The Journey Begins
When the brothers woke up the next morning, they began their journey. They carried nothing but themselves and what they had brought with them. But Jaul carried the Opus, and it guided them through the ancient forest.
Walking along, Jojo gazed up at the trees, ones that were still very strange to him and nothing like the trees in the jungle at home. The air here was thin, not thick with moisture like the Lewe jungle.
He looked at his brothers, who were covered in clothing far different than his. Jojo's simple cloths were meant for warm climates, leaving his upper body bear and his feet uncovered.
He noticed that Jaul and Aaren were conversing casually, while Weisheng walked in silence. He kept his dark eyes forward and his face stern.
"Brother," said Jojo. "What is the Chi Empire like?"
Weisheng looked back at him, smirking proudly. "It is greater than any kingdom of Hilarum. The Imperial palace could make any simple man fall to his knees if he was ever to lay eyes on it."
"The Lewe do not have a palace," Jojo confessed with a genuine smile, his teeth contrasted against his darkened skin. "We are made up of only villages, smaller and larger ones."
"You have no system? No one in charge?" Aaren asked, his attention turned to their conversation.
"No. We keep to ourselves mostly, though some Lewe people are corrupted and raid villages. My village was just raided before we were called here."
"I'm sorry," said Jaul, casting his face down. "Do you have family?"
"Yes," he confessed as they continued to travel through the trees. "My Mother and Father. I have five brothers and three sisters."
"That is a very large family," Aaren observed, picking up a stick and snapping it between his nimble fingers.
"Yes. In my village, Daro, it is common for families to have many children."
The forest was still silent, only the sounds of their voices echoed through the trees.
It was almost too quiet for Weisheng's liking. He found it strange that there was no life here, at least that he could see. But he kept his eyes alert.
"What about you, brother?" Jojo asked Jaul.
Jaul looked away from them and back at the Opus. "Oh, uh," he stammered. "Just my mother, no siblings."
"And your father, right?" Weisheng asked, breaking his focus. "What do the Kors call it... a Sultan? Because you are the heir to the Kors Kingdom, aren't you?" he asked, his gaze challenging, a small smile meant only for Jaul.
Jaul cast his eyes down again, hiding behind the thick black curls that stretched down his forehead. "Yes, of course," he said quickly, turning his attention back on the Opus.
Weisheng smirked to himself and pushed up his sleeves.
"What about your family, Weisheng?"
"My family?" he returned, adjusting his bow on his back. "My Father and Mother rule the empire as Emperor and Empress." He paused and looked away from them coldly. "I also have a brother."
When he said nothing more, Jojo turned to Aaren. "And you, brother?"
"Uh, my parents died when I was very young. I don't remember them. I was taken in by a First Knight and made a squire. The Kingdom is my family."
The rest of the brothers nodded in silence.
Weisheng looked down at his feet, his shoes starting to become dirty. He still didn't know why he had to be here. He should be at home, convincing his father to revoke Liwei's right to the empire and proving that he is the true heir.
He looked up at the bluish-green trees, pondering the matter.
Then again, the Oracle had said that he would rule. Maybe this whole arrangement could work out.
However, his patience was growing thin.
"How long is this journey supposed to take?" He said through his teeth, trudging forward beside Jaul.
"The Oracle didn't say."
"Well what are we supposed to find at the heart of Hilarum anyway? I've never even heard of that."
"The records are what we will find there, though I'm not sure of what else. I must confess that I have not heard of it either," Jojo said, his expression perplexed. "But we must trust what the Oracle said. The Opus will guide us."
Weisheng rolled his eyes and looked around. "Still no sign of any food or water around here, either. Will the Opus guide us to that too?"
Jojo and Aaren smiled at one another as they continued on their journey.
The handsome young knight walked behind his other three brothers, his eyes tired. He had difficulty falling asleep the night before, staring up at the trees, noting how the sky was not even visible. It could have been that he sleeping on the ground, though he really didn't think that had anything to do with it.
He'd spent most of the night thinking of the kingdom, but mostly Odette. With him gone, would she be forced to marry? He ran a hand over his dark blond hair. The thought of it made him anxious.
He missed her.
Other than her, he had nothing else to go back to. There was nothing else in the world that truly meant anything to him. His family was gone, though he thought about them often. There always seemed to be a shroud of mystery when it came to his parents, something no one he knew, not even Sir Garrick, could seem to explain.
Maybe this journey would provide some answers.
Suddenly Jaul shouted from up ahead.
Aaren, Weisheng and Jojo crowded around him.
"Are these footprints?" He asked, crouching down.
"Let me see," Weisheng said, shoving in between them.
He placed his fingers in the indent on the forest foor and looked up ahead, spotting a few more of them.
"They're new. Maybe a day old."
"Then it's true," Jaul said, standing up. "The Atolians. They're here."
Aaren looked at his brothers. "Right before I left, I heard from another one of our Knights that the Black Knights have been coming up from out southern border, trying to invade."
Jaul's eyes went wide.
"Have your kingdoms dealt with them?" Aaren asked, a look of conviction on his face.
All three of the brothers shook their heads.
Jojo sighed, running a hand over his short dark hair. "This worries me."
"If the time comes, I can handle myself. I don't know about the rest of you," Weisheng said, eyeing his brothers with a raised eyebrow.
"We'll be fine," Aaren said, dismissing his comments.
"Then you've fought them before?" Jaul asked.
Aaren took in a breath sharply. "Well, no, but--"
Weisheng laughed and sat down. "Look at us. No food, no water, barely any weapons. This is their territory." He looked up at his brothers, his eyes growing dark. "We're in their hands now."
Jojo, Aaren and Jaul looked at one another gravely. They knew he was right.