Prologue

For someone who knew exactly where the last of mankind would be reduced to dust and ashes, Akira was definitely headed the wrong way.

“Shouldn’t we rest our sore arses, old man?” he asked Wang, who rode ahead of him. The bald Koyan seer didn’t show the slightest hint of fatigue, but surely, his horse wouldn’t share his feelings. Neither would Akira’s horse, nor Akira himself.

“Not before we make it to the Middle Hills.” Wang squinted at the barren plains stretching until the end of the horizon. Did the old seer lose his way or something? Akira almost sneered at the idea. He would be damned if it turned out that he had been following a demented man across the western lands of Mankola for no good reason. I should have ignored him when he came to my door, Akira thought, and one second later, he regretted doing it. No one should question a seer. No one should ever doubt a messenger of the Lord of Sky and Earth.

“Half an hour wouldn’t do the fate of humanity much harm,” Akira scoffed. “But it would matter to our horses a lot.”

“Wrong,” Wang snapped, his eyes glowing in fury when he quickly turned to him. “Every minute we waste here matters. We must do our part in the Lord’s mission, and we can’t do it if we are late. Do you understand?”

The Lord’s mission. About this very notion; a storm of thoughts clashed in Akira’s mind. He had a thousand unanswered questions that had been haunting his head for almost two decades, but voicing those questions, those doubts, would probably be frowned upon by the seer. The old man would regard them as a sign of weak faith in fate. In the Lord of Sky and Earth Himself.

Akira nodded in agreement, but that didn’t wipe that look of disappointment off Wang’s face. The seer heaved a sigh before he resumed his desperate search for those Middle Hills amid these endless arid plains. Sincerely, Akira wished the old man good luck.

Followed Wang’s horse to the west, Akira sagged in his saddle. The nasty Mankol sun scorched his head, sweat pouring out of every pore of his body. It shouldn’t be this hot, Akira reflected. Not in this place, not at this time of the year. Yes, he was a Koyan, but after witnessing every season in Mankola seventeen times, he had become quite the expert. And he could tell there was something about this weather. It’s not even summer yet, he thought, wiping his beaded forehead with the back of his hand.

Or was it the demons who brought summer early this year?

Akira had seen for himself what a single demon could do to shape its surrounding environment to its own liking. One of them was capable of turning a muddy, grassy land into a rough, rocky terrain. A horde of demons wouldn’t find any trouble turning this earth into a living hell.

Akira’s throat was parched, but water was scarce in this part of Mankola. No rivers, no wells, no springs. “Not before we reach the Middle Hills,” was Wang’s answer to Akira’s gentle request to drink. Since they started this miserable ride, the seer had insisted on keeping the waterskins with him. To protect me from my uncontrolled self. But what was the fault of the poor horses?

“Is that your own decision, or an order from the Lord of Sky and Earth?” Akira smirked, but Wang, who was busy scanning the deserted lands, wouldn’t see the expression on his companion’s face.

The scorn in Akira’s voice was not missed on the seer, though; Akira could tell from that hard look on Wang’s face when he slowly turned to him. “What did you just say?”

Akira found himself swallowing. But after a moment of hesitation, he decided that there was nothing wrong in his question. “My question is clear, I believe. Did the Lord of Sky and Earth Himself command you not to rest until we reach the Middle Hills?”

Wang pulled the reins to wheel his horse and face Akira. “Is this matter a joke to you?”

“A game, I would rather say. A game you seem to enjoy, Wang Sen,” Akira said gruffly, part of him regretting making such a statement about the Lord’s mission. But words are like spilled water. Once they fall, you cannot take them back. “Otherwise, what could possibly be the point of your riddles and vague answers? Why don’t you just tell me my exact role in this so-called war?” If I really have any…

Akira was bracing for a sharp reply from the raging seer, but the old man appeared to be rather stunned than furious. And much to Akira’s surprise, a flicker of a smile tugged at the seer’s lips. “If you think I have all the answers, then you are more ignorant than I thought. I’m nothing more than the Lord’s tool. He only shows me what He allows me to.”

“Then, what’s the point of this…?” Akira slowed down before he might utter something blasphemous. “This whole notion of the Last Day?” Surely, that sounded much better than the first few words that had crossed his mind. “If we are meant to prevail, then why He unleashed the demons upon us? And if we are fated to perish, then why did He create us anyway?”

“We are the ones who unleashed the demons, Akira. We shouldn’t have meddled with forces beyond our capacity.”

The seer must be referring to the first mages who dealt with the Dark Art. That might explain the ancient hatred between Wang’s kind and Akira’s. “So, a bunch of people messes up, and the rest of mankind pays the price?”

Wang sighed, his voice calmer when he said, “What we have been through, what all mankind has been through, is more of a consequence than a punishment. Even if it’s a punishment; it’s not our place to question the actions of our creator.”

“I’m not doubting His actions,” Akira said hurriedly to deny such an abominable accusation. “I’m just seeking answers.”

“Answers that will make no difference.” Wang grimaced. “Whether He is punishing or testing us; there is nothing we can do about it except play the roles assigned to us. So, if that gives you some solace, I’m enjoying none of what I’m doing. Can we resume our ride now?”

Wang was not waiting for Akira’s permission. The seer wheeled his horse one more time and spurred it onward. Finding no point in staying here in the middle of nowhere until his guide might go out of sight, Akira nudged his horse, and off he went.

All we can do is play the roles assigned to us. Unable to dismiss the thought from his head, Akira mulled over it as he followed the ‘guided’ seer. What if I choose not to play my damned role? He pictured himself asking Wang, and fortunately, he kept that question for himself. Because the seer’s answer would be: ‘Then you are doomed, you fool. We all are.

A mere consequence, right?

The damned Middle Hills needed one more hour of riding under the burning sunlight until they came into view. Akira was so impatient he urged his horse to trot, then to canter, and at the last half-mile, he galloped past Wang. If he could speak, he would curse me, he thought as he leaned forward, raising his body from the saddle, maintaining a firm grip on the reins. The seer didn’t bother catching up with him, or even scolding him for leaving him behind. It’s because he is the one with the waterskins, you fool.

As he approached the foothills, Akira sat up straight, moved his knees away from the slap, and pushed his heels down. Keeping his legs on the horse’s sides, he gave a firm tug on the reins then loosened them. The horse slowed down, and Akira repeated until he totally halted the beast.

Akira dismounted, and patiently, he watched his companion ramble through the Mankol barren lands with no hurry at all. “Come on, old man,” Akira muttered, as if Wang could hear from this such a distance. “Your sense of humor is worse than mine.”

A gloating smile crossed Wang’s face as he swung down off his saddle. “I don’t blame you,” Akira said, curling his lip. “Give me that.” He snatched one of the waterskins that had been strapped to Wang’s saddle, and lifted it up to his lips, letting the warm water flood his dry throat. He would prefer cooler water, of course, but the luxury of choosing was not something he had right now.

“Easy, young man,” Wang demanded. “This is just a stop, not our final destination.”

Akira gasped after swallowing a gulp of water. “Easy on me, old man. We are more than halfway through.”

“I didn’t know you had become an expert voyager in Gorania,” Wang scoffed. He took a sip from his own waterskin before he gazed thoughtfully at the hills. “You understand we are now standing at the exact center of Gorania.”

Akira was not sure how to respond to this useless fact. All he cared about at the moment was reaching their bloody destination to get done with their bloody mission so that he could return to his life of solitary life. He wouldn’t claim he had been ‘happy’ in his last seventeen years away from his homeland, but living with the certainty that nobody was on his tail was worth it. If not only for that nightmare…

“Longing for your days back in the steppes already?” Wang interrupted Akira’s train of thought. Does he see through my head or what?

“At least, I was certain I was doing something meaningful.” Like killing bandits and saving travelers, which had been Akira’s only way of interaction with other human beings for the last seventeen years.

“Is that why you won’t return to Koya?” Wang cast him a studying look. “Because of the meaningful task you have been undertaking?”

Despite Wang’s impassive tone, the mockery was not lost on Akira. “Don’t you dare judge me because you think you know one thing or two about me, seer,” he warned the old, bald man. “My pain is something you will never—”

A whizzing sound. A fountain of blood exploding from Wang’s head. While Akira was still trying to grasp what was happening, he felt that sharp tooth biting at his right shoulder. A crossbow bolt, he realized as he heard more hissing bolts that had missed him. Howling out of agony and out of fury, he mustered his focus and wielded a telekinetic shield, bolts bouncing off it with ominous thuds. “Where are you, you bastards?” he spat, his eyes scanning the hilltops until he spotted the shooters, or to be more accurate, their heads and their crossbows. I didn’t survive an archmage and a demon to die by a bandit’s bolt.

Akira stole a glance at the motionless seer, who had fallen flat on her face, a hole carved in the back of his bald head. The seer was beyond saving…and so were the bastards uphill.

The pain was draining Akira, though. If he wanted to survive this ambush, he should finish off those bandits soon enough before he might lose his grip on the shield that was keeping him alive so far.

Facing the shooters, Akira stepped back toward his horse, his right shoulder still bleeding; he could feel the warm blood streaming down his arm, pouring down his chest. As he needed his sound arm to keep the shield raised, he found himself forced to use his right hand to fish for the becoba decoction flask in the satchel strapped to his saddle. After two failed attempts, he got the right flask. Grunting, he unstoppered it with his thumb and drained it in one gulp.

Now his focus boosted, Akira was able to ignore the pain and direct all his attention toward the archers atop the hill. He thought of taking a dose of balya to augment his stamina as well, but he decided against it in the end. Save them for more worthy foes, he told himself. It would be a shame if he wasted his potions on a ragtag bunch of outlaws before completing his glorious mission.

The bandits had stopped shooting as they realized the futility of attacking a shielded mage; nonetheless, their crossbows were still aimed at Akira. I have to be swift and accurate, he reminded himself as he clenched his free hand, binding his anerjy with air to draw heat from it. A fireball took form above his palm, and now he was ready to be on the offensive.

Akira picked the assailant in the middle. The instant he lowered his shield, he thrust the fireball at his target, and one second later, he restored his shield. Without delay, he wielded another fireball, aimed at the bandit in the middle, and repeated the same trick. Drop then thrust. And it had to be done fast. Though he didn’t stop to see the outcome of the first two strikes, he could tell from the two screams echoing across the barren plains that he was doing well so far.

The third fireball was floating over Akira’s palm, ready to be launched at his final target, but just before Akira might lower his shield, he realized that the shooter was gone. A wise man. If you had enough common sense, you would run like the wind after seeing what happened to your two friends.

Determined to punish the scoundrel, Akira slung his satchel across his shoulder, then restored his shield as he ascended the hill. The chase was consuming his limited stamina, he knew, but he had better not leave that rogue archer on the loose. His fury could be fueling his stamina somehow, yet he doubted it would be enough. Most probably, he would need a boost, and that infuriated him even more.

Midway through his ascent, Akira snatched the red balya vial and sipped a few drops. Damn those worthless rascals. Damn the day I was born a weakling, he thought, squinting at the hilltop in anticipation. The last archer wouldn’t dare stand his ground against a mage, but Akira was not taking any chances. Not after he had lost his companion already.

The hilltop was abandoned when Akira reached it, but the tracks of the fleeing bandit were still fresh on the dusty ground. Clenching his fingers, he cautiously followed the footprints as they were leading him to one massive rock. A fireball was ready over Akira’s free hand as he warily circled the rock, but nobody was hiding behind it. Not at this very moment. Akira came closer to the rock to inspect the tracks. The last shooter was not alone.

Akira followed the tracks headed to the other end of the hilltop. They were still here, he reckoned. No way would the bandits descend from this steep side of the hill, unless they would rather throw themselves off a cliff than face him.

The chase was over. Save for a few rocks around Akira, there was no place to hide, and the tracks led straight to one particular boulder. Wielding a larger fireball this time, Akira aimed at the bandits’ hideout and…

Empty hands stretched out from behind the boulder. A cry in the Goranian tongue he barely comprehended. Slowly, a bearded blond man emerged, one hand in the air, the other holding a boy no older than five. Hells and demons! Why? Why, you bastard?

The bearded blond blabbered in Goranian, but Akira discerned the word ‘please.’ Plainly, the bandit was beginning Akira not to hurt him or his child. If that child was his, to begin with.

“Weapon!” Akira uttered one of the few Goranian words he had learned. “Surrender weapon!”

The bearded man hunched his shoulders as he repeated ‘please’ a few more times. Akira wondered if the blond was stalling, and then he remembered.

His other companion.

It wasn’t the little boy; Akira hadn’t spotted fresh tracks this small. Most probably, the child was carried all the way here. Where are…?

While Akira was still wondering, he caught that faint click. Instinctively, he held his telekinetic shield and turned right, a bolt thudding against it. And that was when he finally caught a glimpse of that ‘last’ shooter. A thirtyish, slender woman, teeth bared, hair brown and tousled. Without thinking twice, Akira formed a fireball, dropped his shield while she was still mounting another bolt into her crossbow, and struck her with his flaming missile.

The child screamed when the shooter fell on her back, wailing in agony as the flames ate through her face. He even broke free from the bearded man’s grip and sprinted toward the burning woman. Did I just kill the boy’s mother in front of him? Akira wondered for a moment, and then he decided it didn’t matter. That woman was trying to kill him.

And so was the bearded man.

Recalling the sight of Wang’s ruined head, Akira couldn’t help shoving the man with a telekinetic slap. One second later, he realized that the slap might be ‘slightly’ stronger than he had intended. The bearded man flew over the cliff, his horrified scream echoing across the plains as he plummeted to the foothill.

Hells and demons! Akira stared at the child, who kneeled by his mother’s corpse, sobbing, unaware of what had just happened to the blond man that was probably his father. What did you just do, Akira? What did you just DO?

Silent and motionless like a statue, Akira remained at the hilltop for a while, his eyes fixed on the crying kid, waiting for the moment when the little boy discovered that he had lost his father too. What should Akira do for the poor child? Should he do anything in the first place? Your parents were trying to kill me, boy, Akira would tell him, if he was fluent in Goranian. It was my life or theirs.

The effect of a small dose of balya was fading out; Akira could feel the bite of the crossbow bolt in his shoulder. And it will only get worse, he reflected as he turned his back on the child and headed to the less steep side of the hill. Sorry, kid. But I have to take care of myself.

Akira didn’t look back, but he heard the boy’s alarmed shouts and his quick footsteps. It wasn’t hard to guess that the panicked kid was looking for his missing father. The shouts turned into screams, but that wouldn’t deter Akira from leaving the boy and the whole hill behind him. I have lived with worse than that, he told himself, knowing that the screams of the boy whom he had just orphaned would haunt him until the day he died. Just another nightmare that will trouble my sleep. What could be new with that?

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Want to know how Akira has become the man he is now? Let’s go back 17 years in The Third Crossing