Prologue: Part I

A Chilling Beginning

White strode through white as the knee-high snow beneath was parted by the large fur-clad arms of the five beasts that trudged forward dutifully at their riders behest. The icy-blue eyes of these creatures that showed a latent intelligence and ferocity beneath their currently docile demeanor, set into the smoother fur that covered their face just over their large powerful snouts; remained vigilant through the heavy snow that fell from the clouded sky and turned everything in the region into a tapestry of encompassing surrealness. The riders on the backs of these saddled creatures having to attempt to be at least fractionally as vigilant as their mounts in order to guide them in the direction they intended.

The man in charge of this, leading the pack a handful of paces ahead of the rest, but not so much as to be lost in the haze of snow that threatened to consume everything from sight if merely a handful of feet were given; was clad in a mixture of brilliant ornate silver-like steel and heavy dark leathers, the symbol of Udesis clearly emblazoned on the chestplate of his armour indicating the sect of the Faith the Holy Knight belonged to for anyone to witness and admire. A similarly marked black and red embroidered cloak latched at his steeled shoulders and draped down across the back and hindquarters of the four-legged ship he sailed through the terrain on with a gliding ease, as all the beasts muscle bound frames forced through the weighty snow with no difficulty and a surprising amount of grace for their size.

Gripping the reins in the gloved hands of his gauntlets, the leading man tightened the leather straps that fastened across the maw of his mount, guiding its eyes towards the tall evergreen trees that just appeared in the near-distance through the quickly waning light of the coming dusk. His silver-white hair that matched his armour and surroundings in a breathtaking display of class and natural physical charisma danced against the top of his armour as a bone chilling gust of wind cut across the ground and buffeted the heavy wet snow into the faces of all the riders. Nevertheless, the leader didn't even wince in the light of the dreadfully freezing cold that surrounded him, all the snow that touched his skin actually melting and drying into the fetching paleness of his body.

"By the gods, are we ever going to find somewhere to stop. Is there nothing but flat snow this far north. Eskil, I don't know how you guys do it…." The voice of one of the riders in the back of the formation, a rather gruff man with a matching pair of armour to the man leading the pack, spoke out in complaint to himself and the rest of the group, his head canting over his shoulder to the left as he spoke the name of the man riding beside him. Before anyone responded to him however, his eyes shot open and narrowed just as fast as he craned his head forward past the three in front of him. "Wait, nevermind, spoke too soon again." The sight of the treeline they were being led towards cutting off his main reason to complain, he shifted to petty complaining instead as he turned his gaze back to the large man to his left once again, "Still, why anyone would live up here by choice is beyond me. You're whole clan is clearly crazy, there's no two ways about it."

A higher pitched feminine chuckle coming from the rider directly in front of Eskil, the blonde-haired knight looked back across her shoulder at the two riding behind her, a humoured smile on her face inadvertently dazzling the two with her beauty as she enjoyed the man's lighthearted complaints and decided to jump in on the fun. Looking first at the instigator, his short light-brown hair slicking up on his right side due to the continuous gusts of wind that battered the group, she chuckled again momentarily at the sight before twisting a tad more in her saddle and settling her striking green hues on Eskil. "Oh I don't know Alano, I think he's just more resilient than you."

Smirking playfully at Eskil as she uttered her dual compliment and criticism, she turned back around in her saddle and brought her eyes front again, gaze lingering on Alano for a moment as it passed, to humour herself in his initial reaction before returning her focus on the march with another innocent chuckle.

Alano however wasn't going to be done with the topic quite as quickly, as after his initial shallow sneer, he quickly followed up with what was clearly ramping up to be a long winded speech, "Now now princess, I'll have you know that I am exceptionally resilient. Surely you haven't forgotten about my treacherous adventure in the Calahorran deserts."

Cutting in with an answer to the prompt, the woman teased him with a playful tone, "Certainly not. How could I forget such a dashing and gritty tale." Smirking to herself after saying this, she remained silent as Alano nodded his head in agreement and carried on, turning his focus to Eskil as he spoke, "Viola's right you know, now that she pointed it out, I was pretty damn dashing."

Adding a flare in his voice as he was clearly having fun with the tale, he rested his hazel eyes on Eskil's well bearded face as he asked, "How about it big guy? Want to be dazzled with a story of bravery and heroism?"

Not yet having a feel for the dynamics of this group, Eskil was hesitant to add anything to the discussion. After all, he was traveling with two legends of the order, not to mention he was still a rusty with their language. But nonetheless, he was enjoying the vibrant banter that suddenly broke out to fill the silence, and since he was being singled out, he decided to go along with it. Answering the smaller man's question with his deep gravelly voice, Eskil shrugged his plated shoulders with a smirk, "Sure, sounds interesting."

"Of course it is, we're talking about the great Sir. Alano Vasco here, the bringer of light in the darkness, slayer of monstrous fiends and -" Immeadiately leading off into a dramatic start to his tale from Eskil's assent, Alano was interrupted by the man riding in front of him, the man's words cutting into his own.

It was obvious that Alano and Viola understood the man's foreign eastern language, since she suddenly blurted out with a short bout of laughter and Alano shook his head with an exaggerated dismissive motion and knowing look. Eskil himself however was left to raise a brow at the words of the dark skinned man, his curious blue eyes having no way of discerning any kind of hint to their meaning from the man's face, since his head was hidden away beneath the enclosed silver-steel helm of his armour, the only one of the five to be wearing one.

Glancing back at him with that cute smirk of hers, Eskil caught Viola's gaze as she clued into his lack of understanding. Translating the words for him, she shifted her gaze between him and Alano. "He said you really must be crazy if you're willing to encourage Vasco to keep talking."

Smiling himself at the revealed joke, Eskil turned his eyes towards the mostly silent eastern man with a new appreciation. It seemed that most of the group was a bit more open and friendly than one might expect out of a group of esteemed Holy Knights, Alano continuing to showcase this as he followed up on the quip, "There's nothing crazy about being swept away by the power of my masterful oration."

Smiling in good humour as Alano continued, Viola blurted out another quick chuckle as the fully outfitted man shot out another quip in his eastern tongue, Alano's face twisting up slightly in annoyance before he quickly retorted, "Listen here Omar, you may as well quit trying to make me look bad in front of our northern friend here. It's obvious that I was wrong before, he is clearly far more cultured than you."

Raising a brow again as he watched the two continue to carry on with each other from there, Eskil smirked as he witnessed the pointed bantering of two comrades, even though he could only understand half of the conversation.

As the next brief minutes passed, Eskil was reminded of his brother in the light of this little show, all the inevitably harmless arguing and roughhousing they would end up getting into over the smallest of things, as well as all the fun they would share with their childish pranks and general troublemaking. It really brought him back. However, just like his father would crush their fun with a stern order in the past, the group was brought to task with a simple command from the leading man that cut through the bantering and joking with a simple controlled tone, "We'll set up camp for the night a few yards in from here."

Deep cobalt eyes glancing back over his shoulder towards the group, the leading man added in a sharp tone, "Stay alert, the further north we go, the closer we come to the den of those fiends. Every step takes us further into danger."

"If you get anymore serious Acario, you could kill any fiend that finds us with a glare. So by all means," Raising a gleaming arm up to salute the man with an exaggerated gesture, Alano continued to try and relieve the tension that had just started to build up with Acario's words, "Put our fun in the ground so that we may learn this power."

Smirking to himself at the witty response from his comrade to his right, Eskil was surprised again at how open this group was. After all, for Alano to talk back like that to a superior, the High Commander of the Holy Order in Ziema no less, a legend among men… well they had to either be incredibly friendly, or Alano was just incredibly brave, and stupid. Stifling his smile however, Acario's quick and final response lead Eskil to believe it was the latter option.

"Enough joking." Dropping his heavy gaze on Alano directly as he gave this command, Acario then turned his focus forward again, looking off towards their prospective campsite in thought for a moment as he pulled in on the reins of the beast beneath him, stopping its advance a couple feet from the nearest evergreen of this sparse collection of trees one could scarcely call a forest.

With no further retort from Alano aside from an exasperated sigh and a defeated shake of his head, Acario kept the attention of the group as they closed the small distance between them and came to a stop beside their leader. "We'll dismount here and leave the Oghur beasts beneath the cover of these wider spruces." Saying that, Acario stood up against the stirrups of his saddle and brought his right leg across the back of the Oghur, hopping down into the snow knee deep with a minor clattering of metal plates. Reaching now for one of the large brown saddlebags that hung down across the hindquarters of the mount, he opened one of the smaller pouches and added, "Fiori and I will go out and set up a perimeter before we lose what is left of the light, the rest of you clear out the snow for the camp and set up the tents."

Viola and Omar nodding in agreement, Eskil started to dismount his Oghur as he watched almost expectantly for Alano to say something, but was somewhat surprised to see a slightly more focused look take shape in the man's features as he dutifully dropped from his mount and started to lead it by the reins towards the nearest tree Acario had mentioned. Landing down in the snow beside his own beast, only shin deep, Eskil placed a hand against the side of the creatures head, giving it an assuring pat amidst its thick white fur to calm the slight restlessness Acario's words had caused. "It's alright, he didn't mean anything by it."

Icy blue eyes turning to take stock of his sky blue hues at level, the creature let out a low disgruntled growl for a moment, but lowered its head to Eskil nonetheless as he guided it by the reins to follow Viola and Alano over to what would be their hitching post for these creatures. As the three proceeded to fasten their reins of all five around the trunk, Acario and Omar Fiori trudged off through the snow with a steady pace, Eskil losing sight of them after only a half a minute through the still falling flakes of ever frozen water. Once they were securely tied in place, Eskil looked down past his shoulder to Viola as they both began to unbind the straps that secured some of the saddlebags to the Oghurs backs, his eyes betraying him for a moment as he began studying the braiding in her bright blonde hair, "Is he always like that?" Posing the question with a rather rough accent, Eskil turned his eyes back to his work before she looked over to him with a face full of surprise, quickly growing into a friendly smile as she was glad Eskil finally initiated a conversation with her on his own.

Luckily for him, Eskil could barely make out her reaction from the corner of his eye, so he didn't have to worry himself with the meaning behind that earnestly innocent smile, whether it was her finding the way he spoke her language pitifully funny, or if it was some reasoning in the opposite direction. Regardless, Eskil cursed himself in his own mind. It wasn't right for a man of the Eska clan to be fretting over simple looks and comments, averting his gaze out of embarrassment and stealing glances of her when he can. It was the bashful nature of a prepubescent boy, not fit for a grown man. It was shameful, and yet, there were no woman like Viola he had yet seen in the north, and in front of her beauty, he couldn't help reverting to this weakness. That of course, he knew, was the reason he had been shunned among the Eska. Because he was hopelessly weak.

"Do you mean Acario?" Snapping him out of his depressing thoughts, Viola's gentle voice responded to his question, Eskil nodding in answer as he pulled on the leather strap for the final time, freeing the bag held firm in his hand while he steeled himself and turned to look at Viola as she looked back at her own efforts in thought. "I suppose yes and no would both be good answers." Bare slender fingers working against the leather, she also tugged the strap she was working on loose, holding the large heavy pack in her other hand with little effort, a surprising strength for the average woman. Resting her free hand on the side of her Oghur, sinking her fingers into the warm fur of the creature whose back stood tall over her head by half a foot, Viola looked off towards the direction in which Acario vanished into the falling snow.

"He's always been the focused and resolute type I guess, but he's been known to crack a smile from time to time. Even our resident jokester wouldn't push it as far as he did a minute ago otherwise." Clearly referring to Alano as she went on, Viola raised the bag she held onto and slung it over her shoulder, the satchel covering the embroidered white symbol on her heavy blue back towards Eskil with another smile on her delicately featured face, she added with a reassuring tone, "He's just worried about us on this expedition is all. Please don't think badly of him for it."

Nodding to her again, Eskil took her words to heart, his view on Acario shifting slightly as it turned out he wasn't as much of a hardass as he was starting to consider him to be. "I understand." Assuring Viola of that understanding with another gruff phrase, Eskil watched with some more contained awe as her smile widened and she returned his sentiment with a grateful tone, "Great! Thank you." Stepping forward and hitting him with a light punch on the arm, she joked with a more playful tone, "I'm glad to see you're such a friendly guy. We might have another Alano on our hands if this keeps up."

Laughing quietly to herself at her own quip, Eskil couldn't help but share a smile from her infectious attitude. Before either he or she could follow it up however, a sudden frenzy of wind exploded outward from inside the forest, working up the Oghurs for a moment and blasting a layer of snow onto both them and the two that stood before them. Then just as suddenly as it appeared, the wind vanished, having accomplished its task. Unworried by the event, yet mildly frustrated by the sudden interruption, Eskil shook the clumped up snow off of his shoulders, his face refreshed but clear as his aura control kept his body temperature more than high enough to counteract the cold and melt the snow that touched his skin. The same was true for Viola, who was instead patting down the Oghurs beside her with a rare look of annoyance on her face as she muttered a gentle curse coupled with Alano's name under her breath.

Seeing that, Eskil couldn't help but let out a short deep laugh that brought Viola's emerald eyes back to him with annoyance now turned to momentary confusion. Just as quickly as it appeared however, that confusion was replaced with another smile as she asked in a coy voice, "And what are you laughing at mister?"

Surprised at himself that he would be so forward with his reaction to her, Eskil savoured this brief feeling of openness with Viola, shaking his head before her as he turned about to head towards the source of the wind, "Nothing." A single rough word was all he offered as he started to trudge through the snow, but the jovial connotation was enough to bring a more meaningful smile to her face as she watched the back of his large gleaming chestplate gain distance from her, Acario and herself being the only two to be a rank requiring the wearing of formal cloaks.

Wanting to follow after him and play with him some more, Viola was distracted by her tenderhearted tendencies, as she felt obligated to wipe off the heaping of snow that was dropped so unceremoniously onto the coats of the Oghurs. So, with a childish pout and another muttered curse for Alano, she spent the next couple minutes doing just that, further prolonged as she scooped out the snow that had also managed to sneak into the packs that remained attached to the saddles, not wanting the contents to be ruined by the water.

While she remained preoccupied, Eskil kept hauling his pack into the woods, very soon bursting through the border of the deep snow and stepping onto the unveiled and windswept ground of the campsite. In the midst of this large circular clearing, standing off to the side tapping his silver-plated boot against the frozen rocky soil, Alano was clearing thinking about something in some uncharacteristic silence. Deciding to rectify that, he perked up and turned around to see Eskil entering the site, one of his hands that had previously been resting on his hip now waving him over as he broke the silence, "Perfect, you've got the tents. Bring them over here, we'll get this over with quickly so I can get back to regaling you with that story you wanted to hear so badly."

Seeing him smirk amused at his own words, Eskil was whisked away by his friendliness as well, smirking in response before he consciously willed it. Gripping into that sign on Eskil's otherwise hearty and threatening face, Alano egged him on a little bit more, "Hurry up now, we only have all night, I might have to start cutting things out at this rate." Both of them laughing for a moment at the joke, Eskil walked over to him and dropped the pack to the earth. Kneeling down and loosening the neck of the bag, Eskil started to dig around for the anchoring staves for the tents. Feeling the bundle of them at the bottom of the bag against his fingertips, he clutched ahold of it and pulled them free, tossing them up for Alano to catch a moment later. Doing so gracefully, Alano went about unfolding the thin leather patch that the small pointed iron pegs were wrapped in, turning away from Eskil as he did so.

While Eskil continued to pull out the rope and tents themselves from the bag, Alano made quick work of this portion of the setup, as he brandished each peg like a tiny javelin that he drove into the frozen ground with an easy flick of his wrist, each one leaving the flattened top the rope would tie onto high enough out of the ground as he spread them out in the general layout he knew the tents would be taking. When he had spent the sixteen staves, he stepped back over to Eskil as the taller man started to rise to his feet. "You know, I couldn't help but notice that you were cracking up a bit more than usual over by those wolves of ours."

Handing out one of the tents to the man as he began, Eskil raised a brow as he listened and started to walk the rope over to the site of the first tent. Given what he knew of Alano so far, he was quick to assume where this new line of conversation was about to go, and as he passed by the man, he was quickly assured that he was correct. For as Eskil passed, Alano turned to follow him as he continued, "Now unless they only start talking when I'm away, you must have been chatting it up with our resident princess."

Shaking his head at the big reveal over the obvious as he knelt down beside one of the pegs, Eskil suddenly froze up for a fraction of a moment as Alano walked up behind him and blurted out, "You like her don't you? In more than the widespread desire to share her tent for the night I mean?"

Breaking free from his momentary freeze, Eskil snapped his eyes off in the direction of the Oghurs, relieved that he could still see Viola's outline hovering around the massive wolves, out of earshot. Seeing that, he quickly side-eyed the man standing behind him as he stood there with a big knowing grin on his face, acting perfectly innocent as he unfurled the tent in his hands. Thinking for a moment on how best to respond to this man who he had only barely started sharing words with, Eskil finally came up with a simple low toned rebuttal, "You're wrong."

Laughing aloud for a moment at the words, Alano was as quick as ever to respond as he walked past Eskil's left side and started laying out the fabric, "I know that you're still getting used to speaking our language, but I think you mis-used the word 'wrong' in that elaborate thesis of yours." Chuckling again at his own words, Alano kept his eyes on the work in front of him as he waited expectantly for Eskil to react in some other amusing way.

Instead, there was merely silence for a couple seconds, since Eskil was actually processing Alano's suggestion and realizing that he might actually be right. Before anything else came of it however, Viola broke through the small border wall of snow around the campsite as she strode towards the two with hands on her hips in a disappointed fashion, "The next time you use wind magic Alano, try not to cover everything we own in whatever you're blowing away."

Laughing in response to her scolding as he was bent over the now outstretched tent, Alano stood upright again as he threw out his hands in a mockingly defensive gesture, "Whoa now, I was only trying to rescue poor Eskil from you. Any longer and you might have gotten your hooks into him." Freezing up again as he heard this, Eskil kept his nose down and feigned ignorance to the conversation in front of him as he moved on to tying an end of rope onto the next peg. Because of this, he completely missed the startled expression that Viola let slip on her face for a mere instance as she darted her eyes from Alano to Eskil for a moment. A showing of the hand that Alano did not miss, his studious hazel eyes picking up on the micro-reaction with a devious smirk.

Despite that however, Viola was quickly recovered, reacting to the quip with perfectly naturally paced retort, "Hmph, don't you mean to say that you're sorry for not being as skilled as Omar?" Smirking slyly to herself as she knew how Alano would react, Eskil was left isolated in the conversation for a time as a bickering banter began between the two, his name being brought in as a witness by both parties sporadically as they all continued to work at a responsible rate. Not that Eskil was even given a chance to respond to any of his rhetorical summons to the conversation, as a returning-fire retort would blow past the chance immediately. That being the case, he just kept out of it as the minutes passed and the tents went up, a fireplace in the center of the formation being carved out of the frozen ground and filled with torn branches from surrounding trees stripped of their needles.

Some twenty minutes later in total, when the tents were up and the bedrolls and food had been carried over, the three sat down around the small pit with a sigh from both Alano and Viola. Now that they were done setting up, and the beginning of the bickering had long been buried beneath plenty of diversions and leading comments, the three now sat in silence for a moment. Leaning forward after this short time, Alano stretched a gloved hand forward towards the bundle of dying wood that Eskil had quickly gathered up. With a simple wave of this hand, the pit ignited in flame, engulfing the branches and taking hold with a series of spontaneous crackles.

Leaning back again and swiping his hands behind him to rest his weight on, Alano watched the flames die down a bit after the initial ignition before the heat stabilized and started to creep out to touch them with a welcomed embrace. As he did so, Viola and Eskil shared a brief glance at each other before they focused their gazes elsewhere, the unfamiliar embarrassment Eskil felt towards her after what Alano had gone and said affecting him more than he would like to admit.

Noticing that moment of course, Alano smirked to himself again as he clearly pondered on what to say to break up this silence, the decision making of whether he should bring the subject up again evident on his face as he glanced between the two, Eskil's sharp look to him relaying that he very firmly should not. With a sigh, Alano accepted the atmosphere and perked up again as he shifted his focus onto Eskil alone. "Well, now that we're done, I guess it's finally time for -"

Interrupted again before he could get started on his tale in earnest, a familiar commanding tone came from the edge of the campsite, Acario and Omar walking towards the three as Acario informed them, "The perimeter is set, and I see you got everything set up, very good." Continuing their approach towards the fire, cobalt hues eyeing the rising smoke that billowed upward from the burning spruce branches, he added, "Although I think this is the last time we should have a fire. Our encounters with wild fiends continue to become more frequent as we go. At this point we should avoid drawing any unnecessary attention to ourselves."

The very next moment after the last word came from his mouth, as if on cue, the five Holy Knights froze in place and at attention as a gentle melodic tune wafted in on an unnatural breeze, chiming in their ears with a heavenly incessance. After only the briefest of pauses, Alano finally questioned with a knowing, concerned tone, "Hey Commander, is it just me hearing that, or did you just jinx us?"

Silence following his grave joke for another few seconds, the three sitting before the fire jumped to their feet with an explosive urgency as the normally calming sound of those pleasantly tuned chimes was completely drowned out by a singular and deafening screeching roar from deeper in the forest. The sound of it alone simultaneously blood-curdling and violently grating as the very ground beneath their feet shook under the force.

"So definitely not just me then…."