They stopped to camp once the sun began to go down and the group was feeling rather cheerful about their situation. For the first time in a long time they sat around a warm fire beyond the mountain caves they had lurked in for so long and Emersyn suggested they sing a song together. They used to do this back when they were young and the world was still young, too.
They all began to laugh and sing an old song they had learned from a group of children in a village they had protected back in the Ancient Days. It was a song about catching a faerie and making the faerie tell them where hidden treasure was, so it was undoubtedly silly but it was better than thinking about their worries.
It had been so long since they had enjoyed themselves like this, but they hadn’t been hunted in a long time and they were camped out on a hill so they had a good view of the landscape around them and they felt safe enough to have a celebration like this. They were moving out of the mountains, and moving into a new chapter of life.
Jeriah got to his feet and started dancing around the campsite, and Emersyn was laughing and clapping her hands as Verity, Kiyah, and Zhai sang on and smiled at their friends. Their voices harmonized well together, and certainly it would have been a delightful show for anyone to watch.
And indeed, they were being watched.
Jeriah could tell something was bothering Zhai as he stopped his dance. His eyes kept flicking around the campsite, and his head turned occasionally. What was he looking for?
“Shh, shh!” Zhai suddenly stopped and looked around. It was well and dark now and the night often brought strange sounds, but they couldn’t help but be suspicious at every bump in the night after all the struggles they endured. “Did you hear that?”
The singing immediately died and Jeriah squinted out into the night. He was sure he saw figures moving between some bushes that were not too far away from the top of the hill and he turned to his friends and gestured for them to arm themselves. Zhai stood without another word and walked over to his tent. He reached in and removed his claymore from its sheath and then tossed Emersyn her sheathed sword. Kiyah had his bow notched in just a second, and the other two quickly retrieved their own swords from their tent.
“What do we do?” Kiyah whispered. “Should we just stay here until they come, or should we try to get out of here?”
Jeriah shrugged and looked at Emersyn, and it seemed she was thinking quickly about what to do. “We should stay,” she said softly. “We need to stand our ground, and it’s dark out. We could easily be caught off guard if we run.”
They all nodded in agreement and then Kiyah crept a little closer to the edge of the hill. Jeriah watched him with concern as he peeked around the tent to take a look into the night in order to spot whoever was after them. He wondered how these strangers had managed to follow them so silently and without any of them picking up strange energy. Whoever was after them must have been very powerful to be able to control their own aura.
“Everyone,” Verity spoke up behind them.
Jeriah waved his hand as he kept his gaze on Kiyah to ensure he was safe. “Shhh, Verity! We have to be quiet,” he whispered back.
“No, um,” Verity sounded nervous. “We’re...we’re caught.”
Jeriah whipped his head around and saw a woman standing behind Verity and holding a knife to her neck. All of them slowly inched away from the terrifying woman, who was staring at them with a cold expression and was wearing a sleek outfit in all black that obviously allowed her to silently approach them and remain in camouflage with the darkness.
“What do you want?” Zhai asked with a frown.
“Considering how much you all have been running around, I’d think you would know why you were wanted,” the frightening assassin said with a raised eyebrow. “I’m here because you stole something you never should have, but it took me years to actually hunt you down. You’re certainly slick, but finally we caught up.”
“We?” Emersyn repeated with a confused expression.
“Yeah, ‘we’,” another feminine voice said behind them.
Jeriah looked back and saw Kiyah being held at gunpoint by another assassin. She was taller and had her hair tied up in a ponytail. Her gaze was sharp and her finger was lightly on the trigger but clearly ready to press at any moment.
“Kiyah!” Jeriah exclaimed.
“Shhh, you don’t need to make a scene,” the woman said with a small smile. “Why don’t all of you place your weapons down and put your hands behind your head?” Then she turned her gaze to her companion. “I’ll keep an eye on them and you can grab the weapons.”
The girl with the knives nodded and once the group had followed the orders given by the taller woman, she hopped over and picked up all the swords and bow and piled them far enough away that it would be difficult to reach. Jeriah felt his anxiety skyrocket. Had Prudentius’ servants finally caught up with them?
“Who sent you?” Zhai demanded to know.
“Why are you even asking? It must be Prudentius,” Jeriah said as he looked at Zhai.
The taller girl laughed. “No,” she said. “There are others that have an interest in the Life Stones you possess.”
“Yeah, so we’ll be taking those,” the shorter girl said as she held her hand out in front of Jeriah. He just frowned at her, glaring in a way to make it very clear that he wasn’t going to be giving his Life Stone to her. He knew it was risky, but if he gave it to her...well, he was afraid he would just die. He wasn’t supposed to have lived this long, but he wasn’t going to die without seeing Jakob first.
“Ooh, he’s a tough guy, Joy. Do you see that look in his eyes?” the girl said as she moved her hand back and tossed her hair over her shoulder dramatically. “Fine, we can just take you to the Temple of Nivalis and she can take that necklace from around your neck. Maybe your head will go along with it.”
“Nivalis?” Emersyn asked as she glanced at the others.
“The Immortal of Nature,” Verity confirmed.
“Mhmmmm,” the shorter girl said with a grin. “I guess they’ll be coming along with us, then.”
“Alright,” Joy said with a nod as she continued to keep her gun trained on Kiyah. “We’ll have to tie them up. Here, take my rope, Mirae.” On her belt hung some rope and she took it off the belt and tossed it over to her companion.
Mirae caught the rope and then approached the group and began tying each guardian’s hands until they were lined up together and attached by the rope. Mirae looked over at Kiyah. “Toss that one over here so I can attach him to the rope line,” she said as she waved at Joy.
Joy nodded and grabbed Kiyah’s shoulder and dragged him over to the rest of his group. His hands were tied behind his back and he was attached to the line with the rest of them. She tilted her head a little. “We could just take their Life Stones now and go,” Joy pointed out to her comrade.
“No, no, I think Nivalis is gonna enjoy playing with them,” Mirae insisted. “It’s not a far walk.”
“Fine, fine,” Joy agreed as she tugged on the rope. “Come on, it’s time to go. If you had cooperated, you know this wouldn’t be happening right now.”
“If we had cooperated we might be dead right now,” Jeriah snapped at her. “If you take away the Life Stones, we’re probably going to die.”
“Oh? Wow, hadn’t thought of that,” Joy said casually as she held onto the rope and started walking them down the hillside with Mirae at her side.
Jeriah watched the pile of their weapons as they were forced to walk away from their campsite. They shouldn’t have celebrated, but perhaps they would have been caught anyway. These girls were tough.
Emersyn kept pulling on the rope and clearly trying to disrupt the march to the Temple of Nivalis, but then Joy pulled out her gun again and pointed it directly at her until she stopped struggling. It was a dangerous situation, but Jeriah knew they had to get out of it.
“You must be guardians, huh?” Jeriah spoke up after they walked down the hillside. The others looked at him with confusion, but he just shook his head. He didn’t want them to interrupt. “Or, are you just servants of Nivalis?”
“We’re both, I guess,” Mirae said as she looked back at them. “Myself and my friends are guardians, but...we lost our way a long time ago. We found our purpose again with Nivalis’ leadership.”
“We grew tired of the whims of humans,” Joy spoke up. “I’m sure you understand that frustration, since you are also guardians.”
“If you’re really guardians, how can you cover up your aura? We couldn’t sense you at all,” Kiyah asked. “That’s...I mean, we haven’t totally kept our abilities tuned up during all of our time in hiding, I guess, but our senses are still good at picking up strong energy.”
Joy and Mirae just smiled at each other and then continued to walk onward. They didn’t seem to care to elaborate. They obviously had some sort of special ability that allowed them to cloak their aura, or something, and that was a scary thing. They could appear as simple humans if they wanted to.
“Why does Nivalis want our Life Stones?” Jeriah asked. He wanted to keep up a conversation with them, because as he walked he was desperately scraping his metal bracelet against the rope and trying to make it fray and tear, and indeed it was working but it was slow work and he had to be discreet.
“Why wouldn’t any Immortal want such an artifact? These are sacred things that are usually hidden in the Underworld because they’re too dangerous for anyone else to own, but now they’re out here in the open and wandering around,” Mirae said with a smile. “And apparently these stones have been wandering around for over three hundred years. It must really work, because you're still here. We’ll be rewarded very well for bringing these to Nivalis, for sure.”
“But why would you turn in another group of guardians? Shouldn’t we work together? Don’t we suffer enough these days?” Verity asked as she was clearly trying to earn some sympathy. But she wasn’t wrong about her statement, either. Over the years, guardians had been seen as either worthless or dangerous and weren’t treated well by the majority of humanity. Verity’s plea that they band together instead of fight each other was certainly understandable.
“We have a job to do,” Joy said simply. “I’m sorry, but we can’t all be friends, can we?”
Verity sighed and looked back at Jeriah with a defeated expression. Jeriah hadn’t given up, though. He kept wiggling his wrists, he knew he was going to get out.
“Listen,” Jeriah started. “I know you have a job to do, and I respect that, but there’s a reason why I stole these Life Stones. I couldn’t die because my brother is trapped and I need to save him.”
Joy looked back curiously. “You have a brother? Oh,” then it seemed like something dawned on her and she looked at Seulgi. “You must be a Twin Soul. My goodness, what a rare guardian you are.”
“Your brother is alive? Three hundred years after your birth?” Mirae followed up with her own question, but then she looked at Joy. “Wait a minute…”
Joy’s eyes widened. “The Monarchs? Your Twin Soul is one of the Monarchs?”
Mirae’s eyes widened and she looked back at him. “I’ve never seen the Monarchs in person, but they were put in that Cursed Slumber for over three hundred years and then woke up four months ago,” she said softly. “You’re related to one of the Monarchs? Really?”
“I am,” Jeriah nodded. “I know I’m gonna fade from this world soon, alright? I know. But I just want to see Jakob again before that has to happen. In fact, I was on my way to see him. Can’t you...just let us do that before you take us away?”
Mirae laughed. “Are you joking? If we let you run off to visit the Monarchs, we’d never see you again,” she said. “The Monarchs are well renowned for their strength, and I’d rather not go against them if I don’t have to. I mean, we’re obviously strong too, but why fight a battle when we’ve already caught our prey? It just seems unnecessary.”
“Sorry about your sob story, but we’ve all had hard lives,” Joy said without even looking back at them. She just kept moving forward. “And honestly, I hate the Monarchs and all the trouble they’ve caused for the rest of us. You being related to one of them is not exactly a positive attribute for you.”
Jeriah couldn’t believe how cold they both were, but he expected they were this way because they were just trying to survive, too. The world was cruel, but that was fine. He would fight back, too.
The rope wasn’t thick, even if it was strong, and his metal bracelet finally cut through one loop around his wrist. He smirked and then quickly untied his other wrist while the girls weren’t facing him. He kept his arms behind his back as though he was still tied, but now he was thinking about what to do next. He had to disarm Joy and Mirae, or one of them could get badly hurt.
“Tell me about yourselves, then,” Jeriah said. “Tell us your story, and why you have to serve Nivalis.”
“It’s a long story, and I don’t think you need to know,” Mirae said as she looked back at him. “We’re outcasts like you, and I think that’s all you need to know.”
“Why do guardians always end up as outcasts, I wonder?” Kiyah muttered to himself.
“Because of the Monarchs. They set a high standard for what we were supposed to be; perfect rulers and guardians for the humans. But in the end, they lost their position because of their greed to become more powerful,” Joy responded. “And now we all suffer. The humans lost their trust in them, and then lost their trust in us all. It’s their fault.”
“That’s not true,” Zhai argued. “The Monarchs were sacrificed by the very people they protected in order to continue to protect them. The rest of the problems were caused by Ari’s jealousy and foolishness.”
“That’s how you see it, but that’s not how the humans see it,” Mirae responded quietly. “They don’t usually see the bigger picture, you know? Even if what you’re saying is true.”
“You know it’s wrong to blame the Monarchs for how humans treat guardians today,” Jeriah said. “And you must also know it’s wrong to allow yourself to be used by an Immortal that doesn’t care about you. They just care about what you’re capable of and what they can get from you.”
“Nivalis is different,” Mirae insisted. “But I don’t expect you to understand. You’ve only had dealings with Prudentius and she’s much different than Nivalis.”
“Nivalis protects her servants, you know? And she protects guardians who have been forgotten,” Joy said with a firm nod. “And we’ve been forgotten, all thanks to your lovely brother and his friends.”
Jeriah moved his hands to the front of himself carefully and reached into the back of Zhai’s belt as he was walking directly in front of him. Zhai had a small knife on his belt that he used to cut sticks and rope, and he knew it wasn’t much but if he could catch these two guardians off guard then...that was all he needed.
Jeriah removed the knife and then swiftly cut the ropes that held his friends and he dashed up to the front of the line and grabbed hold of Mirae’s shoulder and pulled her back so he could put the knife to her neck, but Joy had already sensed the danger and she had pulled her gun on him faster than he could even blink.
And just as quickly, she fired.