Chapter 4

The man called Raven examined the corpses in front of him, his bird doing the same with its beady eyes. Raven caressed the bird's feathers as he mulled over the scene. Somebody had rescued the prince, killing four of his soldiers in the process. He walked over a headless body towards the Captain of his guards.

"Captain, a moment please," he said. "Your men did not seem to have done their job," he continued when the man was within earshot. "I do not see the prince's body anywhere. All I see, Captain, are your decapitated, useless, dogs of troops!!"

"My Lord, please, calm down," the Captain sputtered in a feeble attempt to explain himself. Raven wheeled his face close to his, icy brown and green eyes against the frightened black ones. His voice rasped hard and sharp in the Captain's ears.

"You listen to me Captain. I want him found! Tear the place up, kill whoever you want, just find him! Do I make myself clear Captain?" The man nodded. "Leave my sight, go, now!" As Raven watched the soldiers scurry for their horses and ride into the forest, he allowed himself a little smile. A small tantrum, a few screams and threats do make a difference, he thought, pulling out several pieces of small, rectangular paper talismans. Drawn on these, were symbols most people would not even begin to understand. But he did. Raven closed his eyes and started chanting words from ancient times, at the same moment gesturing with the pieces of paper in his hands, writing more signs in the air. The talismans glowed red and the air rippled around him. Finally, with a shout, he threw the pieces into the air. The talismans each curled up and exploded with a bright flash of scarlet light. There was a loud 'pop', like air being sucked away and the place rippled once more. As sudden as its beginning, the display ended and all was silent again. However, in place of the paper talismans, were six creatures, each identical to the next. They each had a black shell-like body, were all about half a man's height and stood hunched over. Their faces were hidden in the shadows of their shells with only their three blood-red eyes visible in the darkness. The parts of most concern though, were their claws. Menacing, steel-like claws protruded from their two thin arms, four on each side. These waved around as they examined their 'master', waiting for his orders.

"What lovely creatures these are, don't you think my pet?" he said as he neared his creations. The blackbird cawed in response. Raven faced his handiwork, eyes studying each one. "Go find the ones who did this!" he ordered, "Find them.and kill them! There will be no rest until their heads have left their bodies! Now go my precious hunters! Go!" The monsters howled in reply and leapt down the road, disappearing in moments. Raven stood there in silence for a while, then, he began to laugh.

Hayate wondered how long his money would last. Sure he had a hefty pouch filled with gold coins. But he was not by himself now, and he was on some foolish quest to dump a prince, no, king, in Jaren. He had already bought two horses, a pony for the girl and a brown horse for the boy. They were about two days from Jaren, been on the road two days after the boy joined up with them. A fierce, reckless, arrogant boy. A Valerus. They were always known to be courageous in battle. Stubborn too, never giving way. Sounds of an argument behind him traveled to his ears. Hayate allowed himself a small smile, seemed like the battle was still going on back there. Stubborn people.

"Dammit girl!!! You'll be the death of me, I swear!" Tarron shouted from his brown horse, very annoyed with his companion.

The girl he was annoyed with did not like him very much either. Sen had no wish to spend listening to a spoilt brat talk about the merits of marble and glass in castles. "Of course I'll be your death," she replied, "in an actual fight! You'll probably throw your sword on the ground and surrender to whoever's fighting you. Or run home to your mother with tears in your eyes," she added impishly.

"Argh!" Tarron cried out in frustration. He didn't understand that girl. The ones he had met in the palace were demure, quiet and quite lovely. Everything this noisy, brash, tom-boy of a girl was not! "How very unladylike, your parents must have been so disappointed in you," he said sardonically. No reply came. Puzzled, he snuck a glance at her and immediately knew he went too far. Her eyes were downcast and her face was blank. An uncomfortable silence settled upon them. Guilty, he tried to apologize.

"Er.Sen? I--,"

"Stay sharp you guys," Hayate's voice came from in front of them. "Seems like there's company in front."

Tarron was looked up. They didn't really meet people on their journey, mainly because Hayate didn't want people to find out about his 'load' and had taken the most isolated path. Thus his surprise when he saw two riders on their horses standing beside the path.

"Greetings strangers!" one of them called out.

"Greetings!" Hayate called out, "Didn't think I would meet anyone here. You guys seem to be a bit far from the main road."

As Tarron neared them, he could make out their faces. It was an old man who spoke. He had no hair and his eyebrows were white. His eyes were brown and wrinkles covered his face. The old man wore a dirty, tattered dark red robe that was full of holes. He had a staff on his back. Next to him was a woman, garbed in a similar robe, but one that was not as old as the other. Her face had a hawkish look to it and long brown hair framed it. Her eyes were similarly brown and stared at the newcomers fiercely. "Aye," Tarron heard the old man say, "We sort of wandered off the main track and, well, we're waiting for companions. Are you heading for Jaren?" Before Hayate could reply, Tarron nodded. "Yes we are!"

Hayate gave Tarron an irritated look before continuing, "That we are. Would you care to join us? We are almost there, just a couple of days before Jaren."

The old man laughed, his eyes disappearing within his wrinkles. "Thought you would never ask! We would be delighted to join you!" he said. "My name is Charetus by the way, freelance entertainer and storyteller!" He gestured to the lady beside him, "And her name is Tara Haans, my student, though why would anyone want to be in my tutelage is beyond me." At this, he laughed again, his voice echoing in the air. Tara nodded at that.

"I'm Hayate, and these two are my charges, Tarron and Sen."

Charetus finished laughing and moved his horse close to Hayate's. "Then shall we get going? I am an old man and hope to reach there before I die." Another booming laugh followed as the party made their way to Jaren.

Far away from the five travelers, but getting closer with each passing minute, ran Raven's creatures. They had no cause to stop, never feeling hungry, never tired. They just had one goal, to track down their prey.and kill them. They paused for a moment. One of them sniffed the air, discerning the direction of their target. It found it. With a loud, frightening howl, the pack bounded away. They had their target and they looked forward to their kills.

The travelers journeyed for most of the day before stopping and making camp for the night. Their ride was hard, but not as tiring as before. This was all thanks to the acts and antics of Charetus. He told them stories, sang songs and got everybody to laugh at his witty poems and jokes. Even Hayate managed a chuckle. They moved the horses into the woods beside the paths and set up camp there. At the would-be campsite, Tara went silently to tie up the horses while the others moved to set up the camp area. Hayate inspected the area carefully before heading deeper into the woods to gather firewood. "I'll come too, if that's all right with you," Charetus said, looking at Hayate for approval.

"Fine by me," he said, "Hope you like chopping stuff up then," He continued on his way, the storyteller behind him.

The forest was quiet, the silence only broken by the twigs snapping beneath the two men's boots. Hayate gathered low, dry branches, breaking them off the trees they grew from. Charetus followed behind silently. Not a word passed between them. Finally, Hayate stopped and turned to face the old man.

"What are you doing here Charetus? It's been a long time since we last met, but I know there's a reason you're here," he asked in a cold voice.

Charetus met his gaze evenly, then smiled. "It has been a long time Hayate, glad to see you're looking well," he replied.

"Get to the point old man."

"Your temper seems to have worsened since before too."

"Things happened. I'm beginning to lose my patience Charetus," Hayate moved to walk away from him.

"You're being hunted," Charetus answered, "Somebody's after that boy."

"Tell me something I don't know."

Charetus spoke slowly now. "I think it may be one of the Endless."

Hayate was silent before giving a small chuckle, "One of the Endless huh? Thought they all died. Hoped they all died. Don't worry Charetus, I'll handle it."

"If there are Endless involved, it becomes more complicated. There's a war coming Hayate, a big one," Charetus said.

Hayate stopped for a moment, "Wars come and go. I've seen many in my time."

"Not this one. Valeria fell for a reason. Aston broke away for a reason. Somebody is playing a game here. The Four Kingdoms have fallen apart and there is nobody left to defend Antara," Charetus continued.

"Antara is not my concern."

"When the Kingdoms fall, the entire western part of Antara will be up for grabs! Anybody with a decent-sized army can rule there. Is that permissible? If there are Endless involved, all the more so don't you think?" Charetus exclaimed.

Hayate snapped off another branch and added it to the pile in his arms. "It's not my concern what happens to the world. This is not my fight. There has never been a fight which I believed in! So there will never be a fight!! And since when does your Order ever interfere? You guys just record everything bad that bloody happens in this Sevrn-pit!"

"The Order of Scribes do record everything that occurs in the world. But I will not stand by idly and watch the continent die! Something is wrong in this world and I intend to intervene. I need you Hayate! Now will you help me?" Charetus's voice rose as he said that part.

"No, I'm not going to help you. I do not care about this land, its soiled earth, and its soulless people. To hell with all that! This world is finished! Let its people battle it out!" Hayate answered coldly before proceeding in the direction of the campsite.

"Since when have you become so cold, so uncaring, Hayate?" Charetus's question, though uttered softly, resonated loudly behind Hayate.

Hayate turned around fiercely, his blue eyes hard and angry. "You wrote the books, monk! Why don't you read those books and tell me why!" he shouted before storming off towards the others. No more had he taken a couple of steps, before Charetus's soft voice came again.

"Not all deaths are made in vain Hayate."

Hayate paused and the woods were silent again. Then, with his back still turned towards the old man, he left the forest.

The others were sitting on the ground, unpacking the foodstuffs they had brought. Tarron was the first to notice Hayate return, with Charetus trailing after.

"You guys sure took your time," he said, "Let's get the fire going! I'm famished!"

Soon, a small decent fire was lit and Hayate began to roast the meat from their supplies. The mood suddenly became somber, nobody saying anything as evening turned to night. All that was audible was the crackling of the flames.

"Charetus, any stories or songs to tell us? It's boring just waiting here," Tarron asked, trying to get everybody's spirits up.

"Hmmm. I suppose I could tell you all a grand, epic story. Gather around lad, and lady of course," Charetus winked at Sen, "And I'll tell you the story of the Great War that happened more than six centuries ago." He cleared his throat as his listeners gathered around him. Then he took a deep breath, stared up into the sky, and began his tale.

"This war began six hundred years ago, up north where Irelasard is. In fact, the war involved the kingdom of Irelasard, and the other three, Valeria, Aston and Merisa. The Four Kingdoms banded together at Irelasard to fight a tremendous battle. For you see, Irelasard was and still is, next to the Sylisath Tower, or the "Tower to the Gods" as we call it now. The Four Kingdoms alliance had to force its way through hundreds of thousands of orks, death knights and other enemies in order to reach the tower. They had to stop the madman, Ramsus the Chosen, as he called himself, from ascending Godhood. He studied the black arts and with that new power, assembled for himself an incredible army. This dark army traveled from one end of Antara to the other, razing and pillaging every village and city it encountered. Ramsus's army swept across the land and ended up at the tower."

"Why that tower?" Tarron asked.

"That tower is one of the most ancient structures in the land. Legends say that one can talk to the gods there. It was Ramsus's plan to capture a god, to use the powers of that god to make him the ruler of the world. The Four Kingdoms united to prevent that from happening for if that ever occurred, the consequences would be inconceivable. But Ramsus's army was too strong, even the combined might of the kingdoms could not break through. Not all was lost however. A band of heroes aided the alliance and managed to enter the tower. There, a furious battle raged between the heroes and Ramsus, and there, finally, Ramsus was defeated and killed. Legends speak of a huge ball of light engulfing the tower and its surroundings, even the armies were covered in fiery light. Then, it was all over. Ramsus's army had suddenly disappeared and the battlefield was empty. The tower was safe and so was Antara. And that," Charetus ended, "was how the Great War ended."

"Who were the heroes in that battle? Were they that strong?" Sen asked.

"Oh, they were strong alright. One of them could slay a hundred soldiers easily. It was because of them that the alliance won. Their names are sung all over the lands by bards and storytellers like me. Well, not really their names, nobody knows that anymore, but their reputations preceded them still. The Sword Dancer, the Slayer, the Wanderer, the Swallow, the Grey Robe, the Seraphim and the Lady of Destiny. All the heroes that helped win the war. I suppose we have them to thank for this world we live in, all peaceful and such," with that, Charetus gave a snort of laughter. "Seems like our great leader has cooked us a meal, meager as it is. Shall we?"

They gathered around the campfire and had their evening meal. Charetus told a few stories and sang them some songs before the group departed for sleep. Hayate didn't say much that night, not that anybody minded. Hayate assigned watches for the night. "Just in case," he had said. Nobody argued for the night did seem to be quieter than usual. Tarron and Sen had the first watch.

The two of them sat next to each other in silence. Sen did not speak to Tarron at all. Even during the day, the girl refused to talk to him, opting for Charetus, Tara or even the somber Hayate. Now, among the crackles of the campfire, he struggled to fill the silence.

"Nice night huh?" he said loudly. He immediately cursed inwardly. 'Is that all you can say you fool?' he thought. He looked expectantly at Sen's face, glowing in the moonlight. There was no answer. Sen didn't even glance at him.

"Look, Sen, I erm."

"Did you love your brother?" Sen interrupted.

"Huh?" Tarron was caught off-guard by the question.

"I suppose you did. I loved my parents too. We lived in a village beside the woods. Not that bad a place. I was supposed to get married and live a good life, according to them. They died protecting me from slavers."

Silence reigned for a moment.

"I'm sorry," the prince apologized quietly, "I shouldn't have said those words. They hurt you and I didn't expect that. For that, I deeply apologize." He waited.

Sen turned to look at him, moonbeams framing her face. "Thank you," she said, "thank you. Coming from a prince, it is really an honour." Then she grinned impishly. "Besides," she added, "I wasn't angry. But it was fun to see you squirm about wondering what to do! You should have seen your face, all wrinkled with worry!"

"It was not! I wasn't worried at all!" Tarron objected. The two stared at each other for a moment, then laughed loudly as they realized how childish their conversation was. The laughter died down soon after and they started talking next to the campfire, which was where Hayate found them, sleeping the following morning.

The party of five packed up their things and continued their travels to Jaren. Sen and Tarron were teasing each other again, Charetus was laughing at them, saying something about the innocence of youth and Tara was as stone-faced as ever. Hayate was scanning the road in front of them warily, occasionally glancing at the road behind them.

"Jittery, Hayate?" Charetus asked as he moved his steed in close.

"Can't you feel it? Something's not right," Hayate said softly.

"Aye. I feel it. Would it be better if we traveled faster today?" the monk suggested.

Hayate nodded. "I was thinking the same thing. You watch the back and tell me if you see or feel anything. We have to hurry." He took his horse into a trot, shouting to the travelers behind him, "Try to keep up. Or you'll be left behind!" They were two days from Jaren.

The hunters could smell their prey. They were so close now! Soon, the blood of their victims would flow over their claws. Their thirst and hunger would be quenched and their master would be pleased. They were so close! The pack leader gave another chilling howl. The rest of the pack echoed it and bounded even faster. Soon.

The sun's rays beat mercilessly onto the weary travelers. Tarron stifled a yawn. They had been traveling non-stop for the past seven hours and he was getting rather tired, not to mention hungry. He called out to Sen. "Hey, are we stopping anytime soon?" he asked.

Sen shook her head. "Don't seem to be. I'm worried though. Something must have happened, we're pushing too hard," she replied.

Tarron stole a glance at Hayate's face. It was stern and watchful, as always. He sighed, and wondered if that man could ever be friendly. His gaze drifted onto the old man's apprentice. She too, spoke little. Tarron decided she was rather pretty. "If only a little friendlier," he mused aloud.

"Who's friendlier?" came a voice from beside him. It was the storyteller.

"Nothing, just thinking aloud," Tarron hastily replied.

"I see. Ah. youth, there is not a single day I do not wish to be young again," Charetus said.

"But you're old, and wise, and experienced!" objected the young king.

Charetus laughed. "Wisdom doesn't automatically come with age. I know so many foolish old men. No, it's better to have the joy of young life coursing through your veins!"

"But what would you do if you did?" Tarron asked.

"What would I do? Well, for starters, I would find me a pretty thi--" the man's voice cut off suddenly, eyes flashing behind him. "They're here," he whispered.

"Who's here?" asked the boy. Charetus did not answer. Instead, he rode his horse alongside Hayate's.

"Hayate! They're here!" he shouted.

"I know!" Hayate replied, "Stay here and lead the group. I'll drop back and stop them." With that, the man slowed his horse down until it was next to Tarron's.

"What's going on?" Tarron asked urgently.

"Just keep riding boy! Don't ask questions. Follow the old man's lead and ride as fast as you can! I'll catch up later!" Hayate hastily answered.

Howls from behind the riders caught both their attention. Hayate turned his head towards the sound and saw the creatures that made them.

"Hunters," he muttered.

Tarron followed Hayate's gaze and saw to his horror, several small. abominations of nature! They were creatures unlike any he had ever seen. And they were gaining on the party, fast.

"Tarron! Keep riding straight! I'll take care of them, so just keep on riding! Go!" Hayate swung his horse around and headed towards the monsters at full gallop. His blade slid out of its sheath and was held in his right hand. His eyes focused on the monsters as they neared him. When the first one was within six gyants on him, it lunged, claws ready to slice his head off. Hayate deftly slashed diagonally-downwards and split the Hunter's body into half. Its body disintegrated into ash before even touching the ground. The second creature lobbed right past him towards the other riders but the third headed straight the attacker. Before it could even jump, Hayate stabbed his sword through its face, killing it instantly. However, the force of the blow jarred the fighter and he fell off the horse onto the road. He got up quickly and faced the other Hunters. One of them ignored him and ran right past the warrior. Hayate swore and tried to attack it as it went by, but howls from the last two monsters forced him to face them instead. One bounded left and attacked him from that side. Hayate backed away, his neck inches from the creature's sharp claws. Then, he smoothly cut his weapon downwards, severing its right arm and slashed up, taking its head of its shoulders. The second Hunter howled in rage and lunged at him. Hayate rammed his sheath into its face and consequently thrust his sword into its body while it was stunned, pulling the sword up and through its face. He immediately turned and raced towards the remaining ones, knowing however, one simple fact: He would not make it!

Sen spotted two of the black shells go by Hayate. They were moving too fast for the horses to outrun. She had no choice. She quickly tugged the horse-reins, causing her pony to rear up and finally stop. She took out her quiver and notched an arrow to it. She pointed the arrow-head at the nearest approaching figure and with a battle-cry, let loose the arrow. The projectile struck the Hunter through its chest, lifting it up and over the ground. The dead creature turned into ashes. She hurriedly took aim at the second and fired. The monster sidestepped left at the last moment and the arrow smashed harmless onto the road. The final Hunter was only four gyants away now and Sen had no time to shoot another arrow. She fumbled for her dagger just as it jumped at her, claws reaching for her throat. Just then, a flying projectile knocked the Hunter off its attack and it went crashing to the ground.

"Begone creature of darkness! You do not belong here!" cried out Charetus as he rode his horse alongside Sen. He then angled his staff towards the fallen creature. "Now," he continued, "Begone!" A bright orange light gathered around the staff's tip and with a 'whoosh', a large fireball flew out of the staff and engulfed the Hunter, which disintegrated upon impact.

Sen stared at the old storyteller. She moved to ask what he had just did but Hayate appeared at that moment, sword unsheathed and ready.

"Took care of it Charetus? That was a surprised," he said, looking at the old man. Charetus grinned at the blue-eyed fighter. "Well, I'm not that old that I can't fight! And it's nothing fancy, really!" he said.

"Showoff," Hayate replied as he trudged down the road to look for his horse. The rest of the members were already returning and gathering around Sen and Charetus. The threat was over. They were almost there.

The sun was setting as a black stallion walked along the gravel road. Raven knew his prey was not far. It was only a day since he felt his Hunters die. Since then, he had ridden all day and had only just arrived at the area of the skirmish. He noticed a dark patch on the road in front of him. He motioned his horse nearer to it. The man's skin tingled at the faint traces of magic residue. There was a spell-caster in the group. "Very interesting," Raven said aloud. It would not be such a boring trip after all. The black-robed man drove his beast into a canter, straight towards the next town along the road - Jaren.