swirled the water inside, then performed the ritual again.
“Again, no outflow,” the robed man concluded after watching the gem for a solid minute.
The other Riftseeker took the sword from the table and pushed back into Stellan’s hands.
“Back of the line then,” he said, teeth bared.
Stellan nodded with his chin to the side, and Yazmin followed as he took his rightful last place. The other Riftseekers in line began to mumble as the line continued to move at its slow pace. Stellan and Yazmin reached the halfway mark of the line when several striking people made their way into the evaluation circle.
A man wearing a tailored, dark blue suit, which probably cost as much as an entire village’s yearly food supply, a young girl to his side, her right arm interlocked with his left. Stellan saw a resemblance in the features and guessed daughter or cousin. Behind them were several riftseekers in resplendent armor, much less practical than Stellan’s but very impressive looking. The riftseeker leading the three other men had a sword like Stellan’s, however, his had a red edge instead of white. Stellan’s own sword had looked like that many years ago.
“Not much of a challenge for mine then,” he thought idly, as an old gentleman appeared behind the riftseekers.
His suit was very well made as well, but the man’s look was more geared toward refinement rather than attention-seeking. The older man had a very strikingly beautiful, older woman on his arm. She wore the, apparently, customary giant weight of makeup on her face, but her high cheekbones and full lips set her apart from the rest Stellan had seen. She had deep blue eyes and dark brown hair raised in a stylish bun. Her eyebrows were trimmed to perfection, and her small nose almost seemed to announce her highborn heritage just by the way it pointed slightly forward and up. Stellan stopped staring and threw a sideway glance at Yazmin. She hadn’t noticed him because she was staring at the woman, enthralled. He looked back to the woman, whose dress was very tight at the waist and bodice, then went wide from her upper thighs to the very bottom where her lower calves and an immaculate pair of shoes showed. The dominating color of the woman was red. Her nails, cheeks, lips, and dress were all painted in it. Her shoes were dark and sleek, their backs raised and accentuating her calves as she walked elegantly. Stellan had never seen shoes like this before and doubted their practicality on the non-paved roads that dominated the kingdom outside of the major cities. The woman caught his gaze and gave him a modest smile, which made his heart jump into his throat. He looked the other way as the line moved.
The riftseeker with the sword made his way behind Yazmin, his fellows joining the queue as well.
“Nice blade you’ve got there, brother,” the newcomer said behind Stellan’s back. “Too bad it’s going to lose to mine.”
He unsheathed his sword and marveled at its red edge.
“Red’s the highest I’ve seen anyone get, maybe ever,” he spoke again, but Stellan ignored him. “I’m Chelton. Maybe you’ve heard of me?”
Stellan turned to the chatty man who had a stupid grin on his face.
“Never have, sorry,” he said plainly and turned back around.
“Of the Speardragon clan,” Chelton continued, raising his voice, like that would give Stellan better knowledge of the name. “I mean, you’re not carrying your clan’s markings, so I assume you’re nobody, but my clan is known throughout the land. Right, boys?” He shouted, and encouraging cheers came from the men close to him.
“So, what do you say you step out of line and save yourself the embarrassment, huh?” Chelton leaned in and spoke almost directly into Stellan’s ear.
The obvious provocation went from in Stellan’s ear and out the other. He’d come too far to be goaded into the petty squabbling his grandfather and father had filled their lives with.
“I’ve heard of your clan, yeah,” he said and turned around, his nose almost touching Chelton’s. “My great-grandfather apparently thought your faces were as piss poor as your fighting, and I see he wasn’t wrong, at least about the faces.” He put his hand on Chelton’s armor and shoved him back.
“And if you don’t stop standing so close, we’re gonna have a problem,” Stellan put his hand back down, close to his short sword, then leaned back to show his full height.
“Okay, okay, no need to get aggressive, brother,” Chelton raised both of his hands and waved them in a placating gesture. “I was just trying to give you some friendly advice, and I’ll let the insult slide, this one time, seeing as you’re out to prove something.” The grin returned on his face again as he straightened up as well.
Stellan turned around with the intention to put the interaction behind him, but Chelton just wouldn’t shut up, apparently.
“How about you, pretty girl?” he said and took a wide step around Stellan to stand next to Yazmin’s right shoulder. “I don’t know how this giant dolt impressed you so much, but if he said his blade has slain many breachborn, he lied. You see, the blade is white when it has no kills to its name. If it just nicks a major vein, it will change color. So your big friend over here most probably got all these scars in an accident and never had a real fight in his life.” Chelton’s tone was so condescending that Stellan felt an almost immeasurable urge to punch him in the face.
The man’s words themselves weren’t the issue, but the way he said them. All sure of himself and his, obviously, limited knowledge of how the Breachthorn blades worked. It took every ounce of self-control Stellan possessed to stay his hand.
“If you come with us,” Chelton continued, his head close to Yazmin’s left ear now, “we’ll show you a real good time. Something one man just can’t ever accomplish.” His left hand slid down Yazmin’s back, grabbing her butt and squeezing.
Stellan’s hand went instinctively for his shortsword, but he released it a moment later. He couldn’t kill a human just for being an idiot. The wasted moment gave enough time for Yazmin to retaliate. The cork on her waterskin popped off, and a stream of water smashed into Chelton’s face. Water filled his nostrils, and he tumbled to the ground. His head hitting the pavement. Before he even had time to feel the pain, Chelton’s wrist was in Stellan’s grip. A shortsword leaning on his knuckles, ready to sever digits with a simple downward motion.
“Touch my wife again,” Stellan said in a low hiss. “And you’ll have to empty your bladder with someone’s help.”
Chelton’s crew drew weapons and water found its way into every face orifice they had. The three of them fell to the ground writhing. Stellan smiled a dreadful smile of satisfaction. Several guardsmen with weapons already drawn came to break up the fight. Soon, three swords and two halberds were pointed at Stellan.
“Good folk,” said the extravagantly dressed, older man from earlier in a louder voice, “there is no need for all this. Please, were are here to see who the greatest riftseeker in the land is. Award him or her with their rightful title and turn our attention to the threat coming to destroy our world. Not fight amongst each other. Please, good constables, stand down. Sir Speardragon is not in danger. Isn’t that right, sir...” He had made his way to them, putting a hand on Stellan’s shoulder.
“Hammerwind,” he said and let go of Chelton. “There’s no trouble here. Just a minor misunderstanding. Right, Sir Speardragon?” Stellan extended his left hand to Chelton, who took it and stood up.
“Yes, of course,” Chelton said, coughing, “just a disagreement between professionals. Nothing to get all worked up about.”
“Now please, good sirs,” the sharply dressed man put arms on both Stellan and Chelton’s shoulders, “there won’t be any more rousing spectacles, yes?” He gave them a measured smile, which stretched his immaculately bearded cheeks.
Stellan saw the suit had an emblem just above the man’s heart - a silver hand tightened into a fist, pointing up towards the heavens.
“I have no quarrel with my…” Stellan almost let a slur slip out, “umm, colleague. As he said, it was just a disagreement. Those of us that survive the breachborn have no reason to die by friendly weapons, right?” Stellan’s tone dipped low and almost sounded ironic.
“Excellent,” the man patted Stellan on the shoulder and moved his hands back to his sides. “My name is Noan Silvermight, and it is my utmost pleasure to make your acquaintance, good sir riftseeker.” He proffered a hand, which Stellan took and shook.
“All is well,” Silvermight announced, speaking louder, and the guardsmen were immediately placated. “I would like to extend my humble thanks for your service, sir Hammerwind, and do wish you all the best in your future endeavors. Whatever they may be.” He gave a curt bow to Stellan, a deeper one to Yazmin, and retreated into the forward ring of people around the pavilion.
The queue moved much faster now. Everyone began staring at Stellan and Yazmin, giving them looks of concern and agitation. Chelton stood quite a way back now, creating a divide, which started after Stellan and reached all the way to the newest arrivals.
“You okay?” Stellan said, looking down at Yazmin.
She blinked a few times, then looked up at him.
“Yeah, fine,” she said, nodding.
Stellan could see a slight tremble in her hands, but he didn’t press further. He was just happy that she had retaliated and hadn’t let herself be pushed around. That was a sign of a strong person. Stellan was beginning to like her more and more. As they moved closer to the front of the line, he caught her throwing glances at the exquisitely dressed in red, older woman from before. Every male in the vicinity was finding excuses to steal some looks as well. Stellan couldn’t blame Yazmin for looking so sullen while inspecting the extravagantly dressed woman. He turned his forward again because they were next in line.
“Name of weapon?” the man doing the evaluation asked.
He wasn’t the same examiner as before. This was the man who had requested the test be done again, the one with the domineering tone.
“Snowshade,” Stellan replied and handed over the sword.
The man began his inspection, and when it finished, Stellan gave him the piece of paper from Dayspine as well. The man crumpled the paper, then threw it behind his back with contempt. His hand moved in an odd, upward gesture, which made the droplet of water spurt out like before, but this time more water followed. The droplets turned into a tendril, which ran through the pommel’s stone up the hilt and blade until it reached the tip. There, it crested and began to slide down, doing the same motion on the other side of the sword. Finally, it connected to the stone on the pommel once more. The long streak of water ran like that for a few moments, and nothing seemed to happen. Chelton’s loud chuckle came from behind Stellan.
“Well, as you see-”
The man controlling the water stopped speaking as symbols began to appear in the water.
“Twenty-one thousand and nine hundred,” he said, and the crowd went dead silent. “How is this possible?” His focus waned, and the water fell to the table.
He called more water from the cup and performed the test again. It gave the same tally. Stellan’s became a violent swirl.
“Almost twenty-two thousand breachborn,” he watched the numbers and couldn’t believe it himself. “Father said that they had put me as close as they could to a thousand, but this is unthinkable. How much time have I lost during those years? Only killing and killing.”
He felt cold. The number was staggering. He had lost track of the kills after his father died. His only thoughts to move forward towards the next target, which brought him closer to peace and his real life. The memories of the cold and bitter time in the wilderness bit into his mind. All this time, he’d only killed and moved. The dark visions of the past receded as a warmness enveloped his right hand. He blinked and saw Yazmin holding onto his upper arm, smiling at him, saying something encouraging, which he could not quite hear. He did what felt appropriate and smiled back at her, then looked forward once more.
The sword was held up for him. His numb fingers took it by the handle and mechanically fastened it back to his side.
“Congratulations, sir Hammerwind,” the examiner said. “It looks like you are in the lead for now, but we must conduct the final evaluations today, and tomorrow, the victor will be announced.”
“I see,” Stellan blinked a few times to snap back to reality, “is there any place riftseekers can stay while they wait?”
“Yes, of course. A constable will take you to your complimentary accommodations promptly,” the man waved over one of the guardsmen, and he led them out of the ring of onlookers and riftseekers.
Next in line was Chelton. The queue behind him had grown significantly, but Stellan paid the new faces no attention, as he had bigger things on his mind.
“That amount should be enough,” he thought as the guardsman led them along the streets of finely dressed people, “I sacrificed everything to get that many. All I did was end breachborn, day in, and day out. It should be enough!”
He noticed Yazmin was holding his hand. He looked at her, and she gave him a bright smile, rubbing her shoulder on his upper arm. They walked the streets for fifteen more minutes until reaching a large three-story building. Going inside, the guardsman saw to their room and made sure everything was in order. When they were settled, he left. Stellan took off his equipment in a daze and sat on the bed.
“Yeah,” he smiled, “that should be enough.”
He left his pack next to the bed and went with Yazmin to find something to eat.