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Chapter 1: The Priest’s Of The Aria
~ 865 RE ~
~ Southern Kingdom, Sacred Grounds Of The Aria ~
Hundreds of feet of crimson orange moss cover the ground. The thick glade was punctuated by the occasional patch of grass or twisted tree. Birdsongs and insect chatter ring from the forest surrounding the open meadow. Under the shade of a tangled tree, among the tall grass, one could easily overlook a band of neros hunters.
As the pack moved over the fields, low to the ground, it was suddenly stopped by the raising of Lymric’s hand. Within arms reach of her father, Belairus gazed over the open grounds. As her father whispered in the most silent of voices, she followed his gaze pointing her vulpine ears towards him. “What do you see, Belairus?”
After softly brushing her hands over the reeds that concealed her, the reeds bent to reveal a two-legged creature standing alone several yards away snapping its tail. Belairus noted that it was covered with deer fur and resembled an animal with a body like a rhino. Its mouse-like nose sniffed the orange fungus while its two large avian talons bit deep into the soil. The long horns on its head resembled a crown Belairus thought. “This is an Elken,” she replied, recalling their description from tales told about them in the village. As the field beast studies the surroundings, it lets out a small groan. Taking a foot off the ground, the creature bends over and sniffs at the moss again.
A freshly-faced neros moves up behind Lymric and whispers, “See those horns. Their length is impressive. It’s an old, powerful one. It’s swift yet delicious. Lymric, your hunt is worthy of the young princess.” His face is adorned with elaborate designs and swirls around his right eye.
“Uncle Asgar is right father… don’t you agree?” Belairus said feeling the firm grip of Asgar pat upon her shoulder. Lymric looked over to see his brother’s pearly whites grinning from ear to ear.
Lymric bent forward toward Belairus’s ear. “This one will run away if you make a noise. You must be,” Lymric paused for emphasis before he said “silent, slow, deliberate.” He pointed his claw at the throat of the animal. “It will run, but if you get a good poke at it, it will fall.”
A purr of excitement erupted from Belairus. As she stepped out from the cover of foliage, she quieted herself. With her hands inches from dragging as she crawled almost on all fours, she got closer as the creature tapped the ground with its long thin tail.
Lymric whispered to Asgar “Let’s see your worth brother.” Asgar smirked, knowing he taught her well.
Without warning, the elken raised its head, standing straight, its eyes widening with fear in place of its once relaxed stare. Without moving a muscle, Belairus froze, knowing if she moved, she would scare off her prey. Her heart pounded when the creature turned its head toward her. There was a chill in the air as suspicious eyes watched her. They were attentive and careful, intent on finding any predators. She froze, unable to breathe. Watching silently, the pack anticipated her next move.
As if by magic, the sigil of victory appeared. The elken lowered his head. Her ruse had succeeded, she thought. As it poked its tongue out of its mouth, it picked up a thick layer of slimy moss before returning to its mouth. With careful steps, Belairus sunk her foot into the slimy moss, leaving behind a splotch. She looked to see that her foot was buried ankle-deep in the fungus. While lifting her foot, the anklet on her leg slipped off. Aware of the sudden loss of something, she looked to the ground, but she immediately lost her footing in the slimy muck. Stumbling forward, her other foot came crashing down onto solid ground. The sound was loud causing the color to drain from her. Her head jerked up immediately. To her dismay, the elken was looking right at her, its eye growing larger like ink spreading through water.
Now was the time for her to act. She leapt from the ground and charged at the elken. Attempting to lance the thing, she braced her spear against her side. Whirling its tail, it whips up dust on Beliarus with a loud crack, slapping her across the face. Trying to catch herself, she landed on her bottom, watching the beast run swiftly into the thick wood. Raising her hand, she felt a stinging on her cheek. The air is damp with the smell of iron. As she lowers her fingers, she notices that her finger tips have turned red. As she looked back at the group, who have now emerged from their cover, she let out a heavy sigh.
“It will take time, but you will be a skilled hunter.” A tall, muscular woman said, lifting Belairus to her feet. “I am surprised you got that close.”
Belairus glanced at the others and pouted. “But it got away.”
A hearty laugh erupts from Asgar. “Narin is right little flower. If no one ever got away, we would be too fat to hunt, and the forest would be empty.” He grins widely adding, “Even the mighty Asgar has lost many a hunt. You better smile, not pout, it happens to the best of us.”
Belairus sulked after snatching rabbits, foxes, and other small game. Her mind was consumed with her lost catch, and she embarrassed herself in front of her tribe. While rummaging through a bush later in the day her eyes caught sight of the hairy hide of creature. The opportunity presented itself for her to impress. She approached fiercely, clutching her spear tightly around its leather wrap. With a few careful strides, she identified a boar just as it turned its head to face Belairus, lowering its tusks with a snort. Without time to call the others, she froze.
Belairus’s eyes widened as he heard the boar snarl, diving from the grass. She appeared to be dwarfed by the beast in her own eyes, as if it were an enormous creature. As she evaded the beast’s charge to the side, she raked her claws across its thick flesh, leaving a nasty gash.
“Belairus!” Narin shouted, the first to witness the fight. At the rear of the group, Asgar charged out of the brush as the boar turned swiftly back to Belairus. Once more, the hog tried to impale her with its elephantine tusks. The boar didn’t have time to turn before he met the sharp end of Belairus’s spear between the eyes. Her weight helped push the spear deeper as it reared, sending Belairus flying higher and higher. After jumping off the polearm, she landed on the boar’s back with her claws, stabbing it in the neck. Squealing in pain, the boar kicked hard, knocking Belairus off of its back. She slid down onto all fours after rolling around several times on the dusty soil. In front of the beast, she narrowed her eyes as it dragged its hoof to the ground.
Lymric raised his hand to signal Asgar to stop and whistled. Asgar stared at Lymric with narrowed eyes, his fingers moving across the shaft of his spear in readiness to attack. When Lymric closed his hand, he shook his head in disbelief. With his eyes focusing on his niece, Asgar sighed, wishing that she were winning the fight against the wild boar. Although the beast rushed Belairus, she managed to grab hold of the spear still stuck in its face. Her hands slipped back onto the shaft and turned along with its gate as she redrew the spear from the boar’s skull. As the wound is opened, blood leaked out of the boar’s face. The animal screamed in anger as it made another attack on her. After sidestepping the boar again, she attacked it with her spear, slamming it into the boar’s spine knocking it to the ground as it passed her. As her rage flared, she jabbed the spear into the boar several times, ensuring it was indeed dead. A sense of pride welled up within Belairus as she looked upon her bloodied kill. Her father, whose face is covered by a huge smile, looks up at her with similar delight.
“Who would have thought that my flower would become a fearsome beast-slayer?” Asgar said with a voice that was thick with emotion.
“She is absolutely your daughter,” Narin replied. Her body is propped up against the spear, which is stabbed into the ground.
Asgar chuckled. “Smile.” Belairus obliged with the biggest toothy grin she could muster. “Good, that girl of your’s brother, she won’t be bested by any of us, will she?” he exclaims as he inspects the creature she had downed all by herself. “Oh look at it. A bearded boar. Rare to find one of these… if you aren’t looking for it.”
Lymric walked over to Belairus and grabbed her under her arms, lifting her up. She clung to his side. “Your first hunt is a bearded boar. You make your father proud”, he said tickling her belly, causing her to giggle.
Barieve, another warrior that guarded the group, grinned before he said “Fantastic.” He then audibly licked his lips. “I can hardly wait to dig in.”
Asgar lifted up the dead boar behind his back and nodded his head in agreement. “This is a noble hunt Belairus. Lumaria smiles upon you. The boar is a stronger creature than a girl. The hunt will be told in stories.” Belairus’s toothy grin beamed with joy.
On a log covered in dense moss, Belairus sat alongside her father. Over a small fire, a couple of wooden branches are used as spits to roast the boar. Barrieve stood above the group, on a tree branch looking out over the distant woods for any sign of danger. In the meantime, Asgar spun the spit gently roasting the meal as Narin relaxed on a flat rock, sunning herself. Asgar intently watching the fires. The smell of the meat cooking made the young neros mouth water. Then, Asgar turned his attention to her. “Belairus, do you know what Barieve is looking for?”
Belairus shook her head. “We’re in the land of a winged god.” Her eyes lit up. He said, “Yes, my girl, a winged god.”
“Are these the same winged gods we praise at the wisdom tree?” Belairus inquired.
“This one lives here in our world. The others fled long ago to the land of the wisdom tree.” Lymric said calmly, rubbing her head. “The winged goddess is called Visaraliel, and she is the queen of the forests. I have never met her, but Barieve has.”
Barieve glanced at Lymric with a sly grin. “And I wish not to again.”
Belairus stared up at Barieve in astonishment. “You met a winged god!” she exclaimed. “What was she like? I mean what did she look like?”
His eyes slowly pan down at Belairus for a moment, Barrieve turned his attention back toward the distant horizon. “Her body resembles the body of a feathered viper, and her horns are like those of a ram. Her wings are so large they block out everything but fold tightly on her back. Like a mastodon, she had massive arms and legs. Seeing her tree-like tail, I was terrified. She told me to leave, and I did.”
“What happened to the winged gods?” Belairus asked.
“They left. Nobody knows why they left. They just left.” Asgar said. “When the world ends, the priests say they will return to battle with the gods of the sky.”
As Beliarus watched the boar cook staring deeply into the burning embers, she said under her breath, “When the world ends…”.
There were no birdsongs to be heard among the timbers. Narin sniffed the air, her eyes widening with anger. Belairus sniffed too, smelling an odd smell in the air. She glanced at her father who had also noticed the strange scent. She heard Asgar whisper, “I know that salty smell. It’s a human.” Asgar, Barieve, and Narin lower their ears, and their tail fur bushes out, claws extending out of their fingers, and their pupils grow into thin slits. “They’ll die.”
“Not unless I command it.” Lymric snarled at Asgar. They followed the scent and saw a earless person dressed in a strange dirty jerkin vest. His bulging eyes and trembling body suggest to Belarius that he was in a panic as he stumbles through the brush. Lyrmic placed his palm on Belairus’s head “This is a worthwhile test. Belairus, what shall we do with this human?”
“Is this truly a human? He doesn’t seem so scary or strong, does he?” she asked curiously. “Shouldn’t we see what he is up to before we do anything?”
Asgar wrinkled his nose. “And dishonor our lands? Not I.” Asgar gripped his spear walking toward the man. Lymric placed his hand on Asgar’s shoulder holding him in place. “And why not?”
Lymric bared his fangs at Asgar. “She must learn how to lead. I am curious to see how she would handle this.”
“By the Lumaria, I think you are making a big mistake listening to little flower.” Asgar groaned.
Belairus said, “Father,” placing her hand on his chest at which he lowers his fangs. Then she turned to face Asgar directly. “We have formed an alliance with the humans of Haven. Have you forgotten the honor you owe the Aria? Would you like me to sully the Hukoten clan in the eyes of the Aria?” she asked pointedly.
Asgar widened his eyes in response to Belairus’s statement. “Little flower thinks too highly of herself.”
“We honor our word to the Aria above our own interests,” she said with a firm voice.
Narin hisses indignantly, “He’s on our territory. That is breaking our treaty.”
“Would you have me kill him?” Belairus asked.
Barieve licks his lips and said “Yes and eat him.”
“He smells terrible Barieve. You would eat that?” Belairus asked in a joking manner.
Lymric stepped out from cover and walked ahead of the others. He is followed by the rest of the neros. He looks up, his mouth immediately widens. “Where do you come from?” Lymric asked in a slow, deliberate tone.
“I am lost, please help me.” Pulling his pants pockets out of his side, the stranger stammered, “I am not a threat. See no weapons, I swear, I am unarmed.”
Lymric lowered his head, slamming his spear into the ground. “That’s not what I asked.”
“I am from Haven,” he cried in absolute terror. “Please forgive me. My caravan was separated from me. I’ve been heading north for some time, but I seem to only be getting into denser jungles.” The man said with a hint of dread in his voice.
Belairus grabbed her father’s shoulder and pulled him down to her level. She whispers, “North… He’s confused. South… He’s headed south.” Lymric’s eyes met hers, a glint forming at their core. He looked back at the man.
“My daughter saved you from certain death. You should be grateful to her,” said Lymric. “I would have killed you if she hadn’t been here. We do not tolerate trespassers here.” Lymric growled, letting out a snarl. With a toothy grin, Belairus approached the man. She reached out her hands toward him. He grasps her palms as she helps him to his feet.
“I must be in the wildling lands?” he asked in a shocked tone. “I appreciate your kindness.”
Belairus stared at the man inspecting him as she walked around him. Biting his bottom lip, he watched the other three look like they want to kill him. He swallowed a lump that formed in his throat. A growl erupted from Asgar, “What brings you here?” Lymric’s gaze darted to Asgar’s.
“My caravan was attacked by thieves. Think they were from the Golden Kingdom. Not sure but they plundered our carts. During the fight, I got scared and ran off. I thought I was heading north, but I was heading south instead. This is quite a surprise. Could I have an escort… out of your land? I don’t mean to intrude.”
Lymric glanced over at Barieve who is salivating. “Barieve, can I trust you to take him to our border?”
Barrieve’s expression is cartoonishly pained. “Of course.”
“He can’t be harmed. Not even a little,” said Lymric.
After looking over the man for a moment, Belairus stands in front of him. “I have never seen a human before. Where is your tail? And what happened to your ears?”
He smiled briefly. “I don’t have a tail.” He showed her his hands. “Neither do I have claws. My ears are on the side of my head.”
“Your eyes look funny. They look like dots.” she chuckled. “We are different, aren’t we. I am pleased to have met you human. Go in peace.”
As he looked up to see Barieve standing in front of him, the man gulped. He turned back to Belairus and bowed his head in respect. “Thank you. You are most gracious.”
Asgar growled “Get moving human… ” as he turned to walk away. Barieve took the man with him down another path. Belairus glanced back at the man before she said, “He sounded kind and terrified at the same time. What makes humans such a threat to us?”
“They are not, and we should have killed them all a long time ago,” Asgar growled before running forward.
Belairus sighs as Lymric looks down at him. “Long ago, we fought the humans. It was before I or any of us were born. Nobody remembers why we went to war, but we have been at war ever since. For a long time, the humans of Haven were our friends. Now, not so much. Our relationship is strained. It’s surprising you know about that alliance. However, they have an extremely significant role to play. In the absence of them, the humans from other lands would overtake the Aria with their weapons. Therefore, we protect them from those other kingdoms.”
Narin snarled. “Not that long ago, Lymric. It was not nearly long enough to forgive them for their betrayal. I have not.”
“Those were not the true leaders of Haven,” Lymric said to Narin.
“Fenrir told me of the human alliance, and the dangers of humans, but I do not understand. If the humans are our friends why do we not trust them now?” Belairus wondered aloud.
“Haven was captured by a people from another land. They attacked the Aria, and our elders were forced to slaughter the people of Haven. They did not kill all the humans, though.” Lymric said. “Most of us Hukoten are still bitter towards the Haven people. Aria demanded that the pact remained in place. This is why we hate humans, Belairus. You are too kind to them, and they will kill you when your back is turned. They hate us as much as we hate them. If the people of Haven had their way, they would certainly like to go to war with us, but they know they cannot because we would overpower them.”
“That is sad,” Belairus said as she continued walking.
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