By Alpha Gardain
Agni. A little collection of houses surrounded by wilderness. Population: small, but well-acquainted. Close enough to cities to maintain trade and have a few guards on patrol. Far enough to subsist on the mystery lent by relative isolation and legitimize the struggle and fulfillment of making a living with your two hands. There is even a pair of brave men — former soldiers, one with a sword and one with magic — who are legends and still live in their midst. Not many places have such luxuries.
To be sure, the work is hard and the money (she hears) could be better. But the land is untamed and beautiful. Here on the cliffs, the houses are near enough to the sky to taste it, the air always fresh and heavy with forest scents, the view better than any painting hanging inside the inn. The plains and hills offer the biggest playground of all time, sprawling for as far as the eye can see before tapering off into rocks and dropping down sheer and breathless on the mountainside. Other kids aren't lucky enough to have so much space.
When your father isn't watching you as well as on other days, you, and sometimes your sister when she is polite, run off to the ruins to explore. After a certain radius is passed and escape is ensured, you unleash yourselves upon the grassy plains, wild and untethered as the hawks that wheel upwards. For as long as time allows you pretend there are monsters living under stumps, and that the fallen towers and piles of rocks are your kingdoms, the old rags you steal from your kitchen your flags. Here, the adventures you read of and dream of going on become real. Here, the world is yours.
Today is one of those days for the taking. Or it would've been if, your father hadn't caught you in the act of sneaking out and promptly hauled you back to the house by the collar. With harsh words and promises of a "good, long talk" about it later, you are condemned to farm work and no playtime for the next week for not heeding warnings about bandits and Vaconic beasts Your sister taunts you for being stupid, easily ignored for how frequent her claim has been of late.
You work until your arms hurt from tilling, but your father — a sturdy man with thick hair and hard eyes — has no sympathy for your plight. He tells you, as always, that everyone must work hard to live and that you should stop complaining. You gain a little satisfaction in seeing that he puts your sister to work too, and scolds her just as badly for complaining.
Afternoon slowly bleeds into the evening, and the first chilly wind of the night comes early. The whole day you have worked, but all the while managing to look longingly at the plains. Work aside, it's been rather quiet today. Almost preternaturally so. The cold wind only heightens your senses, making you acutely aware of the far-off howling of the wind and the emptiness of the space separating you from civilization.
As you lean your tools against the edge of the house, a wayward crow cries out three times. You muse that according to the barkeep at the inn, crows are bad omens. It's not something you've ever really taken to heart. If the day had been done and the had gone to sleep you might've laughed it off. But there is sunlight burning yet, and the day sees fit to provide you with more troubles because at that moment you hear a low roar rise up from the mountains in the distance.
You freeze. You are no stranger to the peculiar noises the land produces because of echoes and something the wizard calls "geography". You try to chalk it up to that. But rumors of large roaming Vaconic beasts have been spreading, reaching further even than your little patch of home. This isn't the first time you've heard such a noise looming from the mountain range. Far be it from your to understand the calls, but they hold nothing friendly, the low wailing full of patient malice, heralding a destruction that is rarely estimated accurately until every house around it burns. Or so you've heard.
Your throat parches and you swallow hard as it sounds off further away. Zebar, Mira, Divines, please take it far away...
The flapping of something large sweeps over from behind, and you look up just in time to see a massive shadow turn and blot out a space in the sunset. Your heart stands still as everything goes quiet, even the wind, and you open your mouth to scream. Nothing comes out, for your breath has left you. Your neighbor accomplishes what you could not, his voice hysterical with fear.
The things roars, and the whole of Agni bursts into activity. You, however, remain unmoved, as if you had legs made of ice. The beasts sweeps over again, this time so close that you swear you can feel the heat of its belly. It burns a trail of fire through the middle of the homestead, and a house catches the flame. It's occupants trip and fall as they run out screaming, brandishing their weapons in defense after recovering from the panic. You watch as a few travelers and guards scramble out of the inn to squint up dumbly at the powerful creature wreaking havoc. You watch your father shout at a guard to put out the fire before he turns in your direction and starts shouting for you to get out of the way. But where can you go, you think to yourself? Where would you be safe from something so overwhelming?
Everything seems to happen in slow motion after this. Your sister has a streak of soot down her face, eyes large and fearful for what seems to be the first time in her life. Your father begins to jog toward you, his mouth drawn back in an angry and frantic snarl as he barks something at you. In the middle of his words, his anger melts away to reveal terror, and he breaks into a sprint. His mouth opens in a shout followed by your name as the ground behind you resounds with a gigantic thud. A shiver crawls up your spine, each hair you have standing on end. ...You are most undoubtedly in bigger trouble than all the farm work could ever make up for.
You turn around slowly. Two great eyes staring unblinkingly at you with concentration, as if you'd done some unspeakable wrong, as if existence itself was a crime. You may as well lay down and die as penance for all its worth.
It opens its mouth to take in a breath, and already the heat makes your face feel like it'll burn off. It reminds you off whenever you'd look into the stone oven to see if bread or clay pots were done baking. The creature seems to speak something. The heat grows stronger. Tears begin to pour out of your eyes. You think of the cities miles away that you will never get to see. You think your little kingdom of broken towers. You think of the houses burning, and of the people who couldn't escape the flame. And you. There is the wizard, and the innkeeper maybe, who know you well enough to remember you fondly. But no one else, not even those whom you call family, will see fit to carry you in memory past a few weeks. You will leave this world without having made a single dream come true. One choked sob, and you close your eyes.
The next thing you know, the breath is knocked out of you and you feel the grass, still cold, pressed against your head. Above you the fire streams by as if never-ending. Above you is a figure hunched over your paralyzed body in defense.
The moment the fire ends the figure leaps up, axe drawn, and digs its foot deep into the dirt as it turns right around to face the creature. The beast roars, this time with something like rage, and the figure retorts with a battle cry and a blow straight to the beasts face.
Your chest heaves and your heart throws itself against your ribcage, but you cannot move. You can only watch as the beast and mortal grapple for dominance over the ground they stand upon. The beast takes off to acquire an advantage over its attacker. The mortal, seeming to anticipate, draws a bow smoothly from its back and in one swift motion lets an arrow fly.
You continue to watch this powerful thing loosen arrows into the open air, and you try to figure out who this is. The night is falling, so the coming darkness blots out the face of your savior. The person is dressed bulky, so you cannot tell if they are man or woman. But it is plain to see that this isn't the first time they've faced a beast. There is boldness and even arrogance in each step, every movement seeming to read where to strike to inflict the most damage.
The collective rumors of past months come back to you. There were once groups of people who could fight beats. They had died, but stories of such people have found their way to the people of Val a.
...No, stories of just one person actually.
It's the one born of the legends. The saver of villagers, the heartless killer from the shadows, the destroyer of nations, the one who will decide the fate of Vala in this age.
Everything is a blur. Gardain fights and fights until the beasts falls limply, the insignificant foe at the feet of the proud victor. You watch as a flood of light like the auroras envelopes Gardain with a rush of sacred wind. And then, all is still again, the sunset almost gone and the stars already peeking out from behind the red-stained clouds. Could it be that this battle has only taken less than an hour? Surely not. Surely an age has passed since you last sat up.
The light from the beast disappears, leaving behind only bones and the stench of smoke. You expect Gardain to have words with your father, who is standing nearby with his sword still drawn. To your surprise, Gardain strides right up to you. To your equal surprise, Cards in picks you up off the ground by your collar, whispering harshly.
"Next time you are in such danger, move your own two legs lest you be killed and cause others to be killed for your hesitation."
You drop back onto the ground because you are unable to stand on shaky legs. Your father suddenly appears beside you, his grip on your shoulders strong as he turns you and demands to know if you are alright, enraged panic and adrenaline still screaming in his veins. You pay little attention, your eyes still on Gardain as the fighter exchanges words with the steward of the homestead.
Just as Gardain turns back around, you faint.
When your eyes open next, there a quiet chirping of birds, a tired morning of grey clouds yawning outside your window. Nearby the fire crackles, your father sitting in his chair before it, looking very tired. There is a bandage across your left hand and a horrible aching in your right shoulder, but you appear to be intact. In the time it takes you to observe the bandage and the ache, your father comes over and kneels beside you. You ask him what happened. With uncharacteristic care, he draws the sheets further up to you and explains that you'd fainted. You ask about Gardain. He frowns at the name of the fighter, but continues on, saying that your savior has gone over the plains and into the heart of the mountain range, most likely to chase down another beast to kill.
The news makes your eyes well up with fresh tears. The one who'd saved your life, saved the lives of the others, restored the peace of your homestead, is gone. You aren't very sure what you would've done if Gardain had still been here, but you would've started with "thank you". Or, at the very least, reassured Gardain that you weren't an idiot.
You recover quickly, though you are significantly quieter for the next two weeks. You shun the outside, even in the land next to the homestead. You are unable to look up at the sky without some measure of timidity. Your sister teases you about it, as if she had not held fear in her eyes. Your father bears your talk of the fighter with his usual strained patience, telling you one day that while it's good to have the life of his daughter preserved and that he is grateful to their hero, he doesn't want to hear the name Gardain again. No use lingering on the past when there was work to be done in the future.
You wonder at this; the willingness to forget the beast and its defeater, the anxiety that pervades over the homestead whenever news is brought from other places, and how quickly people seem to fall back into the old routine. You can't understand how people can go on as if nothing happened when you are so changed. Didn't they feel the same?
It takes only a day's reflection to resolve the matter. As you sit watching the sunset, heart pounding at every misshapen cloud, songs from the inn muffled and accompanied by drinks, the conclusion crawls into existence. People don't like change. Not when there has only been complacency. Agni's worst trouble is the yearly frost of winter.
Not even the most complacent places can hide you from what affects the world. Suddenly the homestead feels too small, too shut in.
You had dreamt idly of the day you'd see the world beyond the edge of the plains, beyond the road the merchant walks down whenever he goes off with his wares. A pretty thing, like a flower in your hands, admired but never taken seriously or hoped for strongly. But with this you are resolved. You want to see the stones and bricks of the cities, see what made that beasts, see what made that being with a harsh voice who'd warned you against inaction.
This you swear as you stare up at the clouds defiantly. You will no longer be foolish. You will no longer be afraid. You will no longer be ignorant by your own choice. One day, you will leave to go and learn all. And you will not look back.