The southern reaches of Orincia were a vast, open land of rolling hills, high grass, and few people. Outside of the single road that ran down to Oriona, the south was covered in small dirt trails that acted as cart paths for the isolated villages and farms in the lonely expanse. The lack of people seemed odd to Cato, as the north of the continent was much the same, yet completely covered in networks of stone roads and vast cities across the northern coast.

But when Cato bothered to look back the way they’d come, he began to have an idea why so few wanted to live this far south. The horizon to the south was red, a constant reminder of the magical barrier dividing the world and, especially now, not something Cato wanted to be reminded of.

He turned to look north again. Anica, Pel, and Kyros were a few paces ahead along the small road they followed, and the sky was a much more comforting blue. It had been five days since the incident at the cave along the southern coast. Nothing had attacked them since then, but the entire time the four of them had kept careful watch each night. The local animals always kept their distance, but it was hard to shake the uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched.

Cato tried to shake off the paranoia. He had to remind himself that, despite all odds, they were still alive. The days had been long, and his legs ached, but the pain was worth dealing with to get as far away from the south as possible. The only true complaints that Cato had were the food and the shelter, both created by Pel’s magic. A magical roof over one’s head was nice enough, but sleeping on the ground was beginning to make his back ache. And the food…it was not necessarily bad. Rather, the magically created food was some kind of flavorless thing that only served to give them enough energy to go on.

Anica was insistent that they not stop at any villages that were nearby, both for fear of endangering the people there and because it would slow them down. Both Cato and Kyros had complained about this in the first couple of days, but had given up by now. The brothers knew when they weren’t going to win, and Anica was determined to keep them moving for as long as possible.

She claimed they were headed for a port that should only be a week away, but Cato was fairly sure that time was determined from horseback and not while on foot. From there, the plan was to find a ship that would taken them north, across the Achaen Sea to Cyronell. It was at that point that the plan seemed to grow vague, as Anica simply insisted they would deal with the problems as they presented themselves.

Cato looked up at the sky. The sun was still high above, and that meant quite a few more hours of travel ahead of them. He picked up his walking pace enough to catch up with the rest of the group, finding them walking in the silence that meant another argument was preparing to come to the surface.

So, Cato decided he might as well get it going himself, “Anica.”

The young woman turned and gave him a cautious look, already preparing to be on the defensive, “Hm?”

“Why is it that each time you attempt to convince us that this plan is a good idea, the details get very hazy once you talk about reaching Cyronell?” Cato decided that if he was going to start another fight to keep them busy, he was damn well going to do it the right way.

Anica’s eyes narrowed slowly. When she spoke, however, her voice remained calm and controlled. Somehow, that made Cato all the more uncomfortable, “Didn’t we just have this fight last night?”

“You never actually answered the question,” Kyros spoke up, a little too happily.

But Anica ignored him, already learning the best tactic for dealing with Cato’s brother, and let out a long sigh. Turning to look ahead as they walked, she eventually managed a shrug, “I don’t have an answer.”

“Why?” Cato tried his best not to raise his voice. There was something here he hadn’t seen before, and it was just below the surface.

Pel looked up from her studying of the book as she walked with them, raising an eyebrow far higher than seemed physically possible, “We cannot know until we arrive at the Citadel.”

Cato turned to try to read the Elf’s expression, but she quickly dove back into studying that maddening tome that seemed to be the only protection they had against ancient evils that were certainly following them.

Before he could ask the obvious question, however, Anica spoke up again, “Do you know anything about the Citadel?”

Cato shook his head, “Not at all.”

In fact, he knew very little about the continent to the north beyond some stories told by sailors when he was a boy, and those were not the things one tended to believe upon growing up.

Anica waved her had vaguely ahead of her, “It is what it sounds like. A fortress on the southern coast of Cyronell, occupied by a group of religious fanatics.”

“What?!”

Rather than feed into Cato’s shock at that fact, Anica turned to him and shrugged, barely managing to look sympathetic, “They have one of the greatest repositories of knowledge and are much less likely to brand us heretics and have us killed than the other options for learning about this tome.”

“Oh,” Cato sighed, “So you haven’t mentioned it before because you can’t be sure if they’ll help us or sacrifice us to some vengeful god?”

Anica smiled politely and nodded, “If it helps, I’m fairly certain their god is only concerned with punishment of those that offend him directly. We’ll probably be fine.”

“That’s comforting,” both Cato and Kyros spoke the words in unison.

Anica laughed at that before picking up the pace some, “You two don’t have to come, you know.”

Cato rolled his eyes and called after her, “Yes, of course. We can wander off and be killed by those horrible monsters instead.”

“Exactly!” Anica was suddenly in a disturbingly happy mood.

Cato just sighed and shook his head. This was what he got for asking questions: answers. Answers always seemed to make things worse. And there was no way he was getting away from this tome as long as those creatures were still afraid of whatever was held within.

So he simply resigned himself to the fact that, unless something drastic happened, they would soon be face to face with another group of religious madmen that would probably want them all dead not long after they arrived.

Some things would never change.