"Why are you trembling boy? You're not shooting the deer; you're shooting for survival."
The mild voice of a handsome middle-aged man echoed beside a teenage boy. The two wore their jet-black hair in the knotted locks typical of their tribe, with their cold-blue eyes showing hints of similarity. They hid behind the bushes of a deciduous forest, eyes locked on a white-tailed deer trotting with no knowledge that its life neared its end.
The teenage boy's hands bent a bow, the arrow ready to fire. However, they trembled, making the arrow sway and the string quiver. The middle-aged man initially believed the boy floundered due to the deer being his first kill. But when he lowered the bow and shook his head, he sensed something else.
"Dad, why do we kill those that mean us no harm? It's incorrect. I'd rather shoot a wolf, or slay a tiger." Again, the boy spoke words that left his father perplexed.
At the age of 12, talks of slaying wild beasts should have reeked of foolishness. But in the boy's tone lay an uncanny composure that made his elders unable to take him as the child he was supposed to be. Although he often tried to restrain that trait, it didn't escape his father's trained eyes.
"Kilian, the first rule of survival is to understand that fairness is a fool's yearning. Nature is the mother of injustice," the man began as his lips curled into an amused smile. "To us, carnivore meat is not merely unpalatable; it's also toxic and needlessly dangerous..." The man, Viktor, proceeded with explaining all the reasons why herbivore meat ruled the market, making Kilian close his eyes for an instant.
When he opened them, no hesitation stood within his gaze or stance. He armed his bow, fired the arrow, and it hit the deer right in its brain, killing it on the spot. Surprise didn't flash in Viktor's eyes. Kilian may be an odd teenage boy, but he undoubtedly was a talented warrior.
Their tribe was split into two categories, warriors and farmers. Farmers tended to the land, warriors cleared nearby wild beasts, deterred marauders, and hunted for meat while saving the pelt. In the backwater corners of the Kingdom of Orloth, such tribal divisions were the norm.
But while his father felt no shock, as he rose to step toward the deer and hurl it at Viktor, Kilian couldn't help but inwardly sigh. An adult male deer weighed 136 kg on average. But he could toss such a beast without breaking a sweat. Although he'd grown accustomed to his strength, for a former earthling such as himself, the change was astounding.
Viktor was right, Kilian didn't fit his age, because he wasn't his age. Born in one of the darkest corners of Chicago, he survived the streets by joining a gang but fortunately grew without gutting another man. At 15, an operation allowed him to make the acquaintance of an art forger who soon recognized his astounding talent in the craft—and brought him into a "classier" form of crime.
Specialized in forging paintings, it only took Kilian three years to make a name for himself in his criminal ring, and earn the approval of his superiors. Increasingly, they bypassed his mentor to feed him tasks of greater importance, making his pockets swell, and his mentor's hatred rise accordingly.
Alas, as a perpetual loner, Kilian lacked connections, and therefore had no protection. It didn't take long before he found himself framed of the robbery of an ancient hammer and his skull punctured by a lovely bullet. His brain debris and blood plastered the floor. The worms buried him—the typical dog-death, really.
Not that he cared. Dull and uninteresting, he wouldn't miss life on Earth. Conning those so-called art collectors soon became a tedious matter. The majority were nothing more than blind donkeys eager to hoard the artist's fame. And they dared discuss art appreciation, ha.
But never would Kilian's mentor expect that the very hammer he snuck into his belongings would turn into his ticket for a second life. The hammer swallowed Kilian's soul and vanished alongside him. He awoke as a swaddled baby, in a medieval household, with no hammer in sight—his cries could raise the dead.
It had now been 12 years, and Kilian had long-since learned to adapt to his new environment. Although in this backwater tribal village, men and women alike slaved their days away, the people were warm and supportive. Across the population of 300 denizens, fights rarely broke out. For a place where fierce warriors abounded, this was refreshing.
The first oddity Kilian realized upon landing in this world, was the change in the air. The air was not only void of pollution, but left a sweet aftertaste. They called it Dra. To the people of this world, Dra was the source of life, the foundation of all things. But more importantly, the foundation of magic. And while the tribal folks saw magic as a foreign concept best left in the hands of the aristocracy, it shaped the lives of all.
In this remote tribe of medieval technology, the average man's lifespan was 85 years, beating even the 21st century United States. But when compared to the physical changes Dra triggered, that lifespan didn't account for much.
Granted Kilian was a freak among his peers, the average adult hunter could easily lift 250 kg, and they didn't spend their days breaking their back on impossible weight lifting. In retrospect, beasts were also much stronger. Still, humans proportionally benefited a lot more from Dra.
Unsurprisingly, those who could control Dra ruled the world. They built society around Dra control, with magocracies, magus-kings and nobles dominating the land. In those grand cities, backed by magical advancement, the technological level had reached a height that left Earth in shame. DNA modification and genetic enhancement were old news.
But to the current Kilian, none of that mattered. This world might have been impressive, full of wonders and opportunities, but it couldn't beat the warmth of a functional home. Kilian always believed that God must have taken pity of him. After all, if reincarnation and magic weren't fiction, how could he doubt the existence of God...or Gods for that matter?
This was his opportunity to lead a proper life, laugh heartily, seed a few lasses, and live as a man rather than a cadaver on autopilot—or so he thought. When the smoke clouds billowed from his tribe's location, when they covered the sky with soaring flames and fluttering embers, for the first time in 12 years, Kilian wondered if he'd not been too naive.
Viktor's eyes widened in disbelief, and instantly, he dropped the deer resting on his shoulder, unsheathed his ax, and without turning toward Killian ordered, "Hide and wait for me, I will find you."
Leaving those words behind, Viktor stomped his foot and turned into a blur as he shot toward the tribe. Viktor had always been too strong. Although he attempted to conceal his true skills, an elephant couldn't hide among ants. Kilian often doubted the origins of this good father of his, but never raised the question.
Better, he rarely went against his will. But today, he couldn't obey.
"Our tribe is on fire, my mother's fate unknown, and he wants me to take a stroll in the woods? Yeah, right," Kilian grumbled and rushed after his father. The speed difference between them ensured he couldn't follow Viktor's trail. In fact, although the village lay 10 kilometers away, at Viktor's full speed, reaching it wouldn't take a minute.
For Kilian, however, it was another story. Even if he now ran at Usain Bolt's top speed, it would still take him 15 minutes. In that timeframe, a whole lot could occur. But without a better option, he could only run, and so run he did.
As his mind locked on the flames ahead, even the alarming clatter of his footsteps and the gush of wind slamming his face escaped his usually acute hearing. He ran with desperate vigor, leaving the woods to step onto the road back home, and the closer he was, the faster his heart beat.
A fire of that magnitude couldn't appear without external cause. The tribe undoubtedly suffered a brutal attack. But it made no sense. Raiders across dozens of kilometers dared not step into their tribe's territory. They'd long learned the lesson that only death awaited there.
But if not raiders, who then? As he got increasingly closer to his home of 12 years, Kilian desperately hoped raiders were to blame. They were not.
By the time he reached the tribe's entrance, the corpses of folks he'd known since he was a babe littered the streets. Dozens of men, women and children, playmates and sassy lasses he envisioned to seed in the future now decorated the ground. Blood stretched across several meters, its stench oppressing the air and stuffing Kilian's nostrils.
Raiders didn't kill young women or anyone that could fetch a price on the slave market. Raiders didn't pursue reckless murder if they held the strength to slaughter. They'd kill a few but spare the many so that work wouldn't end and supplies flow for them. These...were no mere brigands.
But as his eyes swept the fallen, Kilian could give no fuck for the murderers' origins. He just wanted their heads.
The ringing sound of clashing steel echoed from within the tribe. Amidst the burning thatched houses, 32 men surrounded one, hacking at him with exquisite broadswords and a speed that made a mockery of the best hunters the tribe initially possessed. Slashing speed, movement skills, technique, organization. Although they seemed dressed like common raiders, those men undoubtedly were trained warriors.
Indeed, Kilian was right. Among those 32 men, 20 were top-level Lesser Templars, while another 12 were low-level Core Templars. The weakest of Lesser Templars could lift 600 kg without difficulty. Those were not opponents a paltry tribe could resist. Any one of them could slaughter the 300 denizens of this village. What need was there for 32?
But shockingly, though encircled by this brutal formation, Viktor's ax deflected all the blows aimed at him with masterful skill, and hacked at his foes with feral rage! As the ax lodged in his skull, the sound of a blade tearing through bones and flesh marked the death of the first templar.
Right afterward, Viktor swept his ax in a circular motion, beheading three Lesser Templars in one go!
He leaped into the air, the Core Templars rushed after him, but even as their sword thrusts neared, Viktor defied gravity to whirl in the sky, and land on their colliding sword tips!
His ax rained on them all, directly gashing the faces of four Core Templars, and sending them hurtling down! Still, not a single one of them uttered a scream. They landed back on their feet and Viktor on his. Kilian couldn't believe his eyes, and again he swept the scene.
Destruction ran amok, with three-fourth of the population having already met their maker. Fortunately, Kilian's mother had yet to join their ranks. She lay in a corner, alongside the dozens of survivors, staring in helplessness at the clash that'd decide their lives. Confusion flared in the boy's eyes.
"How can such warriors possibly target this tribe? No, they are targeting him. Revenge? If not for revenge, when they realized he wasn't here, why did they condescend to slaughtering the helpless?" Kilian reasoned.
Being antisocial didn't prevent him from having a functional brain, and he could see the inconsistencies where they lay. Without hesitation, he rushed toward his mother, ready to take her away.
Viktor and Alina realized their son's presence, and their eyes widened in fright!
"Kilian, leave at once!" Viktor snarled in one of the greatest shows of fury of his life. He didn't bother asking the boy why he didn't follow his directives. Right now, none of that mattered. Alina too motioned for Kilian to escape. For an instant, Kilian stopped in his tracks.
It made no sense. Although Alina's speed lost to Kilian's by a great margin, while Viktor handled the templars, taking her away wouldn't be of great difficulty. And with the fight's current trend, Viktor's victory seemed certain. Yet, in their eyes, Killian saw the specter of death in its full glory.
They didn't count on surviving the day, so they could only hope he'd get far away. But he didn't care. Kilian didn't stop and again rushed after his mother, seizing her wrist to lead her away from strife. The man of the house could do the fighting.
Alas, as the clangs of blades still rang, a succession of claps echoed, and Kilian knew that any attempt at escape would prove futile.
"Why...why are you that silly?" Alina sighed as her eyes darted between Kilian's grasping hand and the new entrant. Unlike the others, the man rode a black stallion whose every stomp sent ripples throughout the ground. This was no ordinary steed. The one riding it, even less so. 1.88 meters tall with bulging muscles and a face 80% similar to Viktor's, though dressed like a brigand, he rode his steed with the demeanor of a highborn.
The claps ended the fight, and the templars stood with military discipline, forming two lines to let the man pass. With his right hand, he rubbed his bearded chin, and with his left, he stroked the back of his steed. As if comprehending an unspoken language, it came to a halt. The man's eyes went between Viktor, Alina, and Kilian, lingering on Kilian for a few seconds before returning to Viktor.
"Why should he leave when we've come for him? Little brother, long time no see. At least your skills haven't rusted. What a pity that they also didn't improve," Wilfried von Kressner, the von Kressner count, and Viktor's elder brother began as his blue eyes nailed his sibling's. But to those that knew that name, the title held little worth.
He had another identity, a far more dreadful one, household guard captain of Klaus von Karsten. For a landed noble to serve as guard captain for another one, regardless of their status, was an inconceivable thought and a matter of great shame. But when the name von Karsten rang, the reality became different. And seeing how his mother quivered, Kilian realized he'd underestimated the gravity of the situation.
She may not be strong, but she possessed an iron will. Things able to make her flounder were few and far between. Wilfried leaped off his steed, landing before Viktor with no excess. His right hand rested on his pommel, the left hanged beside his thigh, and his smile vanished.
"Considering that we are siblings, I give you the opportunity to kill yourself," Wilfried directly said, while his apathetic gaze fixed his brother. Viktor's lips curled into a smile.
"What? Klaus' loyal dog is having conscience issues? I thought that beneath you. Spare me the nonsense, and do your worst." 12 years ago, Viktor ranked high among the most promising templars, with many considering him more gifted than his elder brother. They were right. But 12 years later, the situation was different. Although they'd yet to draw blades, Viktor could see his defeat.
Wilfried shook his head; a tearing sound followed, and Viktor's blood gushed from his gashed belly. Losing strength, he dropped on his knees, eyes wide open. From beginning to end, none saw Wilfried unsheathe his sword.
"High...Templar. You're...a High Templar," Viktor realized, far too late.
"Twelve years ago, your talent surpassed mine. Although we both could only become templars and had no hope of wielding true magic, a bright future lay ahead of us. I served as guard captain, and you as vice-captain of His Grace. The youngest Core Templars of Orloth, they called us. How many noble scions envied us and sought our positions?
Our father died early, leaving me to care for us both. If not for His Grace's protection, how could we have kept our ancestral lands? But for a woman, you turned against your liege, eloped with his wife—aiming to live out the rest of your existence like a baseborn serf.
Let's not even mention your crimes. If only for that last part, you must die," Wilfried stated in a deadpan tone. But hearing those abject words, even as his blood overflowed, Viktor burst into laughter.
"His Grace? What a graceful man indeed! So graceful that he saw fit to send me away on a random mission, to take my betrothed as his wife! With all the women vying for him—he had to set his gaze on mine—and you have the gall to give me moralistic lectures? Wilfried, I didn't know you were that shameless!" Viktor spat, while the trembling Alina closed her eyes and lowered her face to hide her shame and pain.
It was one of those expressions, those rare expressions she held on Kilian's birthdays. She always tried to keep them hidden, yet never succeeded in concealing the pain. And although she'd always treated him with the utmost care, sometimes Kilian wondered if his mother didn't regret giving birth to him.
Now he knew why. He wasn't his father's son, but the result of the von Karsten duke's oppression. In those days, Viktor served as vice-captain of the then 24 years old duke's guard while Wilfried held the captain post. At the time, Klaus was already the most celebrated magus of Orloth, the youngest High Emissary of the country's history. As his maternal and closest cousins, they enjoyed great prestige.
Never did Viktor expect that Klaus, who only had to say a word for princesses to fall at his feet, would use his power to seize his betrothed, wed, and impregnate her all in one night. But, seeing his brother's outrage, Wilfried couldn't help but sneer.
"Slow-witted and muddle-headed imbecile. When did Klaus von Karsten become a lust-blinded man? And even if he were, with his towering intellect and incomparable status, why would he target his vice captain's betrothed, even going as far as making her his wife?
The mere daughter of a baron? What did he have to gain from that scandal? Awaken. He didn't target her; he targeted you." The naked contempt in those words flew by Viktor's face. Their implications', however, crushed his soul. In that instant, and for the first time in his life, Kilian would face the Duke of Kars' ruthlessness.
"His Grace is a man of outstanding vision, aiming to change the very pattern of the continent. To this day, the young duke included, he only has two children. What time does he have to play with women? It is you, not Alina that he attacked that night. You have always been too idealistic, unable to accept the necessities of change.
A man like you is either the most loyal retainer, or the leader of an uprising. How could His Grace keep you by his side? Allow me to enlighten you.
Back then, he wanted an heir but knew his meteoric rise came with many enemies. If he remained in Kars, with all the spies and assassins ready to strike, the heir couldn't grow in safety. So His Grace chose to have him raised far beyond his lands.
At the same time, he wanted to use the heir's birth to wring out the spies and clean Kars once and for all. To that end, he needed a man that couldn't bear humiliation, even if it came from him. Faced with such events, only you would choose to elope with the woman and still raise the child in all sincerity.
So he chose you—the good chap—and in the shadows helped the two of you escape. The event alarmed the nobility of Orloth, with spies sending missives to their masters, and assassins readying to intercept you. Thanks to you, in less than three months, His Grace silently rounded up and exterminated all those he couldn't use. The rest turned into his tools.
Now he needs the northern tribes' slaughter and his heir back to Kars! You are in the way!" Again, there was no sword move, but the words ended with Viktor split in dozens of pieces, most uneven.
His five liters of blood formed a puddle around the pieces of flesh and gore, making the dazed Kilian unable to believe that an instant before, those bits and pieces formed his father. Alina, however, believed it.
Her eyes spread wide, went bloodshot, and even as her body quivered, she desperately crawled toward the mess of gore, leaving behind the dazed Kilian who failed to adjust to the situation. It was too much, too soon.
Alina didn't scream, but her reddened eyes rained unending tears, and she clawed her way through the blood and flesh bits. Kilian too followed her, and soon the two were vainly attempting to put the whole back together. As if by doing so, they could bring Viktor back. Kilian didn't care about blood or foster father. He only knew that Viktor raised him as his own for 12 years, giving him the warmth he could only dream of.
Now Viktor was gone. It wasn't possible. This was a lie! He couldn't accept it! Alina too couldn't, so they could only use the pieces to remold the man. But before that heart-rending scene, Wilfried showed no mercy. His deadpan gaze hardened, a wind gush brushed by Kilian, and from the left, fresh blood splattered his face.
His hands came to a halt, quivering as he turned his trembling, bloodied gaze toward the spot his mother should have stood in. Instead of the beautiful, grief-maddened middle-aged woman, seventy-two pieces and a new puddle of blood stood.
Kilian counted the pieces, then broke into a frenzied guffaw. The guffaw became a scream, then again a laugh, interchanging as he fell into all-out madness. Still, Wilfried showed no emotion.
"Remember, as the heir of house von Karsten, the thing you need the least is emotional burdens. When the moment comes to make critical decisions, emotions can't shackle you," Wilfried stated, and though the bystanders couldn't see it, his sword whirled, hacking the seventy-five remaining villagers into pieces.
He then tied the frenzied Kilian on the rear of his horse to lead him back to Kars. On the road, disguised as raiders, the von Karsten men razed 26 other northern tribes, slaughtering over 8,000 people. Kilian didn't get to see it all, for some time along the road, he passed out.
The incident threw Orloth into unprecedented chaos, with its northerners spending the bitter nights quivering at the mention of the Veiled Marauders. Klaus von Karsten promptly used the incident to strip the king of half his judiciary powers. With the royal authority in shambles, he reorganized law enforcement—finally making his intentions clear.
On the following day, Kilian awoke, facing the world with blank, inexpressive eyes. A mild-mannered man sat across the bed, eying Kilian with features strikingly similar to his.
"Greetings, my son," said Klaus von Karsten.