Itaru had finished packing most of the things he would need; he never needed so much for any of his journeys - a water bottle, an old and faded map, two to three pairs of clothing, his sword, other light weapons that could fit in his backpack, few loaves of treated bread, and food powder.
It was common for soldiers to live on food powder and treated bread for a few days - these were produced and distributed for free solely for warriors like him. They could mix the powder in water or use a water-powder mixture as spread on the treated bread. These provided them with enough nutrients and energy to last them twelve hours or more. These also contained herbs, along with synthetic substances, that kept hunger and fatigue at bay. Itaru was sure they were safe; he had already been abusing them for years and he had never been sick.
Just for this assignment, he added something else which he usually did not include - bandages and some medicines. He figured the added weight should be hardly noticeable.
He hadn't even started yet but he already felt elated. The look on Kosei's face, when he found out about the assignment, was priceless. The idiot would kill for a chance like this. If Itaru was successful, his cousin would look like dirt next to him. They would no longer be equals.
He was going to show Sachiko that he'd made the right choice not to take someone else with him; he was going to show the kingdom that it made the right choice in choosing him, no one else.
Beneath his bed, he pulled two body armors - one thicker and heavier than the other. He decided he would use the lighter one, considering how possibly unwelcoming the terrain would be and the length of the trip, and wore it around his torso. He took the thickest pair of boots he had and placed small, thin blades and matches into the leather's pockets. Nothing placed inside his boots was ever robbed from him, and blades and matches were the most useful tools you could have with you in the wilderness if you did not have anything else.
He used to leave a note for his mother every time he had to leave before dawn, but this time he asked Kosei to relay the message about his assignment for him. He did this solely to add more insult to the injury.
Itaru unzipped his backpack, pulled out his map, and unscrolled it. He wanted to look at his destination at least once more before leaving the house.
It was believed that sorcery and elementalism both originated from the rich and vast valley near Camp Yamatsunai and that both forces once flourished there for centuries. Sorcery helped it thrive, until elementalism caused its destruction. When both forces finally clashed against each other almost sixteen years ago, fighting over positions of authority and resources, their forces were so great that the entire country was only either freezing over or being ravaged by fire interchangeably for several months straight. In the end, no one really won.
Although the elementals were almost thoroughly wiped out from the land, the very few sorcerers who survived also shut themselves out from the world. In short, both forces disappeared.
It was the most terrible tragedy the land ever witnessed. Almost a fourth of the population of the entire country was killed, either by the violence of the war itself or by the harsh elemental imbalance it caused. Towns were destroyed and the climate was in havoc for the years that followed. The consequences also included disease and hunger.
Then, as if angering the gods, evenings grew longer and colder until they lasted entire days or weeks. Now, Itaru could no longer remember the last time the sun had really shone over the land. Every now and then it would just momentarily peek over the horizon and never seen again for days straight. The country had since lived in consuming darkness.
It remained that way for the past decade. It was difficult to imagine that all of it happened only during his childhood. He would remind himself that the war was real, it definitely was. It was, after all, the war that cost the life of both his older sister and his father. But because his mind had shut off the incident from since then, he could no longer feel any pain.
Yamatsunai had since been deemed forbidden by most, not only because access was closed by the kingdom, but because only some sort of a god would know what hidden evil could still be lurking there. Among all gifts known to man, sorcery and elementalism had the most obscured histories, and they still had too many secrets that could not be unearthed. Not to mention, the power they possessed subjugated all other gifts known to man -
Well, all gifts, except two - the gift of life or healing, and the gift of pain and death. Unfortunately, like sorcery and elementalism, the forces of healing and the forces of pain also met their own pitiful fates after the war, almost as if it was nature's will to balance the power in the land.
The collapse of all these four dominating gifts took a toll on the country's defense, and possibly could be the reason why darkness completely consumed their land.
To think that this interesting child from Yamatsunai, possibly one of the very few elementals still alive, would now be trained for service to the fallen kingdom... Itaru felt even more interested to get involved as soon as he could.
There was no doubt she was raised to be a skilled one.
Itaru took one deep breath before heading out of the cottage, not even stopping for a second glance. The entire compound was coated in bright red light, courtesy of the bloody moon, so that the trees casted a sea of jet black shadows against the ground.
He did not have to hear footsteps to know that someone was approaching him, with a shadow of a tall man growing from behind him.
"Itaru," a familiar voice called, and Itaru knew exactly who it was before he even spoke. "I heard about Yamatsunai."
An aloof Sota was fiddling a small pipe between his lips just a few feet behind him. His cousin was a tall, slender man who was neatly bearded and kept his long dark hair up in a messy bun. No matter where and when you see him, he seemed to have an air of sophistication around him. It was hard to imagine that Sota was only three years older than Itaru and Kosei.
"Yeah," Itaru said. "Did Kosei tell you?"
Sota snickered while nodding. "Yes, and he did not seem pleased," he said. Itaru laughed softly, shaking his head in disbelief. "It's just you, then?" Sota asked.
"Yeah, looks like it," Itaru said, sighing. No matter how much he wanted this assignment entirely for himself, he knew how difficult it could become, given how far the destination was and the uncertainties he could encounter along the way.
Sota cleared his throat before speaking again in a soft tone. "I know you realize well why they chose you for this task," he said, before pausing, as if to let the words sink in. "And why, had you refused, it surely would have been either me or Kosei."
Itaru only smiled. Of course he knew it well; he knew exactly why he was chosen for this task before anyone else.
The gift that was successfully passed down to all three of them through countless generations was considered the best counterattack against elementalism besides sorcery - telekinesis. Among the three of them, Itaru was, no doubt, the best in it. Also, he knew it was the reason why Sachiko did not hesitate to suggest bringing Kosei with him - Itaru would admit that having another telekinetic user was going to be helpful.
Sota, although almost just as good as Itaru, would not have been the ideal first choice for the escort task, given his current position at camp which would not permit him to be away for a long time. However, Itaru would not be surprised if the elemental child would be placed under Sota's care at camp.
"I'll be with her for just four days maximum," Itaru said, before nudging Sota on the elbow. "The girl will be at camp way longer than that. Is the institution ready for that?"
Sota shook his head. "As if we already don't have a handful, particularly in the class where this girl is going to be," he commented.
Itaru was no longer surprised; he narrowed his eyes as did his best to recall two names. "Ikeda... Ueno...?" he asked.
"Ahh," Sota raised his eyebrows. "Those two? Err, not really... well, not nearly as troubling as we once thought they would be. Those two have been... how do I put it - quiet? Staying out of trouble, I guess," he said. "The biggest difficulty we're having with those two was not that they're misbehaving or causing anything... these kids know what they are at camp for, and they don't like it. They have the guts to be stubborn, uncooperative, quiet, and nonreactive. The use of force to get them to act is necessary, and their attitudes are rubbing off on the other children too. I think it was about time this Ayame goes to camp and the truth about the outcome of the previous war be revealed - "
"Ayame... huh," Itaru uttered, quite interested at the fact that this was the first time the girl's name was actually mentioned - not even Sachiko said it when the mission was being discussed to him.
"They all believe they're being trained just for anything – a random attack or invasion here or there. They are not aware of the specific battle we're waiting for, one against which our land has never been ready to face. They do not realize they were not merely summoned by duty, they were handpicked," Sota interjected. "This girl... on the other hand, I am pretty sure she already knows all of this. It does not even matter if I haven't met her yet, I just know. She will have been well-informed. In fact, I'm going to bet on this - she'll willingly come with you, Itaru. So do not worry about any resistance."
Itaru pondered on everything that Sota said for a while. He might not always find the older man agreeable, but he admitted Sota was often more well-informed than he ever was. Also, Sota was a responsible man both in actions and in words. He would not say or do anything he was not thoroughly convinced of.
Itaru tried to think of something to say, but Sota already tapped him on the shoulder before he could come up with any response.
"You need to get going," Sota told him, before placing his pipe back to his lips. "I'm pretty sure the guards at the main gate have additional information they'll have to tell you before you go. They could be waiting for you," he said with his pipe between his teeth.
Itaru could only silently agree.
"I'll see you, then. I'll try to document everything I find on the map for your amusement, and maybe your brother's too," he said, as he began to walk out of the compound.
"If you encounter any unique beast on the valley along the way, bring home some appendages, our weapons can use some upgrade," Sota called out.
"Or maybe more tobacco?" Itaru jokingly suggested.
Sota laughed. "Ah, yes, maybe that too."
"Here is something you will find helpful, once you cross the northern border of the valley," one of the masked guards behind the guardhouses told him, handing him a small box that could fit in his glove. The faces of both guards were fully covered, except for holes for their eyes and their mouths, so that Itaru could not recognize any of them. "It is from the empress herself."
Itaru stared at the brown paper box, which weighed almost as light as a feather, "From the empress?" he repeated, intrigued by the contents of the tiny package.
"From the royalties, yes. It's for your protection. You may open it now if you want to; we have seen what's inside already," the guard told him.
Indeed the box was not sealed; one just had to simply lift the lid.
Neatly wrapped around a black cylindrical cushion was a necklace, which had two gemstones - a red and a purple stone - as pendants. Itaru had no idea what this was for, he was sure this was the first time he'd seen it.
"You can wear them now or later, whichever you prefer. The gemstones were made for the people living near the valley, near the wilderness in Yamatsunai. The stones respond to formidable forces dwelling only in those places - beasts and people spells and curses," the guard explained, as Itaru examined the gemstones more closely.
Itaru might have felt some astonishment about the relic, but its wonder was to be expected - the empress was one of the most esteemed sorceresses of all time, except she had refused to be identified and to practice as one ever since the war happened.
"What does it do?" Itaru picked the gems up and carefully uncoiled the strings.
"That... we do not really know," the guard simply stated, looking at his companion as confirmation, who shook his head in response.
So it was all for him to figure out, then?
"It is an heirloom. There is no doubt when her highness deems it will be of great help to you -"
"Of course I do not doubt that," Itaru said, as he lifted the necklace and brought it closer to his face to examine the stones. Truly he had never seen anything as smoothly and flawlessly carved. In its translucency, Itaru could see how pure they were and how they glinted against the darkness. Slowly, he wore the necklace and tucked both gems under his armor. "I am just so clueless."
"Hmm," one of the guards chuckled, "Likewise, we're just as clueless as you. Anyway, there is something else you ought to know," the guard rested his elbows on the receiving counter in front of him and leaned forward closer to Itaru. He lowered his voice as he spoke. "Another group was assigned to Yamatsunai and they are to depart in the morning."
"Am I supposed to know about this?" Itaru asked, not exactly sure how to feel about it.
"Yes, but the information we will share is just limited. Their task is much more confidential than yours," he said, and Itaru's heart sank at the possibility that others were assigned something greater than he had been entrusted with. What assignment could be more important than his?
"They're sort of a backup then?"
"No. Your task is entirely yours, and theirs is entirely theirs... But their mission can make it harder for you to finish yours. So no matter how smoothly it goes for you at first, do not let your guard down. Resistance may come at the last second. Until you enter these gates, be on your guard," the security warned, but in a rather casual tone. "Well, that's it. Knowing you, though, we don't have to worry much. You are the best in telekinesis here and it's really all you will need."
Itaru gave him a surprised look as the guard proceeded to remove his mask.
"Jin! Ah, it's you," Itaru remarked.
Jin was Sachiko's younger brother, and one of Itaru's closest friends when they were younger. He was a very masculine man, a bit taller than Itaru, who always kept his thick dark hair neatly trimmed behind his ears.
Over the years of service, they barely had any time to meet or catch up with each other. Jin became more involved with investigative work because of how brilliant his skills were as a spy, while Itaru was trained for frontline battles as a weapon-wielder. Both jobs just never go together, except now maybe.
"Ch-yeah. I heard about your assignment, and volunteered to send you off," Jin said, placing his mask back over his face. "I am one of those sent to go to Yamatsunai after you. Worst case scenario, our tasks will collide. But even so, I doubt we will fail. We are the best, remember?"
Itaru laughed. They used to say the same thing every time they pulled their little antics as mischievous children. "Of course. I'll see you then, there in the midst of it, or here when it's all finished. Hope we'll still be in one piece," Itaru said, as he fixed the straps of his backpack against his shoulder and touched the stones below his armor to make sure they were intact.
"Yes, well, you better get going then. You might actually need more time than you'd expect. We all know about the beasts in the wild, but the beasts in the forbidden valley are known to be even more troublesome. Putting them into the equation makes things more complicated than we'd like," Jin added, and Itaru just nodded.
Jin turned around and began pulling the rope that lifted the gates using a complicated-looking machine that acted both as a lever and a pulley. Itaru started walking past the town's border with a heavy feeling creeping over him.
As he heard the gate close behind, Itaru looked back and found the town now being entirely concealed by tall looming walls. Without any light to guide him any longer, except for that given off by the moon, Itaru stared at the penetrating darkness waiting for him behind the web of trees and vines.