A few hours have already passed since his ascent and the sun that once smiled down upon the land has started to retire, giving way to its counterpart.
Finding the rune was his utmost priority. And the pursuit of knowledge and unraveling the secrets of the unknown came in a close second. He was an oddball, especially since no sane person would dare venture into the mountains that were infested not only by wildlife, but bandits and monsters alike.
Yuhan’s trek up the mountain was not short on challenges and he had already encountered a few obstacles along the way after a couple of hours into his ascent.
Once, he almost fell down to his death on one of the mountain’s edges when his footing suddenly gave in and collapsed. Luckily for him, he was able to jump across a nearby ledge and survive the death fall. And shortly after that near death fall, stumbling upon a group of ravenous wild boars and ending up as dinner was the last thing he expected. But lady luck seemed to be watching over him that though he was about to become boar food, he slipped through a ravine, barely missing the boars charging by a hair’s breadth by slipping a ravine and falling down on a thick ground moss that broke his fall.
But even then, those obstacles were not enough to deter him.
“Phew!” He exclaimed as soon as he stumbled upon a mountain clearing. He carefully glanced up to look above, the sky almost fully cloaked by darkness and soon to be basked in the silver rays of the moon. “That late already, huh?” he said before his stomach let out a loud growl.
A bead of sweat rolled down from the side of his temple as he came to a sudden realization: he hadn’t eaten anything since noon. The euphoria of finding out about the rumored rune in the mountains was just too much that he completely forgot about the most basic thing.
“Geez… I can’t believe I forgot to eat.” He scratched the back of his head before another growl came. “Yeah, yeah. I heard you. Now, let’s see… according to that map, that cavern should be somewhere around here…”
He looked around him, searching for a good place to eat and stay the night. Surveying the area, the perfect spot for him should be elevated and somewhat isolated to prevent any wildlife, or worst, monsters to find him. The mountain was devoid of any kind of vegetation that not even a single full tree was around, except for a couple of dead trees. He continued walking, searching for that perfect spot until he heard the sound of running water from a distance.
Following the source of the running water, Yuhan soon found a waterfall with a cavern behind.
Taking a makeshift torch out of his bag, he lighted it up and cautiously raised it forward, wary of what might be lurking ahead. He picked up a medium sized rock lying around and tossed it down the cavern, its tumbling sound causing a slight echo before completely disappearing into the darkness.
He waited a few minutes in silence, hoping that it wouldn’t wake whatever monsters may be lurking. Then he heard the sound of a gentle breeze coming from the caverns. “Well, here goes,” he stated before cautiously continuing down the dim lit path.
Using the torch to light his way, his footsteps echoed as he continued to walk. Every now and then, he could feel the gentle breeze of the wind from inside stroking his cheeks as if leading the way. The gushing sound of water slowly disappearing into the background as he went deeper down the caverns.
A few minutes later, Yuhan reached a small room. Piles of junk and old tools littered the clearing, full of cobwebs. By the walls hang a few shelves, full of broken vials and bottles. In the middle was a table with a few candles that almost reached the end of its stick.
“This should do.” He walked over to the table, picked up a few of the knocked up candlesticks and, using the torch, lighted them up, slightly illuminating the room. Once settled, he took a seat down on the ground, pulled a small rice ball from his bag, and started chomping it down before taking out an old map and carefully.
Seeing as the map had almost completely dried out, the lines and legends were almost a blur that anyone can barely make out anything. It almost seemed a miracle that the old map even survived all those years it was passed down from traveler to traveler. Based on its previous owner, a traveler he chanced upon back at the small village of Odessa, the map was a hundred years old. Coincidentally, on the same day he received the map, he caught wind of a rumor going around the village about a mysterious rune.
And the mere mention of the rune was enough reason for him to come to the mountains.
If there’s even the slightest chance that it might be the Astrid rune then…
“Hmm… according to this map, this cavern should lead me to the ruins of Odyssey…” he muttered, tracing his finger along the map. He took another bite from his rice ball and soon, the historian was fully engrossed as he studied the old map.
Interrupting his thoughts was a sweet scented aroma that slowly filled the room. What is that smell? He looked around, searching for the source of the aroma, when he noticed a thin cloud of mist forming around him. Alarmed, Yuhan pulled himself and up on his toes. But his legs suddenly felt numb, causing him to stagger and fell backwards upon the wall behind.
W – What the…?
The sounds of footsteps soon dawned upon him, followed by a male’s voice. “Finally! We’ve been waiting forever for ye to find this place!”
Looking up in front of him, Yuhan saw them. Three men came from the opening, spreading out around the room as they encircled him. Mismatched clothing, dirty bandannas and half of their faces concealed by a mask were dead giveaways for their identities.
Moving was a struggle. And even with the wall against him, Yuhan could barely hold himself up, let alone lift even an inch of his finger.
By then, his whole body was numbed. His eyes felt the heaviness upon his eyelids as he struggled against the drowsiness clearly induced by the now thick mist in the room. His vision started to blur and he could barely make out the bandit that was walking towards him. Slowly, Yuhan felt himself sliding against the wall and he fell on his knees.
The bandit crouched down in front of him, clearly unaffected by the poisonous mist, as he stared down on the historian. He rolled up his sleeves, and a familiar mark appeared on his arm. And Yuhan felt the familiarity with the mark.
“Why, hello there, Mister Historian,” he said in a mocking tone. He let out a ridiculing laugh as he watched Yuhan weakly glance up to him. “I heard you’re loaded.”
Loaded…? Yuhan wanted to say, but no words came out of his mouth. He was just too exhausted at the moment to even utter a single word.
Soon, his eyes shut completely and he fell on the ground, his consciousness slowly started to drift. “We’ll… of you… Don’t…. Hehe…” he heard the bandit say, sifting through his words of what sounded like a slur, followed by another fit of laughter.
But just before Yuhan lost consciousness, a still image appeared in his mind of a young girl. Noticing his short stature, he looked at himself and realized that he was back to being a young boy. The time that was once frozen started to flow and the sweet scent of moonlit flowers soon filled the air.
Her back was turned from him as she sat in the middle of the flower garden, humming a tune to herself. With a crown of flower on her head, her long, silver blue hair flowed on her back as it was swayed by the gentle breeze. Suddenly, the humming stopped. And as if answering a call, she slowly turned towards him, her azure eyes – as pure as the sky – lit up as they met each other’s gaze.
Then she smiled.
       
Slowly opening his eyes, Yuhan awakened from the sound of a familiar voice calling out to him. The surrounding brightness caused his eyes to twitch, almost blinding. Where am I? He wondered, expecting to see the young girl that flashed in his mind before it was all but a fleeting dream.
A figure hovered above, his small stature obscured by the light against him.
Why are you calling me that…?
“Wake up, mister Yuhan!”
“Stop…” he mumbled under his breath, “… calling… me that…”. His eyes still twitched as he adjusted to the sudden brightness and it took him a good second to see the owner of the familiar voice. “Miek…?”
“Mister Yuhan!” He exclaimed. Tears had formed in his eyes and his face wrapped in worry. “Mister Yuhan! You’re finally awake!” he exclaimed.
What just happened? he wondered as he tried to pull himself up. However, the tingling sensation on his body, like he was pierced by thousand needles, hasn’t completely subsided. And the dull pain reminded him of what transpired before he was knocked out.
Right, mountain bandits.
Though still feeling a little numb, it was no time for him to just be laying around. He had to escape. Finding the runes had its perils, but he was prepared for it. Besides, it wasn’t the first time he was caught. He had been detained by soldiers of the Astrean Alliance before during his journey anyway.
But comparing that to being held in captivity by bandits was not a good idea. Yuhan knew that much. Unlike those soldiers, these mountain bandits were nothing short of a disaster. He was certain that he was a goner when he got paralyzed and they showed up. Perhaps they’ve thought that they could still get him to good use.
Brushing off the numbness, Yuhan pulled himself up to the ground. He staggered a little and almost lost his balance, but Miek rushed to his side. “Thanks,” he said as he looked at him.
“Don’t mention it. This is the least we could do.”
“The least you can…—?” He wondered aloud, but cut himself off his words. “What are you even doing here, Miek? Where’s Ike?”
Miek’s eyes widened upon the inquiry and he quickly averted his gaze to his side and away from the historian. Tears soon formed in the corners of his eyes, his hands balling into a tight fist and teeth gritted with welling anger. “We tried to lure them away from you, you know?” He said, sniffing as he tried to hold back his tears. “My brother and I thought that if we can keep them away from you, we could at least repay your kindness.”
“But… but… they caught up to us. They demanded the coins you gave us and then…” the young boy continued as Yuhan listened. But with every word that he spoke, it made it harder for him to hold back his tears. “Ike… Ike didn’t say anything. So… so… and then they asked me…”
“… — Miek, show me your arm.”
A look of guilt spread across the boy’s face. And this reaction only confirmed Yuhan’s suspicions.
He didn’t need to hear more. By now, he could piece all the story together and had a good idea of the situation. The rumors of a rune spreading around the village Odessa, the traveler who gave him the old map and the brothers who offered to take him to the mountains, it was just too good to be nothing more than mere coincidences. No wonder the mark on the bandit’s arm looked eerily familiar. Miek had the same one on his arm, and he could safely deduce that Ike had one, well hidden from prying eyes.
Those pieces of evidence gathered made it clear. Everything was all a part of a devious scheme to lure travelers in search of the greatest treasure, only to fall prey to those bandits. He could only imagine how many people have fallen for such a scheme.
And now, those same bandits have held Ike and Mike against their well, despite being one of them. Yuhan could only expect the worst for Ike.
Despicable. Resorting to petty banditry is one thing. But to use a child…
Snapping back to his senses, Yuhan turned his attention back to the kid. The kid was now facing him, his arm exposed and the same mark as the bandit clearly visible. A look of remorse filled his tear-stricken face.
“I’m so sorry,” he uttered, voice breaking as tears started flowing down his cheeks. His body trembled, trying to keep the sobs from escaping his lips. During the short time they spent together, the historian only showed them kindness and even extended his help for them to turn over a new leaf. If only they had tried even harder…
“Please, Mister Yuhan…” he continued, tilting his head down in embarrassment and tears. “I know I shouldn’t be asking you this, but please…” he sobbed quietly as he let his head lean against the historian. He didn’t know how his plea would be possible, but he had to implore. “Please help my brother…”
The sound of metallic door opening reverberated loudly across the room, drowning the boy’s desperate pleas. Yuhan turned towards the door and there stood the same trio of bandits, their eyes menacing with a smug grin across their lips. Miek hid behind the historian as two of them walked towards them, while the other stayed behind.
The shortest of the bandit saw Miek before faring his eyes at Yuhan and stared at him for a good second. Then he let out a scoff, his brows creased in a mocking manner before letting out a hoot of laughter. “Hey, these punks are awake!”
Creeping towards Miek, the second of the bandit commented. “Ha! A wimp, cowering behind another wimp!” Miek cowered behind, his hand clutched on Yuhan’s hem. The bandit let out a snicker. “Ha! After all these years, and you’re still a wimp, Miek?!”
Yuhan ushered Miek behind him, obstructing the boy from the bandit’s eyes. The second bandit’s face soured and he quickly pulled out a dagger as he glared at him. The historian held his ground, unfazed, as he met his gaze.
“Hey, knock it off!” yelled the other before throwing a boot to his companion and away from his side. He walked towards the historian, closing the gap between them until they’re standing face to face.
He must be trying to intimidate me, Yuhan thought as he looked down on the bandit who stood just right about his shoulder level.
A staring match ensued. The bandit glared at the historian with such intensity as if death loomed behind him and ready to smite the latter down any second. A wimpy historian should cower before the might of a deadly bandit!
But Yuhan, as unlikely as it may be, stared right back at him in the most stoic way possible that angered the bandit even more.
“You, punk!” the bandit yelled, gritting in anger. “You should know by now that I could easily chop that head off your shoulder any time!”
“I hold your life in the palm of my hands!”
“Yeah, I don’t see it any other way.”
“I can shred you,” the bandit growled, “Grind you. Bury you. Hang you to dry.” At this point, the bandit was throwing out all the several ways he concocted to make his victims beg for their lives.
But the historian still seemed unfazed.
In a fit of fiery rage, he yanked him down by his shirt to his eye level and held him at knife point. “Yeah, I don’t see you REALLY understand your situation, punk,” he hissed through his ears, the sharpness of his dagger reflected on his eyes. “Killing you and that other punk would be easy for us, the Cerberus bandits.”
The bandit’s name rang a bell and Yuhan had to dig through his memories for any information he had stumbled upon them. He didn’t have to look that far though. After all, though the bandit group was notoriously known for pillaging and looting every place in their way, they were also known as a dangerous band of ruthless murderers. Yuhan hadn’t had any run-ins with said bandit group yet in his lifetime, but…
The bandit sneered, before continuing. “Except –”
“– Except you still need me for something, right?” Yuhan cut him off his words.
The look on the bandits’ faces confirmed his suspicions right off the bat. Even without the knowledge of them being of Cerberus, the fact that they kept him alive only meant that he could still be of use. But that use far exceeds the reason to just kill him right then and there. Whatever that reason may be, he’ll just have to find out. For now, he had found himself a leverage he could use to ensure that no harm will come to Miek.
“Of course,” the bandit responded, his lips forming a huge grin.
“Tsk!” The bandit scoffed with a spit. Releasing his hold on Yuhan, he cursed under his breath before shoving him back. “I’ll make sure to cut off that tongue once we’re done with you!”
“Let’s make a deal,” the historian said. “Swear that you won’t lay a finger on Miek.” Miek tensed up upon hearing his words and he clutched on his hem even more. “I’ll do what you want me to do, even give you what you want. Just swear that you’ll spare him and his brother.”
The other bandits burst out in a fit of haughty laughter.
“You don’t get to negotiate, boy!” yelled the bandit that was kicked on the ground.
“Shut up!” exclaimed the short one before giving him another boot and the former let out a yelp.
Yuhan thought that if only he was in a different situation, it would have been comical, if not pathetic. But if they are indeed members of Cerberus, then he had to keep playing his cards right, if he was to survive the present ordeal and help out the brothers.
He turned to his companions and growled. “Take this punk to Mido!”
The bandit on the ground quickly got up and scurried over to Yuhan, shoving Miek in the process. The young boy fell with a loud thud, much to Yuhan’s chagrin. Miek tried to get up, but was stopped short when the other bandit pointed a dagger at him.
The historian threw a deadly glare at the bandits that if looks could kill, they would have dropped on the ground in an instant. But the bandits ignored him and proceeded to tie him from behind, his threats seen as nothing more than empty threats from a pup. Once secured, he was pushed from behind by the bandit before ushered outside the prison, leaving the young boy behind.
Miek got up as soon as they exited, running up towards the door, only to have it shut in front of him. “Mister Yuhan!” he exclaimed, his voice echoing within the dim-lit corridor.
And once the footsteps subsided, the boy let himself slide down and his body sunk, his head low as tears streamed down his eyes once again as a grim thought plagued his mind.
A historian would stand no chance against these bandits.