Khloe mused if this was what is was like to really have friends.
She sat at a round table in the corner of the tavern- The Risky Reaver, she thought it was called?- and glanced around the table at her companions. There was Aedyn, whom she had known the longest, indulging in a pint and deep into telling a story to their other two companions, Akaja and Allana. Akaja had arrived earlier in the day to meet them, having traveled several days but keeping them updated via her peculiar talent of just manifesting a projection of herself out of thin air.
Allana, the latest member of this odd tribe that Khloe met, was sitting with her back to the wall. Though Allana took care to appear invested in the story Aedyn was telling, Khloe could tell that her thoughts were elsewhere. There were shadows behind Allana’s eyes, and even if she was adept at hiding them from her friends, Khloe could see them clear as day.
Khloe pondered their meaning, and ultimately, how they could affect the group.
Aedyn had been serious about reuniting the entire remnant of the Shadow Vanguard, and there was one more piece remaining. Though he had kept their future plans a mystery, Khloe respected his role as lead of this merry band, and deferred to his judgement for now.
But there was still the matter of her father.
Though Aedyn had initially promised to take her to see him, to say her goodbyes, they had been taking their sweet time. It had been over three weeks since Aedyn came into Khloe’s life, and it had felt like a lifetime of experiences had passed since then. But Khloe’s growing concern was that her window of opportunity to see her father was growing very short – if not having already passed.
Khloe felt a rising pang of pain and regret clash with a newfound sense of responsibility. Her induction into the Shadow Vanguard, even if not quite by choice, was a very real duty. The powers she now wielded – powers Aedyn had claimed she inherited from a deceased former Vanguard – were both a fascination and a horror. But with those conflicting emotions came an even greater sense of responsibility to use those abilities for something more.
Though she had recently seen the dark side of that responsibility – being caught in a trap by bandits under the guise of defenseless victims – Khloe found herself undeterred. There had to be a purpose for her having these powers. Khloe was determined to find out. But in doing so, would she be able to say goodbye to her father in time?
Amid those conflicting emotions, she was reminded of her companions. Aedyn and Akaja, who had taken Khloe under their wing and endeavored to protect and train her. Akaja had been nothing but sweet and encouraging. Aedyn fit the part of a bold and charismatic leader, but Khloe could see a brooding demeanor that peeked through. It concerned her, but Khloe kept that to herself for now.
Allana was still a wild card. It had been a week since their little trip to “save” Allana, and in the interim she had little to say as they traveled to The Risky Reaver in Duhlwain. Khloe, from what little Aedyn and Akaja would say, had gathered Allana suffered great loss. Khloe certainly didn’t want to pry, and allowed Allana a wide berth so as to not impinge.
But even so, here she sat at a table with people she knew would have her back no matter what. Who fight and struggle for each other, to make each other better people, to somehow make this world better.
Khloe imagined that was friendship. It was something she wasn’t used to.
She had to admit it felt pretty damned nice.
Khloe’s attention snapped back to the conversation, but it appeared that Aedyn had just wrapped up his tale, as he took a moment to take a drink, as did Akaja. Allana looked down at her chalice, having nursed the same drink since they arrived. Khloe noticed that Allana had barely drank any of it.
Khloe turned back to Aedyn and Akaja, who had just so happened to glance in her direction at the same time. She favored them with a half-smile and widened eyes, not sure how to continue the conversation. They sat for a moment in silence.
“So,” Allana said at last, “do we know when Belmont is arriving?”
Aedyn turned his head towards the tavern’s entrance. “He was supposed to be here this morning. I guess he’s running late.”
“Or worse,” Allana offered.
There it was, Khloe noticed. Something passing across Aedyn’s face. Annoyance? Frustration?
“Now,” Aedyn responded, weighing the initial word with some gravity, “we both know that Belmont can handle himself against most folks.”
Allana shrugged. “I’m just saying it’s odd that he’s not here yet. He used to be so punctual.”
Akaja took another sip. “Last I heard he had taken up farming.”
Aedyn almost spat up his drink. “Belmont? A farmer?”
Akaja laughed. “Yeah. Why?”
“Do you remember how much he hated those couple of months we were stuck in Mozier and we had to work odd jobs to make some money? He was a farmer’s hand. He hated it.”
This elicited a small burst of laughter from Allana, which came as such a surprise Khloe found herself startled a little. She hoped no one noticed.
“And the farmer had a cousin that he fancied, remember? I think her name was Lucinda. And Belmont only stuck with the job even though he hated it. Then after a month he found out Lucinda had a wife. He was so mad he quit that same day!”
“Oh yeah,” Aedyn said. “Then that lead to some drama that I had to smooth over since Belmont quit right in the middle of the harvest. Shekta.”
Akaja raised an eyebrow. “Belmont always knew how to pick them.”
Then, simultaneously, the three long-time friends said “Candace” and erupted in laughter.
Even though she didn’t understand the reference, it wamed Khloe’s heart to see them reminiscing and laughing, especially for Allana. For a moment, it seemed like the darkness had lifted from her eyes. And however temporary, Khloe welcomed it.
This is friendship.
Belmont mused that the storm bellowed like two sky gods locked in fierce combat.
He entered the barn from the rain, leaving the door open. He moved quickly to the stalls, verifying that the various doors were properly secured. Belmont heard nervous movement throughout the wood structure, but was satisfied that none of the creatures were in danger of escaping into the tempestuous night. As he perused each stall he made mental notes for the rest of the week: what would need cleaning and mending. He considered the upcoming monthly market held in Avalace’s town square, and what wares, if any, he was going to take for barter.
When did this become my life?
It was not the first time Belmont had asked himself this question, but it was one he asked himself with increasing bemusement. Farming, tending to animals, leading a quiet, solitary life. It stood in such stark contrast to what he once was.
“That was a long time ago,” he found himself whispering.
Belmont shook his head, and proceeded to grab a nearby pitchfork. Methodically, he took hay and placed some clumps in various stalls. The barn door swung back hard with a sudden gust and banged loudly against the wall. Belmont paid it no mind; it wasn’t the first time he had gotten to work during a storm. As though it was weren’t peaceful enough living on the outskirts of town on his small plot of land, there wasn’t likely to be anyone roaming about in the middle of a bad thunderstorm.
They’d have to be crazy-
And then he sensed it.
Belmont turned back towards the barn entrance, the door now rocking back and forth in a knock knock pattern against the barn wall. For a moment there had been something. A shadow? A light footfall? Belmont shook his head. The wind, dummy, he thought to himself. It’s only storming outside.
Having lived a quiet life in Avalace for the past three years, Belmont wondered if he was beginning to get… soft? Paranoid? As though the tranquility were a well-crafted deception in which someone had trapped him? Belmont was uncertain, but something suddenly felt off.
He moved towards the door and looked outside. His cottage was barely visible from fifty yards away, thanks to a small light in the window. Rain and dark permeated everything around him save for the small lamp he had brought with him, its dull glow illuminating the barn interior.
Belmont stood there for a moment longer, daring the dark to send forth a champion for him to fight.
But none came.
Belmont pulled on the door and shut it tight, taking care to slide the latch into place so that it wouldn’t haphazardly open again. He looked back towards the dull russet interior of the barn and pondered what chore to tackle next.
Outside the barn, a hulking figure moved silently, retreating into the dark beyond the hills, its guttural breathing lost among the wind and rain.