Change is a constant, especially with time – dictated by the conditions of your experience. What about stress, or the existence of threats in the environment as free as the air itself? But things did change, and the winds blew differently, just a little. Within the embrace of safety and comfort, Gale bathed in sunlight and fresh air, relieved of the lingering stench of blood and decay.
At a distance, Gale noticed a familiar road, one that led to a signboard. He smiled as he stood at the entrance of where it all began, Basaraa Village. Everything around him, he remembered – from the people to the houses, and even the path to the Elder’s area of residence. He entered the house and sat by the same ordinary table. Elder Gram arrived a little later, happy to greet the boy.
“We are so relieved to find you here, and in one piece, even,” said Gram, smiling as she did. “If I recall correctly, we last met a little under a year ago.”
“It’s good to see you as well, Elder Gram,” said Gale, with a slight nod. “And yes, we are a few days away from when I first arrived a year ago.”
“I was glad to hear of your good health when Kaela returned,” said Gram. “News of our expeditioners’ wellbeing mid-exploration is always helpful. Then again, you’re no ordinary expeditioner.”
“Well, I’m glad to have been of service to your village and its people,” said Gale. “I also gained a lot from my time in Basaraa Forest; it was a mutually beneficial experience.”
“You do deserve your promised award,” said Gram. “But before that, we’ll need some proof. I believe you remember the conditions, as was agreed upon.”
Gale unveiled a small pouch and placed it atop the table. He extracted the item within right after – a horn of immense and strange magical power. Gale observed the Village Elder inspect the item with a puzzled look on her face; after the appraisal, she placed the horn atop the table once more. Gram retrieved her pouch and then nodded, acknowledging the completion of her quest.
“Its qualitative value far exceeds my imagination,” said Gram, surprised still. “This should prove to be quite useful to us. I’m sure you’ll find good use for yours as well.”
“Your description of the Hearth King was fairly accurate; a powerful foe, an oddity within the World of Transition,” said Gale, with a grim expression on his face. “But as unfortunate as it sounds, I must confess that this variant of the Hearth King possessed no more than one horn.”
Gram frowned at the revelation; she required the horn for the people of her village but also recalled the weight of her promise to the boy.
“You need not worry though,” said Gale, reassuringly. “Yes, the horn was part of the overall reward; it’s what makes this whole ordeal unfortunate – for me. You may keep the item and do with it as you please.”
“Thank you, child,” said Gram. “You are most kind.”
“But I do expect some compensation,” said Gale. “I did almost lose my life within the Hearth King’s domain, after all.”
“What did you have in mind?”
Gale paused to consider his response. It was a gamble woven through a lie, obscured by his association with the Perytons. But Elder Gram did not need to know that. Gale scratched his chin, thankful of the blessing that bound him to unfeeling tranquillity.
“The Basaraa Region is governed by this village and its Elder, if I’m not mistaken,” said Gale. “Would you have the authority to grant me a piece of land here?”
“In the village?” asked Gram, curiously.
“No, not in the village,” said Gale, emphasising each word as he did. “I would require land inside the forest.”
“Interesting,” said Gram, with a smile on her face. “Young and of a shrewd mind; am I still allowed to call you a child?”
“You may,” said Gale, without thought. “But I do beg of you to answer my question.”
“I do have the authority, yes,” said Gram. “But there is another matter to consider; I seek to understand your motivation here.”
“It is the Hearth King’s stronghold, if you must know,” said Gale. “Kaela should be able to describe it more appropriately.”
“And your motivation?” repeated Gram.
“Nothing more than an earnest desire towards information and knowledge,” said Gale. “I believe there is much to be uncovered inside Basaraa Forest.”
“You are equipped to handle the creatures lurking in there,” admitted Gram, with a sigh. “Very well, I grant you the Hearth King’s stronghold as an alternative to the promised item from the quest.”
“And I accept,” said Gale, bowing respectfully. “I am very grateful for your acceptance of my selfish request.”
Elder Gram ceased conversation and burst into laughter instead; it entertained her – her interaction with the boy. She retrieved both items from the table and replaced it with something covered in cloth. She untied the knot at the centre to reveal what appeared to be gold plates, ten in total. Gram spread the plates out for a count and then rearranged them into the cloth once more.
“This is the rest of the reward, twice the posted amount, as promised,” said Gram. “Are you familiar with the usage of our currency?”
“An explanation would be helpful,” said Gale.
“A plate is worth a thousand coins within its value spectrum,” explained Gram. “One gold plate would equal a thousand gold coins, just as a silver plate would a thousand silver coins. Likewise, a gold coin is worth a hundred silver coins, or ten thousand copper coins. This is a lot of money, so do be careful with how you manage it.”
“Thank you for your guidance,” said Gale, genuinely. “Is there anything else for us to discuss? I was asked to return to Suntaria after the completion of my quest here.”
“No, there is nothing else for us to discuss,” said Gram. “But I will require the coordinates to your stronghold; Village Elders are required to notify the kingdom’s bookkeepers for matters concerning property or land.”
Terra Fortress marked the map as a vile existence, grim and dark – a place amidst Wraith Woods, abandoned by the grace of life. The black soil often crippled the growth of regular foliage, and the animals inside resembled those of a kind better forgotten or ignored. Not many dared to venture in, and among those, fewer still ranked as exceptions above the extraordinary; at the entrance stood two such visitors.
They walked through the trees, identifying a path within layers of dirt and debris. The crows cawed uncomfortably, while the owls shifted with unease. At Terra Fortress, the atmosphere changed, almost as if weakened by the presence of its visitors. From within, the doors opened, pushed into place by the Relictan soldiers on duty. Once inside, a female Relictan, differently dressed from the soldiers, greeted the keep’s guests.
“Our lords have already gathered,” she said. “Shall we head upstairs right away?”
A little later, the visitors found themselves occupying two of three vacant chairs around a roundtable. Among the two, one leaned ahead, eager to begin discussion.
“Noah, Rahu, and Ulric, even,” he said. “Your value to us is diminishing by the day, Caesar. I hold you in high regard, I do. But your actions, they bother me.”
“Ours is an alliance, Lord Escanor,” said Caesar, respectfully. “I do not recall bending the knee to your kind.”
“Careful, Caesar,” said Escanor, cold in his demeanour. “We don’t need you as much as you need us. But if you go through with the awakening, I’m afraid that I will have to withdraw Noxun support.”
“I hope you reconsider,” said Caesar. “We cannot stop the awakening now; it is due in four days’ time.”
A dark, toxic aura broke into existence behind Escanor. It held onto emotions of violence and hatred, taking shape a little at a time. A similar presence sunk into the room at a different corner, and then more, sickeningly fierce. It finished with the body of an armoured giant, melded with decay and an aura of death. They unsheathed their weapons on command and growled, trembling with the greed for blood and combat.
“Your display is unnecessary, My Lord,” said Caesar, with a sigh. “I do this to hasten our victory. The Godvildian pieces, I’m afraid their combat potential still outstrips our own.”
“You could have consulted, dear friend,” said Escanor. “I’ve interacted with him before. He’s volatile, someone to fear. And as much as I hate to admit it, I do fear him.”
“It was a calculated risk,” explained Caesar. “There are countermeasures in place, especially if he doesn’t join us of his own volition.”
“Well, I do hold you in high regard,” said Escanor, retreating from his stance. “But I’ll have to withdraw Noxun support, temporarily at least. The nobles are restless given your decisions; this is the simplest way for us to ease their concerns.”
“I heard that the Pillars visited some of your representatives,” said Caesar. “And that you’ve denied association with us.”
“Optics,” said Escanor, stepping away from his seat. “It’s true that ours is an alliance, Caesar. But do not forget that the Godvildian couldn’t care less about your kind. We could invade, plunder, or even destroy everything you stand for should we choose. And the Godvildian, they won’t protect you. That’s what the treaty was for, the one you so conveniently tore apart.”
“We need you more than you need us,” repeated Caesar, with a nervous smile. “I hope it doesn’t come to that, Lord Escanor. But should it occur, do be careful. Regret, it’s rather unpleasant.”
“If you manage to subjugate him, I’ll be more than happy to restore this alliance,” said Escanor, laughing aloud. “I’m willing to observe for now; it might work in our favour, maybe eventually.”
“Thank you for your generosity,” said Caesar, mildly irritated. “I will reach out to you in four days then.”
“Yes,” said Escanor, fading away – along with his comrade – in plain sight. “And Caesar, feel free to hold onto my summoned giants. They’re quite strong; think of them as, let’s say, a parting gift.”
Once alone, Caesar whispered but a single word to describe his interaction with the Noxun Grandmaster – a product of his frustration, “Loathsome.”