There! They were finally speaking a bit louder. She could not hear everything, but the words "moving", "Payon" and "impossible" gave her a good idea of what the conversation was about. Now, an awkward silence was filling the room, the adults inside unable to find a solution that would satisfy them all. Finally, she could hear a sigh, then someone proceeded to walk towards the door.
…Hey, wait a second…!
It was already too late when the girl realized she had been discovered. As the door was opened, all she could do was to try and look as sweet and innocent as possible – of course, she knew she was pathetic at pretending to be something she was not. Maybe just as pathetic as my hiding skills. The thought would have brought a weak grin onto her face if it not for the intimidating appearance of her mother.
The angry tone in the woman's voice, however, was betrayed by the amusement reflected in her eyes. "Eriya, it is not polite to eavesdrop."
"I'm so sorry, mom," came the reply, but Eriya knew all too well her apology did not sound very convincing. "I swear I will never do it again."
And there goes my attempt at not lying.
Her mother could barely hide a smile as if she could read what her daughter was thinking. Well, maybe she could – Eriya's face was incredibly easy to read.
"Just come in then," she said eventually, winking at her daughter, "you little troublemaker."
Upon entering the small, but comfortable guest room, the young girl beamed at the three other adults who, just like her mother, seemed more amused than mad. This was the first time in months that Eriya was able to meet her aunt and her uncle, for both were residents of the forest town Payon. It was a faraway place Eriya had never seen before.
But this was not a day like any other – if her family were to move to Payon as well, it would definitely bring a change to her life… for the better or for the worse, she was not able to tell. Yet, Eriya was undoubtly eager to see more of Rune-Midgard. One could assume she would get around more after having joined a guild roughly half a year ago, but Morroc and Prontera were still the only towns Eriya knew.
"You look excited already," her uncle laughed, "it hasn't even been decided yet, sweetie."
"Even though I've told your parents there's nothing to hesitate about," her aunt added.
The look on her parents' faces was now clearly an uncomfortable one.
Well, Eriya was probably a bit thoughtless and overly happy-go-lucky sometimes, but she was certainly not stupid.
Payon was known as a very peaceful town, and from what she had heard, it was also one full of happiness, music and laughter. Some sort of paradise, so to speak. She had been dreaming of moving there ever since she was little, even though she was very well aware that her parents were too afraid of a change. That was obviously the whole problem.
And in some way, she could understand. For as long as she could remember, they had been living in Morroc. So what if they were poor, so what if there was the smell of death on the streets every day… It was still their home, right?
Maybe it was impossible to get used to an entirely different environment, after all.
At least, that was what she told herself to prepare for a disappointment, and the young girl gulped hard. She knew how strange it seemed for fun-loving Eriya to suddenly get all quiet like this, but it did fit the silence that was spreading out once again in the room.
…That is, until a high-pitched voice yelled, "Eriya! Eriya! Please come here at once! It's important!" just outside of the house.
"If my sister screams this loud, it's gotta be something important!" Eriya exclaimed, then ran out of the room before any of the adults could react.
All that was left for them to do was to smile weakly.
It was no secret that most people living in Morroc were quite poor. Being a desert town, Morroc had very few natural ressources and even less water. Thieves and prostitutes dominated the streets, and the guards did not get paid well enough to really do some work. The market place was the town's only real source of income, always crowded and lively. Traders from all over Rune-Midgard offered their goods here, and the assassins were always ready to take on new missions for cheap prices. In fact, if it had not been for the large number of skilled assassins Morroc was known for, the kind of warriors that could be hired for almost anything, this town would have probably been history long ago.
But now, around noon, it was perfectly normal for the streets of Morroc to be completely empty, since it was too hot and dry to be walking anywhere without getting a serious sunburn. Even the ones who had been living in the desert their whole life prefered to avoid going out at this cursed hour, as none of the foreign traders had the nerves to do business when their heads were about to burst from heat.
Thus, the sight of a young hunter standing outside behind a house, unsuccessfully trying to hide from the sunlight, was indeed quite unusual. He was clearly a stranger to this desert town, looking a bit out of place with his longbow and a set of expensive silver arrows in a quiver behind his back. Apparently, he was waiting for something.
After a while of standing there at the wall as if he had turned to stone, he eventually turned his head to the eastern gate of Morroc where – what was even more unusual at this hour – two slender girls were trying to convince the guard of something in a rather loud voice.
One of them, the one who actually did most of the noise, was unmistakingly hot-tempered Eriya, while the other already looked like she was about to admit defeat. If it had not been for her soft brown hair that she always wore down instead of the ponytail Eriya prefered, a stranger would have never been able to tell the twins apart.
"As I have tried to tell you over and over again, girls, I must not let you out! Do you have a death wish?" the guard was snarling just at this moment. "They have come closer to the town than expected, and I cannot let anyone leave Morroc as of now."
"You've already told us, I'm not deaf," Eriya snapped, "but as I have told you before, I don't give a damn!"
"Who are 'they' anyway?" her sister asked carefully. "What could be there to worry you so much? Monsters in Rune-Midgard must be as old as the world itself. We've been living with them for thousands of years." With a slight touch of pride, she added, "Also, Eriya just turned assassin, there's nothing we have to be afraid of!"
The guard gave the two an annoying smirk. "The Association of Assassins goes too easy on you kids. You better stay out of this. Your family can move to Payon or wherever when this is all over. Until then, us guards will not let anyone pass."
"Wanna bet?!" Eriya was already raising her fist.
"Sis, please stop." The other girl knew too well how dangerous it could be to make Eriya angry. "This is really getting nowhere. We'll go back and think of something…"
"This damn guy just thinks he's all important! Dumbass!"
With that, Eriya turned sharply and stomped over to her younger cousin who was already becoming impatient. Sighing, her sister followed, and the three leaned on the wall of a house not far away from the gate, wondering about what to do.
"I didn't want to believe it," Eriya shouted, "heck, I still can't believe it! If I didn't know how much you hate to see blood, Neryd, I would rip his head off and make some holes in it with my daggers!"
"You're creepy," her sister replied, shaking her head and grinning slightly.
"That guard might be right, though, you know." It was the first sentence coming from the young hunter. He pointed to his left fist. "My falcon still hasn't come back."
The twins looked at him in surprise. Ashton's falcon had never been late before. Never. It was like a bird forgetting how to fly.
"I had sent a short message to the Defenders," the boy explained, "and you both know my falcon rarely needs more than a day to deliver it. Now it's already been a week…"
Eriya and Neryd both did not know how to respond. So he had been worrying all this time and never told them until now… And even though Eriya did not want to admit it in front of her two best friends and blood relatives, the strange events lately were deeply worrying her, too.
First, there was that sudden visit of her aunt and uncle. They had been trying to convince her family to move ever since they had arrived, something that came as a surprise even to their son Ashton who had not been informed beforehand. Then Neryd came with the news that all gates had been closed for an undefinite time. It was certainly a serious matter, for such drastic precautions would certainly ruin their economy sooner or later. And now Ashton's beloved falcon had mysteriously disappeared.
How did all that link together…?
"I'm not too eager to find out what exactly is wrong," Eriya said aloud, "but no matter if we're moving or not… Ashton and I still belong to the Defenders of Midgard."
"Yeah." The hunter kicked the ground in frustration and whirled up some rough sand. "We were only on vacation here anyway. We have to return to Prontera soon. But I have no idea how to get through the gates without having to knock that guard out."
"We'll do that, then," Eriya grinned.
"That's not funny!" Neryd protested. "Mom and dad will worry themselves to death if you just leave at a time like this!"
"As if I didn't know that," the assassin grumbled.
Ashton was just about to say something when the sudden sound of a loud punch made them turn their heads. As they were not sitting far from the guard they had been talking to, they could clearly see the man falling onto the ground. Seconds later, a young woman stepped into the sun and bent down to examine the unconscious guard.
Apparently, Eriya had not been the only one to think about knocking out the guard. She blinked. "Don't tell me she went through that bloody gate directly from the outside without making any noise and then randomly hit a well-trained guard who didn't even know she was standing behind him…!"
"Don't tell me someone can actually babble so much without even taking a breath!" Ashton replied, rolling his eyes at her. "You're not making sense either. If one opens such a heavy, rusty gate, there's bound to be some kind of sound, don't you think?"
"Maybe she can cast magic," Neryd suggested.
"Then she wouldn't have hit him in the first place," her cousin gave back thoughtfully.
"Maybe she just felt like punching him!" Eriya seemed very pleased with her idea.
Ashton glared at the assassin. "She's not you."
They were all so caught up in their half-joking, half-serious speculations that they did not notice how the very same woman they were talking about was now standing at the corner of the house, barely able to hold back a chuckle.
When the three finally noticed her, they just stared. And the woman stared right back at them calmly. Her large, reddish eyes held something indescribable.
It took Eriya a while before it finally hit her.
"I already thought you looked familiar!" she gasped. "I've only seen you once before, but you totally fit her description of you!"
Neryd had the odd feeling that this woman's appearance did not mean anything good. She looked helplessly to Ashton who was just saying, "I recognize you also now. You must be Kayis."
Sometimes, she was surprised at her own actions. Vergil had wanted to go and fetch the remaining guild members, but she had stubbornly insisted on doing it herself. She had even refused to let him accompany her – selfish as it was, for Morroc was his hometown too, after all.
But Kayis knew she was the only person familiar enough with those creatures to travel on her own to Morroc. Besides, there were things she could not tell her new guildmates, and there was no way she could put them into unnecessary danger. There was enough danger to come as it was.
Then, when she had finally arrived in Morroc in the early morning, she had found herself faced with tightly closed gates. And suddenly, childhood memories had come back.
Slowly, but with greatest care, Kayis had climbed up the town wall where the shadows hid her slim form. Using the small holes she had carved in there when she was a child, everything still proved to be a breeze. Long ago, it had been an act of despair, a trick that showed just how vulnerable Morroc really was. While she was climbing, touching the stone she knew so well, Kayis had briefly wondered if it was Morroc or her that was more vulnerable, but such thoughts did not linger on her mind for very long.
The thief had then remained in the thin shadows inside the town until a fuming Eriya and a sighing Neryd had showed up and confronted the guard. Knocking out the poor man had probably not been necessary after that, but she had felt an odd satisfaction to be able to give him the punch Eriya had been denied. Unlike the young assassin, Kayis did not have anyone to reprimand her whenever she did something wrong.
Now was that freedom… or loss…?
Sitting here in the small room the parents of the twins had kindly offered her, Kayis scolded herself for suddenly getting all pensive. But that was no wonder, really.
Those sobs… she could hear them even through the walls. It was unbearable.
Kayis had known what she was getting herself into when she left Prontera last week to personally deliver the news of her sister's death. It was just something she felt she had to do. The two young Defenders had known Asaya well, and even though it was already getting dark now, Eriya was still crying in her room. Ashton had seemed to be in a state of shock, and Kayis felt it was not a very good time to tell him his falcon was dead also.
"Hello? Kayis? Can we please talk for a minute?"
The thief was actually grateful for the knock on the door, interrupting her gloomy thoughts, but she was admittingly surprised. The voice, softer and calmer than her sister's, belonged to none other than Neryd.
"Come in," Kayis replied loud enough for the young visitor to hear.
"Sorry to disturb you," Neryd said politely after closing the door behind her.
But she did not look sorry at all – on the contrary, her face was serious, eyes filled with an unspoken accusation Kayis could not exactly place yet. The girl was suspicious of her, that much she knew, for Neryd was bad at hiding it.
The thief motioned for Neryd to sit, and she did. They remained silent, just staring at each other, until the brunette finally blurted out, "Please go, Kayis! Leave us alone."
It was not difficult for the older woman to realize how much courage it must have taken Neryd to say such a thing, but she decided to ignore that as she shook her head, slowly but firmly.
"You must not take my sister away!" Neryd went on, her voice trembling. "When Eriya followed Ashton into the Defenders' guild, Mom and dad were really sad… I thought I could convince her to stay this time! And now… we're just about to move to Payon, I always wanted us to be a big family again…"
Kayis looked unimpressed. "You obviously have no idea of what's going on. Morroc's gates are closed for a reason, you know."
"We'll just wait for them to open, and then…"
The girl faltered when Kayis put a hand on her shoulder and stared at her with piercing red eyes. "You don't understand. They won't open again."
Confusion and a slight touch of fear spread over Neryd's face.
"Fiends are going to invade this town. Haven't you heard? They've been waiting for their chance to attack, and Morroc's defenses are already crumbling." Kayis' voice was harsh and bitter. "They will not go away before this place is no more."
"Are you insane?" The other girl stood up in a quick movement, making the wooden chair creak in protest. "You're practically saying we are all going to die!"
"I am saying," the thief replied coldly, "that you would die even sooner if the gates were not closed. Stop dreaming about a happy family. There will be none."
"So? Then how and why did you come here? Why do Eriya and Ashton have to leave if it's so dangerous?" Neryd asked quietly.
For a fleeting moment, the expression in Kayis' face softened. "Because some people are still trying to prevent dreams from shattering."
"Oh, you'll go and save the world, huh?" The biting sarcasm, almost contradicting Neryd's soft voice, could not at all hide the pain and hurt evident in her bright blue eyes.
"I have no desire to save anyone," Kayis spat, suddenly angry. She jumped off the bed and stepped towards the window. Her back was now turned to the other girl. "We all have our own reasons for risking our lives out there. But Eriya really wants to protect you. And she can only do that if she faces the danger she is not willing to put you through."
"What would you know?" the brunette retorted, getting annoyed herself.
"I know that I would try to protect my sister at any cost if she was still alive."
Realization dawned upon Neryd in an instant and blew away her bitter feelings. God, how could she have forgotten?
"Kayis, I'm sorry," she whispered regretfully.
"Don't worry about it." The ruby-eyed woman closed her eyes, something Neryd did not see. "None of us really expected the situation to be that serious. For the other Defenders, this is now not only about my sister anymore. That's why it's so urgent that Eriya and Ashton return to their guild. And I can tell you that much: We have to leave tomorrow morning."
"That's ridiculous," Neryd breathed. "My parents will never agree. Nor will Ashton's." Her eyes flashed with an unusual determination as she added after a pause, "And nor will I."
The thief did not answer, but slowly walked towards the door. Grabbing the handle, she smiled curtly at Neryd. "I'm afraid you have no say in this, sister complex or not."
"I do not have a sister complex!" the girl spluttered, but Kayis had already left the room, leaving nothing but traces of a quiet laugh.
Neryd stared at the door, dumbfounded, and slowly tried to sort everything out in her mind. Well, if their decision had already been made, then it was now time to make hers. Sister complex or not.
And suddenly, a smile was playing around her soft lips.
The next morning was dry and sunny as always, although heated by half a dozen voices entangled in a heavy argument. Kayis, standing outside near the house door, had already learned to block off the sounds after hours of listening to the very same exchange of shouts and protests over and over again.
She had done her best in convincing the worried parents that she would not lead their children into a certain death. Well, Ashton's parents seemed to understand how grave the situation around the town was when they heard about the newly closed gates – which made them oppose to their son's wish to leave even more. Kayis held the slight suspicion that their awareness of the danger had been the reason for their sudden suggestion for Eriya's family to move to Payon, as the young assassin had told her. But it was undoubtly already too late.
What use was it to argue over this, anyway? If there had still been doubts on Kayis' mind, thinking back to the looks Eriya and Ashton had given her this morning would have instantly washed any hesitation away. The two, young as they were, had looked serious and determined, and Kayis knew that no matter what their parents said, they would still leave today. Fighting over it was pointless.
But of course, the red-haired thief could understand the emotional involvement in this, she could even briefly remember similar arguments back when she had to leave Asaya. For no other reason, Kayis chose to keep quiet and remain waiting.
Then suddenly, a new voice mixed in with the others, ringing clearly through the air, "Mom, dad, you can't stop us from going. We have already made up our minds."
There was a pause, then several voices were shaking up the room all at once, shouting simultaneously what was going through Kayis' head as well. "What do you mean, we?!"
Neryd folded her arms. "Like I said, I know they're going to leave, and I'm leaving with them."
"This… this is outrageous!" her mother yelled almost hysterically.
"Who decided that?" her uncle demanded to know.
"Well, me?" the girl responded, smiling weakly and at the same time, avoiding her sister's and her cousin's unbelieving eyes. "I've been training really hard these past months! I'm sure I can help."
Eriya finally found her voice back. "You've gotta be kidding me! And here I thought I was the one of us two that was totally nuts."
"Because you are," Ashton muttered under his breath, but Eriya was so busy staring at her sister that she did not notice. Then again, teasing his cousin at a time like this was probably not the best idea, anyway. He continued, louder, "You're only making things more complicated, Neryd."
"If…" His brown-haired cousin took a deep breath. "If it's really so dangerous, don't I have the right to protect my loved ones, too?"
Silence. Even the adults could do nothing but stare at the petite girl.
"You're not even an assassin yet!" Eriya tried, sounding exasperated. "I refuse!"
"You can't keep me sheltered forever!" her twin retorted, though she felt strange for arguing with her sister for the very first time. "Please, sis, accept my decision. Unless you want to tie me up here?"
"Good idea," Ashton said dryly.
It was then that the father of two girls chose to speak up. "I haven't given any of you my consent yet, children. After all, if my sister" – he nodded to Ashton's mother – "is right, then we will be sending you into your death out there, and that is something we just cannot do. You may have joined various fighting organisations, but you are all still too young and inexperienced, and..."
"Dad!" Eriya interrupted him, "Don't start on that again! It's not as if we'll be safe here! And it's not like you can make us stay either." She sighed deeply. "We're just asking you not to hate us for this."
At this, her mother suddenly stepped forward and hugged her daughters, catching them by surprise. "My little dummies… how could we ever hate you?"
Again, silence followed, and as the twins looked at each other, they finally understood that their parents knew very well their protests were to no avail. And also, when Eriya caught the sparkle in her sister's blue eyes, she realized that it was the first time Neryd too had made a decision, one that left her with no choice but to accept.
The shouts and cries had now mysteriously turned into quiet sobs, mostly coming from the mothers, and a few heartfelt goodbyes. None of them wanted to think of it as a farewell.
Kayis heard the change in the conversation and silently made her way through the busy marketplace towards the spot near the eastern gate where they had planned to meet later. Really, staying at the house would have made her feel like she was imposing. Or maybe she just wanted to avoid being reminded that she did not have any loved ones to protect anymore, that she had no one to say goodbye to her ever again.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting," Neryd apologized earnestly when she finally showed up with her sister and her cousin.
Kayis said nothing, but simply pointed at the high town wall behind her. The grey stone it was built of made it a somewhat intimidating sight. "We're going to climb."
"Climb?" Eriya repeated disbelievingly. "Do you know how hot these stones are at this hour? Plus, they're as slippery as an eel!"
"Well, how do you think did I come inside?" the thief gave back, "But whatever. Take these if you can't stand the heat." She threw each of them a pair of brown, tattered gloves. "I'll show you the spots where you can climb."
When the redhead raised her hand to point out the direction, they saw how calloused it was, hideously marked with scars and burns. And for some reason, no more protests came.
As the three followed Kayis, none of them said a word. They showed a bit of surprise when they saw the carvings the older woman had once made in the stone, but climbed up quietly.
It was only when the thief was waiting for the three to get over the wall first that she caught the serious look on their faces, their eyes dark and almost void of any emotion, and realized how hard they were trying to be strong. Kayis knew that well – it was all you could do when leaving someone you loved behind, running into a danger you knew you could not avoid. Masking away all feelings was the only thing that could prevent one from breaking down and running back, giving in to the weak wishes of the heart.
Something fell onto the ground with a thud. It was white and glistened in the sun that was burning mercilessly on them. Picking the small object up, Kayis recognized it as a pearl the merchants sold only rarely on Morroc's market. It was as clear as the sky today and had a faint touch of blue on it. Beautiful…
Looking up, Kayis noticed Neryd's shocked gaze, and gave her a reassuring nod, holding up the pearl in her hand. Relief briefly washed over the girl's face before she resumed her climbing.
Eriya, who was already on the other side of the wall, let out an audible gasp just at this moment. "Whoa, so many…!"
One after another, the remaining three climbed over the wall and joined up with the young assassin, and both Neryd and Ashton gaped at the sight as well.
Kayis, on the other hand, could barely hide her amusement. "What, did you expect them to protect the whole town with just one guard inside at each gate?"
"Yes, well, no, but…" Eriya took a deep, calming breath. "When did they all come here? That's like an army! I didn't know we even had one!"
"She has a point," Ashton agreed, eyes as wide as saucers. The open surprise on his young face was unusual for him, his cousins knew, but who could blame the boy?
In front of the eastern gate, numerous troups consisting of at least two dozen soldiers each were patrolling around in the area, and there were a lot of scary looking assassins sitting in the shadows as well. It was striking how most of the soldiers were clothed and armed differently, and not only that – there were also obvious differences in height and skin color, so obvious that the girls and the young hunter could not help but stare.
"Well, Comodo sent some of their troups to help," Kayis explained, "I heard them talk about it yesterday."
"Comodo? Really? The Sleeping Town is helping us? That's so cool!" Eriya exclaimed, sincerely impressed.
"But those guys haven't even noticed us," her cousin objected, "and if we can just climb over the wall like that… and if Kayis can just knock out one of the guards like that… aren't they a bit careless?"
He saw the thief grin almost sheepishly as she recalled the incident the morning before.
"I don't think the monsters are smart enough to do that?" Neryd spoke up doubtfully.
Kayis only shrugged, successfully keeping herself from revealing what she knew she could not. "Who knows. I'm pretty sure the soldiers have seen us, but like you said, they expect the fiends to assault the gate itself. They don't think of humans like us as a threat." Then, suddenly remembering something, the redhead turned to face Neryd. "Here. I believe this is yours."
The blue-eyed girl gratefully took her most valued possession back and said with a small voice, "Our parents gave each of us a pearl on our last birthday. Mine's blue, Eriya's is green." Neryd looked over to her sister who was pointedly staring at the ground. She knew Eriya always kept her pearl with her as well. "You know, Kayis, they must have saved up money for a long time to be able to afford it. And… I just wanted to take something with me that reminded me of them."
Before Kayis could even think of a response, she saw, to her astonishment, how the young girl's eyes were all of sudden swelling up with tears she had been so desperately trying to fight back ever since they had left her house – her home.
They were already running late, but not a single word came from the red-haired thief while she was waiting for her young companions to silently cry the tears she herself was not able to shed anymore.