A/N: This story is my first big project that I write with the intention of publication. I would like to post it here first for the purpose of receiving constructive criticism so I can refine it. I would really appreciate any comments from readers regarding this story, from plots, languages, paces, characters, world-building... You can share anything that you find good or bad about the story so I would know about my strength and weakness and make the story better. Thank you all for reading and I hope you enjoy it.
Location: Reishert, capital city of Hamsworth
Noon was one of the few precious moments in a day when one could enjoy some privacy and relaxation at Reishert Military Central Command. It was time for a lunch break and people were heading toward the canteen for a hearty meal when suddenly their orderly lines were disrupted by a young man wearing a dirty, partly-burnt grey workshop coveralls and a pair of goggles over his wild, bushy green hair.
'By Vals's holy light this can't be true! It can't be!'
That was Kiritz's only thought as he rushed through the corridor, fervently praying to the Saint of Brilliant Light and arms flailing while still grasping onto a large wrench. Even when that wrench looked like it was threateningly close to flying off his hand at any time and landing on some unfortunate passerby, he just kept running full speed, ignoring the many annoyed looks directed at him. The fact no one bothered to reproach him for such unruly behavior was not even surprising anymore, given how people have gotten so used to this kind of scene. Most people just shrugged it off, accepting that quirky bit as part of their daily life. Even those less forgiving few have learned to tolerate Kiritz's antics, as they knew among all of their artificers, his talents at crafting and inventing new equipment certainly made up for all his lack of discipline and etiquette.
Furthermore, anyone who had a bone to pick with Kiritz was quickly reminded of the main reason this quirky lad was still around to this day. After all, he was still the trusty handyman of their beloved commander.
As he reached the commander's quarter, a place reserved for the most esteemed of officers who generally did not want to be disturbed at this sensitive time of day, Kiritz hastily barged into one of the rooms, not caring the slightest about any form of manner while shouting:
'My Lord! Is...'
The words had yet to fully leave Kiritz's mouth when a pair of shimmering blades were placed on his throat. As Kiritz slowly turned around, he saw a familiar face, a pale young woman whose red eyes flickered with extreme hostility and killing intent. A mask resembling the fanged maws of a dragon covering the lower half of her face, giving her already threatening visage another fearsome layer. In normal circumstances, many men, Kiritz included, would be tempted to imagine the beauty hidden behind that mask that could compliment her long, flowing black hair and a visibly elegant frame beneath the ominous black Eraser suit, the trademark outfit of those notorious shadowy agents. But when one had two short swords always poising to deliver them to their end, imagining any kind of romantic stuffs was quite a challenge.
'If you can't learn to knock first,' the pale woman said, irritation lacing her cold voice, 'then you might have to learn it the hard way someday.'
Kiritz was not entirely sure how far away was that "someday" she mentioned but as of now he was feeling increasingly threatened since even after having identified him, she had yet to remove the blades from his neck.
But whether she had any plan regarding that "harsh lesson" or not, Kiritz was saved from all of that by the third, and most important, person in that room.
His much-beloved commander and one of the military's brightest young heroes, Cael Harker.
Cael was a man that could command attention and admiration from his look alone. Compare to the typical image one might have of a commander – grizzled, grim, with a solemn disposition and soul-piercing death stare, he was an entirely different character – young, vibrant, pleasant. His bright smile not only gave off an air of confidence but also made him a much more approachable figure among his peers and Kiritz, as well as most people (his rivals would reluctantly say otherwise), had to agree that when combined with his silver hair and eyes, as well as his flawlessly neat blue uniform, it gave the man quite an impeccable charm. Always keeping a cool, composed demeanor and treating his subordinates as he would a friend, it came to no surprise how Cael was admired by almost everyone in the military. When it came to the good things about his commander, Kiritz could wrote an entire book about them.
'Cut him some slack Esthel. That's not the right way to treat our brilliant artificer. Shouldn't you have gotten used to this already?'
Cael was still sitting comfortably at his office table, seemingly unfazed by all the commotions happening before him, when he ordered his personal assistant and bodyguard, Esthel Dorewood, to back down. Esthel released Kiritz from her death grip and right afterward, appeared by Cael's side in the blink of an eye, standing on the spot she had occupied just before the klutzy artificer barged in. She put her twin swords back inside the scabbards hanging on her waist, still eyeing Kiritz with hostility. Most people at the Military Central Command had come to term with Kiritz's usually unannounced entry but Esthel was not "most people". She took her job as a bodyguard quite seriously and her action in this kind of scenario has always been the same, no matter how many times it had played out. And as with all things, Cael was the only reason Kiritz was still alive and well after these encounters.
At Cael's beckon, Kiritz straightened up his stance and walked forward to take a seat facing his commander.
It was not the first time, and not likely the last either, such a thing happened in his office.
Wherever it might be.
'So what brings you here this time around, my friend?' Cael began. 'Certainly not one of your explosive armors doing its usual thing, yes?'
'Quite disastrous in fact,' Kiritz shrugged. 'This time costing Kiritz III his upper body, from the waist up. Still better than the last time though. At least I don't have to rebuild him from scratch.'
'Vals blesses him. We will always remember Kiritz II and his ultimate sacrifice for science.'
Both Cael and Kiritz silently made a prayer to Kiritz's first armor-and-weapon-testing-dummy, one that had served them faithfully till the day it got completely eradicated while wearing the earliest prototype of explosive armor.
Then Kiritz suddenly remembered the reason he has rushed all the way here from his workshop and reverted to his panic mode.
'But my lord! Is the rumor true? That you will be transferred to Kalsak?'
'It is no rumor,' Cael nodded, confirming Kiritz's worst fear. 'High Command has decided to transfer my post to Kalsak and I would become the city's new steward.'
'But why Kalsak out of all places? Isn't working there technically a banishment?'
'How so?' Cael asked nonchalantly, sending the already-panicking Kiritz into an even greater depth of confusion and despair.
'You should already know how, my lord. The furthest city from Reishert, lying right next to The Cursed Land and have been plagued since who-knows-how-long by all sorts of beasts and thugs,' Kiritiz's voice trembled as he described the dreaded city of Kalsak. 'Nothing good ever comes out of that place, nor does anyone who has the misfortune of getting sent there ever get to see another bright day in life.'
Cael paused, perhaps contemplating every word Kiritz had said, even though he had no need of such a lengthy introduction. Kalsak was the one city that everyone in Hamsworth knew, probably even more famous (or rather, infamous) than the capital city Reishert. Though the legends were more often than not exaggerated for the sake of drama, the exaggerations were usually not too far from the truth. People usually referred to it as Hamsworth's Cursed Land, a moniker mostly reserved for their neighboring nation in the south, Basglow. And while the city's reputation spreaded far and beyond, no one really knew much about the fate of those who were sent there "on duty". It was like what Kiritz said, being sent to Kalsak was effectively a punishment.
'General Kristan Harker, your father, was killed by a beast just a few days ago and now this,' Kiritiz muttered loudly. 'If this is the High Command's idea of honoring your father's legacy then they are out of their mind.'
On the mention of his father, Cael's composed demeanor was challenged. His expression shifted, a frown replacing his cheerful smile, his silver eyes cast a sad look toward a picture of him with his late father on the first day he joined the military.
Kiritz and Esthel looked on with visible worry. The sudden death of general Kristan Harker, a member of the High Command, came as a massive shock to all the military, especially to his young son Cael. Esthel threw Kiritz a death stare and the artificer blame himself for bringing up that subject.
But much to their surprise, Cael suddenly spoke after just brief silence, his tone still cool and composed.
'My father's death was a tragedy,' At this point, Cael stopped briefly to cross his hands on his forehead - a formal praying gesture to honor the deceased, and both Kiritz, as well as Esthel, followed him suit.
He then continued. 'But I believe the High Command has a good reason for this transfer order and it is well within my duty to follow it. From what I heard there has been a surge in the number of beasts gathering on our border near Kalsak.'
'What "good reason" can this possibly be?' Said Kiritz, ever so skeptical about the whole transfer business. 'Beasts have always been a plague there so it's nothing new anymore. Why now of all time the High Command decide to send one of their most celebrated heroes all the way from central to that one accursed place. Kalsak is an evil land with naught but troubles and it would be better to just leave it there.'
'And that, my friend, is exactly why we should be there.'
Kiritz's worried look now turned into total disbelief.
'Most people would consider Kalsak a punishment but I consider it opportunity and duty,' Cael continued. 'For so long the people of Kalsak have lived under constant threat from beasts and criminal empires. Somehow they still hold on but life there is fickle at best. And I want to use this opportunity to change all that.'
'You have a plan, my lord?'
'I can't be so sure of what's awaiting us in Kalsak, but yes, I do have something in mind.' Cael's gaze fixed onto Kiritz as he spoke.
While still having apprehension about his commander moving to Kalsak, somehow Kiritz felt greatly relieved with the knowledge that Cael might know exactly what to do after all.
Until he realized...
'Wait a second. Did you just say "us", my lord?' Kiritz questioned in a trembling voice.
'Indeed I did,' Cael answered, perhaps already expected this reaction. 'I said "us", as in me, Esthel and of course, you.'
As Kiritz stood there speechless, Esthel watched on from behind Cael, her eyes crinkled briefly as if she was having the fleetest, yet most satisfying, of smirk behind her mask.
'Naturally I can't be expected to go and accomplish anything alone, can I?' Cael smiled reassuringly. 'I have been granted permission to bring some of my own personnel with me for this mission. And you, Kiritz, are on top of the list.'
Kiritz stood still like a statue. Apparently, this news was even more shocking to him than Cael being transferred to Kalsak. The idea of ever mentioning Kalsak was already bad enough for him, let alone he, of all people, would have to go there in person. And it would not just be a torturous but quick one-day-visit-then-board-the-earliest-train-and-hightail-out-of-there kind of trip. He would be there to stay.
Seeing the visible dread written on Kiritz's face, Cael continued, perhaps feeling like he should give his trusty but terribly frightened handyman some motivation.
'Of course if you don't want to go then you can always stay here. It would be a bit lonely without your antics but I will make sure to tell the other guys to take good care of you so don't worry.'
The dread on Kiritz's face, if anything, seem to have doubled after hearing that sentence. For he knew the entire reason he was still allowed to stay here was because of Cael himself. While people might have every reason to sack him for his unruly behaviors, they still barely tolerated him out of respect for Cael. If his commander were to move out and left him to his own device, he knew he would not last even a day in this place. Now that he thought about it, Kalsak can be a scary place indeed but if he stayed by Cael's side then everything should be alright. Right?
Taking a really deep breath and putting on the most cheerful face he could, Kiritz asked. 'So when will we depart, my lord?'
'Three days,' Cael replied with a slight hint of triumph in his eyes, knowing his ploy has worked wonders. 'There's not much time left so we should start packing up as soon as possible. I have alerted other members of my chosen squad about this plan so they have made their preparation. But the news came a bit late for you so I guess Kiritz III will have to wait until after we arrived at Kalsak to get his new upper body built.'
Kiritz knew with this he has signed up for a one-way trip to Hamsworth's Cursed Land. The kind of horrors awaited him at Kalsak, perhaps only the Six Saints could tell.
'Very well, my lord,' He sighed. 'Looks like my explosive armor project will have to wait too. I probably should go now, have lunch and then pack my things.'
'Actually,' Just when Kiritz stood up and head for the door, Cael called out to him. 'Speaking of explosive armor, that thing might have to wait for quite a long time. Because there is something I specifically want you to make.'
Kiritz seemed surprised but also partly excited about this new project. 'And what could that be, my lord?'
'A welcome gift.'