The Journey Begins

"To meet the god of madness."

The words made Stabby's stomach churn.

Grisha is leaving? He can't leave. If Grisha left, he didn't know if he could handle that. He was nowhere near ready to be without Grisha, let alone by himself with his mother.

His clone trembles behind him. It grasps its head, convulsing in pain. Stabby blocks it from view as it dissolves into his shadow, hoping not to worry his family.

"Is he still in the mad shaman's swamp?" Grisha asks, not noticing the clone's sudden freak-out.

"From our knowledge, yes. Our spies have seen no movement from the swamp since his last appearance." The mistress turns, exiting the room, and Grisha follows.

Stabby sticks as close as possible to his brother, keeping his head low.

"Is it a solo mission or is someone going with me?" Grisha asks.

Stabby whispers to himself. "Come on. Say yes."

"Because of this mission's importance, we need at least one of your siblings to join, along with a squadron of shades."

Stabby's pupils widen as he lifts his head. One sibling?

Grisha asks, "Do you think mercenaries will be much of a threat?"

"They can cause problems, but I'm more concerned with Kyoki himself. He's quite bipolar. One second he's fine, the next he's surrounded by corpses. You must be careful with how you talk to him." She cautions, keeping her pace a few steps ahead of her children.

Stabby becomes impatient. He shakes his brother's arm in hopes it will hurry him.

Looking back at his antsy sibling, he questions him with his eyes. "Makes sense. He's not considered a god for nothing. Who were you thinking would join me?"

The mistress responds, "Kir finished giving the message to Damien and will return tomorrow. He will work well for the role."

Stabby tightens his hold, causing Grisha to grunt.

Grisha glances back again, irritated. "Is it fine waiting any longer? You've already had to push the plan back."

"We have little choice. Your other siblings have more to accomplish with their job. I don't know when they'll be able to return."

"Uh... I could go." Stabby speaks cautiously, loosening his grasp.

Grisha pats his back. "Sorry buddy, this is going to be a dangerous one. I don't think you're ready for it."

Why is he interfering?

Stabby backs away from Grisha, pushing his arm away. "I could be helpful if I go."

"That area is dangerous, you're n..."

Their mother stops him. "Grisha. We are all given a chance to speak here."

"But..."

She once again interrupts, her voice stern. "No. let Pasha speak."

Grisha exhales longer than needed but quiets down.

His mother allowing him to talk gives Stabby confidence. "If I go, I can give support like when you fought the two demons and get experience along the way. You said yourself I improve better with people to use my skills against. This journey will help me improve quicker."

His mother rubs her chin. "Real-life experience would speed up the process... and we need you to reach your prime as soon as possible."

Grisha swings back to his mother, his voice now raised. "Are you actually considering letting him go? You were just telling me about how dangerous Kyoki is."

Grisha worrying about him was nice, but he was making this difficult. "You'll be with me."

The mistress adds, "As well as multiple highly trained soldiers. It'll be a dangerous situation, but bringing him could make him a much more capable prince by the end. It might be a risk worth taking."

"To meet the god of madness."

The words made Stabby's stomach churn.

Grisha is leaving? He can't leave. If Grisha left, he didn't know if he could handle that. He was nowhere near ready to be without Grisha, let alone by himself with his mother.

His clone trembles behind him. It grasps its head, convulsing in pain. Stabby blocks it from view as it dissolves into his shadow, hoping not to worry his family.

"Is he still in the mad shaman's swamp?" Grisha asks, not noticing the clone's sudden freak-out.

"From our knowledge, yes. Our spies have seen no movement from the swamp since his last appearance." The mistress turns, exiting the room, and Grisha follows.

Stabby sticks as close as possible to his brother, keeping his head low.

"Is it a solo mission or is someone going with me?" Grisha asks.

Stabby whispers to himself. "Come on. Say yes."

"Because of this mission's importance, we need at least one of your siblings to join, along with a squadron of shades."

Stabby's pupils widen as he lifts his head. One sibling?

Grisha asks, "Do you think mercenaries will be much of a threat?"

"They can cause problems, but I'm more concerned with Kyoki himself. He's quite bipolar. One second he's fine, the next he's surrounded by corpses. You must be careful with how you talk to him." She cautions, keeping her pace a few steps ahead of her children.

Stabby becomes impatient. He shakes his brother's arm in hopes it will hurry him.

Looking back at his antsy sibling, he questions him with his eyes. "Makes sense. He's not considered a god for nothing. Who were you thinking would join me?"

The mistress responds, "Kir finished giving the message to Damien and will return tomorrow. He will work well for the role."

Stabby tightens his hold, causing Grisha to grunt.

Grisha glances back again, irritated. "Is it fine waiting any longer? You've already had to push the plan back."

"We have little choice. Your other siblings have more to accomplish with their job. I don't know when they'll be able to return."

"Uh... I could go." Stabby speaks cautiously, loosening his grasp.

Grisha pats his back. "Sorry buddy, this is going to be a dangerous one. I don't think you're ready for it."

Why is he interfering?

Stabby backs away from Grisha, pushing his arm away. "I could be helpful if I go."

"That area is dangerous, you're n..."

Their mother stops him. "Grisha. We are all given a chance to speak here."

"But..."

She once again interrupts, her voice stern. "No. let Pasha speak."

Grisha exhales longer than needed, but quiets down.

His mother allowing him to talk gives Stabby confidence. "If I go, I can give support like when you fought the two demons and get experience along the way. You said yourself I improve better with a target. This journey will help me improve quicker."

His mother rubs her chin. "Real-life experience would speed up the process... and we need you to reach your prime as soon as possible."

Grisha swings back to his mother, his voice now raised. "Are you actually considering letting him go? You were just telling me about how dangerous Kyoki is."

Grisha worrying about him was nice, but he was making this difficult. "You'll be with me."

The mistress adds, "As well as multiple highly trained soldiers. It'll be a dangerous situation, but bringing him could make him a much more capable prince by the end. It might be a risk worth taking."

"I don't agree with this... but fine," Grisha says, seeing the futility in resistance.

Stabby sighs in relief. Thank the gods.

"Who's going to continue the research on the mercenaries?" Grisha asks.

The mistress responds swiftly, "I thought about doing it myself, but since Kir will be here, I'll pass it on to him. He excels at research."

"That's true." Grisha agrees with a nod. He pauses, then asks, "Do we have any research on the creatures that live in the swamp? I'd like to know what could attack me."

"We know little about the swamp." The mistress responds bluntly, "We've tried to avoid it until now. Before we knew about Kyoki's importance, the area was too much of a risk for a potential reward. I would check the library for a book on it, just in case, but I find it unlikely."

"Gotcha. We'll check there real quick. Come on, Pa... Stabby." Grisha waves Stabby over as he walks towards the library.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Reaching the library, a room that connects to the right of the study, Stabby pushes the door open.

It was huge. A long line of bookshelves covers the walls. Chandeliers light the room with azure beams. And in the center of the room, there was a statue of a man holding a book in front of him. It seemed as if he was trying to read, but the cloth tied around his eyes appears to be a detriment to that. His other hand reaches out behind him, an eye encased in his palm.

Approaching the statue, he notices an engraving at the bottom that says,

Blind yourself from the world and true knowledge will reveal itself.

-Keiken, deity of Knowledge

"Odd statue," Stabby mumbles.

With a chuckle, Grisha says, "It's an interesting one, isn't it? Kir bought it because he felt the room didn't have enough decorations."

Stabby examines the library. "It does look a lot better than the study."

"I hope to change the study soon." The high-pitched voice causes Stabby to jump.

Grisha glances over. "Back already, Kir?"

Kir reads through a thick book at a circular, black table. He sits in a violet, padded chair, the top of which was designed with hands that reach out towards a floating eye.

"Damien was more than eager to begin the revolution, so my mission ended sooner than expected. Since I arrived early and didn't want to report to mother before the appointed time, I decided to read until then." He stays focused on the book as he talks, his uncontrollable twitches now happening in his legs instead of his head.

Grisha moves towards the shelves behind Kir. "Well, I got good news for you. Mom's putting you on research duty."

Kir's head twists unnaturally fast towards Grisha, his already bulbous eyes growing further. "That news is indeed pleasant. Now I shall wait with increased excitement." His head twitches again as he turns from the book.

"Good to hear. Thanks for talking to Damien for me, by the way." Grisha says, browsing the shelves. "He may be an important part of the plan or whatever, but that dude gets on my nerves."

"You have told me many times."

As his brothers converse, Stabby crouches in front of the statue, staring intently at the inscription.

Blind yourself from the physical and true knowledge will reveal itself. What does that mean? Blinding yourself seems to be contradictory to finding knowledge. You can only find knowledge from seeing the world and learning how it works.

Kir crawls next to him. "A hard passage to decipher, isn't it? It took me a very long time to understand it, myself. Keiken dislikes making things clear."

"What does it mean?" Stabby asks.

"Keiken believes you can only achieve the true path to knowledge by discarding the distractions of the world. Throwing away the need for physical things, and focusing fully on pursuing knowledge," Kir explains. "His followers all have slightly different understandings of his words, but I believe it means to not rely on our sight to see. For your reliance on sight will blind you, and you will never comprehend the things hidden from your sight."

The explanation sends Stabby further into thought.

Kir's small mouth curves slightly. "The correct response to another man's interpretation is not to accept it outright, but to ponder further," He recites. "It's good to see a fellow thinker has joined our family. Your survival through the trial brings me joy."

Despite the odd phrasing, Kir's compliment elates Stabby. "Me too."

Grisha, lost in the vast sea of books, shouts, "Hey Kir, do we have anything on the mad shaman's swamp?"

"Mother is sending you already?" Kir asks rhetorically. "It depends on what you need."

"A bestiary, an ecology book, anything that would help us traverse through the area easier."

"Hmm, if I'm remembering it right, I think we only have one book for that swamp." Kir scuttles down towards the far right end of the bookshelf. Climbing up the shelves, he grabs a book from the top corner. He returns while skimming through the book at a blinding speed.

As he arrives back at the table, he gently placing the book down. "There is a book, but... I don't know if it's going to be much help."

It was titled, "Tales of the horrifying deeds of Kyoki, the god of madness."

Grisha stares at the book, unmoving.

"At least we got some entertainment..." Stabby laughs softly.

Grisha's head drops into his hands. "We're going to die."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

After Grisha took a final nap before their journey, the two brothers head out to the front gate of the castle.

Being the first time he's seen the outside of the castle, Stabby surveys it as he walks backwards towards the exit.

Most of the castle is black, but some dashes of purple dance around the edges. Five towers emerge from the walls, a unique shade-gargoyle adorning the top of each. There are no windows on the first three floors, but they scatter across the top half.

Grisha told him it's used to prevent attackers from easily entering the castle, but Stabby thought that seemed off. If someone could get past the walls, how would they not be able to get past a few stories? His mother must use magic to protect the castle from intruders, somehow.

At the heart of the building was a humongous crystal that seemed to synchronize its throbbing with his own core. Listening to the hum of the beating crystal was hypnotizing.

"Watch out. You're going to hit the wall," Grisha warns, breaking Stabby out of his trance.

He was wearing the same clothes as when he took Stabby home after his birth. A short sleeve black leather jacket, a royal purple undershirt, and black travelers pants. Stabby thought it was a nice outfit, especially for one put together by Grisha, so he wears a smaller version of it. But he also brought a large bag of other clothes just in case they tear, or if he feels like wearing something else.

Distracted by his brother's clothes, Stabby slams into the wall.

Grisha chuckles, "Told you."

"Sorry, it just puts me in a state of shock when you wear something nice," Stabby retorts.

Grisha's half-smile falls. "Shut up."

Their mother waits outside the gate, holding a leash leading to something blocked from their view by the intruding walls. Stabby tilts his head to the side, trying to see the mysterious object.

He peers past the walls, revealing a humongous creature. The leash hangs tightly on one of its two muscular legs. It had tiny arms with crablike claws. Crystal horns sprout from the sides of its head, with hardened glass-like surfaces interlaced between them. Its mouth permanently parted, showing the sharp teeth that wrap around its body. Its eyes almost fully closed as it dazes off.

The mistress pulls on the leash, causing the creature to shake back awake. Still, in her formal tone, she asks, "were you able to find anything?"

"Na, there was one book, but..." Grisha responds, "we decided against bringing it."

Stabby glances over to his bag. "Yeah..."

"That's dissatisfactory..." She caresses his cheek. "But I have faith you will still pull through. You haven't failed me yet."

Grisha leans into the warmth of her hand.

"What's that?" Stabby asks, pointing at the half-dazed creature who tries desperately to fall asleep whenever the mistress looks away.

Pulling the leash a second time, to the disappointment of the beast, she answers, "It's a Noch Kohdok, our primary form of transportation. It may seem underwhelming now, but when night comes, they move at tremendous speeds. They also have the additional bonus of allowing shades to hide inside them."

Placing his hand on a clear patch, Stabby's hand pushes inside the surface. "That's handy."

"It's going to be a long journey, we should get started," Grisha stands next to the exit, halfway past the gate.

Their mother's arms reach around them, locking them in a warm embrace. Dropping her formal tone momentarily, she purrs, "I'll miss you, my children. Stay safe." Backing away, she finishes her farewell. "The shades will keep watch from the shadows. I wish you luck."

The two brothers wave goodbye to their mother as they climb onto the Nock Kohdok, heading off on the paved path.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Three masked figures stalk the shades from a distant branch.

"This is them?" One asks.

The second responds, "Yeah... They don't look like much, but they'll surprise you. Be careful."

The third laughs. "We never fail a mission twice. This time their journey will end in body bags."