Preface: This is an independent story set in the 'Sovereign' book series. Taking place on the world of Atheris, it is a fantasy setting characterized by more 'functional' magics, dogmatic organizations, social stratification, and personal identity. This particular story is set in what is known as the 'Bestial Era', a period analogous to the real world's 16th century, but in a land where even the most advanced societies must endure the threat of great, magical beasts. More information about the setting of this and other stories can be found on my profile. Feedback is welcomed and appreciated.

(Content Warning: May contain violent or romantic content. While other mature themes may be present, the material presented should not stray far beyond a T or PG-13 rating)


Prologue

No matter the age or era, magic has reigned supreme upon the world's stage. An arcane energy, a gift from the gods, a manifestation of raw power and potential, every soul knew of magic even if they hadn't the privilege of its succulent taste. With its bounty, humanity moved out from under the oppressive foot of mighty beasts and set about conquering the world for themselves. Civilizations rose that would stand the test of time. Orders gathered mystic ideologues that would shape and bind the limitless arcane. And despite the world's best efforts to seemingly hold humanity back, great powers began to rise. And no greater were the concentration and potency of such powers than across the continent of Ardonia.

To the north, an Altyrian Empire brought order to the chaos as it expanded its borders, establishing its dominance over the lands, beasts, and common man alike.

To the south, the Ardonian Federation rose from the ashes of conflict, once-broken nations standing united by the Holy Order of Light's Temple.

But in the nearby Freelands of Gheran, a different kind of nation was taking shape. Across its vast countrysides, no tyrant held control. No mystical Order protected its peoples. Instead, Gheran nurtured a dynamic unlike any other, one built upon a foundation of 'adventure'. Mercenaries native-born and from across the globe gathered to offer their services as hunters, protectors, and more. And with matters of justice and security placed in the hands of these soldiers of fortune, the Freelands toed the line between authority and lawlessness. Between safety and danger. Between civilized society and something much more primal.

oOo

Green hills, tainted by flame. Palisades rendered mere splinters. A city besieged. Denizens filled the streets of Cadbridge, fleeing from the calamity that steadily consumed their city. Buildings collapsed. Bridges crumbled. The invaders pushed in from every direction, destroying all in their path. Meanwhile, the survivors also moved inward, desperately seeking protection within the city's lone stronghold.

But not all sought sanctuary. Two men fought the current, rushing through the streets as smoke choked the night sky. Riding the line between youth and experience, the pair moved with an unbridled haste, hands firmly wrapped around their blades. Long jacks inlaid with steel. Hardened leathers bolstered by plates. The uniform of the Cadbridge guard. But whilst they matched in attire, there was a marked difference in weaponry. One carried the standard arming sword afforded to all guardsmen, but the other possessed something far meatier, far more precious. A claymore, lovingly smithed.

They were fighters, defenders, yet possessed not a single banner nor brand between them. Their loyalty was to Cadbridge and Cadbridge alone. Yet in their mad dash, one's heart and mind belonged to another. The pair split, one banging his fist on every door and window he passed. But the other, the man with the claymore, he followed a far more focused path. Boots stomping into the dirt, the guardsman expertly navigated the winding and narrow streets, passing by the tightly packed buildings. Each was larger, sturdier than the average hut or cabin to grace the surrounding farmlands, but they stood no chance against the terror overrunning Cadbridge. Stones would shatter. Timbers would burn. There was no hope for them. Whether the same could be said for those inside was as of yet uncertain.

Storming into his own home, the man was greeted with a shriek. Backed into the corner of the residence was a woman in her nightclothes, one hand desperately clutching a dagger, the other keeping a small child safely behind her. A mother and her son.

"Fergal?" the woman muttered, eyes growing wide. The fear in her visage quickly began to fade, replaced by an overwhelming relief. Yet the anxiety plaguing the russet-haired woman proved firmly embedded.

"We have to go," the guardsman called out, repeatedly ducking his head out the door to watch the streets. The woman tried to speak, only to be cut off by her husband. "Now, Brenda!" he all but shouted. And yet, there wasn't the slightest anger to his voice. Instead, he was pleading. Begging with every fiber of his being.

Brenda set her dagger aside to move closer, leading her child by the hand. Soon, husband and wife were standing eye to eye. "What's going on? We've heard echoes, but... has there been an attack?"

"Yes," Fergal replied, biting his lip to calm himself. "We've already lost everything west of the river. Our only hope is the fort. The guard is telling everyone they can to make for the barracks."

"They... they can't fit five-thousand people-"

Fergal interrupted his wife, softly gripping her by the shoulder. "It'll be a miracle if even five-hundred make it. But no matter how many survive, I intend to count you amongst them."

"Then we'll make for the barracks," said Brenda, a determined glint in her eyes. "You keep going. Warn however many you can."

Fergal shook his head. "No. Brogan's handling it. I'm here for you and Conall. And I will not leave your sides until I'm sure you're both safe."

The woman's eyes began to narrow, her lips trembling. "What's out there, Fergal?"

"Monsters. Beasts unlike anything we've ever faced before," he replied, barely above a whisper. Drawing and releasing a deep breath, Fergal took a knee, leaning his claymore against the nearby wall. And as the man locked eyes with his son, he just managed to force a smile. "Everything's going to be okay. Da will keep you safe."

The toddler merely ducked his gaze. Head hung low, the young boy had yet to release a single sound.

Eyes watering, the guardsman released some warped approximation of a chuckle. "What I wouldn't give for that kind of mettle."

Straightening himself out, Fergal retrieved his claymore, wielding the greatsword with the greatest of ease. Brenda, meanwhile, lifted her son before holding him close against her chest. Having created that which rested in her hands as well as her husband's, she was not without her own strength. And together, Fergal and Brenda left their home behind, running side by side down the streets of Cadbridge.

With each passing moment, the sounds of calamity grew more and more intense. Bellowing shouts. Harrowing screams. Cracks like thunder in the distance. But never did the husband and wife err in their step. Having protected the city for more than half of his young life, Fergal navigated the unmarked pathways, eyes darting to every corner, the flat of his blade resting against his shoulder. And right at his side, Brenda kept pace, arms still wrapped around young Conall, bare feet pattering across the dirt.

And the further they went, the more people they saw. Scrambling citizens and dutiful protectors going their respective ways. Yet to Brenda's surprise, the two groups did not venture in opposite directions. Instead, even those sworn to defend Cadbridge found themselves fleeing from the bestial terrors stalking the streets. But not all abandoned the fight. Eyes drifting upward, Brenda caught a glimpse of the fleet-footed figure practically dancing across the rooftops. Longbow in hand, the caped archer carried themself with an urgent grace, body trained to the peak of mundane performance. A mercenary. An adventurer.

Sliding to a halt on the edge of a rooftop, the archer pulled an arrow from their quiver, nocking and releasing it in one fluid motion. A thing of beauty and skill. The response, however, was little more than raw power. From streets away, a ball of fire collided with the building, blasting it and the archer apart. A devastating attack far surpassing any cannon. And yet, there was no projectile. Instead, it was a compressed orb of energy. Of fire and force that could only be wrought by magic. Without a moment of hesitation, Fergal altered his path, ducking down a different path as burning rubble littered the previous street. But there was nary a direction that could escape the encroaching threat.

Fergal and Brenda skidded to a halt as they watched a figure soar across the next intersection. Clad in full plate, the armored juggernaut slammed into a nearby wall hard enough to crack the sturdy brickwork. Yet as their lifeless body slumped to the ground, the bloody steel encasing them showed that it had been cracked and warped prior to the adventurer's feet even leaving the ground.

Again the family altered course, the echoes of death and destruction constantly ringing in their ears. But eventually, Fergal's knowledge and quick thinking weren't enough. He'd delivered himself, his wife, and his child to a dead end, every conceivable path blocked by rubble. Muttering a curse and spinning on his heels, the guardsman had no choice but to retrace his steps. But before he knew it, the street was occupied.

With a slow, almost methodical gait, a great beast began to reveal itself. Yet with each step of its massive paws, the monster had only more to reveal. Standing taller than any man, the creature appeared almost unnatural. Too broad for a wolf. Too sleek for a bear. Too large for any manner of mundane animal. But something other than size spoke to the mystical beast's power. Beyond the claws capable of rending stone, beyond the leathery black hide, beyond the armored scales, a ridge of fur running along its spine continued to flutter without a breeze to sustain it. One that did not just dance like a flame, but glowed like one too.

And as the massive beast urged itself forward, as each step shook the very ground beneath it, the monster cracked open its gaping maw. And past the multiple rows of jagged teeth, a ball of fire began to coalesce in the back of its throat. All the while, Fergal could only stare. His heart raced. His eyes grew wide. But never did his grip falter.

Thus, without only one goal in mind, the guardsman readied his blade.