“Wait a minute. Before he went insane?”
Umarak the Hunter stared back at the tactician as if he himself had gone insane.
“Sadly, yes. And that is why I’m even discussing this with you. I overheard some of the things he told you in the holding cell, and I could immediately see some parallels between both of our situations. I’m kind of worried about him… No, I should rephrase that. I’m worried about what he can do. I’m worried about what he possibly plans to do.”
“Clearly, he’s building an army. And he forcibly enlisted us to be in it.”
“That much is clear. But why build an army? For what purpose would he want to have us here?”
“How are you even keeping this from him?”
Atheron sighed. “It’s not easy. Luckily for me, he granted me permission to have this library constructed with the main idea being that every piece of art and literature considered taboo or forbidden be taken and relocated here. Since he didn’t care about where I put it and since he never even sets foot in here, this is my safe haven. At least, for now.”
“What is he capable of? What did he do to me?”
“I wish I had an answer for you. I don’t know much about the full extent of his abilities. I only know that he is a master swordsman and that he has a set of mind powers that he can use however he pleases. You experienced excruciating pain while he spoke to you, did he not?”
Umarak nodded grimly.
“That is a taste of what he’s capable of. Although one thing I’m not sure is…”
“Is it him? Or is it that golden gauntlet he wears? Think about it. He raised that hand when he delivered his punishment to you. And I’ve seen him do similar things to past victims when he raised that hand.”
Atheron took the moment to go over to a particular bookshelf and take a book from it. He sat down across Umarak and started flipping through pages.
“And you have no clues to what he’s up to?” the hunter asked.
“It’s not easy,” the tactician explained. “Spying on him is nearly impossible now. I was barely outside his door when he called out for me to enter. I can’t help but fear that he somehow he is omniscient and aware of everything we might be saying or doing. In which case, I may have just doomed you, me, and my sister just by me telling you all this.”
At that moment, he stopped turning pages and took a breath, as if expecting Almatas himself to burst through the doors at that instant. A few moments passed and there was no sound.
“However…” the tactician said, breaking the silence. “Before he did become seemingly aware of everything going on around him, I overheard him talking one night.”
Atheron was almost hesitant to answer. He looked up to the hunter, a look of fear in his eyes.
“There was nobody there. He was alone in his quarters.”
Umarak’s eyes widened, on the verge of fear as well.
The tactician continued. “I was near his door when I heard him laughing. I got close to the door without making a sound. Luckily I have excellent hearing, so I was able to pick up on the conversation. Just to make sure, however, I knelt down to try and look under the door. For the duration I was there, I could only hear his voice and saw only him. Aside from me, hardly anyone else is allowed in his private quarters. While he was talking, he mentioned something about this object right here.”
Atheron pointed to an ink sketch in the book he grabbed earlier of an interesting-looking staff. Umarak looked at the page and then at the name that was written in bold lettering.
“The Staff of Artakha?”
Atheron nodded. “From what I’ve read about it, this is quite an incredible piece of craftsmanship. It has the capability to fix and create whatever the holder wishes for, so long as it is within the staff’s power. He claimed that he would have a power that would rival the Staff of Artakha, so given what I’ve read here and given the way he is… I fear he is mad enough to do whatever he can so that can be as powerful as an object named in honor of the Bringer of Order himself.”
Atheron looked up at the hunter.
“If he wants to rival it, he wouldn’t want to create. He would want to destroy. And where there is order, there is chaos.”
“Karzahni the Chaos Bringer… Of course! But there aren’t any objects associated with him.”
“Not yet. He could be planning something big. We just don’t know it for sure.”
“No, at this point it’s all merely speculation. But I feel we’re on the right path. For now, though, we must act ignorant of any of this, as to not bring attention or stir an outcry among those here. If you have anything at all you want to talk about, please seek me out here. As I’ve said, this is my sanctuary and hardly anyone else ever comes around here. When I’m surrounded by knowledge, I feel a sense of serenity and peace.”
“So then, what do you suggest we do now?”
“Oh, I nearly forgot. I was so wrapped up in our discussion I didn’t realize time had gone by so quickly.”
Atheron glanced over at Umarak, who was still wearing his battled-damaged armor.
“ Well, first off, we need to get you fitted for some new armor. Before that, however, I think I ought to take you by our armory and weapons cache.”
Umarak couldn’t help but be amazed at the large collection of weapons that were stowed away in a single chamber. As a former crafter of weapons, he couldn’t help but look over each one the two of them passed. Atheron told him he was free to take whichever weapons he so desired, as these weapons were merely stolen from fallen warriors or “donations” from various weapon cache missions.
As Atheron continued talking about the armory, Umarak went on ahead of him and set his eyes on a very large bow weapon. The hunter reached out for it and began to inspect it from many angles.
“I see you’ve taken a liking to that one. We acquired that one from a run in with the Skull Raiders. Are you sure you’d like that one?”
“I have a preference for ranged combat. Plus, I feel like I can make a few adjustments to this one to make it suit my needs.”
Atheron shrugged his shoulders. “Very well then. Like I said before, you’re free to take whatever you want from here.”
After taking up a blade and a long glaive, Umarak nodded to the tactician and confirmed he had seen all he wanted to for the time being. At that point, Atheron led the hunter through another corridor and into a room that had various pieces of armor on display.
“This one will be for you,” he said as he indicated a set of armor to the left of them.
Umarak walked over to inspect the armor closely. He looked down at himself at his damaged armor, which had already become dull, rusted, and old from many years of living as a fugitive on the run. He looked over to this new armor, which had a bit of a skeletal motif to it.
He then noted the colors and how they mimicked those of the Hunter’s mask perfectly, as if he and that mask were meant for this armor. Umarak also noticed some red curved spikes in the armor, as well as some other small red accents.
“Any particular reason for the red?”
Atheron simply shrugged. “I like the color red. Plus, it was actually our leader who ordered the specifications of the armor. Merith merely took your measurements and followed his directions as best as she could.”
“Your sister made this on her own?”
The tactician nodded. “Merith and I had own our set of responsibilities when he still had our own lives. Designing armor and clothing is a simple task for her.”
“I’m amazed she even got it to match my mask so well.”
“I heard Almatas refer to it as the Hunter’s mask,” the tactician said. “Tell me, is it as powerful as what my research states?”
“Not sure what your research say, but it gives me some control over the power of the shadows. There are some abilities it has that I’ve yet to try out, but in time I intend to make the most of them. Now then, what about yours?”
The hunter indicated the mask the tactician wore, which oddly enough had a very familiar shape to it.
“Curious, aren’t you? The Tactician’s mask, which ironically mimics the look of the so-called legendary Mask of Fire, is one of my greatest allies in battle. Being a tactician, you are responsible for making the right decisions at just the right time in whatever circumstances you and your army encounter.”
Atheron took a small pause before continuing.
“Such a task might prove to be stressful for those who can’t think quickly on their feet or consider very viable option when entering the field of battle. With this mask, however, that all becomes a lot easier. When I tap into the mask’s power, it allows me to see and think of many different strategies all at once so I’m able to quickly make good decisions to ensure victory and maximize our efforts.”
“Wouldn’t something like that be…?” Umarak said, somewhat astonished.
“For some, it can prove to be stressful in itself having to have a mask show you so many things all at once. I’ve trained myself in keeping my composure and my sanity, and so far nothing has happened to take me out of commission.”
“And you said earlier there are two of those masks known to exist?”
“Ah, yes, how astute of you to remember,” the tactician said, pleased at the hunter’s listening skills. “Indeed there are. I’ve never seen the other mask for myself. However, my father told me long ago about it, and likewise I have done some research on it as well. While I don’t know where the other mask is or who owns it at this point, I do know that if I were to cross paths with that mask and anyone possibly wearing it, it would prove to be rather challenging, to say the least. I would consider that user to be my biggest threat and rival.”
Atheron walked over to the doorway and indicated Umarak to follow.
“I’ll go ahead and show you to your quarters. Starting tomorrow, you are going to be a promoted knight, as ordered by Almatas.”
“And that means…?”
“You will be ranked more or less in the same class as me and a few of our other members. This means Almatas will be more likely to assign you on missions that are of the utmost importance. I did however request that I would have a hand in observing you and possibly training you as needed. He agreed to it and said that I will be your mentor, but only whenever you need me.”
“I’ve held my own against all odds before.”
“I’m very sure you have. Although, I still would like to observe your fighting style and get to know you more. Plus, if you are at least assigned with me, I feel things will turn out better given our new alliance.”
Umarak nodded. “Very well. However, I’ve typically worked alone.”
“Which is fine and I know you’ve been used to being on the run by yourself for so long. However, now that you’re with us, things are going to change. I only wish to help ease you along so Almatas can fully trust you and at the very least, we can report back to each other if either of us learns anything else about him.”
Without saying another word, Atheron led Umarak to a small room with a bed in the corner and some various shelves and racks for weapons and belongings. Umarak set down his new weapons and then made his way over to the bed. Before Atheron left the room, he turned back to face Umarak once more time.
“Rest up for tomorrow. Whenever you’re ready, you and I are going to have our own little ‘training session,’ so I can get to know you and your abilities more.”
“All right. See you tomorrow… ‘Master.’”
With that, the ebon and emerald figure that was Atheron vanished from sight once the door was closed. Umarak began to lie down on the bed and slowly close his eyes.
What have I been dragged into? This whole thing sound so suspicious. Whoever this Almatas is, I need to keep my eyes on him, unless I want to end up like that Trinuma I heard so much about…
As the tactician walked through the corridor to his own quarters, he could hear footsteps coming from behind him. He knew whose footsteps those were and he turned around.
“Ah, you’re still as sharp as ever,” Norenka cooed as she made her way over to him. She held out her arms and embraced him once she was close enough.
“How’ve things been with you?” Atheron asked.
Norenka released him and gave him a warm smile. “Not really much to go on. I spent a good part of my day training with my new protégé of a knight.”
“Ah, yes, I heard about him,” he replied. “How was it?”
Norenka’s smile was replaced with a look of concern. “He seems to be intimidated by me. I was hoping to see him at his full potential, but the whole time he was holding back.”
“You know,” Atheron began, “I seem to remember someone just like that. She was so happy when she became a knight with her new important rank and so eager to show what she was made of. Then she met her mentor and remembered how important he was and she felt so nervous about making a good impression on him because he was so amazing. Does that remind you of anyone?”
Norenka playfully shoved Atheron away.
“You stop that!” she replied, clearly embarrassed. “I was so young and inexperienced at the time.”
“Which proves my point,” Atheron declared. “He is young. He will learn. Were you really that much different back then compared to how he is right now? Zartross told me a lot about how your sessions went and how you improved over time… once you stopped being so nervous around him. Give the young one a chance, and he might just surprise you.”
Atheron then hugged her tightly, surprising Norenka greatly.
“Stop being so hard on yourself and him, all right?”
When he let go, Norenka tried her best to hide her blushing face.
“This is new for the both of you,” he continued. “Just remember that you two are a team. You are in this together. In time, he will learn. In turn, you need to remain confident for both his sake and for yours.”
“Th-thank you…” Norenka said. “I, um…”
Norenka seemed to be hesitant with her next words.
“I… thank you for the advice. I’m really glad to have you always there for me… as a friend, of course.”
“Any time, Norenka. If you ever need me, you know just where to find me.”
With that, the tactician continued on his way, not aware that Norenka was still looking over at him until he vanished in the distance.
Norenka then began to go down another corridor to her private quarters, her thoughts racing in her head as she did so.
I almost don’t know what I’d do without him. He was the first one I ever spoke to when I first got here. He was my first friend. He’s helped me along so much and he’s always been there for me. I really am so grateful for him. Ugh, but why did he have to remind me of how I used to be?? So embarrassing…
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