Grozorgthe Fall Book1

Cover of Grozorgthe Fall Book1










 

GROZORG

THE FALL

 
















 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2019 Jonas Wong

 

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

Printed in Canada

Third Edition

 

First Printing March 31, 2019

 

ISBN 978-1-092-30620-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Mom and Dad

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Open Letter

 

I have taken it upon myself to document the events that had forever altered the course of Grozorg. It is my duty to inform, to warn, to plead.

 

To whomever this dossier may come across, please dwell on these five simple words for a moment:

 

Your life is at stake.

 

There is no stopping the plague now, but you still have time to act before it gets the best of you; your friends, your family, your nation.

What does it all mean when everything I, Prokun Ulterium, have done comes to nothing? If the acts of my life fail to convince you, if the countless life changing acts of my story fail to persuade you, at least think of the ones you love.

You can never get the ones you love you lose back.

My father had always said, “Ulterium, take it all in and discern for yourself. The good, the bad, the right, the wrong, take it all in and discern.” So now, I have repainted the memories through a descriptive first-person perspective in hopes of appealing to you the legend of our great nation divided; the good, the bad, the right, the wrong. From my first-hand experience to the eyewitness accounts vividly described to me, I have created a sole chronological tale in hopes that you would come to our aid against the final frontier of Ultyrannust’s blight.

Please listen to my story. Our story. It begins with fourteen islands, once peacefully drifting along the unknown rim of the galaxy in unity. The entire utopia, formerly known as Growzorg, advanced into a complicated, mutual society renamed Grozorg.

Each island represents a different element, each element vital in the formation of the nation. The domains are chained together by bridges, upheld by an unseen force and protected by a serpent simply titled “The Gravity Dragon” and four ancient titans few had lay eyes on before. Every island is governed by a more-or-less monarchical system with a ruling lord, descendants of the high lord.

Twelve elemental islands encircle a main, larger piece of land. Twelve lords rule the twelve smaller islands, while a king governs the main central land, granting it the soliloquy Mainland Grozorg. Apart from the thirteen domains floats another island, which houses the high lord. He is responsible for overlooking every island, as opposed to a lord ruling his or her sole island. To the north of Mainland Grozorg drifts the domain of metal. Heading eastward comes the domain of water, life, space, air, illusion, electricity, rock, fire, ice, time, and nature. The central island and the furthest island, however, represents no element.

The twelve elemental islands also house an individual that has perfected their element, working at the side of their lord. The elemental masters could summon or control their respective element at ease, known throughout Grozorg as Mancers. The twelve Mancers were also representatives of their nations, and they would hold regular meetings in the Chamber of Mancers, located on Mainland Grozorg, to discuss the wellbeing of the nation. When they were near death, they would select an unknown individual to pass on their esoteric trade and title.

I do not wish to bore you any further; only to inform you of the bare basics of our former glory. Grozorg has lived at peace for centuries and centuries in the seemingly perfect system until history took a dark, dark, turn.

He has shattered the harmony in his search for power, destroyed every family in his selfish act, trampled peace in his corrupted conquest.

And he is coming for you.

 

Prologue

 

His father’s room stood in front of him; the royal bedroom. Prince Tyrannust VI confronted the door, gazing deeply into the reinforcing iron bars that embraced the heavy wooden entrance.

The Prince had a simple thought. A devilish grin smeared across his nonchalant face.

With a silent wave of his hand in the air, the hard wood in front of him gave way to a slight crack. A snap followed the wave from the Prince, causing the door to burst into splinters.

“Who’s there?” the High Lord queried tiredly. He had just woken up from a restless night of agonizing visions. Moreover, he had had a dynamic feud with his son that persisted late after midnight.

The Prince gave no reply. He slowly prowled towards the royal figure that was lying stationary on the unkempt bed. The floorboards creaked under his heavy footsteps, and his determined face emulated his apathetic heart.

“Son,” his father noticed, with no tone of dispute left from last night’s fight, “is there something wrong?”

The High Lord made an effort to turn towards his grim-mannered son. With a grunt, he heaved himself to a right angle and rubbed his eyes. His wrinkled skin displayed the priceless experiences and wisdom gained, but his visions of prosperity and wealth for the lands had faded since the last few centuries of ruling Grozorg. He knew he was old, but if time admitted, he would rule for another century or so before handing his position over to the next heir. His wife had died a decade before, a sudden and tragic loss the entire kingdom mourned over. Already burdened with the kingdom’s rapid growth and the threat of otherworldly attacks occurring unexpectedly, he was undoubtedly more concerned for his only son’s well being.

“What is it, Tyrannust? Is there something bother--”

He got no further. The Prince pounced forward and clutched his father’s throat, raising him high above the bed.

“Son!” the High Lord choked with a shocked startle. His eyes widened as he flailed his arms in a desperate attempt of escape, attempting to pry free from his son's iron grip. His broadsword was two meters away, helplessly tumbled on the ground. The High Lord was weak now, compared to the powerful Prince.

“Make me king,” the Prince demanded suddenly, firmly.

Two armoured men rushed in through the gaping hole in the wall. “Lord, is there something--”

Before the Royal Guards could intercept, they were engulfed in a black flame spewed from the Prince’s Red Dragon. The dragon had followed his master to the royal bedroom, lurking in the dark shadows of the hallway.

“You are of no use anymore. Where were you when mother died? You were ‘busy’ in your planning room, not admitting that it was you who ruthlessly poisoned her!”

“It...wasn’t...me...” the High Lord struggled to enunciate. Gasping for air, his son tightened his clutch. “Is... Is this what this...this is all about?”

The Prince decided to aside the accusation into a different direction, which still led to the same conclusion.

“Where were you when I needed you? I had to fend myself from the dangers ever since I was born!” The Prince roared. “What did you do? Gift me a dragon to take your place? Grandfather did a better job than you! You... fool! You paid for the weak and allowed the rich to bypass their debts!”

On the contrary, Grozorg had been a much happier place following the death of High Lord Tyrannust IV. The outgoing personality of Tyrannust V, along with his insisting aid for the lower class to create equilibrium amongst the other classes had earned him commendable praise - although mostly from the powerless peasants.

Prince Tyrannust VI seized his chance now. His father had received a crippling blow to his right leg about a month ago from a small rebellion led by the higher-ranked warriors, soon resolved through a mass execution, leaving only a few tractable nobilities. Along with his father’s deteriorating age, the Prince saw a spark of opportunity and seized it.

“Son...please!” the High Lord gurgled, eyes rolling back.

“I won’t let you die like this,” the Prince spoke mercifully. Releasing his father, he reached for the High Lord’s sword and pointed its tip towards his father’s throat, giving him no time to escape. Blood trickled down the High Lord’s frail neck as he froze in action of gasping for air.

“Even your closest officials have betrayed you,” the Prince hissed, “they all look up to me!”

The Prince leaned in, finally speaking the truth behind his actions. “When you placed that man in power, you left no room for me. You gave my rightful possession away - you made me another one of your servants! I deserved the throne...but I got nothing!”

“Is that what you want? A title? My title? I’ll give you anything! Anything!”

The High Lord was drenched in fear, frozen in an awkward slump on his bed.

“Anything?” Tyrannust VI asked.

“Tyrannust, you’re better than this!”

“Anything?” the Prince pressed unrelentingly.

The young Prince cackled wickedly as he shifted the blade lower. “Then let me be the Highest Lord of Grozorg!”

Frigid shock swept across the High Lord’s face as the sword pierced his heart.

 

I

 

“It’s heading left,” Kadava whispered. He was dressed in a simple sackcloth shirt with a patched leather vest tossed on. It was his typical outfit, and nothing I said could change what he wore.

“The marks are getting deeper and deeper; is it slowing down?” I inquired. The parquet bear-like paw prints that scattered evenly across the glistening freshly fallen snow led deeper into the foreboding forest.

“Well, at least it’d be easier for us to track it down, especially in this damned wasteland of trees.”

“Ulterium,” Foku spoke on my left. Through most of the trek, he had been the quietest, focused only on the game. He wore his purple silk top hat and a matching violet cloak, a sense of mystery shrouding Foku, armed with his unique signature lance strapped to his back. “Look over there,” he pointed rightwards.

A flash of gray was followed by a heavy bustle through a distant withered bush as it attempted to escape. Though it was only visible for a split second, I caught a clear glimpse of its features.

“That’s...a lykos,” I breathed in amazement. “All along the lykos was trying to fool us, creating nonsense twists and turns to divert our attention, trying to tire us out! That’s what they would do to any hunter. No wonder it took us so long to keep up with it!”

“You said ‘lykos’...” Kadava trailed off disbelievingly.

“It’s the only four-legged beast cunning enough to deter a tracker. This would make us a fortune if we hunt it down!”

“Aren’t lykos supposedly extinct? They all disappeared after Zxyx’s reign, didn’t they?” Foku hesitantly asked.

“We seldom hunt on Lord Cryann’s island; you’d never guess what still resides in this wretched forest. In fact, I’d admit this forest creates somewhat of a palisade to the beasts within. If we catch this lykos, and it’s a big one too, our names would be known across Grozorg!”

“Our names are already known across Grozorg,” Kadava scoffed. “We’re bounty hunters, not hunters.”

“Hey,” Foku interrupted. “What if we cut straight across the forest? If the lykos keeps up with this pattern, we might be able to outpace it!”

Frankly, I was too busy talking to have noticed a trackable pattern of the lykos.

“That’s a pretty big risk though,” I spoke, raising an eyebrow, “but it’s worth a shot,” I resolved with a smile. “After you.”

Picking up our pace, we traced the hypotenuse of our game’s detour, leading deeper into the heart of the forest.

“Um, Ulterium,” Kadava said, breaking the silence. “You thought we were hunting a boar.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Even a boar would take three grown men to hunt and handle. Now you’re talking about an adult lykos!”

“What, you don’t think we can handle an adult lykos?”

“Have you not heard of the legends of lykos back in the days?”

“I have, yet you haven’t answered my question yet.”

“King Fulcan required the best squadron from his elite legion to pin down a single lykos!” Kadava’s voice rose. “Even then, it took an hour and a half until his broadsword could penetrate through the muscular derma and pierce the heart of the beast! You know that lykos aren’t only cunning; they’re strong and vicious as well!”

“I’m sure that’s all exaggerated. Besides, the High Lord Tyrannust V trained his own pack of hounds to hunt and take down lykos after Fulcan’s experience. Surely lykos aren’t that strong. Now if you don’t mind toning down a bit.”

“Exaggerated?!” Kadava shouted. His voice rang through the desolate branches as a few birds quickly fluttered overhead.

“Quiet!” Foku hissed, interceding Kadava and I. He pointed to the right. “We shifted too much to the left, now we’re getting farther away from the lykos!”

He lowered his fingers, revealing a parallel path a good twenty meters away. In between the two snow-blanketed paths, shriveled plants litter the ground with sharpened twigs and furnished thorns.

“It’s further down that other track over there,” Kadava indicated. “Right there!”

A gray blur shifted evenly farther and farther in the distance, under the dim rays that penetrated the dense canopy.

“Look, Kadava. I get your concerns,” I spoke with understanding as we shuffled onwards. “The reason I specifically chose you and Foku to hunt with me, the same reason why you both are my first mate and second in command, is because of your uncanny skills. Both you and Foku were well disciplined in mastering your strengths, and only with your crazy vision and his deadly accuracy will the guild continue to thrive. But your skills don’t determine your success, your will determines your success.”

“Was that prepped?” Foku teased with a slim smile. I rolled my eyes.

“So... you’re saying that we have the capability of actually handling the lykos,” Kadava said dryly, eyes narrowed.

“You wanna go back? Your call, but I’m not leaving. Worse comes to worse, we...”

“Improvise,” the two finished in unison.

“You already know,” I smiled. “Besides, we’ve almost caught up to it.”

“About that...” Foku responded slowly. “We didn’t catch up to it, it caught up to us.” Abruptly ceasing to a halt, Foku softly continued, “turn around slowly, and evade any eye contact.”

A trembling growl ripped through the underbrush behind us. A low grumble shook the dead dense woods from the rumble of the lykos’ powerful muscular chest.

“Blades up but don’t take your sheathes off. If a glint of light reflects off the metal and frightens the wolf, we would be in deep trouble.”

We occasionally stole glances at the lykos. It was astounding -- the body built bigger than a full-grown lion, teeth bared revealing slender fangs ready to seize any victim, and muscular forelegs paired with powerful forearms. It wasn’t any regular wolf; it had an elegant lucent silk coat that radiated under the weak sun, and sharp ears perched backwards on its pointed skull.

Kadava equipped his pair of battle kunai, blades wrapped with torn linen. I pulled out my dual sheathed krises as Foku prepared his electrical lance.

We were fully armed and prepared, when my mind started to race. I had no idea, nor personal experience, with a lykos. It slowly clawed closer to us, jaw gaping wider, baring more razor fangs. Kadava’s doubts soon became mine - a lykos? Was I crazy? Sure, boars were easy and bears achievable, but...a lykos?

“Prokun! What do we do?” Foku hissed. “It’s getting closer!”

Racking my brain, I recalled different methods on taking down beasts.

“What did King Fulcan do to kill that lykos in the legends?”

“First of all, he had a squadron of a dozen elite soldiers,” Kadava innocently reminded.

“He also had his acclaimed broadsword,” Foku added, glaring at the two short blades poking out of my hands.

The beast was now less than two meters away, crimson eyes locked somewhere on me. I knew it could pounce from there, and if any of our eyes met with its eyes, it would be over.

“It’s gonna maul us anytime now,” Kadava hissed with a rising panic. “Normally, I would stick with you till the end, but I’m ditching if you don’t do anything.”

Kadava was probably the only one in our entire guild to have dared spoke a thing like that to me, head of the Blood Guild. I had known him since we were young classmates. The reason I recruited him was for his exceptional ability, as well as his steadfast loyalty - well, except now.

All there was to do now was what I excelled at, what I was known for.

Improvise.

“Triperikleio formation,” I started. “Kadava flank right, Foku, left.”

In an instant, we positioned ourselves in a triangular formation around the lykos; Kadava on my right side and Foku on my left. The wolf spun around aggressively, realizing it had been outnumbered.

“Be quick because if it jumps, a man’s sure to go down!”

“Foku, shock second, I distract. Kadava, search!”

I had to risk it now. Standing firmly on the muddy ground, I looked up to meet its eyes. Immediately, the crimson eyes filled with rage and the muscular beast tore through the damp air towards me.

“Sheathes off!” I spat. “Foku, now!”

A beam of electricity blasted from Foku’s mystical pole arm, stunning the magnificent beast midair.

“Search!”

Lee quickly pranced around the lykos, examining the wolf in search for a weak point that would grant us an advantage over it. Sometimes the weak spot resulted from a previous accident. Other times, a weaker point on the beast was due to a birth defect.

“Right forearm back, left ear back!” Kadava quickly shouted.

As the lykos crashed into the ground, a sudden arrow whizzed past my right ear.

“Heads down! Ambush!” I cried.

“Who is it?”

A low voice broke through the bushes in reply.

“Sorry, I was aiming for the lykos,” the voice sneered.

I recognized that damned voice instantly. Turning around, I faced the bowman with a second arrow nocked on his bow. Somebody stepped out beside him, confirming my recognition - none other than the one and only Octavius Tarsus.

“What are you doing here?” I scowled at him, all thoughts of the lykos dispelled. “You nearly shot my ear off!”

“If I had a less professional ranger recruited, your ear would have already been off,” the voice cackled.

“And if you were well aware of the law, that would be eligible for two months in prison!” I snapped back.

“This is our lykos! Get outta here!” Kadava shouted angrily.

“Not anymore!” Tarsus laughed.

Instinctively, I turned back to where the beast once lay stunned at Kadava’s mention of the lykos. It had awoken from the shock, now prancing a couple meters away, leaping deeper into the forest.

“The law also states, ‘The first party to kill the beast has full ownership of the prize,’” Tarsus finished. “After it, men!”

A group of five leapt out of the bushes at Tarsus’ command, following their leader and his ranger towards the large wolf.

“They used us as pawns! We can’t lose! Let’s go!” I barked, enraged. Tailing Tarsus’ group, we sprinted towards the escaping lykos.

Octavius Tarsus was the head of a second guild, the Night Guild. There were only two guilds on Grozorg, and without a doubt, ours had always been in constant feud with his guild since the beginning of time. Moreover, there was a personal conflict between Tarsus and I -- problems overlapping problems every time he interfered with my doings. It seemed nearly impossible for him not to go where I went, and I should have known better today.

The Blood Guild, my guild, was founded by my father, passed down to me after his disappearance. Tarsus, alternatively, opened his guild after I inherited my father’s head position during the corruption of Lord Zxyx. Both guilds contained a variety of different classes, but stealth was the main attribute a guild searched for. It was no surprise Tarsus would hire an Arretan ranger, perfecting the bow and the blade; a master in the shadows. The specially trained longbowmen could only be found in the Terramancy domain, the domain of nature.

As we darted through the forest, the ranger nocked another arrow whilst keeping up with his guild, raising and aiming towards the hind leg of the lykos.

“Foku!” I quickly called. “Shoot his bow! Try not to hit him - but if you do, it’s all the same!”

We were a good ten meters from Tarsus’ last man, and another twenty behind the lykos. At even twenty meters, it was a guaranteed, if not fatal, shot performed by any skilled ranger. With a spark and a crackle, Foku’s lance blasted a neon beam.

A sequence popped into my head as I quickly spat it out. “Kadava, right, rendez-vous Tarsus! Foku, center disguise! I left, parallel Kadava!”

This sequence was one of our most practiced three-men formations, and our best as well. As Kadava ran right to flank Tarsus, I sprinted to Tarsus’ left, while Foku set up two illusions of me and Kadava beside him, so if anyone did look back, it would appear as if we were still together. This made Foku a valuable guildsman; his training in the Illusiomancy Domain taught him the arts of mind manipulation and, well, illusions.

Kadava was primarily our scout, and I, more or less, an assassin. The official title was an “experienced hunter”, but I preferred “assassin”. With strict perseverance, we began to outpace most of the Night Guildsmen, although Tarsus surprisingly matched our pace; he remained at a constant distance ahead of us.

The ranger halted to recover his priceless bow, ripped out of his hands but not damaged by the sudden burst of electricity from Foku. At least he was now no longer a threat to the lykos. Tarsus released a frustrated cry towards his ranger upon glancing backwards to check on our positions. Pulling out his unique shuang gou as we neared the tiring beast, he linked one hooked end of the blade to the other, swinging it faster and faster above his head.

We were kept at a five-meter gap behind Tarsus, and Kadava was still nowhere to be seen. The lykos had slowed down from exhaustion; it wasn’t the swiftest of all Canidae, yet it was still persisting a hard ten meters ahead of us.

If the swinging blade of Tarsus caught any part of the lykos, it would most definitely be a lethal blow, penetrating deep into the flesh of the wolf. His blade was probably forged in the Ferromancy Faction, where the strongest of all metals were welded. My blade was developed from the same faction as well, but the momentum of his special weapon gave a greater advantage in taking the lykos down.

Tarsus peered back occasionally, noting to himself that all three of us were still far behind him. Foku was doing an excellent job and I smiled devilishly at the oblivious Tarsus. He gave another frustrated cry as more of his guild members vanished behind the horizon of the dead trees. Foku kept a nice and steady pace to convince Tarsus that we had no chance of catching up, when in reality Kadava and I were about the same distance to the wolf as Tarsus.

A shadow silently shifted some thirty meters away on my right, and a vague silhouette drew closer, resembling a human figure. It had to be Kadava, still sprinting in the trees away from Tarsus’ line of sight. We were only a few meters away from the guild leader, disciplined in enduring long miles of running. I made a movement with my two short blades, crossing them above my head followed by pointing them towards Tarsus. Quickly, I reinforced my code by mimicking a quick spin with my blades above my head, pointing my two silver blades towards Tarsus’ weapon once more. Kadava repeated my actions quickly but clearly, stating his comprehension. This was the basic “render and repeat” protocol everyone in my guild had to learn. We couldn’t give ourselves away until the last moment - the devastating art of surprise.

Tarsus gradually slowed down, assuring himself that we were still far behind. The lykos had begun giving in to exhaustion as well, pace staggered and decreased in speed. It knew it couldn’t fight back when it was outnumbered by this many.

At last, the wolf tumbled down, tripping across a mossy branch that had fallen on the forest floor. Seizing the perfect timing, Kadava hurled his battle kunai towards Tarsus’ swinging blades, knocking the smooth rotation off balance. In smooth succession, Kadava leapt out from the trees and overtook Tarsus, both men dropping down onto the dusty ground. The shuang-gou was ripped out of Tarsus’ grip, sliding far beneath a thorny shrub. I jumped out concurrently, sprinting the last couple of meters towards the fallen lykos. Quickly, my blade sliced neatly into the upper region of its right forearm, recalling Kadava’s quick examination of the wolf’s weaker points. The large beast howled furiously, snapping its jaw towards my arm unsuccessfully. I reached into my back pocket to pull out a weighted hunter’s net, casting it onto the lykos. The wolf drained all of its energy fighting uselessly against the heavy net for liberty. In triumph, I placed a foot on the sturdy beast and raised my blade high.

“How... How did you...What?!” Tarsus spat out in shock, quickly regaining his footing.

Foku ran to join us after a thirty second delay, catching his breath.

“Clearly you know nothing of illusiomancy,” Foku chuckled.

“Who do you think you are?” Tarsus diverted his question towards Kadava, pressing aggressively towards the lean figure.

“Clearly you know nothing of ferromancy,” Kadava mimicked, showing no sign of fear from Tarsus’ intimidation. A small laugh escaped my mouth.

“You’re gonna pay for this! You're all gonna pay for this!” Tarsus stood up, infuriated. “Men, return! And you, Ulterium, I’m gonna get you next time...and you’re gonna lose,” the leader snarled before swiftly parting away angrily after recovering his blades, cursing the wind and everything around him.”

“Sucks to lose again, doesn’t it?” I shouted after him, seizing the air of victory. “Good work, guys,” I grinned, “but we’re not done with this thing yet. Let’s bring ‘er to the king and see what he’d give us in exchange.” Heaving the unconscious beast over our shoulders, we began our walk back to the palace of the king of Light and Purity.

 

II

 

It wasn't long before the lykos woke up. The beast panicked, struggling for freedom in the thick mesh. It caught us by surprise, thrashing itself onto the ground, producing a loud ‘whump’ onto the snow-glazed dirt.

“That was an unusually loud thump for even a wolf this size,” Kadava inquired skeptically. “And did you feel the ground quake? That surely couldn’t have been from the wolf.”

“Thanks for your innate skills,” I chuckled. “How would you know that wasn’t from the lykos?”

Securing the net that encased the lykos, I struck another blow onto the wolf’s thick skull, immediately putting the lykos to sleep. We continued our march through the dusk-fallen forest with the lykos across our shoulders, trudging our way across old snow that haphazardly carpeted the level ground. Snowflakes began to fall again, no surprise on this island of ice.

“Say, what season are we in right now? I can’t quite tell,” Foku spoke, glancing up at the drifting snowflakes. On Lord Cryann’s island, the only season was winter.

“That’s a good question. Can’t quite figure it out myself either,” I replied monotonously.

We were too distracted by the intriguing conversation to have heard another thump, miles closer than the last. Luckily, Kadava’s ears were perched, listening to any strange sound that followed the first thump

“You guys didn’t hear that?”

“What, the snow?” I asked.

“You’re joking, right? There was another thump! I knew it wasn't the damn wolf!”

Kadava wouldn’t joke about this, especially about something he was specialized in. As a scout, he naturally had keen eyesight and sharp hearing. We stopped conversing and remained alert, trekking the path quietly and pausing at even the slightest sound.

“Twigs,” Foku whispered briefly.

We arrived at the center of the foreboding waste of trees, a clearing with a large boulder that lay within. Halfway from the entrance and halfway near the exit, the significant layout that symbolized the heart of the forest would have been a sign of hope for others, but to me we were stuck. Dusk was rapidly draping the sky, and the cold season prevented the sun to shine any longer than six hours on this island. It was near evening, and we had to find our way out of the forest before the sun set, or else we would spend the night camped within the trees.

“If it weren’t for that damned Tarsus,” I muttered bitterly, trailing off in my thoughts, “we would have gotten the wolf and found our way outta here hours ago.”

“We didn’t even bring equipment to set up camp out here,” Kadava whispered.

“Didn’t think we needed to,” I answered simply. The temperature dropped by another two degrees as the hour slipped by, and we were three quarters towards the exit.

“Full moon,” Foku observed, fascinated by the bright white sphere miles above us. “I’ve always wanted to learn the ways of caelomancy.”

“We’re almost there. We might not need to set cam--”

Thump!

The ground shook at the sudden sound and the freshly fallen snow leapt up, drifting gracefully back down to the dirt floor.

“I told you!” Kadava yelled in excitement.

“Are you crazy?!” I snapped harshly in a whisper. “You probably just gave our position away to whatever that was!”

That kid was great with senses, except for common sense.

“Sorry, I was...” Kadava whispered apologetically, dragging his words.

“What would roam the forest here, at this time of night?” Foku asked, switching our attention back to the mysterious noise.

“What if it was just Tarsus messing with us again?” I remarked bitterly.

That comment was quickly disposed when a shrill cry pierced the night.

“You both heard that, right?” Kadava plainly asked, frozen mid-step.

“That’s Tarsus! I know that voice from miles away. He’s still here?”

“No surprise. We’re still here too,” Foku pointed out.

“Run!” The faint distant voice seemed to command as it grew closer and more audible.

“That’s something Tarsus would never say,” Foku said.

“Something’s wrong and it can’t be Tarsus. Better get moving.”

The snow began to fall again as I led the three men pack with the lykos along the path, closer to the exit of the forest.

“Run!”

The voice was directly behind us now, followed by an earth-shattering stomp that caught us off balance. The dazed lykos fell off our backs as we regained footing. Tarsus suddenly sped past us, hollering to pick up the pace and run or die.

“Grab the wolf and follow Tarsus!”

Some of his men zipped past us, dropping their weapons and garments along the way to ensure a greater speed advantage to escape whatever was pursuing them. The heavy burden upon our backs slowed down our agility, but the growing thundering noise of an approaching threat kept us moving. It was a slow, rhythmic pace, but every time the heavy thunderous step took another stride, it was miles and miles closer; nevertheless, a large monster that would reach us in no time.

We caught up to the last of Tarsus’ men, despite the big wolf heaved across our backs. I glanced over and recognized the Arretan sharpshooter, with his bow strapped around his arm. No doubt he stopped to recover that expensive bow, even at all costs.

“What is it?” I asked him. The snow began to fall faster and faster, hindering our haste.

The ranger glanced at me and furrowed his brows in anger as he recalled the three of us.

“Why don’t you find out?” He spat with a heavy accent, picking up the pace to swiftly shift through the winter storm and looming forest.

We kept our constant dash, following the last of the Night Guild. It wasn’t long before the border of the forest finally came into sight, and most of the Night Guild had trickled out already.

“Almost there!”

A good fifteen meters more and we would be out of the cold forest. I pushed myself onwards and sprinted towards the exit, with Foku and Tarsus following my footsteps closely.

Suddenly, a behemoth slammed down before us, a foot in front of me, halting our movements abruptly. The Arretan ranger had narrowly escaped the silhouette’s devastating landing.

“Oh...damn,” I whispered.

The titan was concealed by its own shadow, a giant towering high above the weak crooked trees. A red glint reflected off its broad shoulders under the bright moonlight. The head was draped, and strapped onto its back was a double-bladed axe that glistened with an attractive gold. The beast was heavily armoured, a dark maroon in the black night. It was magnificent and awe-striking; none other than the one and only spoken in the legends.

“You...you think it’s here for the wolf?” Foku whispered nervously behind me, a trembling voice coated with fear.

I don’t reply, petrified before the looming titan.

The great figure did not speak. On the contrary, it lowered its right arm and unfurled its enormous palm in front of me, waiting.

Quickly, I untangled the net that had once held the lykos captive. The lykos was still dazed, but beginning to regain strength. I brought the heavy lykos with Foku and Kadava to the hand and placed the wolf in its palm. The huge palm wrapped around the wolf gently in response, and with the index finger of its other hand, it began to stroke the lykos’ silk coat carefully. The behemoth stood up with the injured wolf and produced a low grumble as it stared at the three of us. After a moment, it leaped high into the sky, landing somewhere distant behind us with the same forceful stomp we had previously heard.

“Well, we just lost our game.”

“Oh, we might’ve lost our game, but we met the legend today. Have you ever seen the Potestatem Primo with your own eyes?”

“You sure that was Potestatem? I mean, that could have been any of the four Primos.”

“Certain. Potestatem wields an axe and is armoured in red, or so it says in the legends.”

Four guardians of Grozorg roamed the nation and were known as the Primos. As the epics stated, each of the four resembled an aspect that upheld the nation; power, magic, stealth, and restoration. Of course, many had known the existence of the four Primos, but only a select few had actually witnessed them with their own eyes. Potestatem Primo, the largest of them all, was known for its dedication to the conservation of wildlife, and it was no surprise to see it recover an endangered species from our very hands.

“Even though we didn’t gain anything today, we, on the other hand, conquered a live lykos and met the Potestatem itself!”

“How often is it to meet two living myths in the same day?”

“That’s true. But what matters most is that we beat Tarsus.”

“Two living myths in the same day...” I echoed Kadava’s words. “Isn’t that a bit...odd?”

We started the trek back to our guild, ambivalent about everything that had just occurred.

“What do you think the Potestatem’s gonna do with the lykos?” Kadava asked, disappointment in his voice.

“Probably release it somewhere else, perhaps on Lord Naterra’s island or something. The forest there is a lot denser, and hunting is also illegal there. Chances are there are more lykos there too.”

“Maybe.”

“Well on the bright side, we now know that the guardians aren’t dormant or anything. It was a small deed, but a good deed by the Potestatem, and he also spared our lives.”

“I guess...”

“Don’t think too much about it. We have a big day tomorrow because I’m gonna find a way to get back at Tarsus,” I grinned devilishly.

We left the dark looming trees and headed back to our hideout on Mainland Grozorg.

 

III

 

“Prokun Ulterium, head of the Blood Guild,” the posted sentry introduced to the king.

“You summoned me abruptly, King Fulcan. Is there something wrong?”

“Tyrannust V. Have you heard of the news?”

“You’re talking about Tyrannust the high lord?”

“Yes.”

“What happened?”

The king looked at me, his bright blue eyes distressed, in sorrow, in pain.

“Tyrannust V has been killed by his son.”

I dropped to one knee and placed my hood down, bowing my head. I was shocked, but my expression was concealed from the king.

“I need you and your guild to vindicate him. The era of light and order has ended at last,” King Fulcan continued, “and the age of darkness will soon rise again if you don’t act fast. Take care, and if you need anything, the kingdom is yours. You will have your reward in full upon completion.”

“Yes, my king. I will make haste at once.”

I bowed once more and put up my hood, swiftly exiting the throne room.

Without heading back to my guild, I travelled directly to Lord Nythar’s island, the Lord of Life and Death. There was a bridge there, the only bridge that linked Grozorg to the high lord’s island, which drifted far, far away, isolated from the rest of Grozorg.

Earlier this morning, there was a knock on our guild door, and the royal sentry informed me of the king’s request of my service. I was expecting another game request from him, but this was completely out of the blue.

I knew Grozorg by heart; in fact, it was probably necessary for the head of a guild to know. I grew up on Nythar’s island, moving to the city of Sanoctuis on Mainland Grozorg at the age of twelve when my father founded the Blood Guild to assist the king. I was placed in a prestige educational institution at a young age, where we memorized scrolls and legends, histories to the exact time and date. That was where I met some of the current Blood Guild members, including Kadava Lee himself. When my father and his guild members suddenly disappeared, Kadava was the first of six I recruited upon taking over my father’s position. All in all, there were seven members of the Blood Guild.

I arrived at the bridge at dusk. To my surprise, the wooden bridge had shattered, a vast gap now segregating the two islands. Looking up to the distance, the white palace of the high lord was draped in a dark black, and the strange dark shade had voraciously consumed every part of the island. Without hesitation, I pulled out a coil of rope and tightened one end around my waist. Tying the other end in a loop, I swung the rope overhead and tossed it towards the wooden peg fastened on the edge of the high lord’s island. Swiftly, the lasso soared through the air and hooked onto the dowel, tightening automatically. I jumped, collided into the side of the island, and hauled myself up in one smooth motion.

Pulling myself over the edge, I took out my dual silver krises. Clenching them tightly, I advanced towards the palace cautiously, taking note of the foreboding environment around me.

Suddenly, an armoured figure slammed down in front of me, black in gold armour, instantly stopping me in my footsteps. I leapt backwards in surprise, recovering my balance quickly. The figure was twice as tall as me with demonic black wings stretched towards the heavens. His broad chest and two massive black arms hung from embellished golden-plated pauldrons. Strangely, the figure did not have legs nor a face; instead, the figure possessed a dark, flaming trail, like that of a djinn. A black fog shrouded his head, revealing no eyes, no nose, and no ears. But he had a mouth; a crooked, human mouth.

No words came from that scowling mouth. I stood there petrified, examining the figure, fear plaguing my thoughts. I had never seen nor heard of this Primo before.

There was no warning. He swung his right arm up down, a black flaming whip with a golden handle suddenly appearing in his grasp.

I raised my daggers and stood in a defensive position instinctively. The figure lifted the whip above his head, and his twisted grin revealed a set of human teeth.

Then it came to me.

This was Tyrannust VI. This was the new high lord.

This was the murderer.

My thoughts abruptly ceased. With a quick slam of his fist downwards, I flew backwards as the cord slashed deeply into my chest. I fell off the high lord’s island, crashing back-first upon the re-entry onto the island of Lord Nythar. Darkness began to fill my wound, and my veins boiled with pain. The sky was down, the ground was up, and the barren land faded.

 

IV

 

“Ulterium! You’re awake!”

Foku’s suave voice resonated through the hall, alerting the other guild members. Hilton Fokurama was his full name, but he preferred the abbreviated “Foku”.

I blinked a few times, clearing my vision. Above me stood a tall embellished golden-red ceiling, and the four golden pillars at the four corners of the hideout gleamed under the weak light in front of the crimson walls, a golden dragon coiled around each column. Sitting up from the couch I was lying on, I winced in pain as I glanced around my father’s hideout; the Blood Guild’s home. Glo Lyte, our guild medic, was tending my wounds as I cleared my eyes.

“How are you feeling?”

“Glad to be alive.”

Glo smiled gently.

“Glad you’re doing well. By the way, the Night Guild heard about your...um...incident...with Tyrannust VI,” Foku said.

I groaned in annoyance, making my head throb.

The Blood Guild’s chamber doors flung open as Kadava Lee rushed in. Seeing me awake, he ran towards me in a hurry.

“I saw it,” he spoke excitedly. “I saw it all happen!”

“He rescued you,” Glo added on quietly beside me.

“What happened?” I asked.

“It was early in the morning when Arcanor told me something was going to happen to the high lord. So, I quickly left to scout, before King Fulcan summoned you. I saw the prince, with his red dragon on one side and the high lord’s Oracle, Zordonia, on the other. But Zor had quickly left soon after, while the prince entered his father’s throne room. He was in there for a short while, and I couldn’t step inside, but when he opened the door to leave...”

“Well, what happened?” I asked impatiently.

“His father - High Lord Tyrannust V - was dead, a cold face and a still body on his bed. His own sword was deeply nailed into him, pinning him to the thick headboard. And...Tyrannust VI had the high lord’s crown in his hands. I don’t know how, but he transformed into this dark figure--”

“With golden armour and no legs nor ears nor face,” I finished, recalling the chilling image earlier.

“It didn’t just end there. I stayed a bit longer, and it wasn’t a pretty sight to see. The prince corrupted Zor and cast a curse on him. The oracle fell down, as if he was plagued by some fatal disease. And somehow, just somehow, Tyrannust turned towards me. There I was. Face to face, eyes locked with the demon he became. But then you arrived, and his head swivelled your way, intercepting my fate. It was actually you who saved me, Ulterium. When you were knocked out quickly after, I brought you back here immediately.”

“But...what could’ve led to the murder?”

“Not sure,” Kadava answered. “I’ve monitored Tyrannust the prince before. I’ve had a strange feeling about this guy. It was like the noble prince held a long-term grudge against his father, or so I felt.”

“What if it was his crave and greed for power?” I questioned. “I mean, he impressed the nation countless times and even tried to overturn his father once or twice, right?”

“His father was in power for only twenty-three years, the shortest reign of all high lords in Grozorg’s history,” Kadava mentioned.

“He never spoke a word to me,” I thought out loud, recalling my encounter. “He just...smiled…”

My voice trailed off. Suddenly, the unlocked chamber doors flung open again as a figure in golden-barbed armour stepped in uninvitingly.

“Tarsus?” I guess, surprised. The figure came under the light as he approached closer, revealing to be the man himself.

“What are you doing here?” I started angrily. “Get out! You aren’t welcomed here!”

“Only news I bring to you is that Grozorg is falling apart, if you didn’t already know. You know Lord Helterium and Lord Pyrrhus? Yeah, well, hate to break it to you, but both lords have turned to the evil forces. Darkness has already consumed them both.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked disbelievingly. “You’re saying...both the lords of water and fire have become corrupted from an evil force? Yeah, sure they did. Get out!”

“Oh, not only them,” Tarsus continued. “Lords Nythar, Crothus, Illya and the others have too.”

I furrowed my brows. “What are you saying?”

“What do you mean ‘what are you saying?’ Get it through that thick skull of yours that Tyrannust VI - you know, the one you o so valiantly tried to single-handedly defeat – he’s been corrupted with darkness, and now he’s infusing it into the neighbouring lords as well.”

“So, Lords Nythar of Life and Death, Crothus of Time, and Illya of Illusions has sided with him...” I spoke, still with a tone of incredulity.

“Are you still comprehending that? What are you, deaf? Hard of hearing? Do I have to talk slow-”

I hurled myself at him, pinning him onto the ground. He threw a quick jab at my right eye and quickly regained footing before getting pushed back against the wall by Kadava.

“If you got something to say, say it now or leave,” Kadava demanded, pinning Tarsus’s neck between his arm and the guild wall.

“I have a proposal,” Tarsus spoke with a twisted smile, unhindered by the vulnerable position he was put in by Kadava. “It’s a rather simple proposal: your weak guild will not participate nor interfere with any of this anymore - this situation you caused. It’s a law soon to be declared by his royal majesty King Fulcan anyways,” he added.

“What?!” Foku yelled, fumed.

“What gives you privilege over us?” I demanded, taking Kadava’s place in holding Tarsus against the wall.

“Everything,” Tarsus sneered. “You’re just gonna screw everything up even more, as if you didn’t already!”

“Doesn’t this ring a bell?” I continued, ignoring Tarsus. “Remember the War of Zxyx? Your hometown was destroyed by him when he gave into darkness! If it weren’t for King Fulcan and us who slaughtered Zxyx, Grozorg would have been over by now!”

“That meant nothing!” Tarsus exclaimed.

“We can stop Tyrannust before it’s too late! Wake up, Tarsus! It’s not all about you and your stupid little guild!”

“To think you would have given us logical advice for once,” Kadava mocked.

“Oh shame,” Tarsus sarcastically stated. “Well, I’ve got a nation to save rather than hang out all day in my hideout like slugs. It’s a shame to see you guys miss out on such a great adventure.”

“Try to stop us,” I scowled.

“Won’t be hard,” Tarsus responded, quickly knocking my arm away from his throat and jabbing his fists into my stomach, slipping out of our hideout.

“Dammit! I’m gonna kill that man the next time I see him!” I yelled, bent over.

A moment after Tarsus left, a royal guard suited in white and gold knocked on the guild doors. The emblem on his chest resembled a sword with a pair of angelic wings behind; evidently, a knight from King Fulcan’s elite Army of Light and Purity.

“Sir Prokun Ulterium, His Majesty wishes to see you.”

I looked around the guild, with only blank faces in reply. Without hesitation, I followed the golden-white plated footmen alone to the king’s abode.

Our hideout was fairly close to Tenebris, the capital city of the island where King Fulcan’s palace was located. In time, we exited the dense forest and walked through the towering ivory-gold portcullis, past the busy marketplace and across a grand, bridged, white walkway to the extravagant snow-white palace where I was greeted by many who knew of my identity. We stepped through the south entrance, past two substantial pearl-iron doors, snaking down tall gleaming halls carpeted in white with pairs of golden pillars lined up densely. Our footsteps echoed through the grand expanse as we approached another set of tall golden-white doors with two golden handles. Four guards were posted outside, opening the door as we approached.

“Ulterium!”

“Your Majesty,” I addressed, kneeling down.

“I trust you have heard of the...accord...of Lord Helterium and Lord Pyrrhus.”

“I have indeed, though from a source not too credible. From what I’ve heard, Lord Crothus of Time and Lord Illya of Illusion has given into the power of darkness as well.”

The King fell silent. Evidently, he had not heard of that yet. Or Tarsus lied to us.

“Light and order has yielded to darkness and chaos. They have been enticed by the prince, or should I say, the high lord,” Fulcan spat in disgust. “Tyrannust VI has bribed them, lied to them. He has ‘shown’ them how much more power darkness has over light. And after your encounter with him, it seems he has grown even more powerful.”

“But is that true?” I asked.

“Is what true?”

“That darkness is stronger than light?”

“Ulterium. You know the answer to that.”

I thought for a moment, to no avail.

“Recall your memories of the War of Zxyx. The question wasn’t about the ‘strength’ of light or darkness. The darkness fully consumed Zxyx, if you were to rate the strength of that darkness. But he was defeated in the end anyways, even with the full force of darkness. I tell you the truth, Ulterium, we won not from our own strength; no, we won because we mastered the way of Light and Purity. Zxyx, alternatively, was too corrupted by the power of darkness; he craved it so much he had never learnt to master its ways and therefore achieve the full potential of the powerful darkness he wielded. Hopefully, this is so with the new dark lord Tyrannust VI.”

“Aren’t you going to declare a decree regarding the Blood Guild and this, uh, matter?”

“What decree? What is it your guild wants?”

“Never mind,” I replied instantly, gritting my teeth. “So, what should we do now?”

“Honestly, my brother-in-arms, I am uncertain. I called you here to let you and your guild know that I may need your assistance soon, now more than ever. For now, only destiny - or fate - can tell. We shall wait.”

“As you command, Your Majesty.”

 

V

 

“Arcanor!” I shouted.

“At your service,” he replied, approaching me. “How may I be of assistance?”

Arcanor was the oracle of our guild, born on Fulcan’s island. He had learned the ways of seeing into the future, and had also taught himself the ways of summoning portals at his command, an ability not taught in any domain.

“Tell me, what will happen in the future; what will become of Tyrannust?”

“I can try, with no guarantees.”

Arcanor closed his eyes and crossed his legs as I backed away. Concentrating, he placed two fingers on his temples. Slowly, he started to rise, two feet high in the air. A moment later, he reopened his eyes, a fiery orange blaze replacing his normal dull brown eyes. All of a sudden, he fell down, sprawled on the planked floor.

“What happened?” I asked, rushing to his aid to help him up.

“It’s not possible...” He whispered worriedly. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

“What is it?”

“I can’t.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Legend foretold, a long time ago...” Arcanor began, “the history of oracles starts with the man by the name of Oracle Uzefer. He was the first to learn the secrets of seeing into the future. Soon, he gained in popularity and chose select followers to learn his ways, and thus created a new class: The Oracle, named after his first name.”

“I get it. Just like knights, paladins, archers. Well, get to the point!” I interrupted impatiently.

“Yes. Uzefer could see into anyone’s future, good and bad, or so he thought. He quickly foresaw Zxyx’s reign, but something unpredicted happened directly afterwards. He could not tell how Zxyx would end, and what would become of Grozorg. In conclusion, oracles could only envision the way of the good. We learned over time that the darker the evil is, the more the visions are...blocked.”

“So you’re saying that Tyrannust...”

“Yes. Tyrannust was not only controlled by this sudden darkness, but soon he will learn how to control it himself. Hard to admit it, but I couldn’t see anything in the future, except for short fragments of visions. And when I tried to look further in time, everything was completely blocked.”

“What were the details?”

“The Gravity Dragon will fall. Tyrannust will become almighty. A thirteenth element would be introduced.”

“No,” I stated in awe.

“I...I felt that element. When I fell to the ground, I was overwhelmed by it. It--it is coarser than rock, it burns hotter than fire, yet it is colder than ice. It was shown to me to be the beginning of all elements, and yet it is the end to all elements. And it was dark, so much darker than darkness. And...it belongs to Tyrannust.”

 

VI

 

“He’s hurt! He’s hurt!”

“Bring him in! Careful!”

“What happened?”

A calamity of voices arose as two men barged into the hideout, carrying our serpent-slayer Drog. He was wounded deeply, crimson slashes visible throughout his entire body. His blood seeped out of every scar. His face was beaten up, arms bent, and legs distorted in every direction. He was almost unrecognizable.

“We found him like this on Nek Roluun!”

“He was facing a red dragon on Nythar’s Island, one we’ve never seen before!”

“Red dragon? You mean...there’s a second dragon on Grozorg?” I questioned.

“Yes,” Drog replied weakly in his low voice, turning his head towards me. “It’s the same dragon that belongs to Tyrannust.”

“Tyrannust? You mean his baby red dragon?”

“Yes. Dragons are a unique branch of beasts from an extraterrestrial planet, or so I’ve read. Although having their own distinct characteristics, dragons tend to follow the way of their mothers - or masters,” his voice dryly croaked.

“And so the red dragon became corrupt when Tyrannust did,” I concluded.

“Something doesn’t add up,” Kadava piped up beside me. “I just saw the dragon this morning; it wasn’t even three feet long!”

“It was the size of the Gravity Dragon when I was there,” Drog countered.

“Drog, rest up. We may need you soon.”

“But--but how is that even possible?” Kadava continued.

“Kadava, enough. Let him rest. In a time like this, anything is possible.”

Suddenly, Arcanor spat out a stream of broken phrases as he rose into the air.

“Darkness. Growth. Dragon. Crystallia. Offspring.”

Arcanor’s eyes glowed orange as he continued to spew out the string of words. “Light. Order. Interference. Discord. Darkness.”

Arcanor slowly drifted downwards, eyes returning to a brown pigment. He collapsed to the floor, catching his breath.

“We must head to Crystallia at once,” he panted. “The Gravity Dragon is there, and there may be offspring - if there is, we must act fast; all I saw were bits of pictures.”

“Glo! Stay here with Drog and make sure he recovers well,” I improvised, immediately forming a plan in my head. “The rest of us, pack lightly. Kadava, ropes, Foku, bait.”

At once, the entire guild shuffled around, following my command. Before long, we were at the doors of the hideout, ready to embark on a journey to the esoteric island of Crystallia.

Strapping saddles onto the wild horses that had grown accustomed to our presence just outside of our guild, we galloped away from Sanoctuis towards the heart of Grozorg on King Fulcan’s island, reaching the busy town of Tenebris. Tenebris was the main city-centre of Grozorg, where tradesmen, mercenaries, and merchants from all over the nation could be found no matter the time or date. The strategic position of Tenebris, the only city with paths that led to every elemental island, developed a strongly fortified city. Tenebris was known for its diverse culture, with men and women of every elemental faction wandering around the busy cobblestone streets and markets. Aside from the commoners, King Fulcan’s palace resided in the heart of Tenebris, the heart of Grozorg, reinforcing the security of the grand city. It wasn’t a rare sight to see elite guards of the Army of Light and Purity marching in and out of the magnificent golden-white palace every now and then, some mounted on horses, others standing guard by the many gates and entrances.

There was an abandoned shack on the border of Tenebris just outside the walls, and to many it appeared as a ruin. It was an old tavern that had self-decayed over time, and the original tavern-keeper had relocated inside the city walls to build a new inn. The shack was left in place, rotting beams and mildew-covered walls, but it had a strange history to it.

The shack was built on top of a sorcerer's house. As legends have spoken, there was once a mystical wizard that had resided on the same plot of land. The wizard had grown powerful, delving into the arts of illusiomancy. The king of the land soon found out, and to confine the sorcerer, decreed to bury his house into the ground and build another structure on top, in fear of a revolt from the ever-growing powerful sorcerer. Ever since, the sorcerer had never been heard from.

Foku had mysteriously rediscovered a sub-basement level to the run-down tavern a few months ago. Only known to our guild, the lower basement was the past sorcerer’s lair. It was a small and dark room, but in the corner lay a glowing violet portal, and through that portal was the pathway to Crystallia. In fact, the portal was the only direct way of getting to the esoteric crystallized-island, far removed from the elemental islands of Grozorg.

We arrived at the run-down shack and quickly scurried downwards into the basement. One by one, we jumped through the portal and arrived at the amethyst island. Crystallia was an awe-striking island; dazzling violet crystals coating the entire archipelago from the bottom to top. Located southwest of Grozorg, the glimmering island was apparently one of the first islands to have formed. In the center of the crystal-scattered land, each individual amethyst crystal was as tall as a full-grown man, stacked haphazardly on top of each other, forming a mountain with a dark cavern beneath. On the plain in front of the crystal mountain laid the legendary Gravity Dragon, as Arcanor had foretold.

The Gravity Dragon abruptly leapt up as we neared it, revealing newly born dragons beneath its wings.

Foku slowly approached the dragon with bait, and we raised our hands in a comforting motion, hopefully conveying that we were not enemies. That was soon interrupted from an alarming cry by Kadava.

“Look out!” He shouted, pointing towards the sky.

The Gravity Dragon raised its head in surprise as a faint red dot in the open blue sky darted closer and closer. Suddenly, Crystallia shook as another figure crashed onto the island.

“Tyrannust?” I yelped.

At that moment, a red blur slammed down as well with a much larger magnitude.

The Chaos Dragon, Tyrannust VI’s red dragon, was the same size, if not bigger, than the Gravity Dragon. It had grand wings covered in crimson scales and a body plated in scarlet. A faded scar lay below one of its vermilion eye. It gave a ferocious shriek, and a couple of crystal shards fell off the land.

A figure rose up from behind Tyrannust VI and his dragon. He wore a white robe, corrupted with black stains. His face was concealed; only two red eyes glowed behind his thick hood.

“Z-Zor?” Kadava stuttered.

Tyrannust gave a wave, and the crimson dragon darted towards the Gravity Dragon. The Gravity Dragon flew up, swiftly evading the strike.

At that moment, I realized the high lord’s plan, but it was too late. Tyrannust slammed his arms down, and a black wave rippled across Crystallia. The newborn dragons, frightened, scattered off the islands and flew towards Grozorg.

Tyrannust flew up into the air with his dragon, and Zor floated behind, mysteriously vanishing in a cloud of smoke.

“Well, there goes our hopes for a guild dragon,” Foku said.

“Did you guys forget what Drog said?” I reminded. “Dragons follow the ways of their masters. The lords of Grozorg aren’t the same as they were before! They've been corrupted!”

“Was that Tyrannust’s plan all along? That means...that means each lord will have a corrupted dragon...wait, a corrupted elemental dragon!”

A distant roar was heard, and it rang louder and louder. I looked up into the sky and Tyrannust came crashing down.

His red dragon shrieked a blood-curdling cry as Tyrannust smashed into Crystallia, shattering the amethysts and cracking the island.

“Jump!” I yelled as he slammed down.

It was too late. The ground gave way and we all slid down, further and further, into the abyss.

 

It was pitch black when I awoke. Where was I?

Alive.

What? Who was speaking?

I have many names. The Cave Wanderer. The Sorcerer. The Vindicator of the Fallen. You yourself, Prokun Ulterium, are in the cave you saw on Crystallia.

“I’m still on Crystallia? Hold on, how can you hear my thoughts? Who are you?” I spun around rapidly, trying to adapt to the pure darkness.

Yes. You are still on Crystallia.

“But...how? I fell. No, wait, my whole guild fell! Answer me!” I demanded. “Wasn’t Crystallia destroyed by Tyrannust? How do you know my name? Who are you?”

I foretold this event. Tyrannust only fragmented the center of my home, where you fell down into the abyss.

The strange voice kept avoiding my questions. I decided to change it a bit.

“Where is the rest of my guild?” I yelled frantically at the voice in the darkness. I needed answers, and I needed them now. I walked around blindly, waving my arms in front of me.

The Gravity Dragon swooped down when you fell. It carried the guild into my cave.

“Well, where’s the rest of us then?”

In the same cave. The ancient cavern is more than what the mortal eye can see. Close your eyes, and I will bring you together.

Following the strange voice’s instruction hesitantly, I closed my eyes. A gush of wind surrounded me, lifting my feet off the cavern floor. Abruptly, the wind ceased, dropping me to my knees.

“Ulterium?”

I opened my eyes, still standing in the darkness.

“Kadava, is that you?”

“Yes sir. Foku’s also here with me.”

“I’m here too.”

“Foku. Mirage.” I greeted blindly. “Do you have any clue where we are?”

“Ulterium, we are standing in a sacred area,” Arcanor spoke to my left.

Suddenly, a flame burst out in front of me, illuminating four faces in front of me. The Blood Guild stood around it.

Arcanor is correct. This place is sacred.

“How?”

My names...are like no other. The flame paused and rotated towards Arcanor. Arcanor slowly opened his mouth.

“He’s the banished sorcerer...the one that made Crystallia.”

“Wait...you’re the...you made Crystallia? I thought you...you summoned portals only,” my voice trembled.

I was banished from Grozorg after their discoveries of my adept portalmancy. But in banishing me, I had nowhere to go but to roam the wastes of the infinite universe. What choice did I have? But they couldn’t stop me. I had long foreseen my banishment, so I created a new home before the king demanded my absence, and though the governors of Grozorg soon found out later, they had never disturbed me since. Now I live together with the rulers of Grozorg in an uncertain harmony.

“So...you were powerful enough to make an island?”

I learned the arts of the early high lords. It wasn’t power. It was willpower.

“But...if there was only one way to your island; through that portal in your home, then...how did Tyrannust make it here?”

Zor. He has become as strong as I once have had been, if not even stronger than I was.

The whole room paused in silence.

Your guild should get going. Your king will need you soon, and you will need me soon.

“Thank you for everything. Without you, Sorcerer, we would never have lived to see another day.”

It was the ancient Dragon, not me. And ‘Sorcerer’ is one of many names I hold. I am more than the sorcerer. I am Oracle Uzefer.

 

VII

 

“Uzefer still remains on Grozorg,” Arcanor stated in awe.

“His soul still remains,” I corrected. We were heading back to our hideout after Oracle Uzefer had teleported us to the abandoned shack.

“Sir Ulterium!”

I turned around and a pretty girl around my age approached me, a slender face with black hair tied up into a ponytail. She was dressed in red clothing embroidered with golden laces, and on her breast pocket was intricately sewn the king’s distinguishable emblem.

“My name is Roslyn Flyforwth. I’m King Fulcan’s personal messenger.”

Flyforwth? That name was odd...oddly familiar.

“I suppose you’re here to bring me a message,” I replied.

“Ulterium, right? You...you remind me of someone,” she added shyly.

Before letting her proceed, I nodded to Foku on my right.

Quickly, Foku pulled out a small blade and threw it towards Flyforwth. With swift reactions, she jumped aside gracefully as the blade flew past, burrowing deep into an elm trunk a few meters behind.

“Sorry about that,” I immediately apologized. I knew I had seen her somewhere before. “I was just making sure you were...who you said you were...Roslyn...Roslyn? Is...is that really you?”

Roslyn stood up, straightening her shirt. It was a regular training protocol of speed and evasiveness that all royal messengers had to master, a protocol only practiced by King Fulcan’s diplomats.

“You’re...Prokun!” She exclaimed in comprehension. “Prokun Ulterium!”

A couple of years ago the king was short-staffed and required additional help. While my guild was helping out around the palace, there was a group of diplomatic trainees, and one girl in particular caught my eye. Fast, efficient, and smart in her all her ways, we were just beginning to know each other when Fulcan dismissed me and let my guild return to our hideout. I never saw her since, and I thought that would have been the last time I did.

“It’s so good to see you again, Ulterium,” she smiled warmly.

“It’s been a while,” I grinned in return. “And it’s good to see you as a fully graduated diplomat. Anyways, what does the king have for me?”

“His Lordship King Fulcan speaks four words: The gathering has begun.”

Upon delivering King Fulcan’s message, Flyforwth gave me an explosive and stated that the king wanted me to have it, just in case things got tough. Her hands brushed against mine as she placed it carefully into my palms, explaining that the sticky substance on the anterior of the bomb granted it the ability to be placed anywhere. As Flyforwth headed back to Tenebris after wishing us good luck, I glanced at Kadava, and he shared the same stunned look.

“Everyone, follow Roslyn back to Fulcan’s castle. Foku, get Glo and Drog to the king at once. I don’t know what Tyrannust is up to now, but it can’t be good. You must all keep the king safe. Kadava, come with me.”

At once, the guild tailed Flyforwth whilst Kadava and I mounted our horses.

 

We finally arrived at the Chamber of Mancers, the sacred ancient monument deep inside Fulcan’s island. The grand cave was entirely carved from stone with tall windows, once elaborately decorated and carefully chiselled. The stone carved arena was hollow and twelve flat boulders were placed in a circle on the ground, which circled another flat boulder placed in the center. Each boulder had an elemental symbol engraved into it, but the center boulder had nothing on the smooth stone surface.

“It’s happening again,” said Kadava.

“I know. Legend foretold that a hero would rise when the twelve Mancers gathered together. It would have enough power and strength to conquer all of Grozorg.”

“But nothing happened when they gathered during Zxyx’s reign.”

“That’s because they were missing the last essential item; a drop of blood from the purest king. With that, the thirteenth may be summoned. They’ve frequently gathered before Tyrannust’s corruption to discuss the wellbeing of Grozorg, with no intentions of summoning the thirteenth. But with that drop of blood, the champion could be summoned”

“And then again, the Mancers were also too late to try.”

“Yeah, Zxyx destroyed this place before they had the chance to try. He somehow foresaw the gathering.”

“Why are you worried?” Kadava asked. “It’s practically impossible to reach the ‘purest’ king to get ‘a drop of blood’, provided we even find the purest king on Grozorg. Also, isn’t it good if all twelve Mancers summoned the thirteenth?”

“Think of it this way: The legend said a hero, but that was probably dependent on uncorrupted Mancers. The Mancers have probably been tainted by Tyrannust too!”

“You’re right; but they still couldn’t possibly get Fulcan’s blood.”

“That’s exactly why I sent the rest of the guild to Fulcan.”

The boulders suddenly started to glow, the engraved elements on the stones illuminating. Suddenly, the Mancers appeared one by one, each floating on top of their representative rock.

“Blades up!” I commanded as I grabbed my silver daggers. Kadava unsheathed his battle kunai, the sharp blades lining his forearm.

I was correct about the Mancers. They had been corrupted, filled with darkness, lied to by Tyrannust.

It wasn’t long before all twelve Mancers stood in their places. We were too slow to conceal ourselves, and they had immediately noticed our presence and turned towards us.

The Pyromancer acted first. A pillar of fire rose beneath Kadava as he quickly somersaulted forward, flames singing the edge of his pants.

“Watch out!”

The Cryomancer speared a long spike of ice towards me. I jumped in time and kicked it away, also evading the twisting thorns that had coiled upwards from the arena ground, summoned by the Terramancer. The Ferromancer rallied peaks of metal, causing them to erode upwards from the cavern floor, each peak nearly piercing Kadava and I. I jumped around, and caught a glimpse at the Chronomancer. Without a second thought, I lunged towards it, knocking the Mancer over just in time before it could muster enough power to reverse time. The Chronomancer disappeared in a cloud of smoke right before I made contact. Kadava moved swiftly through the maze of copper obelisks that stood tall above the chamber floor, using each metal peak as a barrier from the striking blows of wind sent by the Aeromancer.

Darting around, I slashed at the Cryomancer, Aeromancer, and the Terramancer in succession, all vanishing before I could make contact.

“Kadava, get out of there!” I shouted, watching the Electromancer prepare its elemental attack. The Electromancer summoned a jolt of lightning that chained to each copper peak and sparked to the next. Kadava turned and jumped away, throwing his kunai towards the Electromancer. It pierced the Electromancer’s side, disrupting the chain of lightning before it could reach the last peak of metal as the Electromancer vanished in a mist.

Suddenly, a blade sliced my side. I turned around sharply in pain, collapsing, and caught a glance at the Geomancer. A ring of gemstones surrounded it, all at his command. As another sharp-edged rock skimmed my arm, I quickly rolled behind a peak of metal, applying pressure to my wound. With great agility, I charged towards the Pyromancer while throwing my dagger at the Ferromancer. Kadava pulled my blade out of the cavern wall after the Ferromancer faded to evade my attack, sliding it back to me as I jumped away from the mysteriously vanished Pyromancer to attack the other summoners.

The remaining Mancers were the Hydromancer, Necromancer, Caelomancer, and Illusiomancer. I signalled for Kadava to come to me.

“Kadava! Assist-up position, now!” I shouted as the remaining four Mancers summoned their representative elemental attack. I jumped onto Kadava and he launched me upwards. As I flew towards the cavern ceiling, a giant skeletal hand eroded from the ground and dragged Kadava down into the suffocating ground.

“Help!” He screamed as he plunged downwards. I spun midair, throwing both daggers towards the skull of the Necromancer. The skeletal hand collapsed as the Mancer disappeared, Kadava returning to the surface of the arena. Still in mid-flight, I grabbed the explosive from my cloak, pulled the pin, and threw the anterior side to the ceiling.

I was suddenly thrown to the ground by a mysterious force sent by the Caelomancer. Before making contact, I was flung to a side of the cave by another gravitational force. I collided, air forced out of my lungs as the grand cavern shook, my point of impact creating a crater.

Kadava hurled his kunai at the Caelomancer. The Illusiomancer popped open a portal and the kunai flew in. Another portal opened right in front of me, and with all the strength I still had, I turned onto my side, just in time to evade Kadava’s sharp blade. The Caelomancer sent another force that pressed me against the dirt ground, and began to compress the space above me, crushing me face-down onto the chamber floor. I turned my head and saw Kadava beside me, pinned down to the ground by the Caelomancer in the same position. The Mancer of Space crushed us against the dirt chamber floor, forcing the air out of my lungs. Suddenly, a flood of ice-cold water crashed down onto us before we could gulp for air. The Hydromancer held his arms upwards, water flooding the Chamber of Mancers from all directions. I had no more breath within me, and my lungs were about to give out. As I gave into a black slumber, the explosive detonated, shaking the entire cavern violently. The Mancers were caught off balance and stalactites began to rain down from the arena ceiling. The pressure from the Caelomancer was finally relieved, but my heavy eyelids shut as I fell into a deep slumber in the icy water.

 

It wasn’t long before I woke up from the black out. Miraculously, I had floated upwards, drifting into the crater I had caused earlier and resting on the higher platform.

“Kadava?” I gargled, water still in my mouth. Swimming around in the freezing water, I desperately searched for my first-mate. To my right drifted Kadava, face down.

I rapidly darted towards him. Lifting him over my shoulders, I frantically treaded the water and placed him inside the crater I had woken up on. He was not breathing, and his face was pale with a blue tint. There was still some life in him though, and I could just sense it.

It was now or never. Recalling my necromancy training from when I was younger, I placed both hands on his chest and closed my eyes. Taking in a deep breath, I slowly lifted both palms, opening my eyes simultaneously. My vision turned into an emerald colour, a fiery green. Kadava lay in front of me, and I could see his very heart beating weakly, the essence of his soul still present. The emerald flame spread down my arms and into both palms steadily. Slowly, the flame spread over Kadava’s unconscious body, encasing him entirely in an emerald blaze. His eyes opened widely, the same shade of green as my eyes. I stopped, and at once the green flame disappeared. Kadava’s eyes returned to its original wood-brown colour.

“Wh-What happened?” He asked, blinking. Confusion filled his face as he looked around the flooded arena.

“Do you remember anything?”

I gave him a few moments as he took in the image of the devastated arena.

“We-we were in the Chamber of Mancers,” I spoke, helping him out.

“Where? The Chamber of Mancers? The Chamber...oh, I’m remembering a bit now.”

He blinked a few times again, still clearing the fog in his head, then suddenly turning towards me in surprise.

“Wait...d-did you...resurrect me?”

“No, you were still living. Near death, but still living. I wouldn’t be able to resuscitate someone dead - actually, not even Nythar nor his Necromancer could. They might have the ability to raise the undead, but that’s different from giving life to the dead. You only got one life to live, and I’m just glad I didn’t lose a first mate and a close friend today,” I spoke, slapping him on the back.

Kadava paused to straighten his breathing, spitting out water and wringing his clothes dry.

“Thanks for saving me, Ulterium. Another day, another chance. Now I know which elemental domain you grew up in,” he added with a smile.

In whichever of the twelve elemental domains one was born in or had grown up in was where they would potentially learn the respective element’s specialized powers. Most Grozorgians would choose to master one element rather than achieving adequate training in two or more elements. Besides, it would take more time and money to learn a new elemental power, and the harsh tax rate assured that citizens would not learn more than two, let alone become a master in one.

“Ha. Well I guess it was time you knew,” I spoke. I never found a reason for revealing my elemental faction to my guild. It was irrelevant, something that could potentially cause a division in a group of skilled fighters. “You’re just as lucky as me, but born in the ferromancy domain. Not many Grozorgians can afford to train there.”

“Where did the Mancers go?” Kadava asked, changing the topic.

“They just...disappeared,” I recalled. “Let’s head back to Tenebris. The king is still in danger.”

“You’re right,” Kadava quickly recollected, heaving himself up. “Let’s go.”

We swam to an open window in the cavern and hauled ourselves out, beginning our journey back to the capital city of Mainland Grozorg, to the royal king’s palace.

 

“What happened?” King Fulcan asked, standing up from his grand throne. I looked around his throne room, seeing all the members of my guild. Roslyn Flyforwth stood at the back of the room near the grand doors with two footmen of the Army of Light posted.

“Something’s wrong,” I whispered subtly to Kadava.

Kadava glanced at me, sharing the same uncertainty.

“My Lord and His Majesty King Fulcan...we have come to report that there was no activity in the Chamber of Mancers,” I fabricated.

“That’s...rather disappointing,” Fulcan replied as he rose up slowly, stepping towards Kadava and I.

Kadava silently motioned for me to glance at Roslyn near the doors. I furrowed my brows and glanced backwards. The young girl was clad in red, looking down. Suddenly, her entire body quickly flashed into an image of a large soldier suited in black, flashing back instantaneously to Roslyn in the same position as before.

Without looking back at the emotionless Blood Guild, I had only one word in mind.

“Run!” I shouted.

The image of Roslyn began to close the two grand doors as we narrowly slipped out.

“They’re...fakes!” Kadava replied as he followed me out. The room of illusions transformed into full-sized warriors, all dressed in black. They were evidently part of Tyrannust’s army. As I ran, I looked back in curiosity, catching a glimpse of a corrupted soldier. The dark paladin had a strange symbol engraved on its forehead, resembling the letter “A” with an omega sign merged into it, upside down. The warrior had broad shoulders, spiked gauntlets, and a heavy protective breastplate.

And seated on the throne, the pure, untainted throne, was the high lord himself, glaring back at the two of us.

The black legion of knights charged towards us as we navigated down the snaking hallways and corridors of Fulcan’s palace. Tripping down the marble staircase, we flung open the grand palace doors, lunged through the portcullis, darted across the long, marble bridge, and dashed a beeline back to the guild hideout.

 

VIII

 

“Kadava! Ulterium! You’re safe!” Glo shouted, overwhelmed. Heads turned as we stumbled inside.

“Couldn’t be happier to be back,” Kadava panted.

“Agreed,” I said, tumbling onto the couch.      

“Ulterium!” King Fulcan bellowed, walking towards me from out of nowhere. Exhausted from the adventure within the Chamber of Mancers as well as the escape from the tainted legion, I had not realized his presence amongst the guild members. I quickly dropped to one knee and bowed down, noticing Roslyn at the back of the hideout. I diverted my eyes as she stole a glance at me.

“My lord and His Majesty Fulcan,” I quickly started, as Kadava hastily followed my actions beside me.

“Oh, get up! There’s no need for formalities now.”

I stood up and sat back onto the couch in a much more respectful manner, aware of the presence of the king, ignoring Fulcan’s statement regarding formality.

“What happened?” I asked the guild.

“Did you visit the king’s palace?” Roslyn inquired. She approached us from the back of the hideout, eyes fixed on mine.

“Actually, we did. I’ll tell you everything we saw,” Kadava spoke. After everyone gathered around, he described our entire journey, the exhilarating events that had occurred in the chamber and in the palace.

“We barely made it out of there!” Foku exclaimed as Kadava finished our tale.

“All of it was Tyrannust’s doings,” Fulcan added, with a tone of resentment. “He and his Almega Legion invaded my palace. They were...they were just too strong. He placed Almega Casters to morph the entire legion into our appearances!”

The heads of the guild members nodded in agreement.

“After Tyrannust had heard of the Mancer’s intervention in the chamber, he sought to desperately end you,” Fulcan added.

“Why did you let him in?” Kadava quickly spoke before I could.

“It wasn’t simply a matter of ‘letting in’. Besides, I couldn’t care less if he sat on my throne. The Grozorgian civilians would remain loyal to me. He came in purely to destroy me. My Army of Light and Purity sought refuge all around Tenebris, and I fled with Roslyn and your guild by my sides. We quickly realized our strength was no match against their dark magic, and it was best to not lose any lives in such a small encounter.”

“Whoa, hold on... ‘Almega’?” I asked, still pondering King Fulcan’s first statement.

“Yes, Almega, at least that’s what Tyrannust calls it. Almega is his representative element.”

“I thought the high lords never controlled an element.”

“Traditionally,” the king replied.

“It’s the first and last of all elements,” Arcanor suddenly recalled from his previous vision.

“It’s the first and last...” I repeated. “‘First’ is ‘Alpha’ and ‘Omega’ means ‘Last’...So together it makes -”

“Almega,” Fulcan finished.

“So...the high lord has an element now?”

“Yes. For the first time in the history of Grozorg.”

“Could there be a chance of an ‘Almegamancer’ then?” I asked out of curiosity.

“I hope not, but fate shall determine,” Fulcan responded.

“Hold on...that means it wasn’t simply darkness that engulfed the lords,” Kadava suggested.

“It wasn’t darkness at all. It was Almega from the beginning,” Glo replied. “No wonder some lords failed to resist Tyrannust’s power. I’d assume King Fulcan is the only untainted king on Grozorg,”

“There’s one more lord excluding me who still reigns uncorrupted,” Fulcan corrected. “But the fallen are Nythar of Necromancy, Erakin of Electromancy, Geonyte of Geomancy, Pyrrhus of Pyromancy, Crothus of Chronomancy, Naterra of Terramancy, Ferrius of Ferromancy, Helterium of Hydromancy, Ceiros of Caelomancy, Askar of Aeromancy, and Illya of Illusiomancy.”

“You didn’t mention Cryann of Cryomancy,” I noticed after processing the shopping list of the names of the eleven lords and their respective elemental domains.

“Lord Cryann of Cryomancy is the only other pure lord left on Grozorg,” Fulcan spoke, “Cri Oluun has been withstanding and persisting Tyrannust’s element. It’s the only other island where there is still hope.”

“Not anymore,” Arcanor interrupted suddenly. He raised his hands while his eyes burnt a fiery orange. A portal instantaneously snapped open, bordered with orange flames.

In the portal, a blurry image was displayed, which came to focus after several seconds. The picture made out the peaceful land of Cri Oluun. The glorious ice palace rose tall on the right side of the cold island, towering over the capital city of Cri Oluun, made up of small buildings and shelters. Each shelter was built so that a little gap was left in between each tightly knit row, resembling narrow walkways. No vehicle would be able to pass through; only citizens of Cri Oluun. This definitely created a problem; chariots, or even mounted knights, would have a hard time through.

A crystal cave, similar to Crystallia's, stood on the opposite side of Cryann’s palace. Circulating the island slowly and lazily was a dragon, an offspring of the Gravity Dragon, but now a fully grown dragon that possessed the power of ice. Perhaps the dragon was still untainted from Tyrannust’s dark magic. The whole empire looked peaceful, if not serene. It was as if nothing was going to happen.

Suddenly, the Cryodragon tumbled down unconscious as a black figure slammed into it. The city remained silent, as if no one seemed to have noticed what had just happened to their elemental dragon.

Arcanor stood patiently, not twitching a muscle, though it was evident he was under a great amount of stress upholding the portal. His eyes continued to glow, brighter than before. I figured we were watching real time, not the past nor the future. It was happening right there and then.

The image zoomed in onto the black figure, and it became clear to be Tyrannust. Even though it was predictable, the king gave a sharp intake of breath when it revealed the dark muscular figure plated in golden armour. The figure stepped over the fallen blue dragon and started towards the palace of Cryann. As he approached the doors, the two royal guards set at the patrol point quickly raised their spears, one sounding the horn to alarm the military. With a wave of his hands, Tyrannust created a black wind that sent the two guards flying in opposite directions, revealing the palace doors ajar.

We couldn’t do anything but watch the helpless nation through the portal. The journey to Cri Oluun from our hideout would take days, even on the fastest horse, and portalling was not an option; Arcanor would not have enough strength to get the whole guild through.

Arcanor transitioned the image to Lord Cryann, who had stood up at the sound of the horn. With a quick hand signal, he ordered more guards of ice to investigate what was happening outside his palace. Before the guards had time to assemble, the throne room doors flung open, and Tyrannust stepped through swiftly.

The Almega high lord towered over the ice lord, a formidable mountain over a fortified hill. Lord Cryann took a small step back instinctively. Tyrannust proceeded towards him, suddenly placing his palm on Cryann’s chest. In fear, Cryann stumbled down onto his ice throne, and a slight hue of black diffused into the cerulean ice.

Tears were forming in Cryann’s eyes, restrained by a desperate force. They weren’t tears of fear, but tears of resistance. He knew full well why Tyrannust was there, and he declared a bold and courageous response, the pure ice king’s final word.

“Never,” he proclaimed inaudibly. Before he could even finish speaking, Tyrannust had swiftly burrowed his hand into the Lord of Light and Ice’s chest, ripping out his heart in one smooth movement. The lord lay dead on his throne, slumped down, eyes closed, motionless. The last of the elemental pure lords had gone. A shadow quickly shifted in the back of the room, fleeing the royal palace upon witnessing the lord’s death. It was likely to be Cryann’s adopted son, Prince Jovan Worant, though I couldn’t make out the fast silhouette.

Being the ruthless creature Tyrannust was, he toyed with the lord’s body. Grabbing Cryann’s own reaper, he sliced the head off in one hack, spouting a stream of crimson, bathing the king’s body in maroon and tainting the blue throne red. After the decapitation came numerous slashes, hacking Cryann’s body into many pieces. His arms fell off the armrest and his legs rolled off the throne. Blood bathed the throne room, drenching the blue ice in gore.

“That’s enough! Close the portal now!” King Fulcan commanded.

Without hesitation, Arcanor snapped the portal closed, flames licking the air as the image disappeared in an instant. Arcanor tumbled down in exhaustion, falling into a deep slumber.

We stared at each other, some with fright, others in shock. King Fulcan held a pale face. The hideout was completely silent.

“Cri Oluun has fallen. What is Tyrannust planning to do next?”

 

IX

 

A wicked grin smeared across Tyrannust’s face as he drifted motionlessly at the broken throne doors.

It had been a week following the fall of Cri Oluun, and we had heard nothing of Tyrannust and his Almega Legion since, until now. Ever since the fate of Lord Cryann, we remained all the more closer to King Fulcan, recruiting many more to enlist in his Army of Light and Purity.

We were in King Fulcan’s grand throne room, discussing strategic solutions against the rapidly rising dark forces on Grozorg when Tyrannust barged into Fulcan’s hall. There was no one accompanying him, and even though no one was with him, we were well aware of his capability in dethroning the king with no effort.

With the wicked grin smeared across his face, he drifted closer and closer. Instinctively, I stepped closer to the king. Tyrannust reacted with a cackle, noticing my movement.

“Why are you here?” King Fulcan slowly asked, rising from his throne.

Fulcan reached for his golden broadsword, the same weapon that slew the lykos in the legends, the same weapon that had brought him countless victories in the past.

Tyrannust drifted closer with an unfaltering pace.

“Guards!” The king demanded.

A frown replaced Tyrannust’s expression at the sound of the king’s call for reinforcements.

At once, a squad of knights from the Army of Light and Purity marched in at Fulcan’s command, unaware of who they were approaching.

The frown was quickly dispelled with a devilish smile.

With a flick of his wrist, a blazing black pillar of flame burst upwards from the ground, engulfing the entire squad. As the smoke cleared, nothing remained in place of the knights but a pile of bones and five shattered skulls.

The high lord growled as he neared the king, his grin faded.

A glint of fear shone within King Fulcan’s eyes. He knew of Tyrannust’s capability, but the ease of control Tyrannust demonstrated over his powerful element, and the outcome of it, surely surprised him.

At the foot of the throne, Tyrannust paused and turned to my guild. His message was clear, and we left the room immediately at the king’s nod.

Tyrannust returned his glare at Fulcan, unflinching.

There was nothing we could do. If we tried to stop him, we would be dead with the king. The guild started to trickle out of the throne room, leaving the two doors wide open. We watched the two rulers of conflicting elements from behind the grand pillars in the hallway that led to the throne room. Kadava, who was crouched beneath me, whispered three words to me in sudden realization. At once, we figured out the purpose of the high lord’s presence.

“Chamber of Mancers,” Kadava spoke palely.

Tyrannust was here to retrieve King Fulcan’s blood. It all made sense now. After the death of Lord Cryann, there was only one pure king left on Grozorg, the purest of all kings. With the blood of King Fulcan, he would assemble the Mancers in no time and summon the thirteenth.

Tyrannust flew forwards, ramming into Fulcan and cutting my thoughts off. With great agility trained through years and years of experience, Fulcan spun around and stepped aside, grabbing his sword on the floor and shield that hung on the back wall. Tyrannust crashed into the throne, regaining his footing quickly.

Tyrannust cackled at the sight of the intimidating broadsword, flicking his wrists to summon two dark whips.

The two rulers circled each other, eyes locked. Suddenly, Tyrannust cracked his whip onto Fulcan’s shield. The gold emblazoned escutcheon revealed a crack, a line of black that diffused across the surface of gold. As a mere distraction, Tyrannust cracked his other whip at Fulcan’s lower body. Fulcan reacted swiftly and swung his large broadsword upwards, deflecting it. The sword, unlike the shield, still shone a bright white and had no effect from the whip. In fact, a bright flash broke out and filled the whole room as the two conflicting elements collided together. Using this to his advantage, Tyrannust lunged towards the pure king and slashed at Fulcan’s side with a concealed blade. In a blink of an eye, blood started to trickle down slowly. Tyrannust pulled out a small black vial, collecting a few drops of blood from King Fulcan.

With a wicked holler, the corrupted high lord departed from the palace swiftly.

Dropping onto his throne, Fulcan winced at the pain and applied pressure to his injured side.

“Go after him! You have no time to lose!”

I assigned Foku and Kadava to come with me, and the rest of the Blood Guild to look after Fulcan. We pursued the dark high lord, unable to match his speed. At last, we reached the Chamber of Mancers.

“It’s the second summoning!” Kadava yelled as we stepped into the stone cavern.

“He has the vital element missing from last time too,” I responded.

We were too late when we arrived. The Mancers had already arrived, and they began to bind their representative elements together.

“Wait...is that...Zor?” I asked, surprised. “Where did Tyrannust go?”

“It is Zor!” Kadava confirmed.

“What is he doing here?” Foku asked.

The chamber was no longer flooded, though the aftermath of our intervention was evident in the ruins of the cavern. We entered the chamber through an alternate entrance, arriving on an elevated platform with the twelve Mancers below us as we peered down from our cliff-like vantage point. The chamber was damaged from the explosive, and the crater where I awoke was still deep in the cavern wall.

As we spoke, the Mancers opened their arms and summoned a pillar of their respective element upwards. Each element had its own unique colour, and each colour spiralled up, colliding against the top of the cave. The twelve pillars of different shades slowly angled towards the center of the cavern ceiling. Zor approached the thirteenth stone on the ground, revealing a vial of blood in his cupped hands - the same vial Tyrannust possessed after the confrontation with King Fulcan. Opening the tube, he sprinkled the king’s blood onto the center stone.

“Foku,” I said, “Shoot them.”

“What? You...you want me to shoot a Mancer?” Foku questioned, dumbfounded.

“Yes!”

Foku’s electrical lance was powerful enough to stun even a lykos, and he was one of the best in the guild in terms of accuracy as well.

“As you say,” he replied doubtfully, taking out his lance.

Raising the pole arm to the height of his chest, he knelt down, adjusting it perpendicular to his body. Steadying his lance, he cocked his head to the right and closed his left eye, the tip of his tongue protruding his lips as he concentrated on his target. In a singular, smooth, motion, a bright yellow beam jolted out from the thin lance, sending intense sparks and cracks along its path towards the elemental summoners.

Zor’s reaction was uncanny. As the chain of lightning quickly sparked towards a Mancer, Zor swiftly hurled a black wave against it, creating a bright explosion on contact. After the sudden impact, he drifted towards us, locking his gaze upwards at the three of us. Subconsciously, Zor took the most direct route by crossing the center of the summoning chamber.

I could see him clearly now. Dressed in a long white robe, his priestly garment was corrupted with dark blemishes that protruded the once-holy clothing. His visage was masked behind a black bandana, revealing only crimson eyes that gazed into the depths. Meek and humble, he was one whom everyone sought advice from, but now, this new form possessed an evil unmatched by any other but Tyrannust himself.

Zor showed no mercy. At once, he summoned a beam of black towards the three of us. Without thinking, I commanded Foku to fire again.

“Now!” I shouted.

The electricity collided with Zor’s attack, and a burst of white radiance filled the cavern once more in a great explosion. Zor stood stunned in the center of the arena, regaining his balance quickly.

All of a sudden, a thick colourful pillar of smoke engulfed Zor, who was directly on top of the boulder in the center of the arena set for the thirteenth to rise.

“Oh, damn...” Foku whispered.

The elements from the twelve Mancers had successfully bound together to form a thick pillar of colour over the thirteenth stone. The flaming pillar completely consumed Zor as it rose to the ceiling of the cavern. It was over a meter wide in diameter, and the twelve distinct colours danced upon the central stone, flames leaping and licking the cavern ceiling.

The pillar increased in diameter and colour, the light emitted intensifying until a bright explosion filled the entire chamber. As the smoke cleared, a figure stood in the center, masked by the thick fog from the elemental summoning. The silhouette was taller than all twelve Mancers, who were roughly the same in height. The Mancers, concealed by the thinning fog, bowed down to the thirteenth they had summoned. A pair of red eyes shone through the fog as the face turned towards us. It was the same crimson red we had seen before.

“Oh, damn...” I echoed.

We all glanced at each other, blood draining from our faces.

“The legends have spoken!” Zor boomed, his shrill cackle ringing across the cavern.

It happened. It really happened. The summoning of the final, thirteenth Mancer was finished.

Zor was the predestined Almegamancer from the beginning.


X

 

“The Council shall commence!”

I snuck into the back of the planning room quietly, informed by Arcanor that the high lord was about to hold a conference with the corrupted lords of Grozorg. Still shocked by Zor’s transformation, I fumbled my way in, almost giving my position away.

Tyrannust had gathered all eleven lords, or overlords, as they were now addressed in their corrupted forms, in his planning room. They were to discuss problems regarding Grozorg, and solutions to follow, according to Arcanor. I crept alone into the room, and scrambled up to a tight spot near the corner of the tall ceiling to hide in, a perfect position to see what was going on without being seen.

The long grand room was dimly lit a dark shade of blue, to my favour, the only source of light from three magnificent cerulean chandeliers placed neatly in a row above the long obsidian conference table below. The last overlord had just arrived, and the rulers sat in obsidian chairs oversized even for their dark form, around the long, slim black table. I was shocked to see what the Almega had done to the overlords. Before, the Lords of Light and Order were of noble blood, elegant and highly revered. Now, the Almega had clearly overtaken, corrupting and tainting the golden white robes and armour into a dark black with another single colour that resembled their representative elements.

Tyrannust walked in - no, he drifted in, clad in his golden-black armour. As he sat down on a grand throne prepared for him at the head of the table, all eleven overlords rose and bowed down unanimously, heads nearly grazing the brim of the heavy table. The overlords were incomparable to the titanic Tyrannust in both size and power.

“Sit,” Zor commanded abruptly.

Silence filled the room; evidently, none had understood why Tyrannust had suddenly arranged the occurrence of the conference.

Zor, the Almegamancer, stood to the right of Tyrannust, nearly matching the high lord’s height. He began on Tyrannust’s mark.

“All majesties and kings, domain-rulers and overlords, welcome to the council hosted by your lord and majesty, the sixth in reign, High Lord Tyrannust!”

The eleven overlords shifted, glancing at each other uncertainly. A small applause came from Helterium, the overlord of water, and the rest of the overlords followed, applause echoing within the grand room.

“Your High Lord Tyrannust wishes to offer you a proposal,” Zor continued, cutting off the applause. “Evidently, Grozorg is at its prime, a pinnacle of its success! However, this proposal by your High Lord Tyrannust VI is sure to forever change the land of our Grozorg - of course for the better - and all will be promised a reward in return if their cooperation is granted. Of course, I will personally see to those that do not consider his proposal,” Zor paused. “May Grozorg continue to prosper in glory!”

Tyrannust stood up, rising from the shadows to take a bow, and the overlords followed suit,

“However, there is one matter to address first, as instructed by your high lord,” Zor continued. “As all of you have heard, Lord Cryann has fallen to the clutches of death. But I am not here to discuss this loss. Rather, my intention is but a simple demonstration of the unfathomable powers the high lord has granted unto all.”

Tyrannust cupped his hands together to reveal a blue sphere mysteriously floating upwards from his palms. The overlords glanced at each other, filled with interest.

“This,” Zor resumed, “is the soul of Lord Cryann. Of course, the high lord couldn’t just simply hand him over to death.”

Overlord Nythar smirked quietly, quickly silenced by a deadly glare from Tyrannust.

“Now, watch the capability and potential this new element possesses, and what immeasurable glory it rewards!”

Tyrannust stood up and lifted both hands. A blue flame immediately consumed the blue orb in his palms. As he raised his arms higher and higher, a black smoke engulfed the flames.

“Rise, Overlord Cryann!” Zor commanded.

Tyrannust snapped his wrists downwards quickly, and suddenly, a human seemed to appear, standing in place of where the blue light once was. There stood Cryann, reincarnated from his temporal death. He was corrupted, face twisted and body built much bigger than before, a result of Tyrannust’s dark element. Cryann stood there, a deranged face with hollow eyes that gazed into nothing. The crowd gasped, some in awe, some in shock. Wicked grins broke among the chaotic faces, and speechless reactions assured Tyrannust of their satisfaction.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a slight movement in the corner of the two walls opposite of where I was crouched. Quickly glancing across from me, I caught a glimpse of Tarsus, crouched in the same position I was in, hiding in the shadows of the dark ceiling across from me.

“Tarsus!” I snarled quietly. “What are you doing here?”

A guileful look was exchanged by him.

“What are you doing here?”

“That’s what I asked, you fool!” I growled.

“Don’t think you’re the only one hot on this. I’ll beat you to it!”

“I’m way ahead of you, dammit!”

“The world will forget you - the world will hate you - when I reveal to them what you did with Zor!”

At the mention of the Almegamancer, I winced backwards.

“You...you were there?” I stuttered in disbelief.

“What do you think? You really thought you were ahead? Look around, my men are all here!”

He was true, I realized, as I peered into the shadows around him. I cursed bitterly to myself. The Night Guild was camouflaged across the top interior surface, like patient arachnids from their webs, listening eagerly to Tyrannust’s conversation.

“Dammit!” I hissed in frustration. “Damn you and your guild, Tarsus!”

“One step ahead. That’s the best joke I’ve heard from you, Ulterium!”

“Shut up!” I snarled, almost too loudly. Thankfully, the ceilings were erected very high above the ground, concealing our exchange.

The conversation below came to a point about King Fulcan. I missed most of the details spoken in the period between my talk with Tarsus, and there was nothing to do about it now but hope that the information wasn’t important.

“It was Fulcan from the beginning?” Overlord Helterium of Water bellowed in a deep voice.

Overlord Pyrrhus of Fire nodded. “Of course it was! How were we to not have suspected?”

“What worse could he have possibly done than murder Cryann?” Overlord Erakin of Electricity asked.

“Of course it was the King of Light himself,” Zor sneered.

“What?” I whispered out loud, enraged. “They’re blaming...Fulcan?”

“You didn’t know?” Tarsus overheard, answering my thoughts. “The high lord was placing the blame on your beloved king since day one. I would’ve done the same if I were him,” he added with a snicker.

“Damn you,” I snarled through gritted teeth.

The meeting continued for another hour and a half, the partisanship growing all the more. Dusk was approaching when the convocation soon ended. I caught some details, something about Overlord Naterra taking a move and something about a preparation the night before. I had lost all interest in the meeting, all because of Tarsus, and all my thoughts were concentrated on plotting something against the leader of the Night Guild. As the group of overlords dispersed, the high lord proceeded to drift to another room, so I crawled along the ceiling and into a ventilation shaft to follow him. Lo and behold, Tarsus decided to follow me.

“Will you stop following me?!” I whispered hoarsely to Tarsus. “Why do you always have to do what I do?”

The rest of his guild had probably decided to wait until the room cleared to exit through the main doors; it was only him behind me. But the way his armour brushed against the metal shaft sounded like his entire guild was with him.

“What are you talking about? I was gonna follow Tyrannust,” he replied. “You just went first!”

“Damn you! If you don’t turn around right now...”

“What are you gonna do?”

I stopped in my tracks and turned around, forcing Tarsus to abruptly cease motion as well.

“Turn around right now,” I demanded through gritted teeth.

Tarsus shoved me to the side and continued his crawl. I quickly pulled his legs towards me and he wrapped his arms around my neck in a swift response. Holding me in a headlock, I jabbed my elbow into his ribs, forcing him to release me. Stumbling around him, I kicked backwards forcefully into his skull and he gave out a low growl of rapid curses.

I continued through the simple shaft, regaining my former advantage. The shaft was wide enough to possibly fit three grown men, and I picked up the pace to ensure my advantage over Tarsus. With ease, I snaked through each turn and twist, peering down barred pieces of metal at occasional points built into the ventilation labyrinth. Tyrannust was a few meters ahead of us, floating to another room. Through another series of right turns and left, I finally reached his destination.

Tyrannust had made his way to his royal bedroom. A large bed lay at the center of the room, cloaked in black. Perhaps it was gold or white before, but now it was simply black, as was his entire room.

The room was more foreboding than Nythar’s island, I thought grimly. I had grown up on Nek Roluun, and if Nythar’s island was frightening even before the transfusion of Almega on Nek Roluun, Tyrannust’s room was worse than a living nightmare. On the contrary, Tyrannust found no other place like home.

He proceeded to a small table on the far side of the room; scrolls and maps messily spread across. Facing his table, he turned his back towards me, so I took a few paces further in the vent, pushing myself against the barred window to catch a glimpse of his works. Tarsus forcibly moved around me, trying to peek at the scrolls as well. At once, the vent that had concealed the two of us burst open, and we tumbled clumsily behind the Almega high lord.

His back was turned towards us, but he stopped in his motions. Tarsus and I looked at each other, fear overtaking confusion and hatred. No one twitched a single muscle as we crouched bare behind Tyrannust.

Tyrannust turned around slowly, his wretched eyes boring into ours. At once, two guards hobbled in, hurriedly binding us with fetters and shackles.

“I thought you said this was your suggestion,” growled at Tarsus. He returned the glare with a curse as we were ushered towards an inescapable dungeon.

 

XI

 

The concrete rung beneath our feet as the two soldiers pushed us down into a cramped prison, where we were transferred over to a larger prison guard. The two soldiers hobbled back to their master, carrying with them both Tarsus’ and my weapon.

“Enjoy, boys,” the dungeon guard spat, turning away with a chuckle.

Tarsus silently cursed him. We were thrown into a cramped cell located at the right corner of the small dungeon. My eyes began to adjust to the total blackness. There were lit torches on the walls, but the flames did not produce any light. Tyrannust’s choice of a black fire colour wasn’t the brightest decision, but then again, it could have been deliberate.

“You really like screwing things up, don’t you?” Tarsus asked, irritated.

“Me?” I scoffed. “If you hadn’t followed me and pushed me out of that shaft, I wouldn’t have ended up here!” I snapped at Tarsus.

“If you hadn’t screwed everything up, Grozorg would’ve still been untainted!”

“Says you! Ever since your guild’s been around, you’ve been nothing but useless!”

“Your guild’s the one that’s messed up every single step; not only do I have to balance your garbage guild with good deeds, I have to clean every damn mess you make!”

“At least I have a legitimate guild!”

“Your guild is a mistake!”

“You’re a mistake!” I shouted.

Tarsus immediately slammed into me as I hurled out my comeback. I tumbled down onto my back as he threw two quick punches into my face, blacking out my vision.

“Let’s see who the mistake is!” He snarled, pinning me down and throwing more punches. With all my might, I kicked my legs up into his chest and knocked him off of me, bashing my right forearm into his stomach and wrapping my other arm around his neck, placing him in a chokehold. He recovered at a surprising rate and jabbed two fingers into my eyes, slipping out of my grasp and leaping up to deliver a harsh roundhouse kick to the side of my face. I slid across the stone ground from the sudden impact as my ears rang in pain.

He lunged towards me, but I quickly rolled away, pushing myself off the ground to deliver a weak kick back at him. Catching my foot midair, he wrung my leg and caused me to lose balance, falling to the ground again. I instantly pivoted in a semi-circle on the cold ground, knocking him over with my free leg. He regained his footing, let out a cry of rage and dashed towards me once more. I jumped up rapidly against my throbbing head and rammed myself against his charging body, both stumbling backwards from the same forceful impact.

“Oh shut up you two!” The guard spat down the cobblestone staircase hoarsely, awoken from a midday nap. “You might want to save your energy!”

I retreated at once. There was no point fighting Tarsus now when our fates were uncertain. I calmed myself down, taking my thoughts off him and onto other memories. Glaring at him in the darkness, an unstable man stood across from me, ready to pounce anytime again. His body was reverberating, in pain, in rage, and he made every effort to hold himself down, turning away from me with growls of fury. I turned around as well, noting to myself where I was.

The dungeon design was simple; the title “dungeon” eradicated the true place itself. It was more of a simple four-celled chamber layout, with each cramping cell situated in four corners, divided by two narrow halls. It was beyond me why the guard would place both of us in the same cell when there were three other vacant spots.

An hour or so passed before Tarsus slumped down onto the ground, wearily relinquishing his search for an exit.

“Finally given up?” I said.

“Shut up,” he barked, crossing his arms and closing his eyes. He had settled down from our short strife, but he refused to talk.

“Why did Tyrannust put us here?” I asked myself, searching for clues.

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Tarsus sneered. “You’re so annoying. Why would anyone in the right mind choose to even follow you?”

I sighed in irritation, sitting down as far away from Tarsus and rolling to a side, gaining a comfortable position to lie down.

A few hours passed when I was suddenly awoken by a strange noise. It was quiet, almost soundless, but enough to stir me from my slumber. Tarsus sat up a few seconds later, crouched in a position, ready to leap. He glanced at me and I glanced at him, putting a finger to my lips. Mocking me, as usual, he stood up and approached the locked cell door, turning around to detect the sound.

“Tarsus!” I whispered harshly. When was he going to stop his senseless attitude?

“There’s cheering outside...” Tarsus replied, evading my shrill call.

“What?” I said in a louder tone. I approached Tarsus and stood behind the cell door, placing my ear against the cold bricks. The faint sound grew louder as I concentrated solely on the sudden noise.

“What if it was related to us?” I said, disbelieving my words right as they left my mouth.

“What, you think your valiant guild came to save the day?” Tarsus derided.

“Very likely,” I answered. “I know my men and they know me well. Wouldn’t be surprised if they breached the palace to rescue me from this damned chamber. But as for your guild, good luck with that.”

“And somehow your guild would defeat Tyrannust on the way?”

“Possibly.”

“Ha! Do you hear yourself?” He laughed harshly. “You have your hopes way too high. I’d reckon your guild will be dead before they even got near this palace. Well, at least it’d be one less thing for me to worry about then.”

“You question my guild? You don’t even trust your own men!”

“No I don’t,” Tarsus confessed. “If you had known me before, you would’ve figured out what trust really meant. Trust in darkness; trust is darkness.”

“Look,” I started, “I don’t know about your past and what’s happened to you, but you gotta learn to let go of the things that’s making you the cold-hearted person you are today.”

“Let go?” Tarsus questioned. “Let go of everything that made me who I was? Who pampered you and spoiled you and crowned you leader of a guild? Your dead father?”

“Tarsus, you don’t know my history either,” I growled back, controlling myself. “I’d advise you to shut up before spilling out more words you’d regret saying.”

“What, so you can beat me up? Try me,” he hissed, pressing his body against me.

The crowd suddenly grew louder, a roar rising from the throng outside as I stepped aside, containing myself.

I looked around, and examined the lock on our cell door. It was a simple metal padlock that could have been formed by a blacksmith’s apprentice. But the difficulty lay in the translucent black fluid that encased the lock. Learning through the hard way, the strange fluid would expand and explode on contact with anything, other than the metal padlock and cell bars. Moreover, the shocking explosion that resulted from contact would only harm human flesh, and proved to be no solution in breaking out of the small cell. Almegamancy, I figured.

“Looks like you had a fun time with that lock,” Tarsus said, nodding his head to my slightly scorched hand. “Useless.”

“Every man has his limitations. What’s wrong with that?” I responded. “At least I tried to do something.”

“You’re useless,” Tarsus began, approaching the lock. He breathed in and closed his eyes, raising both arms up to the height of his chest, and inhaled slowly. “Incompetent, both you and your guild.”

I glared at him. I could have pressed his face against the searing lock, but it took every effort to suppress myself, clenching my fists until my knuckles turned white.

Before long, a strange glow emitted from his two cupped hands, arms outstretched. It was a dull gray glow, but as the light grew more and more, the gray amalgamated into streaking silver. Tarsus opened his eyes, glowing silver, and he focused his gaze on the lock. The lock expanded a bit, then finally erupted from the pressure, shards soaring throughout the cramped prison. I ducked as a piece of metal pierced the tip of my ear. Inevitably, the Almega that had once reinforced the lock had now faded, like a mist in the wind gone. We were free from our cell.

I didn’t know what to say. All that time searching for an escape, and it was right in front of us.

“Didn’t know you were from the Ferromancy Domain,” I spoke after a quick pause.

“You don’t know a lot of things,” he replied. “And I’m not from there so shut up and stop assuming. And also, you’re welcome.”

 

XII

 

“Why didn’t you do that before?” I questioned Tarsus. “You could have gotten us out sooner.”

He didn’t give an answer, but continued his search around the dungeon.

Now we faced a greater problem. Although we were free from the one-man cell, we were still bound in Tyrannust’s small dungeon, and the stairwell was barricaded by the sleeping dungeon guard.

The mobbing chant began to grow louder and more rhythmic, with a determined “ooh-ooh-ahh” cheer, accenting the last beat with a stomp.

“Any luck?” I asked. Tarsus had scaled the dungeon walls again, peering at cracks, trying to find weaker spots in the wall. He walked back, with failure written in his expression. “I’ll take that as a ‘no’”, I answered myself, pivoting around to the growing sound.

The chamber guard woke up suddenly after nodding off and opened the door to our dungeon to check on us.

“You both got a happy company outside,” the guard explained tiredly. “Enjoy your time here while it lasts!”

He was about to slam the door shut when he caught a glimpse of the busted lock. His tired face quickly revised to a mixture of anger and fear.

“If Tyrannust sees that, he’d kill me! Why do you have to make this job so hard for me? Guess your time’s up!”

“Time’s up? What is that supposed to mean?” I asked quickly.

I looked at Tarsus with confusion dawning. In return, he furrowed his brows, although tension was evident in his face. The cell keeper advanced towards us, preparing rope to bind our wrists behind our backs.

“Listen,” I whispered harshly to Tarsus, pointing my finger towards him. “No matter what’s gonna happen to us next, I need you to cooperate. In the same way, and as much as I hate to say it, I’ll have to work with you too. Tyrannust is obviously planning something, and there’s a high probability of it involving both our lives.”

“You do you and I’ll do me,” he countered stubbornly, slapping my hand away. “I don’t take orders from anyone, especially someone like you.”

“Listen!”

My voice was raised to a hoarse shout as I violently gripped onto his collar. He quickly pushed my arms away and hissed at me, only to be immediately restrained by the dungeon keeper, tying his arms behind his back. “If you want to make it out, we have to work together!”

We got no further. The guard snickered once more and brought both of us to the south wall of the prison after binding us in rope, where the sound grew all the more louder. Tarsus gave me a glare, but I knew that my message had hit home. Somewhere inside him he realized the same truth; he was not going to make it out alive if only he was held captive here.

When we approached the wall, the guard placed his gloved hand on an unusual looking brick, and it started to glow a dazzling white. The bright light spread through the crevices of where the mortar once held the stones in place, and soon, the rocks tumbled down onto the ground.

“Weren’t we underground?” Tarsus asked the sentry, reflecting my thoughts as the bright blue sky blinded our unadjusted vision.

“You were, but you weren’t,” the guard replied, smiling at his own wit.

“What?”

“Lord Tyrannust is the master of any element! He possesses all the powers, including the power of illusiomancy, if you didn’t already know. For all I know, he could invert you inside out with a snap!”

And his words were immediately fulfilled. I turned away reflexively as did Tarsus as the guard’s blood splattered across us. His guts spilled across the ground and his bones skewered every which way from his body.

A figure passed behind us and growled, none other than Tyrannust VI himself. He rose a finger and motioned for something as he drifted above the unfortunate dungeon keeper.

Hesitantly, two guards approached us at his command, wielding our weapons. I looked at them, raising my arms in a defensive position. As they came towards us, I prepared to lunge when Tarsus kicked my leg. Instead of a striking blow, the guards meekly handed our weapons back.

Stupefied, I looked at the dual daggers placed in my hands. Tyrannust smiled, but it was a wicked one. Tarsus received his two golden-ornate shuang-gou as well.

I didn't know what to do. I looked around, and for the first time, I fully took in the scenery surrounding us as my eyes slowly re-adjusted to the bright light. Behind Tarsus and I had been our prison cell, situated atop a barren dusty floor. Encompassing us were a series of bleachers, with men cheering and screaming in them. The audience wasn’t large and consisted mainly of men in black armour, likely the warriors from Tyrannust’s legion.

So it was for us, Octavius seemed to say with his eyebrows raised.

“Welcome to the arena!” Zor boomed, startling a few birds that rested on the towering pillars which built the circumference of the stadium. He was at the side of Tyrannust, suddenly appearing in a mist of black smoke. “The high lord had had it specifically built for those who seemed...to be a thorn in his side,” he continued, selecting his words. “And you, both of you, seemed to be a perfect match for his description. Let us witness the very first deathmatch in all of Grozorg’s history!”

The crowd roared, screams and hollers filling the arena.

“Ladies and gentlemen, let the clash commence!”

Tyrannust bolted up into the sky at once, and, spreading out his vast black wings, glided to a high throne that was sat on the far end of the oval arena. As for Zor, he simply vanished as mystically as he had appeared.

I looked around me once more, getting familiar with the scene to be prepared for anything to come.

“Look,” Tarsus spoke, “if Tyrannust expects us to fight each other, you’d be dead before you came close to me. If he’s got other plans in mind and makes it appear like I’m working with you, I’m not.”

“Suit yourself,” I replied simply, giving up on Tarsus. It was every-man-for-himself. So be it if he died.

The arena was huge, running at least two hundred yards in length. There were barred gates that lined along the steep walls rising two meters high, spread around evenly to have a total count of eight gates. The wall of the arena rose higher than four meters, with a barbed top to prevent anyone from exiting the pit. The arena itself was a rather simple design; there were no vantage points, no hiding spots, nowhere to escape.

“Northbound!” I shouted. Everyone had vacated the open pit, joining the spectators in the tall bleachers around us. Tyrannust sat on his simple throne built at the bend of the oval arena, significantly elevated above the spectators in the bleachers.

A few leaping beasts were quickly advancing towards us, pounding hard against the dirt floor, eating up the dust in their rapid sprint.

I corrected myself. A few turned into a hundred dozen.

Tarsus hooked his curved weapons together, linking them and swinging the pair of shuang-gou above his head. As he gained more and more momentum, I searched for a potential part of the stadium where we could somehow escape. Two barred gates had opened opposite of where we stood, producing an endless number of thundering beasts.

It wasn’t a death match between Tarsus and me. It was a death match against Tarsus and me.

“They’re hounds!” I shouted, straining to deliver the message to Tarsus over the deafening stampede that continuously approached us.

The first hound leaped at Tarsus ten meters away. Shocked by its sudden movement, Tarsus stepped to the side, flailing his weapon in front of him. It landed hard into the hound midair, and the beast quickly vaporized into a thin black mist.

“They’re illusions!” Tarsus cried.

“Yeah, but they bite hard!” I howled, plunging both my krises into another hound that leapt onto me. It had landed its front canine teeth into the back of my hand, causing blood to streak down my arm. The hound soon vanished into the air as my knife made contact with its skull.

I spun around, hearing a loud creak. Two other gates had opened, producing more of Tyrannust’s shadow hounds. I sprinted towards the first onslaught of dogs that poured out of the gates, spinning around rapidly to slice whatever was around me. It was a basic technique of dealing an area attack that proved advantageous if mastered, and it could be used both offensively and defensively against large hordes; perfect for our current situation.

The hounds quickly vanished around me, black mist darkening the blue sky. My arms were quickly tiring, partly from extending it out to perform the whirlwind attack, but mostly due to penetrating the tough derma of the dogs. They were illusions, but shared the same attributes of normal hounds prior to their death; bone structure and flesh. These beasts were strange, the first of their kind as far as I’ve encountered, slightly smaller but much faster and more powerful than a lykos. Evidently, these were specialized beasts crafted by Tyrannust. Two more gates opened, flanking Tarsus and me.

“We need to close the gates!” I shouted, hoping Tarsus would hear me halfway across the stadium. I was holding back the flood of hounds from the two gates in front of me, but I had never noticed Tarsus or the audience in the heat of my manoeuvre. I quickly turned around, slashing two more hounds, glancing over at Tarsus. The corrupted crowd was wild, waving hands and shouting incomprehensible phrases.

Gasping, I ran towards Tarsus. He was outnumbered, one man to four gates of never-ending beasts, and I was astounded by his skill and bladesmanship. He was obviously exhausted; sweat and blood pouring down his body, drenching the sandy floor. Groups of dogs leaped towards him, but he managed to swing his weapon efficiently and extremely fast, disposing dozens by dozens.

I examined the two gates, looking for a contraption that could end this infinite loop of dogs. How were the gates opening? Jabbing towards a hound, I quickly sank both blades into another and pulled them out. To my luck, a gate opened adjacent to the one beside me, leaving one gate still closed. Closely observing the metal door that slowly rolled upwards, I noticed two small gears that operated the heavy door. The gears were no bigger than a centimetre in diameter, yet it could power a substantially heavy iron gate. Even a skilled master ranger could miss a mark as small as that. As waves of hounds powered against me, I focused my might on making it to the first gate.

All of a sudden, the crowd went silent as I heard a muffled cry. Glancing instinctively at Tarsus, I nearly stumbled in my fluent movement. The dogs had rerouted their paths, all six gates of the seven opened producing beasts that targeted Tarsus and not me. No wonder I was still at ease in disposing the hounds.

Tarsus was overpowered and certainly outnumbered as the cluster of black hounds grew thicker and thicker, leaping and pouncing on him, mauling and clawing him. He was blinded from my vision; encircled by a growing and seemingly impenetrable shield of dogs that kept building up on him.

There was no time. I could either close a gate or save Tarsus, and I had to make up my mind fast. There was still a gap within the circling horde of hounds that rapidly grew smaller and smaller, and if I started now, I could probably dash through and somehow pull Tarsus out. The last gate behind me creaked its groaning cry, and in no time another stream of maiming dogs would flank us. Tarsus yelled out a blood-shrilling cry as the ghostly hounds overwhelmed him.

The gate or that damned Tarsus?

XIII

 

Without thinking any longer, I dashed towards Tarsus. This was it. This was not another training of honing accuracy; I only had one opportunity, one shot. My heart raced as I gripped my krises tighter. There was only one thought in my mind and that one thought was all it took.

I was not throwing away my shot.

Visualizing the gate behind me as the bars groaned higher and higher, I closed my eyes quickly, concentrated, and threw my right krises underhandedly backwards. I was more skilled in underhand throws, and perhaps, I would somehow hit the gear. Something in me suddenly made me doubt, and without second thought, I threw my other krises underhand behind me, doubling my chances. Leaping onto the dogs unarmed, I shouldered my way through the grouping hounds.

Within seconds, a loud booming sound thundered behind me, shaking the earth as the gate fell on one side, crushing the dogs beneath and preventing the rest from coming out. I glanced back quickly, shocked. Somehow, just somehow, I had hit one of the two cogs.

There was no time to celebrate. I made my way deeper into the piling hounds, scouting the ground for Tarsus.

In the corner of my eye a glimmer shone. The sunlight glinted off one of Tarsus’ golden plated gauntlet, which shielded bloody fingers that didn’t move. Unconscious, Tarsus lay still on the barren battleground.

I ripped the heavy weapon from his unmoving fingers and sliced through the growling dogs that had piled on top of him, pulling him out with my right arm, slashing madly with my left.

He can’t be dead. He couldn’t have been dead. That’s not...that’s just not who he was.

His heavy armour-clad body scraped along the dusty floor, and I was exhausted from the fight. The groups of hounds had retargeted once again, this time all seven gates producing beasts commanded to destroy me.

Tarsus was bloody from head to toe, face bruised and limbs scarred. His unruly hair was drenched in sweat, and saliva trickled out of his cut lips. In his other hand he held on firmly to his weapon, wrists blistered and knuckles bruised. His chest had slowly decreased its heavy rising and falling action; he was moribund.

“Tarsus! Wake up, dammit!” I shouted hopelessly as another half a dozen flanks of dogs dashed towards me. “I’m still not done with you and your guild! Wake up!”

I yelled in frustration, letting adrenaline and rage fuel my attacks, overriding my exhaustion.

Suddenly, my mind raced back to the Chamber of Mancers. As long as he was still alive, I could still save him!

I looked back at Tarsus, unmoving on the arena floor with a rapidly draining face.

I can do it. I’ve been taught this my entire life. Focus!

I breathed in. Focused. Felt the power through my blood, and focused.

My vision turned emerald, adrenaline still fuelling my arms in a random, robotic motion, slashing at the beasts subconsciously.

There was still life in Tarsus; he was fighting till the last breath. All I needed was his will to live, and that would be enough to save him. The world around me faded out, seeming to slow down, as if time itself was slowing down. My hands heated up as my mind focused on his soul, while the outpour of beasts became greater and greater.

Inhale. Exhale. Good.

Tarsus began to move, inhaling and exhaling, regaining strength. At this rate, he would be able to stand up soon, perhaps break into a sprint to the bend of the arena where there were no hounds to continue regaining strength.

It was strange, but something felt...different. It was an instinctive feeling, but something had changed within me, and within him. It was a connection, a strong connection...binding two adversaries into allies. For better or for worse.

 My vision returned to normal and the world around me shifted back into alignment. The hounds leaped against me, overwhelming me, tearing at my flesh. I tumbled down, and my vision blurred as my adrenaline seeped away, overtaken by exhaustion. Fighting against my weariness, I rolled to one side and tiredly regained footing, distracting all seven waves of the hounds.

 “Run, Tarsus!” I commanded, shaking my head and snapping back to reality.

 I hurled the shuang-gou in my hands towards him as I made a break for the collapsed gate door, picking up my blades and fending myself from the never-ending outpour. The still weakened figure stood up wryly, picked up his blade and flailed both of his weapons at the continuous stream of dogs exhaustively. Dashing headlong and blindly, he stumbled towards the seventh gate that had tumbled to one side, where I was.

Tyrannust roared in fury at the sight of Tarsus, alive and well.

“Ulterium!” Tarsus spoke, bent over with hands on his knees.

“Kinda busy!”

“They’ve stopped!”

“What?”

I looked up through the thinning mist of black. Instantaneously, a hound grazed my shoulder. Flinging it off, I looked around me. Tarsus was right, the hollow gates no longer held any more hounds. Finishing the last wave on my right with Tarsus on my left, we ran to the gate beneath Tyrannust to clean off the last two hounds, resting our arms on our legs in relief, catching our breaths.

 “Oh, no...” I spoke, dragging my voice as I caught the high lord in his actions.

Tyrannust was standing in front of his seat with his right arm raised, palm facing the sky. There was a small mysterious crimson object in his hand that beated hypnotically, beating evenly. Dadum. Dadum. Dadum. A concentrated frown was smeared across his face as a black vapour slowly rose from the strange heart. The dark substance coiled around his arm, snaked around his thick, black neck, and diffused into his head. The frown was quickly corrected by a renewed smile.

A great shadow overcame us and my attention was reverted downwards to tall gate.

“Look out!”

Thundering footsteps approached the gate as a dark shadow plagued towards us. The footsteps grew louder and louder as Tarsus ran back to where I stood. I looked around the arena - all six gates had closed as suddenly as they had opened.

“What do we do?” Tarsus spoke through gritted teeth. “What do you say we do?”

I stared at him, wide-eyed. Tarsus actually said that?

No time to contemplate. A huge fist wrapped around the bottom of the crooked gate, a hint of gold and black evident. Without effort, the gate was forcefully pushed upwards as a massive figure emerged from the shadows, destroying the surrounding walls of the arena that posed merely as clay to the enormous, powerful figure. It was unrecognizable at first.

“That can’t be him,” Tarsus spoke doubtfully.

“How did... Wha...”

We were both dumbstruck and speechless, instinctively taking a step back.

The vermilion-plated titan towered grandly above us, as if we were lowly ants. The glorious giant stood between the sun’s rays, creating a mesmerizing, menacing eclipse that outlined the defined muscular body.

I subtly nodded towards the tilted gate behind us. In unison, we looked at each other and shouted as one.

 “Run!”

 The titan pulled out a golden double-bladed battle axe as it lunged towards us.

 “I thought all Primos were protectors of the wilderness!” Tarsus yelled hysterically as the axe smashed into the ground, a few inches from his fleeing foot.

 “If Tyrannust can control the Potestatem, he can control them all! Tyrannust is using these titans to do his bidding!”

We dragged our feet across the grand arena, sprinting as fast as we could in opposite directions, burdened by the overwhelming exhaustion.

 It was then my luck ran out.

 Three gates opened at once, one from the opposite bend of the oval, and the other two on the east and west sides of the arena. From each three came the remaining titans, all tainted by Tyrannust. They broke through the arena wall easily as the first, towering tall above the two of us. The crowd grew wild, cheers and chants rumbling the arena wall. Tyrannust juggled four pulsing hearts above his head, all interconnected by a strand of black vapour that disseminated into his skull.

“We need a plan!” I proclaimed.

It wasn't long before the four Primos circled Tarsus and I in the center of the arena. Potestatem Primo was the largest, a red and golden gleaming giant radiated by the small soft sun. To the left stood Alligent Primo, the purple titan significantly smaller in size and less intimidating. To the right was Noctiscursor Primo, an enthralling cerulean knight that cowed away from the bright day. Lastly, behind me stood the smallest, yet still powerful Medicus Primo, a titan dressed in a lively green. All four giants weld a double-bladed battle axe, each embellished with a different design and coated with their respective colours. And nonetheless did any of the titans lack the tainted shade of black.

As the four Primos enclosed on us, we searched around rapidly, looking for an escape.

“And here’s your plan!” A sudden voice answered in the distance.

Oh, it was a sweet, sweet voice. Kadava Lee.

Tyrannust lost his concentration, turning his gaze towards the intruder. It was hard to see past the four lingering titans, but I could make out Kadava’s minuscule figure in the top rows of the arena, directly west of where Tyrannust was seated. The crowd died down immediately, turning to face the new voice amongst them. There was another figure beside him, and Tarsus recognized the member before I could.

“Sylvan! My man!”

It was the Arretan ranger from a couple weeks ago, the one that had tried to steal our lykos back on Cryann’s island.

“If your guildsman’s genius plan was to get one of mines to shoot Tyrannust,” Tarsus looked at me, “that angle is a great vantage point. And trust me, Sylvan Sharpshooter never misses.”

It wasn't long before Sylvan nocked an arrow, aimed it towards Tyrannust, and released, verifying Tarsus’ guess.

The arrow soared through the hot air, seemingly illuminated behind the bright armours clad by the Primos that reflected the sunlight. The swift streamline was abruptly ceased as Tyrannust snapped his arm upwards, catching the tip with two fingers right in front of his face.

“Well, he didn't miss...”

“His goal wasn't to hit Tyrannust,” I slowly spoke, understanding Kadava’s intentions. “It was to distract him!”

 As Tyrannust lost all focus on the four orbiting hearts above him, the black vapour soon vanished, dropping the hearts onto the ground. The Primos, following, stumbled to their knees, falling face first onto the dusty floor.

Tyrannust gave out an infuriated roar.

“Quick, grab on!” Kadava shouted towards us.

Kadava and Sylvan both ran down to the first row of the audience, rising a couple meters above ground. The nearest guards leapt to their feet, but Sylvan fended them off with a small throwing knife as Kadava dangled two long cords over the wall. Tarsus and I dashed towards the frayed rope and jumped on, pulling ourselves upwards, using the last of our energy to scale up the rope.

“Quick! Follow us!” Kadava barked as the crowd went wild, some confused, some excited, some angry that the show had stopped. More soldiers from the audience began to surround Sylvan, who was now joined by Kadava in fighting them off. We weaved through the rising audience and up the highest row of bleachers. I glanced backwards, looking at the lifeless titans lying in the center of the arena.

“Wait!” I spoke. “We can't just leave them there, under Tyrannust’s control! He’s gonna make the worst of them!”

“Well we can’t do anything now!”

Tyrannust was drifting over to us from his throne, fast. He was enraged, and the two whips were already in his hands.

“On my count, jump!” Kadava commanded.

We reached the top of the last row. Tyrannust drifted closer and closer as he lifted his arms upwards, preparing to slay us once we came into range in one smooth slash.

“Almost...”

We were standing on the edge of the arena wall. Below us, jagged rocks protruded from the barren dusty ground. Tyrannust was closing in, a couple of rows beneath us.

“Not yet...”

“What's taking so long? Why are we waiting here? Hurry!”

I looked down again, thoughts flooding into my head. How were we going to escape? If we moved back, we would be caught by Tyrannust, if we advanced forward, we would fall to our deaths onto the rocks. I started panicking, looking back and forth.

Tyrannust picked up the pace, the dark figure just three rows away and closing in. A wicked smile formed on his face as his arms snapped forward, both whips raining down in an arc.

“Jump!”

Kadava jumped, shoving Tarsus and I into the air as well, missing the devastating whip by a strand of a hair. As we tumbled downwards in a free-fall, an enormous portal opened and snapped shut as soon as we fell through.

We fell down onto the hard ground, one piling on top of another, creating four loud “thumps!”

I looked around, feeling the smooth cold ground. We weren’t impaled by the jagged rocks; we were nowhere near Tyrannust’s arena.

I was back home.

“Guild, sweet guild,” I sighed in relief, sprawled on the floor. “Guild members! Get these two guests some tea and make them feel at home!”

 Tarsus and Sylvan slowly stood up, looking around. As my men and women got to work, I pulled Kadava aside.

 “Kadava. I don’t know what to say. I knew I could count on you, and I’m...I’m ashamed of doubting you. Wouldn't know what would have become me if it weren't for you today. Thank you.”

 “Wouldn’t know what the guild would have become if you were gone, honestly. But all I'm gonna say is this credit isn’t just mine. Tell you what, you and Tarsus should take a good long rest, and I'll talk about it over dinner.”

I nodded in assent, quickly showed Tarsus and Sylvan to a separate resting chamber within the hideout, and I retreated to my own room for a long slumber.

 

XIV

 

“You got a nice hall here,” Tarsus said simply, looking around the interior of the hideout and taking another bite of his food.

The grand room was filled with clattering glassware and cheerful voices. It was an evening of celebration and I had sent out an invitation to the Night Guild, inviting all members to come over for dinner. Of course, it was confirmed to them by Sylvan, or they would have been skeptical of our actions. In the end, both guilds united in the dining hall, and though the segregation still remained evident between both the Blood and Night loyalists, some were finally breaking the old tradition and meeting new acquaintances. There were fourteen men and women seated at the table, seven members from the Blood Guild and seven members from the Night Guild.

“Alright, alright!” I began, clinking my glass. “Gather around, my fellow men and women, welcomed guests of the Night Guild as well. It is an honour having all of you here tonight.”

The Night Guild looked blankly at each other, wondering if my statement was full of warmth or full of sarcasm.

“Well, this is the first in history for two feuding guilds to sit down for dinner together,” I continued. “How about we forget the past, and introduce ourselves formally?”

There was no answer from the group, but agreement was evident in their eyes.

“Name’s Prokun Ulterium, leader of the Blood Guild,” I started. “Most of you have met me before, though not in a way I would have wanted us to meet.”

Looks were exchanged between the Night Guild’s members, recalling feuds with me in the past.

“To my right sits my first mate Kadava Lee, a master in his field of scouting. On my left is Hilton Fokurama, but just Foku is fine. He’s our illusionist.”

“I remember you,” Tarsus slowly spoke, glaring at Foku.

“Over there is Glo Lyte, our medic,” I continued. “But don’t underestimate her, she’s brilliant on the battlefield as well.”

Glo smiled meekly.

“Beside her sits Kiskilla Pronofonace...”

“Call me Mirage. Doubt any of you would remember my last name anyways,” she interrupted.

“Yes. Anyways, Mirage is a formidable warrior as well. You all know Arcanor, our guild’s oracle, and to his right sits Drog Grogger, our serpent-slayer.”

“At your service,” Drog grunted in his usual raspy voice. He was fully recovered from the incident with the red dragon.

“And that’s the seven of us. Now it’s your turn,” I finished, turning towards Tarsus.

“Right,” he sighed, standing up. “Just yesterday, I hated this man and his entire family, and it definitely took two to tango. Things changed, times changed, and...I never thought I would say this but...long story short, let bygones be bygones. I’m Octavius Tarsus, the one and only. O’er there is Calliphar, my first mate, a blade-master. Then we got Sylvan the Sharpshooter. To his left is Pyhrron Sumnor, a near pyromancer.”

Pyhrron let out a low laugh. “Wouldn’t put it that way.”

“Lexon Quinton’s beside him, and he goes all out when it’s a fist to fist duel.”

Some of my guild members exchanged quick glances, confirming Tarsus’ description.

“Then we have Chrikhil Hack and Konkurra Vici beside Lexon, both the guild’s valued female champions.”

“I do the scouting, she does the fighting,” Chrikhil added.

“That’s the seven of us,” Tarsus finished. “Say, this food is delicious. I don’t say that often, especially to a former rivalling guild, but who’s the chef?”

Glo gave out a quick giggle, blushing. She continued eating her meal, evading Tarsus’ light smile towards her.

The fourteen guild members continued their dinner, expressing their gratitude towards Glo.

“I’m sorry for everything between us before today,” I apologized. “To you, Octavius Tarsus, to you, Night Creed. I was blinded by our tensions that I...I never realized the greater good we could have achieved if we had only banded together from the beginning.”

“Well it takes one to know one. I’m...sorry too, I guess. Though I won’t forget those damn times you made me lose. Every single time.”

“Really? You’re still gonna do this?” I sighed hopelessly.

“I’m just messing with you. But still, we could’ve done so much more if we weren’t in each other’s ways.”

“We could’ve done so much more if we helped each other’s ways.”

It was odd, but it was reconciliation. From the moment our souls were linked on the battlefield, something changed between the two of us. For better and not for worse.

“So, about time to tell us what happened out there?” Foku asked, after a period had passed.

“Where should I begin?” Tarsus thought out loud, leaning back in his chair and exchanging a glance with me.

By the time we were halfway done our main course, Tarsus finished the conclusion of our death match experience. It may have been a bit exaggerated, just a bit, but he sure knew how to stir up a crowd. Both guilds were on their feet when he ended.

“A good time, wasn’t it?” He nodded at me.

“Y-Yea,” I managed to muffle through my full mouth.

The hall was filled with cheers and hollers, all roused up after our tale.

“How did you two even get along?” Drog grunted.

“We didn’t,” Tarsus quickly answered before I could. “I just...owe him one.”

“Now it’s your turn to talk,” I spoke to Kadava with a final gulp, quickly changing the subject.

“Right,” Kadava started. He took a quick pause, collecting his thoughts. “You have no idea what happened during your absence,” he resumed, suddenly dropping his voice. “There’s no better way of saying it, but...Grozorg has changed. Completely.”

A plague of silence filled the empty hall, guild members sat at the table with a sullen, serious visage.

“After you and Tarsus were captured, Arcanor fell into a deep coma. His eyes turned pitch black after an attempt to foresee what would happen to you two.”

I glanced over at Arcanor. He calmly continued his meal, staring down at his plate.

“He’s fine now, he woke up right in time for us to save you two. Anyways, I decided to bring the whole guild to find you when Arcanor fell into a trance, and we met the Night Guild creeping out of Tyrannust’s palace.”

“Is that true?” Tarsus interrupted, turning towards his first mate, Calliphar.

“Yessir, we met and all. Don’t think too much of it.”

“You brawled,” I guessed, a mixed tone of excitement and disappointment.

“It was short and no one got hurt, I promise,” Calliphar reassured, as both guilds looked at each other with dissent, recalling the incident.

“No one could have gotten hurt,” Kadava continued. “We just began to fight when all the palace doors suddenly flung open, and out came a wave of corrupted soldiers in black.”

“We thought they were coming for us,” Foku spoke. “The men marched rhythmically, spreading quickly across the dark island like a plague of locusts. We ran before they noticed us, returning home.

“Or at least some returned home. I stayed, and there he was, Zor the Almegamancer.” Kadava said.

“What?” Voices questioned, one after another.

“Yes, it was, I saw him too,” Sylvan confirmed in his accent-thick voice. “He was pretty far away from sight, but his unique transformed physique gave him away.”

It was no surprise the fine eyes of Kadava and an elite archer could catch a glimpse of who the figure was.

“Zor was floating high above the main palace gates, his black robes camouflaging into the black palace behind him. He had both hands raised upwards, commanding the legion of Almega soldiers.”

“Huh. The Almega Legion,” I spoke.

“I stayed behind with Kadava; we hid under the broken bridge,” Sylvan said. “Our guilds had left, but we stayed behind to witness the rise of the Almega Legion.”

“After a while, the synchronized marching stopped in unison. I peered upwards, and Zor had lowered his arms. After a few inaudible murmurs, he waved his arms around as if casting a strange spell. Suddenly, a black flame violently materialized above us, right where the broken bridge was hammered into the island. It wasn’t long before the flame grew larger and larger, and it revealed a massive portal!”

“Hold on...how big was the portal?” Arcanor interrupted, looking up from his meal, clearly intrigued.

“It was like the one we fell into when we got back here with you guys,” Kadava said, nodding towards me and Tarsus, “only much bigger.”

“How long did he keep it open?”

“Are you getting somewhere with these questions?” I asked, a bit impatient.

“The portal stayed open until the entire legion marched through--a solid twenty minutes or so.” Sylvan answered, disregarding my inquiry.

“Twenty some minutes!” Arcanor spat, disbelievingly. “Look, I’m trying to tell you something here,” Arcanor continued. “My portal was massive when I got the four of you back here from Tyrannust’s island, and I had spent my whole life learning how to create one the size of that! And, not only the size, but the time it was open! Even a rookie illusion student would know that the larger the size and the longer the time, the harder it would be for a portal to materialize and remain in that same size and shape. That’s why I had commanded Kadava when to jump exactly before he arrived at the arena; my grand portal couldn’t even last a second ajar! And, I’ll bet you I would never be able to recreate a portal that size again!”

“So Zor has gotten extremely powerful,” I stated, “is that what you’re suggesting?”

“Well he does possess all elements, and he’s the one and only Almegamancer.”

“So where did the portal take them?” I continued.

“We’re not sure,” Sylvan replied. “When Zor closed the portal, we knew it was time to leave.”

“But what we did see on the way back was that the Almega Legion had scattered across the vast nation of Grozorg. We took the longest route back to Sanoctuis deliberately, crossing Nythar’s island, through Pyhrrus’ and Cryann’s, then back to Fulcan’s island.”

“It wasn’t a pretty sight; we were surprised. Absolutely shocked. You should take a look for yourselves after supper. Especially Cryann’s land, that desolate clod of ice.”

“It was like a sudden...provisional law was created.” Kadava added, wearing a sullen face, one I had never hoped to see on such an ecstatic, young man.

“Cold-blooded murders and tortures were imposed on anyone who was outside their houses. The Almega Legion would slay anyone who was outside, even if it was their trade to be there! Men, women, even young children! A boy...there was a boy in front of me, just ten or so. I motioned for him to come to me, to hide with me, but...he didn’t notice. And right in front of my eyes, his head was slashed off by the legion. I...I couldn’t even save him.”

No one spoke a word. No one knew what to say.

“Kadava and I nearly escaped on Pyrrhus’ land. After we found out what was going on, we retreated behind anything we could find so that the Legion wouldn’t spot us, and oh yes did we regret our choice of taking the longest route.”

“And...either the news travelled fast or the legion was quick in their murders; when we headed out to retrieve you and Tarsus, there was not a single citizen outside their doors. And man, did we have to be careful getting to you. The number of soldiers of the high lord’s legion was probably tripled on Tyrannust’s land. Glad Arcanor snapped that portal open on time. Wouldn’t wanna walk all the way back.”

“So maybe ‘looking for myself after supper’ isn’t all that of a great idea.” I responded.

“Hold on!” Arcanor shouted abruptly. “The guards were...everywhere? One moment the entire army is behind the portal, and the next, they’re everywhere‽”

“Why do you ask?” Kadava replied.

“This...this simply can’t be! How on Grozorg could...what?”

“Get on with it, Arcanor.”

“There...there has been no one, not even the great Oracle Uzefer, who had created a single portal that led to multiple destinations in all of Grozorg’s history! A portal is strictly meant to teleport something to somewhere...not everywhere! This portal is like a...a multiportal! Zor isn’t just powerful, he...he’s beyond powerful!”

Tarsus seemed to mutter ‘beyond powerful’ to himself in a tone of arrogance and fear.

Suddenly, a thought struck me, draining blood from my face.

“Fulcan!” I cried aloud. “Has anyone checked on the king ever since we were gone?”

Blank looks masked everyone once again. Disregarding the rest of the meal, I abruptly stood up, nearly flipping my empty plate over.

“There’s no time to waste, make haste and grab your gear! We leave at once!”

There was no objection from both guilds. It was as if we were one alliance than two; even Tarsus gave no second-thought and picked up his golden shuang-gou. The fourteen men and women gathered their weapons and anything of use around them. Before long, both guilds stood at the main entrance of our hideout, and the final evidence of segregation between guilds had ended.

“Before we embark,” I spoke, halting their movements, “I want to thank the Night Guild one last time.”

The guild’s members gently smiled at me in return, something that would have never happened before today, before tonight.

“Also, I want to remind everyone here that we are no longer fighting as separate powers; we must now be one. For the king. For Grozorg. For each other.”

There were no looks of disagreement; instead, the thirteen other guildsmen and guildswomen eagerly waited for me to continue.

“The power we face now is much greater than anything we’ve seen before, and if we have even the slightest internal conflict, we would be inefficient; we would be weakened. Thank you, my brethren-in-arms, for aiding us tonight. Tonight, we go out for glory, for honour, and for our land!”

With a unified cry of “Hurrah!”, we marched into the fast approaching night.

 

XV

 

We quickly arrived at Fulcan’s palace after evading patrolling soldiers from Tyrannust’s legion, only to discover an abandoned, torn-down tower. The banners that hung from both columns of the palace were burnt and ashen, and upon further observations, the whole castle wore a layer of black dust. Were we too late?

There was not a single sound in Tenebris, no happy shouts of children, no monotonous chatters of royal guards, not even a single chirp from the beasts of the air.

“Tarsus, Night, up, Foku, follow, Kadava lead Blood, west!” I ordered without hesitation.

Kadava immediately took charge and led the Blood Guild towards the west entrance of the palace, but the Night Guild stood still.

“Sorry?” Tarsus asked.

It hit me that they didn't understand our abbreviated commands. It was our abbreviated commands that granted us higher success than them, after all, evidently during that hunt for the lykos.

“Sorry. Just...bring your men to the top floor and search downwards to the second floor of the castle for any sign of life.”

The Night Guild picked up their feet and headed towards the top floor, following their swift leader.

 Foku and I jogged to the east entrance of the large palace, slowly entering upon arriving at the broken grand doors. There was nobody inside. We crossed a small courtyard and entered the main tower, where Fulcan resided in. There was still no one. The hallway soon branched off into two routes, and I commanded Foku to head right while I journeyed left. It wasn’t long before a faint sound of footsteps pattered towards me. I crouched down instinctively, grabbed the hilt of my knife, and turned around swiftly. Nothing lingered in the darkness of the long hall, the sound had stopped. I slowly approached the area where the footsteps had initially come from, heart prepared for combat. My dagger had made its way out of the sheath, sitting heavily in my clenched blistered palm. I stopped and swooped behind a nearby pillar, and the careful footsteps started again, this time a lot louder. Soon, a dark figure grew bigger and bigger as it neared my column. At the right moment, I leapt out, strangling the shadowed figure with one arm while the other arm threatened the figure’s throat with the blade. The slim figure gave no hint of resistance.

 “Roslyn? Roslyn Flyforwth? Is that you?” I blinked a few times, examining the slim stranger clearly.

 “At the king’s service. And may I ask who this is?” She replied weakly, fear and horror in her voice.

 At once I released her, sliding my blade back into its sheath.

 “Roslyn! It’s me, Ulterium! What are you doing here? Where’s King Fulcan?”

 “Ulterium!” Roslyn spoke, laughing. She threw herself into my arms, tightly embracing my waist. “You scared me! What are you doing here?”

“I came with my guild to find the king!”

“Gather them and meet me outside by the portcullis. There’s no time to talk here, though I would love to. Let me finish my errand and then I'll meet you out in the courtyard. I’ll explain everything then.”

 She reluctantly released her arms as we turned to go our opposite paths. After I recalled Foku, we climbed upwards, summoning the remaining members of the Blood and Night Guild.

We waited for Roslyn in the open courtyard. The moon was blanketed by thick clouds, and the sky was draped a coal-black when Roslyn finally appeared, carrying a sack of many scrolls.

“I'm... I'm overwhelmed you're here, Ulterium,” she spoke, out of breath. “But, what are you doing with the...the other guild?”

“Don't worry about it. The Night Guild is with us now. Where’s the king?”

“Uh,” Roslyn spoke, eyeing Tarsus suspiciously. “Well, the king and his army are in the Terramancy Domain as of now. After the abrupt siege by the Almega Legion, our forces were too weak to fight back. Besides, half the army was already on the Terra Island when Tyrannust laid siege to the royal palace, and we had no time to fight back, so we ran.”

“Hold on, what were they doing in the Terramancy Domain? Did Lord Naterra do something?”

Over-lord, that is,” Roslyn corrected, emotionless. “And yes he did. He started a war.”

“What?” A calamity if voices rose behind me.

“Surely you guys have seen the ‘Schlachtnacht’.”

“If you’re talking about the recent incident where the Legion decided to brutally murder anyone they saw, then yes we have indeed,” Kadava spoke resentfully.

“Yes, according to King Fulcan, the Schlachtnacht was preparation for the war, and it was planned by Overlord Naterra to occur the night before the war!”

“Overlord Naterra? Preparation? The night before? Ulterium! This was all spoken at the council gathering!” Tarsus recalled.

The memory of the meeting that had occurred not too long ago hit me, although I couldn't recall much of what was spoken due to that blasted Tarsus who had occupied me the whole time.

 “Yeah, I recall that,” I mumbled under my breath sardonically.

“The High Lord Tyrannust VI managed to get most of Grozorg’s citizens to bend to his dark will,” Roslyn explained. “Nearly every citizen on his island has been tainted by him, and those who demonstrated resistance were brutally slaughtered.”

“Tyrannust VI used the good as...scapegoats?”

“Scapegoats to get his work done. His legion has grown to a massive number, perhaps the size of the king’s Army of Light and Purity now. It’s not safe anywhere anymore.”

I recalled the audience at the arena. Every single soul there was once a former citizen of Grozorg, contributing themselves wholly for the good of the nation before they were tainted by the dark high lord.

“But...how can Tyrannust tell who’s on who’s side?”

“From accounts told to the king, those who chose to convert received a strange, dark mark on their body. All they did was recite a strange phrase, and the mark would appear on their body. But if they went against their word after receiving the mark and betrayed the corrupted high lord, the mark killed them before they can go any further.”

“That’s outrageous! How could anyone...why would anyone turn to him?”

“He was a good guy with an excellent reputation before all this, and he promised even better rewards after his father’s death. It didn’t take much for him to first sway his own island, then the rest. The people wanted things different. They were tired of the system, tired of the rules, and so they got things different. Anyways, King Fulcan and the Army of Light and Purity are on the fronts of battle. He sent me to scavenge the last of the war maps that haven't been burnt. I’m so glad you met me here tonight, and... I suppose it’d be better with two guilds than one,” Roslyn spoke, glancing at Tarsus again.

“Well, don't they have aid from anyone right now? Hired mercenaries, pillagers, even the citizens that are untainted...anyone?”

“There was no one to help. Now that all twelve elemental domains are under Tyrannust’s possession, many untainted citizens were too scared to enlist, and those who wanted to serve the king did not dare step foot outside their doors during the Schlachtnacht. That’s why King Fulcan was in dire need of your assistance. We have no time to lose, the king is waiting for my return. Follow me, I know a path that will lead us to the king and his army.”

We picked up our feet and followed Roslyn immediately.

“We created an underground route system to evade the Schlachtnacht,” Roslyn said. “The construction of this system had actually begun during Zxyx’s reign, with the original intent a trading route for merchants from all around Grozorg. The route would provide protection for the merchants from thieves or mercenaries, but the project was abandoned after the confusion Zxyx had caused on Grozorg. Now the king has requested it to be built as a means of transporting the Army of Light and Purity around Grozorg, seeing our current situation with Tyrannust. None but the king and his army know about this system, and now you know as well.”

Just outside the portcullis was a large trapdoor on the grass ground, concealed by leaves and fake hay over the shaft. As we descended into the tunnel one by one, careful not to attract any nearby tainted soldiers of the Almega Legion, the torches neatly situated on both sides of the narrow passageway immediately lit up.

 “The entire army of King Fulcan is on the main front in the Terramancy Domain, and we fear a collaborated side flank from other elemental factions. King Fulcan ordered me to gather the remaining maps, since he had apparently found and marked down excellent vantage points. The Army of Light is currently at an advantage; we have roughly twenty times the number of men compared to the second largest army on Grozorg, and if we make it in time, we may be able to seal the deal.”

The narrow downtrodden path snaked and curved, winding at random turns. Occasionally, the path split into two or three, but Roslyn did not hesitate in choosing which path to take and kept jogging forward.

“Why so many paths? What if we get lost or something?”

“We started digging paths to the other islands as well,” Roslyn sighed anxiously. “Apparently, Naterra’s war is only the first to come.”

Silence filled the cavern once again. The dirt ground resembled many iron clod footprints, and some distorted shield insignias were gently wiped across the soft clay walls. Evidently, the entire army travelled down here after the beginning of Schlachtnacht.

“How long will it take for us to reach Fulcan? If you’re planning to march non-stop to the Terramancy Domain, it’s going to take at least two days.”

“I know. But there’s no other way now, is there? We don’t have enough stallions, and even if we did, the Almega Legion would for sure decimate the lot of us if we travelled on the surface. Anyways, scattered throughout this underground network are a couple of empty cenotes, where we can camp overnight. The openings of the cenotes will provide us fresh air and, if needed, an alternate route to get out, but I see no reason why we would at this time now.”

“Hold up, can’t someone just make a portal or something? There’s got to be a way of making it to Fulcan on time rather than endlessly marching for two days.”

“Tarsus, I drained most of my energy bringing you and Ulterium back, and this marching isn’t helping,” Arcanor replied, “but at the closest stop, I could probably snap open a small portal for a short period, which would allow no more than two guildsmen to aid Fulcan. After that, don’t expect to see any more portals from me for a long while.”

“Two’s better than nothing,” Tarsus immediately spoke. “So who’s going then?”

I spoke up. “Night Guild, in no offensive way do I say this, but Fulcan favours the Blood Guild over your guild. It’s simply the truth, ever since the War of Zxyx. So I propose two men from my guild head through Arcanor’s portal to aid the army.”

“Wouldn’t it make sense for a Night guildsmen to go to gain his trust then?” Tarsus spoke loudly.

“How does that even make sense in a time like thi--”

“Stop! Now’s not the time to argue,” Roslyn interceded. “I understand the long history between your two guilds, but I must side with Ulterium on this one. It makes more sense, too; the king understands the skills and abilities of each individual of the Blood Guild over the Night.”

“When wouldn’t you side with Ulterium?” Tarsus gave out an irritated sigh, rolling his eyes. “Whatever you say, messenger girl.”

Roslyn abruptly stopped, but I continued pushing her in front of us. In an attempt of taking her mind off Tarsus, I racked my brain for two members to assist Fulcan.

“Roslyn, I’m going to send Glo and Foku.”

No one voiced out disagreement, but Tarsus’ agitatedly grunted.

“Glo will help heal the injured and wounded men, while Foku would support Fulcan through his skills of illusiomancy.”

“Are you sure you won’t need us?” Glo spoke softly behind me. “I want to stay with you guys!”

“Oh, we’ll need you all right. You’re the best medic I’ve seen in my life! But the kingdom is counting on you now. If Fulcan falls, Grozorg falls. He’s our last hope. Also, you’re related to Fulcan! Once he sees you, he’ll be comforted for a while.”

“Glo’s of noble blood?” Tarsus spoke up, turning around to glance at her. She gave him a small smile.

“Glo’s the first cousin removed of Fulcan. She’s tended his wounds ever since he became king.”

“I joined the Blood Guild after the War of Zxyx was over,” she added. “There was really no point in aiding him when all was good on Grozorg.”

“Until now. He definitely would be glad to see you again.”

Roslyn halted again. In front of us lay five paths that had diverged from the main route, and Roslyn pulled out a scroll from her leather sack.

“Not familiar with this part of the network. It’s rather new here, and I haven’t been down the second, third, or fifth path either. A single path would take two to three days alone from one destination to the other, and when I get back to Fulcan, I would’ve spent nearly a week in these wretched dirt passageways.”

After a quick glance, Roslyn proceeded down the fourth tunnel.

“According to the map, it’d be a good two hours until we reach the first cenote. If we pick up the pace and jog a bit more, we could reach it in an hour or less. Keep moving, guild members.”

 

XVI

 

The rhythmic footsteps created clouds of dust beneath our foot. At last, we arrived at the first sinkhole. It was grand, and the diminutive gaping hole above was covered by a blinding white moon. The clouds had finally cleared tonight. The cavern ceiling stretched meters high; perhaps we were under a small mountain.

In the center of the cenote lay flattened logs that encircled a small pit of timber and coal. Around the log benches were twenty-some tent like structures, structures constructed of flaps of leather skin sewed together and pulled tightly by wooden stakes hammered strongly into the soft pebbled ground.

“Here at last,” Roslyn sighed, stretching her arms. “Well, take a seat and make yourselves at home. Arcanor, you can prepare that portal anytime.”

Roslyn proceeded to sit on a nearby log, unpacking her sack and re-examining the war scrolls. Arcanor claimed a tent nearest the entrance, taking a short rest. Glo and Foku sat down on a log, taking a break as well, and the other men and women unpacked their few belongings, claiming a marquee for themselves.

I had brought virtually nothing with me except for my two blades, which would always remain by my side. None of us had been fully prepared for this long journey, and if we returned to Sanoctuis to gather our belongings, we would have wasted more time than we could have afforded. Walking up to Roslyn, I sat down beside her. She looked up at me and smiled, continuing to unpack her bag. There was a strange looking boulder in the center of the pit, a deep slit intentionally carved on its smooth surface. There was also a long wooden spindle and a worn-out fireboard in front of the pit, so I proceeded to start a fire.

“Ulterium! Stop that!”

I looked up, seeing an unfamiliar face. He was one of Tarsus’ men.

“Allow me.”

Pushing both his hands toward the thin pile of timber, a small burst of flames leaped out and devoured the wood from his palms. The pit crackled, growing into a greater flame.

“Pyrrhon Sumnor, at your service.” He gave me a quick wink and returned to his tent. Near pyromancer, Tarsus’ words echoed in my head as I recalled who he was.

“The Pyro Faction, I presume?” I asked sarcastically, remembering where he sat at our dinner table.

“I’m a descendant of the Ignis Ordo of the Fire Faction. I suppose I’m of noble blood as well.”

“Really?” I questioned, partially in awe.

“He’s also been one of our guild members for the longest time now,” Tarsus spoke, overhearing our conversation.

“I’ve heard of the Ignis Ordo. Lord Pyr--”

“Overlord,” Roslyn quickly interrupted, eavesdropping beside me.

Overlord,” I corrected, glancing at her. “Overlord Pyrrhus was the head of the Order, was he not?”

“He still is. But I suppose he’s broke the code of honour, now that he’s gone corrupted and all by that Tyrannust. Anyone who breaks the code is automatically banished from the Order and the faction, but that’s not likely for him if he’s truly become as powerful as Tyrannust is from that dark magic, and since he’s also the leader of the Order. Come to think of it, I don’t even know what has happened to the Order now. Have they become corrupted as well?”

“Hold on, are you saying the Ignis Ordo still exists?”

“I haven’t been in contact much ever since Pyrrhus was crowned as Lord of the Fire Faction after his father’s death. But Lord Pyrrhus is still very likely to be leading the Order.”

Roslyn rolled her eyes, mouthing the word ‘Overlord’ to Pyrrhon.

“All I know is the Ignis Ordo was a strong clan, alike a guild. It was started by Pyrrhus when he was still a prince, and the Order recruited forty-seven commanders to help effectuate the law. The Ordo is probably still here, unless Pyrrhus disbanded the group, or even worse, corrupted the group. But if he did, chances are, I’d get the information too.”

“So if, just if, we could get someone to go to Pyrrhus’ island, we may be able to recruit the Ignis Ordo to help us?”

“If we make it, yes. It’s part of the code of honour, to aid all for the good of the nation, even when it means self-sacrifice.”

“Glo! Foku! Come here!” Arcanor shouted tiredly, approaching me.

Both guilds exited their tents, taking a seat on the log benches to watch Arcanor at work. There were no Night Guild members who could do the works of Arcanor, and clearly, they were all fascinated. Foku and Glo walked up to Arcanor, who was standing near the flaming pit.

“Alright, I can’t make this portal big, and I can’t hold it open that long either. You know what happens if only half your body makes it through, so I need you both to be careful.”

“What happens?” Roslyn whispered to me.

“Well, it’s a portal,” I whispered back. “If the portal closes and you’re only halfway through, well, at least half of you made it to your destination.”

Roslyn turned away, face pale and horrified at the thought. I gave a small chuckle.

“It won’t hurt, it’s instant death,” I added on. “It’ll only be a sight for sore eyes on both sides.”

I intertwined my fingers with hers, pulling her closer to me while everyone was focused on Arcanor. She leaned on my chest, looked up at me and smiled.

“The portal’s going to open on the ground here,” Arcanor spoke, indicating a spot with his hands. “This means you’ll be falling from the sky and hopefully landing into a canopy,” Arcanor continued. “ But I mean the whole island’s basically a forest, so what are the chances you both won’t? Anyways, the portal will stay open for around two seconds - I’ll try my best. That means, whoever goes first, the next must immediately jump in right after. You’ve heard of the drill. Keep your arms tight to your side and stay vertical since this portal is going to be extremely narrow. Now I need you both to breathe in; I’m aware this is your first or second time portal-jumping.”

“Just give me a second...” Foku said, glancing at me with a terrified look.

“I think he heard you,” Roslyn whispered.

“Don’t worry, you’ll both do fine. All you gotta do is take a deep breath, jump in straight as a stick, and close your eyes. You’ll do fine, trust me. Are you ready?”

“Wait!” Roslyn yelled suddenly, standing up. “I almost forgot! Take these maps with you, since you two would make it to the king first. Tell him that I’m keeping one just to navigate out of these caverns.”

Roslyn handed Glo the sack of scrolls, taking one out and slipping it into a pocket.

“My messenger ring is also inside that pouch, so if you show it to Fulcan, he’ll have full assurance that I am safe and with company.”

“Will do,” Glo spoke. “I’m going to miss you all,” she added, looking at both guilds, then me and Tarsus specifically.

“Alright, are you both ready? Take a deep breath. Now...on the count of three...”

Glo stepped onto the area Arcanor had indicated, with Foku directly behind her.

“Close your eyes, and don’t move until I say ‘three’. You know the drill.”

The two stood like petrified statues, eyes tightly shut and breath held.

“Remember to brace for impact, and -”

“Just go!” Foku shouted, face pale.

“Three!”

The two sank quickly into the ground, trailing a loud scream that shook the cavern walls. Quickly, the portals snapped shut, cutting off two distant cries. Somehow, two portals appeared beneath them instead of one. Arcanor collapsed to the ground, eyes closed on his weary face.

“I... I...did it. I did it,” he smiled weakly.

“Yes, you’re getting good at this,” I responded, crouching down beside him. “I thought you said they had to jump.”

“I realized making two portals directly underneath them wouldn’t stress them out as much as jumping into one.”

“Well I don’t know how you made two portals, but you’re growing stronger day by day. First, a massive portal that carried four men through, and now two portals at once? That’s impressive.”

“Not as good as Zor. He can make a single portal that leads to multiple destinations at once with ease.”

“He’s been infused with darkness, but your strength is genuine. Now take care of yourself and rest. I’ll wake you up tomorrow when we start the journey again.”

Arcanor sauntered towards his tent, immediately heading for a deep slumber.

“Wish them both the best of luck,” Roslyn spoke to me. Turning to the remaining guildsmen, she directed them to sleep.

“Rest well; the itinerary tomorrow appears to be walking, walking, and a bit more walking through tunnels and more tunnels. It’ll be fun.”

“Not when we won’t have food tomorrow,” Tarsus spoke, causing some to stop in their steps.

“Food will be provided in the morning. In case you guys somehow split up, just remember that there is always a hidden supply of food in every cenote. You’ll just have to look for it. And I’m not preparing any of it tonight. It’s way past midnight.”

Satisfied, Tarsus and the rest turned around to enter their tents again.

“Alright, good night Roslyn. Counting on you tomorrow,” I said, giving her a firm pat on the back. “You’d make Fulcan proud.”

“Stay with me, Ulterium,” she quickly responded, grabbing my hand. “Just for a bit. I...I wanna talk with you.”

Everyone had retreated back to their tents now, and a wave of distant snores had begun.

“Prokun, when I first met you, I...you...”

I smiled at her. She was blushing, glancing back and forth but not towards me. She was still in my arms, her small body shielded by my embracing arms.

“You don’t have to say anything,” I whispered, a bit embarrassed that others still awake could potentially eavesdrop, especially Tarsus.

“Prokun, I...”

I stood up and pulled her into a nearby tunnel, dark and far enough to conceal us.

“I love you, Roslyn.”

I bent down and kissed her forehead. She wrapped her arms around my waist and tilted her head up until her thin lips pressed against mine.

“I...I’ve never said that before, to anyone,” I confessed. “I-”

“I love you too, Prokun.”

Her gentle breath brushed against my neck as she pressed against me.

“When you left the castle that day, I couldn’t take my mind off of you for the longest time.”

“I tried coming back every now and then, but I never got to see you again.”

“The king sent me on all kinds of diplomatic missions across the nation, but of all the men I’ve met, there was no one like you. I haven’t stopped thinking about you ever since. I guess I forgot how good you looked when we re-met,” she teased with embarrassment.

“When all of this is over, we’ll settle in a small house on the edge of Tenebris. It’ll just be you and me. I promise.”

“It’ll be you and me and two more,” she replied, softly giggling under her breath. “And you’ll make them proud of you.”

We held on to each other for a little longer. At that moment, nothing could separate us, nothing could intervene. No power nor authority, no flood nor fire, no war nor darkness.

We returned to the benches by the flickering flames at the center of the sinkhole. Her face was dimly outlined under the dying embers of the slow fire. She smiled bashfully, burrowing her face into my stomach as she lied across the log.

“Get some rest, Roslyn,” I whispered, caressing her forehead. “We have quite a journey tomorrow.”

“You too, soldier. I don’t want my Prokun tired for tomorrow.”

I smiled lightly, stroking her flowing hair. I knew we were meant to be, I knew we were just meant to be. From the moment I first saw her…

I remained on the flattened log, gazing up at the stars for a little while as Roslyn drifted off on top of me, her thin body mesmerizingly rising up and down as she fell fast asleep. I lied down beneath her gentle body, dozing off on the wooden bench with both arms wrapped around the girl I planned to soon propose to, falling into a deep sleep. Everything was perfect.

 

The first arrow pierced my right side as I jolted awake in pain. The fire in the center had burned out, and the entire cenote was pitch black. The only light that entered the cave was from the dim stars that hung miles and miles above us.

“Siege!” I cried out instinctively as another arrow flew down, scraping my arm. I sat up and carried the awakening Roslyn in both arms, scrambling blindly away from the open hole in the ceiling. Placing her down in an empty tunnel, I pulled out the barbed arrow in my arm and yelled.

“Wake up! We're under attack!”

 It wasn't long before all had evacuated their tents, instinctively finding their path towards the wall of the great sinkhole for coverage. Roslyn quickly took in the situation and sank into the shadows, looking for a solution. A volley of arrows blanketed our camp, piercing through leather tents and fixing deeply into the soft ground.

The pitch black cavern was suddenly lit by a small flame, illuminating Pyrrhon’s visage behind the weak light.

 “Put it out!” I yelled immediately, crawling to another position before giving myself away.

A wave of arrows darted towards Pyrrhon before his flame was extinguished. From the darkness where he once stood, a howl of pain followed.

Pyrrhon’s short burst of flame was enough to see what was happening. Distorted men in dark armour were dropping into the cenote through ropes, fine bows in hand with arrows nocked. There were probably over fifty and counting men, a continuous flow of soldiers sliding down the many ropes thrown over and down the small opening of the sinkhole. Nevertheless, their armours resembled the exact likeness of the invaders in Fulcan’s palace a few days ago.

“It’s the Legion and there's too many of them! We need to go, now!”

Pulling out my daggers, I slashed blindly at the larger shadows, careful not to injure any men and women on our side.

There was a faint voice in the distance.

“Over here! The tunnel exit is here!” Roslyn cried out.

Suddenly, a great blaze of flames spewed upwards, and the rim of the cenote, where grass and shrubs grew, was lit on fire. The whole cave was faintly illuminated, revealing the Legion descending upon us like an unending swarm of locusts.

In the corner crouched Pyrrhon, arrows fixed into his chest and body. He was barely breathing, yet strong enough to summon the last of his energy to light up the cavern.

“Go first! I’ll come right after!” Tarsus yelled at us, hurrying us along. He was bent down beside Pyrrhon, fending off incoming attacks and arrows with his spinning weapon.

“Get to Roslyn!” I yelled.

Most of the guild members immediately ran towards the other side of the cenote to where Roslyn was standing, where we were supposed to begin our journey five hours later.

I stayed behind, defending the entrance while other members crawled into the significantly lower tunnel. The Legion archers started falling down before my eyes, one by one. I stood there in awe momentarily. In the corner of the cenote, high above ground level, was hidden a marksman in a dark cowl.

“Go! I’m almost out of arrows!” The ranger yelled, the accent-peppered voice belonging to no other but Sylvan. Almost reloading his longbow instantly, every shot fired was fixed precisely into a Legion footman, usually in the skull as well.

I couldn’t go yet. I couldn’t leave anyone behind. Quickly, I raced around the falling Legion soldiers, towards Tarsus. I reached the area where Pyrrhon once laid, but nothing remained there except a stain of blood that soaked the dusty floor.

“Over here!” Tarsus shouted. I turned around, and Tarsus was darting towards the entrance of the tunnel with Pyrrhon tailing him weakly.

There was no time to think. The fire was quickly fading, and the sinkhole grew dimmer by the second.

I looked around and spotted Arcanor, still asleep under a ripped leather covering. With no hesitation, I sprinted towards him and picked him up, carrying him over my shoulders.

“Sylvan! You gotta get down now!”

After the last couple of soldiers fell to his bow, the mysterious ranger hung his longbow on his shoulder and shifted around the rocks towards us. I lost sight of him after a short while, but it wasn’t long before he joined the rest of us in the tunnel.

“This won’t work! They’ll just keep coming!” Roslyn shouted. “We need to block them off!”

The next wave of Legion men started their way down the ropes, finding their way towards us.

“Prokun, here!”

Roslyn hastily took out the scroll from her pocket, placing it in my hand. “Promise me that you won’t lose the stone!”

“What are you doing? What stone?”

“You need to trust me. This map has the entire underground system drawn out. Please promise me you’ll make it safely to the king with this scroll!”

“No! You’re coming with us! Let’s go, now!”

“Stop! I need to do this. For you. For all of you. For the king. For Grozorg!”

Tarsus grabbed her arm before she continued.

“Roslyn. Sorry for everything earlier. You’re a brave lad. You betcha Fulcan would be proud of you.”

Roslyn gave a weak smile before pulling away from Tarsus’ grip.

“Once they come, you need to keep running. Go down this tunnel and turn to the first left, and camp in that dugout until the flames disperse.

“Flames?”

“Go now!”

Most of the guild members headed towards the dugout, following Tarsus. Roslyn embraced me abruptly, throwing both arms tightly around my waist and pulling herself up. Her soft lips pressed against mine, and tears streaming down her face.

“Come with me, Roslyn!”

“This is the only way. I’m sorry, Ulterium!”

“What about...what about everything?”

“There’s...there’s no time.”

“But we were meant to be-”

“Promise you won’t forget me.”

She gave me a final embrace as she pulled herself away and whispered her last three words before dashing back into the cenote.

I love you.

Roslyn approached the center of the sinkhole and pulled out her short dagger, poised motionless on her toes, looking upwards. The Legion continued dropping down, surrounding her. Swiftly, she evaded a soldier’s arrow and sunk her blade into the center of the smoking fire pit, into the strange slit on the stone, creating a makeshift lever. Immediately, the inscriptions on her royal blade illuminated brightly, lighting up the entire cavern again.

As the Legion filled the cavern, Roslyn placed both hands on the short hilt of the blade and pulled back and downwards.

All at once, the entire sinkhole was filled with a great flame, and the blaze pervaded every tunnel. I bolted down the hall and swung leftwards as the fast approaching flame licked the tip of my cloak, joining the huddled guild members. Instantly after came a trembling earthquake, shaking the walls of the tunnel and rumbling the soft earthen ground. The whole tunnel was filled with dust, and then, there was nothing. The entire tunnel faded to a pitch black.

Silence filled the clay halls.

I was unaware of it at first, but tears started to trickle down my face. The girl I had met, the girl I had known, the girl I had fallen in love with, all in an instant, was gone. And there was no way of bringing her back. There was no way I could bring her back.

Roslyn was dead.

 

I didn’t know what to say. Everything just happened so...suddenly. One second she was with me, and the next...

“Torches are out,” I spoke, clearing my throat. “Without Roslyn...without Roslyn, they won't light up automatically anymore.”

Pyrrhon lifted his head, breathed a weak breath, and lit the sequential torches dimly with a small orange blaze. He fell to the ground, and the surrounding guild members immediately knelt down to pull out the arrows from his body and tend his wounds.

“Where to?” Tarsus broke the silence.

I took out Roslyn’s parchment, quickly wiping a tear away when a solid white gemstone rolled out and onto the dusty floor.

Bending down, I picked up the gemstone, and the tunnel was immediately reignited a blazing bright white.

“What is that?” Tarsus inquired, taking a step forward.

I shoved the entire parchment into Kadava’s hands. I couldn’t do it anymore.

“Hold on...something’s written on this parchment.”

He unravelled the old brown paper, revealing a complex system of tunnels. In the bottom right hand corner, words were messily scrawled, perhaps by Fulcan.

“‘Roslyn,’” he began, “‘you must retrieve the white stone to me at all costs. The stone wields immense power and is the last of its type. The stone I carried has been destroyed, and without the stone, we won’t be able to get back. I have placed it in the hidden vault behind my bed. Make haste and bring me the stone.’”

“What? Why didn’t she just give it to Foku and Glo to bring it to the king then? Did she forget or something?” Tarsus asked.

She wouldn’t have forgotten. I knew she wouldn’t have forgotten, I knew that girl had a purpose for keeping it, but I couldn’t think of one.

“We...we have to hurry now.” I ushered.

“The map gets a bit smudged here, but I’m almost certain we have to take a right after going down this tunnel.”

“Take charge,” Tarsus replied. “We’ll be following.”

“Keep your eyes open,” Kadava instructed. “That won’t be the last of the Legion.”

We exited the dugout and continued down the path, following the directions of the map.

 

XVII

 

“You sure this was the right path?” Tarsus asked angrily.

We had been walking continuously the whole day yesterday, spending the night at another cenote. At daybreak, we embarked on our journey once again, after scavenging the cenote for the supply of food promised by Roslyn. We walked for another two hours before arriving at a dead end.

“I’m certain!” Kadava shouted. “Look! I’ve been following the map this whole time!”

“Well then how do you explain this?” Tarsus countered, pointing at the dead end.

“I don’t know! Why don’t you read the map if you’re good at this? Look! We were here,” he circled a space on the map with his finger, “this was the cenote. If you take a look at the end and retrace back to the cenote, we would be right....here! And that’s exactly where we are!”

“We’re still on Fulcan’s island,” Mirage spoke.

“No kidding! Where else would we be?” Tarsus remarked sarcastically.

“Well there’s only one answer then,” Mirage processed, glaring at Tarsus. “We must’ve reached the border of this island.”

“So you’re saying we would have to find a way up to cross the bridge?”

“No,” she replied. “I doubt we could all make it up without the Legion noticing, provided we even find a way climbing up. We’re pretty deep underground.”

“Then how do we get out of here?”

“Look around,” Kadava instructed. “There may be a lever or a trapdoor or something. There must be a way of getting out.”

Immediately, the two guilds scattered amongst the small tunnel, scaling the walls, searching the floors, scanning the ceiling for anything.

My hand rubbed a hard stone on the right side of the tunnel wall. It felt unusual, polished and cold. Quickly, I dusted off the silt and clay that concealed the flat boulder, revealing a brick-like structure. The center of the flat surface was dug out, resembling a concave hole.

What would Roslyn do?

I pulled out the white gemstone posthaste from my cloak pocket, fumbling my fingers around the many smooth facets. The white gemstone slid perfectly into the incurvated cavity, glowing all the more brighter, producing a blinding white light. Within a matter of seconds, a white flaming portal grew larger and larger in front of the dead end, and Naterra’s rugged island could be seen through the blazing gateway.

“So Roslyn...didn’t forget to bring the stone to Fulcan,” Tarsus recalled as the guild members turned towards the portal.

“She knew we needed it,” Kadava replied. “Well...there’s our answer now. Who wants to go first?”

“Hold on! If we’re supposed to bring the gemstone to Fulcan, who’s going to retrieve it once everyone crosses?” Tarsus inquired.

“Oh,” I muttered, distracting myself from Roslyn’s sudden departure. “Well the portal took a few seconds to open so...perhaps it would take a few seconds to close. Here’s the plan. Tarsus, cross first, then lead the guilds to find King Fulcan. I’ll stay behind and fiddle with this portal.”

“You sure you got it?”

“Hopefully. We can’t waste time now. Go!”

Tarsus and the two guilds jumped through the portal one by one, landing onto the dark forest floor on the other side. Before long, I was the last one on Fulcan’s island. There was only one way of testing the mechanism without risking my life. I took the gemstone out and the portal stayed agape for a few seconds, before snapping shut. Inserting the gemstone again, I took it out, recording how long it took for the portal to close and determining the distance I would have to run before it closed. I slipped it into the depressed brick and pulled it out one more time to be sure. Now I was ready. I carefully placed the stone into the brick.

“What are you doing?” I heard Tarsus shout.

I was caught by surprise; portals never carried sound. I turned around, and Tarsus stood right in front of me.

“Why are you back?” I yelled angrily.

“To see what you were up to. I mean, I didn’t know if you knew what you were doing after I saw the same portal open and close three times in front of me!”

“I got it! Go back! I’ll be there. Go!”

“If I see that portal open and close one more time, I’m leaving you,” Tarsus taunted, marching through the portal.

The flaming white doorway stayed ajar for a bit less than two seconds, and I was only a meter away. From previous experience, the stone slipped smoothly out of the carved crater. I placed my right hand on the stone, and bolted through the portal as I pulled it out. Rolling onto the forest floor, the portal behind me snapped shut. In my hand was the smooth, white diamond.

“You finally did it,” Tarsus mocked.

I glared at Tarsus and got on my feet instantly, slipping the stone back into my pocket and joining the rest of the twelve guild members.

“Lexon found one of Fulcan’s soldiers, so we’re heading there now.”

Overlord Naterra’s island, the Terramancy Domain, was significantly smaller than Fulcan’s, who possessed the greatest land mass. The whole island was a lush, dense, rainforest, tall canopies shielding the cerulean sky. It was impossible to look farther than ten meters without a tree trunk or an overgrown thicket hampering my vision. Ever since the War of Zxyx, Naterra’s island was the least visited island on Grozorg. Tribal clans had formed to fight against Zxyx, but after the fall of the dark king, the tribes turned against each other to demonstrate dominance and superiority. Some had begun the practice of dark rituals, other tribes performing cannibalism. All in all, the land became barbaric, and Lord Naterra did not stop it. Now that he himself had become corrupted as well, the only way of stopping the clans would be stopping the overlord entirely.

“Just to the left there,” Lexon indicated.

We pushed our way through the bushes and shrubs, evading snaking vines and twisting thorns. The twelve of us kept our guard up, fully aware of the island’s unpleasant history and unsettling reputation.

“Sir Valkard, at thy service,” the knight spoke upon seeing our arrival. “King Fulcan awaits thy presence. His majesty is hidden behind the Weaver’s Pass, to thy right, then thy left. Please-”

The knight fell as a dart pierced his skull.

“Ambush!” Tarsus yelled.

There was a small wooden-masked warrior, an emerald humanoid creature half the height of a grown man, holding a blowgun to his mouth with two thin arms. At once, Lexon ripped the weapon from the tribal warrior’s grip and snapped the neck of the small fighter. He lay on the ground in a distorted angle, unconscious.

“There’s more - we’re outnumbered!” I yelled, looking beyond the trees. “Everyone, head into the Weaver’s Pass! We should be able to lose them there!”

The twelve of us followed the knight’s navigation, heading into a darker region of the rainforest.

The primitive warriors poured out by the hundreds from every which way, streaming through the thickets.

We entered the pass, only to discover the crooked branches and forest floor coated by a sticky, silky substance. The appellation “Weaver’s Pass” suddenly dawned on me as I recalled that long-forgotten name.

“Hold on...we gotta get out of here now!” I hollered.

I turned around to see the tribal warriors slowly retreating from the pass as we carelessly stepped foot into the Weaver’s realm.

There had been legends about Naterra’s land. The legends were taught to me when I was a child, so long ago that I had simply put it aside, never imagining I would one day come close to encountering the species. The sole reason I had formed the guild was to hunt beasts, either as game or to defeat terrorizing creatures that threatened cities, all in return for gold. The legends had spoken of abnormally large arachnids, namely the Weavers, that roamed the Terramancy Domain, and all who entered never escaped. My guild had never been recruited to slay the aberrant arthropods, nor would we ever choose to even come close to one, but here we were now.

“Are those...the Weavers?” Tarsus asked weakly. I looked at him and he was turned around, petrified in fear.

I knew what to do. Without spinning around to gaze in his general direction, I backed up, lifted the stone-solid Tarsus over my shoulders, and brought him off the pass. His dilated pupils gradually returned to its normal size, and he slowly regained strength to stand up.

“Our men are still in there. We need to hurry!”

The mythical Weavers were fierce and strange creatures; their preying tactic simple and deadly: petrify, weave, devour. The arachnids, with their eight gruelling gazes, would petrify the victim upon eye contact, emitting hypnotic impulses into the victim’s mind to cease every movement. The victim, helpless, would be frozen in place, watching the predator weave a thick web tightly around them. If they were lucky, the arthropod would leave the webbed victim stuck onto the forest floor, giving them time to escape, if they still had the strength to tear through the glutinous webbing. But if the Weavers were hunting to kill, the arachnid would inject a lethal venom into its mummified prey, dissolving the inner organs into liquid before the Weaver proceeded to devour it.

“Ulterium, save our men! I’ll take care of those damned spiders!”

“Be careful! We won’t be able to get you out if you go too deep into the forest!”

“I’m always careful,” Tarsus snickered as he closed his eyes, running towards the direction of the Weavers.

I turned around and jogged backwards towards the frozen guild members. All had fallen to the gaze of the arachnids, transfixed in a rigid motion. One by one, I carried them off to the side of the path where they slowly regained consciousness. As they woke from the spell of the Weavers, they assisted me in carrying the rest of the guild members aside, following my technique of jogging backwards to evade glimpsing upon the mesmeric octet of eyes.

Tarsus pulled out his shuang-gou, linked them together, and swung his blades in a smooth, deadly, circular movement. Since he had previously locked eyes with the Weavers, he knew approximately how far to run to reach the congregation of spiders. Bloodcurdling shrieks were heard from a distance as the arachnids fell one by one to Tarsus’ blade.

“Tarsus!” I hollered at the top of my lungs, hoping he could hear through the shrieking spiders. “Retreat, we’re good!”

“Alright!” The distant voice replied.

He turned around, running towards us. When he reached the edge of the pass, he opened his eyes.

“I’m surprised you didn’t run into a tree or something.”

The guild members chuckled, slapping the panting Tarsus on the back and thanking him.

“The trees obviously parted for me when I entered. Where to next?”

“He said to go right then left.”

“Behind the pass,” Kadava added.

“Right. So I guess we should trace along the pass, heading rightwards, until we find an opening on our left.”

The twelve of us took a few seconds to recover. Soon, we were on our feet again, heading right. We traced along the darkened trees, careful not to turn our heads yet to look within the web-coated forest. After a while, the population of trees diminished.

“This is it,” I spoke, leading the group left and into the opening.

The clearing was barricaded by a tall wooden palisade with archers in lookout towers that were erected at every few hundred meters along the grand wooden wall. The banners that hung beneath the towers resembled the insignia of King Fulcan’s Army of Light and Purity. The fortified fortress, however, had a portion of the wall, farthest away from us, burnt and broken down.

“Tarsus!” A familiar voice shouted.

We looked up towards the sound of the familiar voice, spotting Glo a couple of meters ahead.

“Ulterium! You all made it!” She shouted exuberantly.

“Are we late?” Tarsus asked.

“The king is waiting for you! I’ll let him tell you.”

She met us and pointed northeast, directing our gaze through an open gate in the palisade, towards a tall white tent rising above other shorter tents.

We made our way to the complex quickly, entering the tent Glo had indicated.

“Ulterium! Tarsus! Welcome! Glad you could join us,” King Fulcan greeted. Foku was by his side, studying the scrolls and maps haphazardly lying around in the large tent.

“Foku spoke to me regarding your two guilds. Thank you for sending him and Glo in advance.”

“Always at your service,” I bowed. “Oh, and before I forget.”

I quickly fumbled the white gemstone in my pocket and pulled it out, memories of Roslyn suddenly painfully filling my thoughts.

“Apparently this is of high importance to you.”

“You have it! What a relief!” The king exclaimed, taking the stone from my palm. “Where’s Roslyn?”

The twelve of us looked at each other, sullen-faced as the memory of the skilled messenger filled their thoughts again.

“She was a good lad. You should be proud of her,” Tarsus spoke quietly.

“What happened?” Fulcan asked, grief filling his words.

“The first night we travelled here, the Almega Legion raided us. We were camping in the cenote, when the Legion suddenly started pouring down by the dozens. We fought the army, but the soldiers just kept coming down on us,” Tarsus answered as I lowered my head.

“So Roslyn activated the destruction sequence,” Fulcan correctly guessed, pain heavy in his words.

We stood there in silence, remembering the selfless deed of the messenger. I turned my face around, concealing the tears in my eyes.

“She was the best diplomat I had ever recruited in all of Grozorg. Smart, fast, efficient...” The king paused, sighing heavily. “Well, what’s done is done. Let’s make sure Roslyn’s act was not in vain,” Fulcan finished, overcoming his anguish.

“Sir! The troops are advancing!”

The king turned towards the sudden voice. A soldier stood at the entrance of the tent, announcing his news to a commander posted nearby. They proceeded to converse in a lower tone, an inaudible mumbling.

“So what happened before we came?” Tarsus asked the king.

“When we first stepped foot on the island, our troops were immediately rerouted by the savage tribes.”

“Right,” Tarsus noted.

“There was a knight from my army who had grown up on Naterra’s island, and he explained the culture of the tribes. Apparently, the feuding tribes had one thing in common; they looked upon the Weavers as gods. The Weaver’s Pass acted as a barrier between them and us, so we set camp behind it for protection from the tribes.”

“Figures,” I said, recalling the encounter with the arthropods.

“Anyways, the two tribes were not the only problem. Our forces were met by Naterra’s personal army, a small but formidable force of fighting men. They had a strange strategy, and on the first day alone, my army was decimated by the hundreds.”

“How about Tyrannust?”

“Some of his men were with Naterra’s army, but he himself wasn’t on the island. I still haven’t figured out what his plan is at the moment.”

“Hold on, if he knows about the tunnel system, wouldn’t he be well on his way destroying the passages now?”

“I doubt it. It would definitely hinder us if he did destroy the system, but that would ultimately impede him more than us from whatever his next move is. He needs time, but this would just distract him instead of buying him more time.”

“So how long do you reckon this war will last?”

“My Lord,” the commander spoke, facing Fulcan, “we have to move, now.”

“There’s your answer,” Fulcan spoke. “Our army has been greatly diminished, some men fallen to Naterra’s warriors, others to the barbaric rituals of the tribes. There is no other option now but to retreat-”

“But what will happen if we retreat? Won’t we...lose?”

“These wars were not started by the elemental overlords, but solely from Tyrannust himself. We received intelligence about the war halfway in; it was planned as a mere distraction for Tyrannust to prepare something much greater.”

“Then why not just find Tyrannust and get to the root of the problem?

“That’s the problem. If we don’t confront the immediate fighting forces, they’ll overtake Tenebris, and Grozorg will fall.”

“Tyrannust can’t immediately command all twelve elements to lay siege to Tenebris though, since that wouldn’t buy him enough time to do whatever he’s planning right now,” I spoke, linking the pieces together.

“Precisely,” the king responded, “but I also cannot risk Naterra marching to Tenebris against the high lord’s command to befall the last beacon of hope.”

“My Lord, scouts say there is movement on Overlord Geonyte’s island. Perhaps Tyrannust is there.”

“We must stop Geonyte before he becomes the next major threat.”

“Hold on, we can’t just leave Naterra here. What if he does march to Tenebris like you said while we were busy with the overlord of rock?”

The tent fell silent as the men within stumbled across a roadblock.

“Burn the trees,” Tarsus suddenly spoke, breaking the silence. “Burn the damn trees.”

 

XVIII

 

Smoke fumed above the dense reseda green island, clouding the cerulean sky. Otherworldly shrieks were produced from the pass, and an uproar of cries rose from the tribes. Ter Roluun, as they knew it, disappeared in a blaze of flames. The forest fire rapidly spread across the land, slaying many in the act and consuming others in the deadly, heavy smoke.

We were back in the underground system, following a different route that led to Geonyte’s island of rock. With the white stone returned to the king right on time, we were able to open a portal back into the system, proving the importance of the gem.

“Our other stone was stolen by one of the tribes, but it’s bound to be gone now that the entire island is gone. This stone is the last of its kind, and without it, we won’t be able to go back and forth from Mainland Grozorg to the other elemental islands. It was crafted by some ancient banished sorcerer centuries ago, or so Roslyn had once told me.”

I simply nodded, distracted by other questions.

“How long will it take to reach Gee Oluun?”

“Around double the time it took from Tenebris to Ter Roluun,” Fulcan spoke blankly.

The tunnels were filled with a great calamity, tens of thousands of armoured men marching in unison behind the fourteen of us and the king.

“I’m glad to see you two united after a long history. This threat we face is far greater than anything Grozorg has ever seen. What happened between the two of you?” The king asked.

“Long story short, he saved my life and I saved his,” Tarsus answered, glancing towards me. I gave him a smile and he rolled his eyes. “It’s even now, buddy.”

“To think that the War of Zxyx would be the first and last time Grozorg saw darkness,” I responded.

“I wouldn’t know,” Tarsus inserted.

“What do you mean?”

“I was only there near the end of the war. When you met me, my hometown had been destroyed by Zxyx’s army. I mean, that was when the Night Guild was also established. But I never really knew what happened to Zxyx.”

Tarsus paused, collecting his thoughts.

“When the war broke out, men and women were thrown into confusion, some drafted into the war while others were assigned to produce resources. I saw my opportunity and seized it. Stores were abandoned, mines deserted, so I ransacked many locations and gained enough loot to build my hideout.”

“So you went against the law,” Fulcan spoke sternly, raising an eyebrow.

“Why couldn’t you just ask your parents for the money?”

“My parents left me when I was born.”

I looked at the king and he glanced at me understandingly.

“Sorry, Tarsus,” I spoke compromisingly.

“They should be the ones feeling sorry. I was left to grow up on the streets of Fer Roluun alone, and I had to fend myself against the world alone. I can forget, but I’ll never forgive.”

His voice was cold and emotionless.

“You see, the gold was put to good use. I created the guild with a goal of ending the petty crimes that persisted after the war; I made up for my downfalls. But like I said, I never really knew what happened during the war. I was too busy making money.”

“We were on the front lines of that battle,” I began. “Heck, I don’t even remember how long the war lasted., but we were in a really rough shape when it was all over. That war, it raged on forever.”

“How’d it start?”

“It all began with the ‘High Lord Succession Cycle’,” Kadava cut in.

“Right. About that?”

“You know the history. When Tyrannust I became the first high lord of Grozorg, he ruled over Tyrangrad, now known as Zxyxngrad.”

“The capital of the high lord’s island, yes,” Tarsus interrupted impatiently.

“The main island of Grozorg, before it broke into thirteen pieces, was placed in rule of his son, Tyrannust II. When Tyrannust I passed away, Tyrannust II succeeded his father and moved to Tyrangrad as the next high lord of Grozorg. His son, Tyrannust III was placed as king of Mainland Grozorg.”

“Wasn’t Tyrannust II the one who broke Mainland Grozorg into thirteen pieces? Something about a flawed experiment or something?”

“Yes, according to the scrolls. He tried to increase the land mass, but performed the ancestral arts wrong and shattered the island instead. Before he could fix his mess, Grozorgians had already inhabited the shattered lands, assuming that the accident was their high lord’s promise of more land.”

“But this was perfect for the High Lord Succession Cycle,” Foku added.

“How so?” Tarsus asked.

“Tyrannust II had thirteen sons. His eldest, Tyrannust III, was placed as the king of Mainland Grozorg, but after noticing a long-term proliferation of envy and jealousy from his brothers, he proposed to his father a wise idea of placing his brothers as a king of each shattered island,” Kadava continued. “If I remember correctly, there were only ten pieces that broke off Mainland Grozorg. Tyrannust II and III fragmented two more pieces afterwards so that all thirteen sons of Tyrannust II could rule over Grozorg. They were bestowed the title ‘Lord’.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard of Grozorg’s history, but wouldn’t that have just screwed up the cycle instead?”

“Well no. When the lords passed away, their sons took their place as lord of that island. As a result, the twelve islands never interfered with the High Lord Succession Cycle since they had their own form of inheritance of the throne. Anyways, when Tyrannust II passed away, Tyrannust III took his father’s place as the high lord, placing his son Tyrannust IV as the king of Mainland Grozorg.”

“There was just a slight problem,” I continued. “Tyrannust II passed away fairly quickly, so Tyrannust IV was only eight years old when his father became the high lord of Grozorg. But Tyrannust III, being one of the wisest rulers in history, appointed a royal advisor for his son.”

“Roz?” Tarsus guessed.

“Yes. Advisor Roz taught Tyrannust IV how to rule until he was old enough to rule independently.”

“Hold on, hold on...Tyrannust IV...wasn’t he...Zxyx?”

“The one and only. Zxyx, in the tongues of the scrolls, meant ‘fearless’, a sobriquet given to the king by his people after his countless acts of bravery, saving townsfolk and peasants from savage beasts that roamed the nation. Inheriting his father’s wisdom, he began his independent reign at the age of twelve, much younger than his predecessors.”

“Then...where did he go wrong?”

“We’re getting there,” Kadava spoke.

“Tyrannust III, the high lord, died young, and the nation faced a difficult decision in either appointing the exceptionally young Zxyx as high lord of Grozorg or not,” I continued. “Although the vast majority of the people were against Zxyx as high lord, Roz forcibly placed Zxyx in place of his father, keeping the tradition of the cycle. Roz’s decision was arguably the right decision, as Zxyx proved to reign in greater wisdom than his father. Unfortunately, Roz had mysteriously passed away the day after Zxyx was granted power of high lord, so he never truly knew if his decision was correct or not. Years passed and for a while, Tyrannust IV, or Zxyx, ruled both as high lord and the king of Mainland Grozorg, disrupting the cycle. After he had a son, Tyrannust V, he placed him as the king of Mainland Grozorg, restoring the tradition of the cycle. Both rulers grew up and led for a peaceful while...”

“Here comes the good part,” Kadava said excitedly.

“You wanna tell it?” I replied, looking at him.

“I’ll give it a shot,” he answered. “On the eighth day of the second month in the...uh...”

“Six-hundred and eightieth year,” I helped Kadava.

“Right. The eighth day of the second month, in the six-hundred and eightieth year of Grozorg...”

“You’re making it sound like you’re reading off a scroll. Don’t bore me to death.”

“Well, our entire guild did memorize the legends as a part of our training. We deemed it essential to know the history of our nation.”

“Whatever. Keep going.”

“As I was saying, on that very day, Zxyx fell to the dark arts. No one knows how, but the only evidence recorded in the scrolls was that he ‘fell to the tine of an arrow’.”

“Why do the scrolls have to complicate everything?”

“Formality?” Kadava guessed.

“Formality.” I agreed.

“Just say ‘arrowhead’. If I wrote the scrolls, I would’ve just written: ‘Zxyx got shot and decided to kill everyone’. Makes life easier, too,” Tarsus replied. “Short and simple.”

“Well that’s not exactly what happened,” Kadava continued. “After Zxyx was corrupted by the dark arrow, his young son, Tyrannust V, travelled to Tyrangrad to see if he could cure his father, placing a wise man by the name of Zor to be a temporary ruler of Mainland Grozorg...”

“Zor, as in the Almegamancer?”

“Yes, Zor, now the Almegamancer. Back then, he was a wise man, a descendent of Roz. He governed Mainland Grozorg while Tyrannust V frantically searched the vast nation for an acolyte or a sorcerer who could cure the powerful esoteric curse.”

“Nice way of putting it,” I smiled.

“Thanks. Only from the master,” he replied, winking at me. “At last, the high lord could not be cured, and Zxyx completely fell into the grasp of the dark arts. According to the scrolls...”

“Here we go again,” Tarsus sighed, rolling his eyes.

“Zxyx morphed into a beast, a dark demonic monster as a result of the spell. The legends were not clear in stating what the magic had done to him, but it was obvious in specifying that the spell was a poison; the high lord was to die soon after the corruption.”

“So it was a spell that made you insane and killed a bit of you until it sucked the entire life force out of you,” Tarsus summed up.

“Basically. The spell amplified and darkened his inner motives, and it was inferred that Zxyx had a vision of uniting the galaxy as one nation, much like his ancestors in providing more land mass for the people-”

“Much like Tyrannust right now,” Tarsus interrupted.

“Yes, and the curse magnified and darkened Zxyx’s vision, beginning...”

“The War of Zxyx.”

“Correct. Zxyx renamed Tyrangrad ‘Zxyxngrad’ and assembled Zxyxngrad’s elite force of fighting men to take over Grozorg, infusing his madness into the army. King Tyrannust V was swift in response and returned to Mainland Grozorg, assembling the origins of the Army of Light and Purity. The two opposing forces clashed, and the war raged on for a year and a half.”

“Hold on. What were the other twelve islands doing? Just watching like sitting ducks on the sidelines?”

“Well, the entire nation of Grozorg was thrown into confusion when darkness was first introduced into the peaceful nation. The twelve islands were too small to acquire their very own armies, and besides, not a lot of Grozorgians understood fighting techniques. Of course, after the war, the twelve domains understood the importance of military strength and created their own individual armies.”

“And back then, my father and the entire Blood Guild was already gone, so I took over. I had just recruited the first of the Blood Guild members when the war broke out. King Tyrannust V had heard of our growing fame and personally asked for our assistance in the war. We fought alongside the front lines of the Army of Light, slaying the myriads of corrupted warriors. That was also where we met King Fulcan, or Sir Fulcan.”

Fulcan smiled at us, continuing the insipid trek underground.

“Man, Fulcan was an avid fighter,” Kadava explained. “He quickly rose in rank and gained Tyrannust V’s confidence and personal favour. This man was non-stop in everything he did! He led the army through many victorious campaigns, including the Battle of Zyxyngrad-”

“-and the Battle of Zxyxngrad was the turning point in the War of Zxyx. Fulcan, would you like to tell this part? I mean, you were the general there.”

“No, thank you. I’m not as good with words as I am with actions,” he confessed with a chuckle.

“Okay. Well anyways, Zxyxngrad was the corrupted high lord’s largest military base, and overnight, Fulcan led the army around the perimeters of Zxyxngrad until Zxyx’s entire fighting force was surrounded by the Army of Light. At the break of day, we ambushed the dark force and raided their supplies and weapons, leaving them helpless, encircled and trapped with no way to turn. It wasn’t hard to take over Zxyxngrad afterwards, and when the fighting force turned against our troops, they were disbanded immediately when Zxyx took an arrow to the heart, dropping dead on his knees. That day, Tyrannust V declared the end of the war, and all the surviving men and women returned to their families, famished and exhausted, if not inflicted with heavy casualties. From that day on, Grozorg had never been the same again, skeptical of every new governing leader placed in power.”

“So that’s what happened in the War of Zxyx.”

“Well, the condensed version at least. You should really read the scrolls to understand every exchange between Tyrannust V and high lord Zxyx. It’s pretty interesting, especially if you read about the Battle of Krama, the war regarding your hometown.”

“I am most definitely not going to read the scrolls, thank you very much.”
      “Suit yourself. The story doesn’t end there, though. After the high lord was defeated, Tyrannust V was placed as the high lord, according to the cycle. But there was a problem, the first in the history of Grozorg: his wife was barren and he had no son. So the people elected the commander of the Army of Light, Fulcan, to be their king...”

“The first king of Mainland Grozorg to be from non-royal descent,” I added.

“Talk about breaking the tradition,” Fulcan interrupted, chuckling.

“And there was no objection from Tyrannust V as well. Zor became the high lord’s personal advisor after his aid in leading Grozorg while Tyrannust V was visiting his corrupted father. When Tyrannust V’s wife surprisingly bore a son to the high lord who had given up hope of gaining descendants, Fulcan was still in reign.”

“So maybe Tyrannust VI started this all because of -”

“That’s enough,” Fulcan spoke, cutting Tarsus off. “We’ve reached the first cenote. Take a break; our march resumes at dawn tomorrow.”

 

XIX

 

The journey lasted nearly a week in the dark, dank caverns. We snaked our way through the underground passageways, paying homage to Roslyn as we passed by the destroyed sinkhole, and continued our monotonous march underground.

“We’re here,” Fulcan spoke, breaking the silence. “The stone.”

Quickly, a nearby soldier handed the mystical white stone to Fulcan, who placed it into a familiar slot on the wall. Within seconds, a flaming portal opened in front of us, revealing barren rocks and the desert terrain of Overlord Geonyte’s island.

“Kronan!”

At once, another footman stepped up and held the stone in place, allowing the Army of Light to pass through the portal.

“I don’t know what Tyrannust is up to, and it’s not going to be easy finding him,” Fulcan spoke, turning towards the two guilds. “I just wanted to thank the both of you again for joining me in this fight. The fate of our nation lies in our hands now.”

“Just like the good ol’ days,” I said.

Fulcan smiled. “Just like the good ol’ days. Onwards!”

The army marched through the portal, led by Fulcan, and we followed closely afterwards. When every footmen had stepped through, Kronan jumped through the closing portal, grabbing the stone with him in one smooth action.

“Better than you,” Tarsus jested.

I glared at him, moving with the rest of the army. “You’re doing it next time.”

The entire island was a desert, a bright dune with no life within. The streaking sun rays bent along the shifting heat waves as dusk approached, a light breeze lifting grains of sand across the vast desert floor. A few dead shrubs lay in the distant and a blur of blue beyond the horizon; an oasis or a mirage. Geonyte’s island directly contrasted Naterra’s faction, a once cool green and luscious congregation of canopies now nothing but mounds of shrubs and sand.

“Any new intel?” Fulcan asked openly.

Mutters spread across the army before a knight stepped forward, matching Fulcan’s brisk pace.

“Your Royal Highness, there’s been a...disturbance in this land.”

“Keep going.”

I looked around; there was no evidence of life but the shifting waves of sand.

“Earlier on, you sent two envoys to scout the land ahead of time. Well, I was one of them and the other...”

The knight paused, lifted the helmet off his head and lowered his face.

“He fell to the -”

“Sand Excavators,” Fulcan guessed. “Figured.”

“Excavators,” Tarsus repeated. “Didn’t know much about the Weavers, but our guild’s had personal experience with these worms before.”

“Perhaps you could be of assistance.”

“Always at your service.”

“Sir Gihlt, was there any sign of Tyrannust?”

“No, my lord,” the scout replied.

“Sir Othniel, where are we setting camp? It’ll be dark before we know it.”

“We found a crag somewhere off to the south. It’s a large cavern, we should be able to house everyone in there.”

“How about the Excavators?”

“They don’t dwell in open caves,” Tarsus answered, “or at least not from my experience.”

“On your word. Men, forward! Sir Othniel, take the lead.”

We picked up our pace and followed the envoy who led us down a steep slope. The sandy hills began to envelop the dying sun as stars shimmered in the distance. In the distance rose a tall dark rock, hollowed within, evidently the crag Sir Othniel had informed us of.

“We’ll camp here tonight. Everyone, settle down and restore your spirits before we begin our march to the capital tomorrow.”

The night approached rapidly as the men set up camp, many making themselves comfortable within the large crevice. It was like the underground sinkhole, filled with the clamours of armour brushing across armour and a calamity of voices upon voices.

A large white tent was quickly erected deeper within the cave, the same tent that was on Naterra’s island. Fulcan and the generals proceeded to enter while Tarsus and I regrouped with our guild members. The Night Guild had chosen a position near the entrance of the open cave to the left, so I brought my men and women to the right of the opening and set up camp there.

“Ulterium! Tarsus! Meet me inside in ten minutes!” Fulcan shouted as he glanced out of the large tent. Before we could respond, he had already quickly re-entered the marquee.

“Arcanor, Glo, could I have a quick word with you? Actually,” I added on second thought, “Everyone, gather around. Tarsus, Bring your guild over here.”

Both guilds slowly encircled me, finishing up their task at hand. I asked Foku and Glo to explain what had occurred on Ter Roluun when they had advanced ahead of us.

“Well, we landed in the midst of a tribal feud,” Foku started. “Somewhere near the pass, a bit off to the west, Glo and I fell through the sky on a downtrodden path, between two conflicting sides.”

“Sorry,” Arcanor whispered sheepishly.

“We scrambled up fast and made sense of the cardinal directions. Didn’t get much further before a dart got stuck in my leg.”

Foku pulled up his right pant leg, revealing a faded scar with a dark bruise around it.

“Luckily you sent me with him. The poison had quickly manifested throughout Foku’s entire leg within seconds, and if I hadn’t acted fast, he would’ve lost a good leg.”

“We pulled ourselves off the track and hid among the underbrush. There were two evident tribes I could make out; the one that shot me was a green figure with a large wooden mask-”

“Just like the one I tore in half,” Lexon remarked.

“- and the other tribe were small blue warriors covered with many ceremonial feathers, and they carried another weapon.”

“Slings,” Glo helped.

“Yeah. Well, at that point, my mind wasn’t focused on anything else but my leg. The pain was searing, unbearable. The dart had hindered us from making it to King Fulcan; we had to camp there overnight before advancing.”

“That night, I observed both clans while Foku was resting. Both tribal warriors were around the same size, and from what I recalled from the history lore, the two tribes were heavily impacted by the nature around them. Fal’awk, the blue clan, if I remember correctly, worshipped the beasts in the air. The other tribe, Leskrïegen, held trees in high regard. But of course, both polytheistic clans feared the Weavers as well.”

“What about Tyrannust?” I asked.

“Where we landed, there was no sign of him nor his men. After a day or so, Foku had mostly recovered, and we found a knight of the Army of Light who had directed us to King Fulcan.”

“After a short exchange of greetings, Fulcan placed me with the squadron in the east. I regained my strength quickly, thanks to Glo.”

“And I was ordered to stay in the temporary camp, tending the wounded knights.”

“Our squadron was in charge of scouting the land, and that was when I first caught sight of Tyrannust’s Legion. We travelled up the side of the Lord’s Overlook, or, should I say, Overlord’s Overlook, and there stood Naterra, with his personal rank of men - there were only twelve of them. Tyrannust had also placed four or five of his own men with Naterra.”

“Wait, let’s get this straight. There were four...no, five different conflicting forces on Ter Roluun?”

“Yes. The two tribes, Naterra’s personal army, Tyrannust men, and the Army of Light and Purity.”

“So what was really happening?”

“To be completely honest, the land was already in complete chaos before we ignited it on fire. Naterra somehow knew our every move, and whenever we tried to advance any deeper within the forested land, he posted his elite force to counterattack us, pushing us further back towards the outer border of the island. Certainly his twelve legionnaires were trained in the arts of scouting.”

Kadava let out a small scoff.

“And they were good fighters, no, lethal fighters; put to death at least half of the fifty men Fulcan had sent with me. Our squadron was nearly decimated by the twelve assassins. And we got none of them.”

“Arretans. Why would my brothers betray me?” Sylvan interrupted. “Those twelve men, they were of Arretan descent, no? Were they carrying longbows in their hands? Were they cloaked as I am?”

“They were, but cloaked in black, unlike your deep green. How did you know?”

“There is no other race on the island of that civilized and deadly nature but my fellow Arretan sharpshooters,” Sylvan continued in his heavy accent. “And Naterra never possessed an army, as far as I remember. I cannot believe my own ears; my brothers selling themselves for the works of darkness?”
      “Sorry to hear that. But the Arretans were deadly with their bow- ”

“Every arrow kills. You are not a true Arretan if you do not become one with your bow,” Sylvan interrupted.

“Right. I’ve also suspected the Terramancer to be involved in all of this. There was no way the overlord could both spy out where we were and plot against the king’s army at the same time. I’ve also seen the trees shift with my own eyes - our squadron’s been caught at dead-ends and switchbacks multiple times.”

“That’s a high possibility,” Arcanor spoke. “Mancers are individuals that are strongest in controlling their respective elements. The Terramancer could’ve rerouted you by shifting the nature around at ease.”

“Hmm. As for the two tribes,” Foku continued, “I never really interacted with them much ever since I got that dart to my leg. Fulcan had sent a good fifty men with me to overtake Naterra’s castle, distracting his force so that Fulcan could gain some ground. Throughout the war, I was occupied in the front lines against Naterra’s elite assassins and Tyrannust’s men on the overlook.”

“I was there when the tribes attacked,” Glo interrupted. “While I was tending the lot of soldiers, the North wall suddenly burst into flames. It wasn’t long before streams of goblinoid warriors broke down the fortified partition and the men within were thrown into confusion. We were unprepared, and more of us had perished than the tribal warriors. I took up an axe and started swinging away at those...savages.”

“I’ll be damned. You’re a fighter?” Tarsus asked, astonished.

“I didn’t recruit her just for her healing abilities. Glo grew up with Fulcan; if anyone could handle an ax better than the king, it would be her.”

Glo blushed a bit, continuing with the recollection of the events.

“I hadn’t held a double-bladed pole arm in years. I was a bit rusty at first, but it just came back to me naturally. In the end, the remaining tribal chiefs had retreated, leading their warriors back to their camps. Their numbers and ours had decimated significantly; it was a huge blow to Fulcan’s army. If something of the likes happens again on Geonyte’s island, we won’t be able to get too far.”

“Why do you reckon they broke down the wall? It seems so...spontaneous to me, especially since the tribes never got in the way of the Army of Light, from both of your descriptions.”

“That was what I was asking myself too. There wasn’t much evidence from the walls, especially since the timber had burnt down, but according to a scout from the army, Sir Gilht, he had seen a message engraved in our wall just before it was burnt down and reported it to King Fulcan. Fulcan told me that it was a cryptic message, something about the message openly insulting the gods of both tribes, scrawled in a native Ter Roluun dialect that both tribes understood. He said it had to be Naterra’s personal doing, but that was just his guess.”

“Sounds logical to me,” I spoke, compiling both Glo and Foku’s accounts. “Naterra could have used the message as a stimulus for the tribes to turn against us, weakening us and therefore pulling Foku and the fifty away from his palace, so that Naterra and his army could personally come to end Fulcan.”

“That’s roughly what I figured,” Glo spoke.

“You’re right about that,” Foku replied. “We were down too many men, and when we saw the smoke from a distance, there was no choice but to immediately return to the camp. When we arrived, the tribal conflict had already ended.”

“Well, the entire island’s nothing but a heap of ashes and dust now,” Tarsus interjected. “Thank you for informing us, Glo, Foku. Ulterium, let’s go. The king is waiting.”

I nodded my head, following Tarsus into the king’s tent. “Rest well, everyone. Tomorrow will be a long day, if we aren’t again disturbed tonight. Tarsus and I will debrief the information from the king to you when the meeting’s over.”

The group consented happily, some smiling, some conversing, others lying down in exhaustion. We had all become well acquainted with one another, and from a faraway distance, it would seem as if King Fulcan had been aided by a single guild of fourteen members.

 

XX

 

“We fight tonight. Generals, gather your troops.”

“Not yet,” I interrupted. “Our guilds won’t like it. We just marched non-stop for days with no real rest or recovery.”
      “There is no other choice. Your guilds should have been well trained, Ulterium, like my men, for times like now. We have to seize this advantage before it turns against us.”

“What about the Excavators?” Tarsus jumped in. “They’ll maul the best of your army; those sand dwellers don’t rest at night, you know.”

“Like I said, there is no other choice. If Geonyte assembles his army in time, we would lose more men than anticipated. But if we act right now, we can end this war. As for the Excavators, we would lose men either way to the inevitable. So we fight, tonight.”

“Did you forget about Tyrannust? His legion’s probably made it to Gee Oluun by now, aiding the overlord in assembling his troops.”

“I am fully aware of Tyrannust, and I don’t assume so much, as you do, Tarsus. We have to take a chance. This is our only shot.”
      “Fulcan, just listen to Ulterium and I. Consider the cost. The risk is too high, and it’s not only about our men. Our men are more skilled than your best warrior, might I add.”

Fulcan glared at Tarsus, a tight face of accreting rage opposed by an unrelenting mien.

“Your army will not appreciate a thirty minute nap before marching towards Gee Oluun,” Tarsus continued, ignoring Fulcan’s gaze.

“Do you see any other option? We will do as I say. And you will speak no more about it! Generals!”

“How about the Excavators?” Tarsus repeated, evading the king’s command. “The capital city is miles and miles away from this crag; your army will be completely decimated by those sand beasts by the time they reach the city!”

“And if it means some men will die to save the lives of the rest, so be it!”

“Your men will hate you!”

“My men will obey me!”

“Fulcan, this battle isn’t just about you! Our nation is at stake! We need your men to survive!”

“We have so much at our advantage! Time is on our side! We have more men, more resources, more fighting power - we have the upper hand! We seize the moment now, or we watch our very nation crumble!”

“Just wait! There’s a greater chance of survival if we wait!”

“I will not lie in wait like you...a coward, that’s what you are! This is a chance I will take!”

“Coward? If I’m a coward, then what are you?”

“The king!”

Silence filled the tent. The entire crag was noiseless. Surely the men and women outside had awoken and overheard the exchange.

“I don’t give the smallest damn if you’re the king. Exile me if you wish, your majesty. Do you not care about your men? Were you placed in power to watch them die?”

“There is no more question about this. Know your place, boy. I was placed in power to lead, to make executive decisions, and not to be questioned by a coward. Go home, Octavius, you and your men, as you asked for. General Ehud, gather my men. Tonight we ride to the Gee Oluun. And tonight we will celebrate as victors, not cowards.”

I stood there silently. I didn’t know what to say or do. I had known Fulcan most of my life, but I strongly disagreed on his decision as well. Tarsus stormed out of the tent, infuriated.

“Fulcan, give me a minute,” I requested.

“Follow that renegade and go home too, if you disagree with me. I don’t need men who don’t cooperate.”

Without speaking any further, I quickly ran out of the tent, catching up to Tarsus.

“Tarsus! Where are you going?”

“Home!” Tarsus quickly responded loudly, pacing forwards briskly. “Like the damned king told me to!”

“So you’re going to leave us after all we’ve been through? Abandon the army? Abandon your guild?”

Suddenly, Tarsus turned around, grabbed me by my collar, and dragged me down behind a sand dune with a great force.

“Do you really think I’m going home?”

“What are you doing?” I yelled, brushing him off me and regaining my footing.

“Shut up and get down!” He hissed, pulling me down again. “Let me explain, now that we’re out of earshot!”

We were concealed behind a tall dune a couple meters away from the crag.

“There’s no changing of Fulcan’s mind, so what can I do but help?”

“What do you mean?”

“As much as I hate that damned king right now, as much as I want to stick my fist through his head, I’m putting this feud aside for the greater good.”

“That’s a first.”

“Don’t push me,” Tarsus glared, clenching his fists.

“Sorry,” I apologized quickly.

“If we don’t aid that king’s foolish plan tonight, the entire army will be gone by the time they reach Gee Oluun. The Excavators are merciless. I know what they are like, and mind you, the king knows nothing of them. Have you studied them before?”

“Not extensively. Why?”

“They go crazy when the scent of flesh is nearby. Like I said to Fulcan before, we’ve had personal encounters with these creatures. On this deserted island, if we want to get the lot of the army to Gee Oluun, we’d have to lure them off the path Fulcan is about to take.”

“Well why aren’t you telling Fulcan this?”

“Are you kidding? If I did, I'd be surrendering from that argument! I’d rather have him think that I was abandoning company, just to have him see my resourcefulness and beg for my help in the end.”

“You’re always like this, aren’t you? Maybe you should just humble yourself once in a while.”

Tarsus glared at me, stone cold.

“So...how do we bait out the Sand Excavators?” I added, quickly changing the topic.

“With men.”

“Are you saying-”

“Get your men and mine here, and I’ll explain to everyone all at once. Oh, and if you encounter Fulcan, please do me a favour and punch him. I’ll be watching. Go!”

I ran back to the crag and woke up the rest of the two guilds. Instructing them to go towards the tall sand dune, a firm hand suddenly gripped my shoulder as I turned around to leave.

“So you’re going as well?” Fulcan’s voiced bellowed. “Are you following that traitor home?”

I shook the king’s hand off my shoulder.

“Fulcan, you’ve known me for life. Don’t let my actions deceive you now. As for Tarsus, I can tell you he is a man pure at heart.”

With that, I turned around and fled from the crag with the two guilds.

“Go home! All of you! I never needed any of you!” Fulcan shouted behind us, enraged. “A shame Roslyn even met you back at Tenebris!”

“So, what’s the plan?” I started, crawling behind the dune.

“I just started falling asleep!” Kadava grumbled angrily. “What’s going on?”

Other guild members starting complaining too, tired and frustrated.

“Quiet! Long story short, the king’s exiled me and the Night Guild, and he also thinks your guild is leaving him and going home.”

“What?!” Kadava exclaimed.

“Shut up!” Tarsus hissed, pulling him down. “Now the king and his army is about to take out Geonyte. But he won’t make it far before the Excavators destroy his entire army.”

“So Fulcan thinks we’re leaving him, but we’re helping him? What is happening? And why are we even marching now? The army hasn’t even rested yet!”

“That’s exactly what I told the king. It’s a bad idea all in all, but he is the king, and I can’t change what he decrees.”

“Geonyte doesn’t have an army right now,” I interrupted, clearing the confusion. “Well, according to the scouts Fulcan had sent prior to us setting foot on this island. But keep in mind, the scouts just came back tonight, so the news isn’t completely new. Anyways, King Fulcan decided it was best to march to Gee Oluun tonight to take out the overlord before he is able to gather enough men to strike us. But Tarsus and I are concerned of the risks, if not the danger of the Excavators, the fact that Tyrannust may already have men on this island. Above that, Geonyte may have already assembled a small army at hand. The journey to Gee Oluun from here is around two days, and in two days, the overlord could have done so much. This would be a huge risk to take.”

“And yet they’re about to march,” Calliphar spoke, peering over the edge of the dune. “Look at his men! They’re staggering and swaying; they’re clearly exhausted!”

“As are we!” Pyrrhon added.

“They’re about to go? We have to act fast,” Tarsus replied. “The plan is simple: flank the army to bait the Excavators out so that Fulcan and his men will have a clear, straight path to Gee Oluun. You see the light in the distance?” Tarsus pointed east beyond the crag. A very faint speck glowed in the distant, and it wasn’t visible if you didn’t squint. “That’s Gee Oluun. There’s only one path, if it isn’t already evident,” Tarsus spoke, tracing his finger along an elevated desert trail that led to the horizon. “Note how the sides of the straight path depress downwards, both the left and the right side? We will be travelling in those makeshift valleys, flanking the left and right side of the path the army will travel. The valleys will conceal us from their view, and it’s also shallow enough for us to communicate with each other through signalling. The deeper we venture into the island, the more Excavators we will encounter.”

“If it takes two days to get to Gee Oluun, how are we going to camp? There’s no ‘safe-zone’ out there from the Excavators, especially if we’re travelling via the depressed valleys.”

“I might know a place or two,” Tarsus casually spoke. “Tell you something, I was thirteen when I first explored Gee Oluun.”

“So how do we bait out the Excavators?”

“Excavators attack from behind. If you’re lucky, you’ll hear a low thundering sound and feel the ground rumble before they leap out and maul you. And like I said, the closer you are to the heart of the island, the more Excavators you’ll encounter. So here’s the plan: we run ahead of the army, distracting the Excavators from devastating the warriors. When the Excavators are in the air, slash at their head and they’ll be gone in no time. Let’s hope we can get all of them.”

“A few notes to add in,” Calliphar spoke. “Sand Excavators are faster than you think. It may be easier running backwards - they’ll never attack from the front; only from behind. Also, if there are more than two people travelling together, the Excavators signal for backup to target the party. They ain’t pretty when they come in a cluster. We learned that the hard way.”

“That’s how we bait most of them; travelling in groups in both depressed ridges.”

Kadava looked at me and mouthed, “This isn’t a good idea.”

“We’ll split into four groups; two groups of four and two groups of three. Foku, Mirage, Drog, and Arcanor, flank right. Calliphar, Lexon, Chrikhil, and Pyrrhon, flank left. Konkurra, Kadava, go with Ulterium and flank right, ten meters ahead of Foku’s group. Sylvan, Glo, follow me. We’ll be flanking left, ten meters ahead of Calliphar’s group. You guys decide on formations within your groups.”

The fourteen guild members began to organize themselves quickly into the groups arranged by Tarsus before he added a final command.

“One last thing...make sure the army doesn’t spot you. The valleys should be able to conceal most of you. Just don’t do anything dumb. We’ll reconvene on my signal to make camp. Everyone clear?”

“Yes sir,” voices answered in unison.

“Let’s get at it!”

The four groups quickly formed, and we poured out from behind the dune towards the crag. I led Kadava and Konkurra to the right, and soon, the groups of guild members had formed four vertices ahead of the army, two groups in the right bank, two groups in the left. Tarsus raised his weapon in the dark night, reflecting the moonlight from his curved blade to signal all groups to halt. King Fulcan was still busy gathering his men, waking the dazed soldiers up from a short slumber, giving us time to advance ahead of him.

“Konkurra, Kadava, we’ll be travelling in a straight horizontal formation. If they attack from behind, we’ll have three blades ready to face them.”

“Sounds good.”

Kadava armed his two battle kunai while I took out my krises. Konkurra equipped a long bladed pole arm, her choice of weapon an elegant, intimidating selection.

“Konkurra, I’ll let you lead. I don’t know much about the Excavators, but I heard your guild has had previous encounters before.”

“Yes sir. But what Calliphar said back there isn’t entirely true, by the way. Some Excavators jump from the left or right side once in a while. Just make sure you have eyes behind and besides you.”

“Thank you for telling us. I’ll make note of it.”

Tarsus and his group was forty meters across from us, barricaded by the elevated sandy pathway. After a minute or so, he raised his shuang-gou and rotated his blade three times, the moonlight glinting off his hooked weapon that signalled us to start moving. At once, all four groups jogged ahead in unison. Low trembles began to quake the ground beneath, the vibrations coming closer and closer to us.

“They’ve sensed us already,” Konkurra remarked. “Get ready.”

I glanced backwards, and the Army of Light had begun their march as well.

To the left of us across the vast desert trail, little silhouettes began to hurl upwards from the ground, higher than the banks, unpredictably towards Tarsus’ group, all falling to the deadly swings of the group’s blades.

Suddenly, the ground burst behind me as an Excavator leapt up towards us. With a swift swing, the sand dweller split into two by Konkurra’s long pole arm.

“Thanks,” I nodded.

“Don’t mention it. There’s more from where that came from.”

More and more rumbles shook the earth behind us. I glanced backwards occasionally, looking to my right and left every now and then. Kadava, on my right, followed my actions, with the same personal experience I had in dealing with these creatures. Konkurra jogged alongside, keeping up the pace at ease, a poised position ready for the sand dwellers. She stood near the slope of the trail, ready for any Excavators to pop out from the side as well. A trail of dust rose as more Excavators began burrowing towards us.

“They’re grouping up. Get ready for the unpredictable,” Konkurra stated, contradicting.

The night wind picked up as we ran towards Gee Oluun. The army was slowly advancing forwards with no sign of sand beasts devastating the marching warriors yet. Somehow, Tarsus’ plan was working.

The first wave struck us by surprise. One by one, Excavators came from every which way, deflecting off our blades. Suddenly, five of them jumped out at once, overwhelming the three of us. We moved around swiftly, aiding each other in the fight against the beasts. I was pushed to the back, with Konkurra and Kadava leading in the front, creating a triangular formation.

The Excavators were not only fast, but huge. Each one was the size of a full grown man, and weighed the same as well. They were more like worms, a long, bulky creature with no eyes, arms nor legs, but a spike-coated dermis with many spiny fins that evidently helped them burrow underground swiftly. The Excavators also possessed a large caudal fin, which flailed rapidly during the jump upwards to help them gain both speed and height midair. The head was the most intimidating portion of the sand dwellers, a large circular mouth with many rows of barbed teeth that could penetrate the toughest armour.

“Oh no,” Konkurra whispered. “The winds are going faster and faster. A sandstorm is brewing.”

I looked ahead, and she was right. The sand began to swirl beneath our legs as we advanced further and further, the night wind howling against our skin.

Out of the corner of my eyes, two Excavators leapt out towards me on both sides. Without thinking, I extended both blades outwards and spun around, coincidentally catching a third Excavator behind me midair.

Distant grunts soon grew louder than the swirling storm of sand. The Excavators had begun targeting the main army now, devastating the warriors and crippling the footmen. Though we tried to mitigate the damage dealt to the Army of Light and Purity, the sheer number of Excavators outnumbered all of us.

“Cover your face! Grab anything you can and cover your skin!” Konkurra yelled, pulling her shirt up to cover her nose and mouth. “The storm’s headed directly towards us! We have to close our eyes, or we’ll be permanently blinded!”

“Do we keep going?” I replied, straining my voice as I wrapped my cowl tightly around my head. “I can’t see Tarsus now; the sand is too thick!”

“Ulterium! To your right!” Kadava quickly interrupted.

Without thinking, I blindly swung rightwards, slashing a multiple of times until I hit something.

“The army’s stopped moving!” I continued.

“Are they crazy?!” Konkurra replied. “If we stop now, we’d be a living feast for these creatures!”

“Well this storm isn’t settling!”

“Keep going! I’m certain Tarsus is still moving ahead!”

Two dwellers were caught by my blade behind me, and another one fell to my right.

“This isn’t good! We can’t see the Excavators, and now we can’t even hear them!”

The wind grew stronger and stronger; the storm was unforgiving. The sand pierced my skin, shards of glass stinging my arms and legs, searing my flesh. The howling gale was impossible to see through, a wall of brown and black beating down on us.

“Spread out! I don’t wanna hit one of you accidentally!”

The three of us quickly dispersed along the bank, slashing blindly every which way, some blows landing on the leaping Excavators. The thick sand had completely blocked out the full moon; darkness engulfed us as we moved towards the growing sandstorm.

“The army’s beginning to move again! Good call, Konkurra!” I remarked, stealing a glance at the army behind us before snapping my eyes shut again.

“Maybe they’ve lost too many men to the dwellers, stopping in the wide open! Maybe that’s why they’re moving again!”

“How do we know where to stop?” I asked. “Tarsus is out of sight now so he won’t be able to signal us to halt!”

“We’ll just have to wait until the storm passes! It won’t be for a while!”

Suddenly, my right leg gave way as rows of teeth sank into my flesh. As I tumbled down, I hacked madly behind me, catching three Excavators off guard. Someone tripped across my scratched leg, falling face first into the sand.

“Are you alright?” I asked, helping him up.

“I’m fine! What happened?” Kadava spoke.

“Sorry! Something got my leg and I fell. It wasn’t a deep bite. Keep going!”

“Are you guys good?” Konkurra yelled behind her.

“Good as gold! Keep going!”

The Excavators were now attacking in tight groups. Konkurra was right when she claimed the unpredictability of the worms; there was no pattern or formation, the Excavators just kept leaping out from behind or from the side chaotically. Some would leap out in close succession, others in groups of two, three or even four. The most I noted was five at a time together, all falling to both of my blades behind me. There was only one similarity between every Excavator: they all jumped up at roughly the same height. After realizing this, I saved my strength from slashing wildly behind me to only swinging my blades at a chest height behind and beside me.

 

The storm was endless, and our pace was slowing down. We had been running for miles through the unrelenting storm and Excavators. My arms were sore and my legs were burning. Thankfully, the Excavators had also taken a toll from the vicious sandstorm, the untamed gale knocking many Excavators backwards upon jumping up, throwing them far behind us. With no way of contacting any of the other three groups, we kept running blindly through the sudden night storm, fending off sand dwellers by the hundreds.

“Augh!” A choking voice suddenly gargled through the rough winds, followed by an inhuman scream. Kadava fell down beside me, knocking me over, tumbling onto the desert ground. I opened my eyes, immediately feeling the burning sensation from the sandstorm. Overcoming the searing pain, I looked up, and Kadava was lying in a pool of dark blood, unconscious. As I regained my footing, slashing at oncoming Excavators, I looked down and tumbled backwards. Half of his left leg was missing.

 

XXI

 

“Konkurra! Come back!” I screamed. I knelt down beside Kadava, took off my cloak, and wrapped it tightly around his severed leg. Konkurra had opened her eyes, and without questioning, stepped in front of us to fend off the unending onslaught of Excavators.

“Kon...Konkurra!” Kadava weakly yelled as he regained consciousness, sand filling his mouth.

“Save your strength! You’ll make it out of this!” I responded, getting on top of him to shield his bare head from the storm.

“They attacked...they attacked from the front!” Kadava managed to spit out, blood drooling from his lips as he smiled weakly. “You were r...right. They were unpredict...unpredictable.”

“Stay with us, soldier!” Konkurra yelled behind her, valiantly slaying the dwellers by the dozens, protecting both of us.

“Kadava! Don’t fall asleep! I know you’re tired, but we’re gonna get you home! Don’t give up on me now!”

“It was an hon...an honour as your first mate,” Kadava spoke, smiling weakly again.

“Don’t say that! Stay with me! You’re stronger than this!”

“Behind...you,” Kadava continued.

I turned around just in time to dodge an oncoming Excavator. The full force of the storm grazed against my bare face. Excavators leapt out towards us from the front.

“Konkurra! They’re coming from all around us! It’s not just behind and beside us anymore!”

“We have to get out of here, now! We went too far, we’re in the Red Zone!”

“Red Zone? Kadava, stay with me!”

Excavators came from every which way, falling to the swings of my blade. The armour was notably thicker, and the Excavators appeared to have doubled in size. They no longer jumped at a specific height either; every sand dweller came from a different angle.

“Follow me!” She cried.

“Kadava, stay awake!” I yelled, picking him up and placing him around my shoulders. “Konkurra, you’re gonna have to cover us!”

“Let’s go!”

She climbed up the bank side and ran across the main path the king and his army was on, sliding down into the other bank. I quickly followed her, with Kadava hanging motionless around my shoulders.

“I don’t really know where the village is - only Tarsus knows! He’s told us tales, and if not for the sandstorm, we would’ve been there already!”

“Can't we track him or something? Footprints?”

“The sandstorm’s wiped away all his footprints!”

“Then where are we going? We have to hurry! Kadava won’t last long!”

“I’m with you, Ulterium,” Kadava groaned softly. His sharp intake of breath concealed the overwhelming pain he was experiencing. His warm blood trailed down my leg, a stream of red dripping onto the sandy floor. My cloak was loosening around his wound. Konkurra led us deeper into the island, where shrubs and desert flowers started to grow. The path curved to a sharp right.

“Tarsus spoke of a riddle to get there! It was like...left, right...uh...past the blight, right, left...right, left...dammit, I can’t recall! Didn’t think it would be significant!”

The Excavators were totally unpredictable now. With both hands immobilized from carrying Kadava, I stepped to the right or left, dodging the famished sand dwellers.

“Blight! Like the tree disease? Like those up ahead?” I questioned, nodding towards a cluster of cacti that had decayed from a strange fungus. The sandstorm forced my eyes shut, scraping my eyelids.

“Maybe! I think we’re on the right path!”

We stumbled past the infected desert plants, continuing on with the path.

“So I would presume we take a right on the next bend, then a left?”

“Most likely! Keep your guard up, Tarsus told us this place was full of Excavators!”

“Not much I can do,” I grumbled. “Kadava, you still there?”

There was no response. His eyes were shut, and his blood-crusted mouth was agape.

“Kadava!”

“Huh?” He spoke groggily, looking up. “Ah!” He yelled in agony, instinctively clutching his leg. “My leg! Where is my leg?” He shouted frantically, throwing me down onto the ground.

“Stay with me! You were just injured from the Excavators, but we’re getting you help!”

I picked him up and placed him around my shoulders, catching up to Konkurra. He had blacked out again, lifelessly slumped around my shoulders. We took a right and continued down the path, barricaded on both sides by tall desert plants.

“The storm is beginning to die down!” Konkurra yelled from in front of us.

After turning a quick left, we were confronted by two paths.

“Which one is it?”

“Uh...I’m trying to think!” Konkurra replied, racking her brain.

“Kadava’s running out of time!”

“I know! I know! Just give me a bit more time!”

“Left, right, past the blight, right, left...right, left...left, right, past the...”

“Hurry!” I ushered impatiently.

“I’m trying! It’s hard to fight and think at the same time!” She replied, frustrated, fending off oncoming Excavators.

The path to the left had shrubs and flowers growing on the side. The alternate route led upwards, surrounded by tall, prickly bushes and cactus.

“Left, right, past the blight. Right left...right, left...ove...over! Over the crest! Over the crest!”

“Crest...like a hill?”

“Yeah, it’s the right path! Follow me!”

We hurried up the sloping path, surrounded by growing weeds and vegetation.

“Glad I still remembered it. Thought it left me for good!”

“We can save Kadava if we make it on time! How far is the city?”

“Tarsus mentioned it to be pretty close by if you followed the riddle. Let’s hope he’s right!”

“At least the storm’s beginning to die down here. We can focus on the Excavators!”

The last of the gale blew out, a weak sigh against our scraped skin. We had been journeying for hours now, and the sun was beginning to peek above the horizon. Konkurra exuberantly recited the riddle over and over, slashing at the leaping predators. I followed closely behind, using her as a cover.

“Left, right, past the blight. Right left, over the crest. Left, right, past the blight. Right left, over the crest.”

I looked around me, and the vegetation was intriguing. A peculiar orange flower stood out amongst pink shrubs on my right. A tumbled cactus lay between tall prickly pears to my left. The vegetation began to close in on us, narrowing the route.

“Left, right, past the blight. Right, left, not the crest. Left, right-”

“Hold on...what did you just say?” I spoke, alert that I had heard something else.

“The right way to the hidden town!”

“Say it again...you said something different!”

“Left, right, past the blight. Right, left, not the - oh...” Konkurra remarked. “This...this is the wrong path! I remember it so clearly now! Tarsus emphasized on the ‘not’! Dammit! Turn around!”

“What do you mean by ‘turn around’?” I spoke slowly. We were completely surrounded by desert vegetation, with the occasional appearances of Excavators. Everywhere we turned, we were confronted by a tall spiked cactus or a decaying sort of desert flower.

“What do we do? We’re...lost!” Konkurra yelled, facing the facts.

“Hold on...there! We came from there!” I pointed. “I recognize that orange flower!”

“But there’s another orange flower over here,” Konkurra countered, nodding at one behind me.

I closed my eyes, recalling the scenery around me. “A fallen cactus...there was a fallen cactus!”

I turned around, and beside the orange flower Konkurra had pointed out, there was a fallen cactus next to it.

“But there’s a fallen cactus over there too!” Konkurra spoke, pointing at the orange flower I spotted out first.

“Dammit!” I cried. “No, wait! It’s...it’s the one you’re pointing to! The fallen cactus wasn’t on the same side as the flower! Go that way!”

Without any hesitation, Konkurra stepped towards the point I indicated.

“Watch out! There’s an Excavator behind you!”

We approached the fallen cactus, and in the sand were faint footprints.

“Follow the path back! We can’t afford to lose more time!”

After minutes of retracing our route and leaving the detour, we turned around and proceeded down the other track.

“There! Below the horizon!” Konkurra yelled.

In the distant stood short huts of clay and sand, round structures blending into the desert dunes around.

“Let’s make a run for it down this slope!”

I slid down the steep sandy slope tailing Konkurra, careful not to lose my balance and drop Kadava by accident. Just ahead of us was a group of four guild members, running to the same location. On the top of a dune stood a small figure, waving his two curved blades in the air, Tarsus directing us towards the esoteric city of sand and clay. Summoning all the strength left in me, I darted down the rest of the tall slope and cried out at the top of my lungs.

“Help! Help me!”

I was quickly ushered into a small clay hut, placing Kadava on a makeshift platform. People scurried in and out, a calamity of voices rising in confusion as the local townspeople tended Kadava’s severed leg. He lied across a smooth sandy bed, unconscious. His chest was heavily lifting up and dropping down, but his heartbeat was slowing down. In a matter of time, the locals had created a makeshift leg from cloth and metal and other scraps, and proceeded to carefully attach it to Kadava’s left thigh. He gave no response in his blacked-out state.

Glo stood beside him, eyes closed, palms above his heart. After a while, the crowd died down, leaving only Glo and I in the small hut with Kadava.

“There’s not much we can do now. He lost a lot of blood from a severed artery in his leg. The town’s medics did their best, and so did I,” Glo told me. “Kadava has to go home and rest. It’s a miracle he’s still alive. He’s too weak to fight with us in this war, and he’ll need time to adjust to his new leg, both physically and mentally.”

“I understand. Thank you for saving him,” I spoke to Glo.

“Don’t just thank me. These sand people are very knowledgeable in carnomancy; in fact, I don’t think I could’ve saved him on my own.”

I gave her a small smile. “I’ll go get Arcanor to send him back to Sanoctuis instantly.”

Glo suddenly frowned. “Arcanor’s not here.”

“What?”

“Three of the four groups returned, but Foku, Mirage, Drog, and Arcanor were all in the same group, and that was the only group with no Night Guild members within, so they wouldn’t know the way to this hidden city,” she paused. “Tarsus said something about a ‘Red Zone’ near this place. Now I’m beginning to worry about them.”

I dashed out of the hut immediately, looking up at the sand dune. Tarsus was gone.

“Konkurra! Where’s Tarsus?”

“He went out looking for the fourth group!”

I made haste and scaled up the steep dune, only to be tackled down by Konkurra.

“What are you doing?” she scolded. “You’re gonna die out there!”

“I’m going to save my men and women!” I replied in fury. “They’ll die if I don’t go now!”

“You don’t know anything about the Red Zone! Just trust me, Tarsus will find them! Stay here with Kadava!”

I relented, sitting defeated on the slope of the sand dune.

“I lost Roslyn. I nearly lost Kadava. I can’t lose any more.”

Konkurra sat down beside me, placing her hand on my back.

“You won’t,” she simply assured.

“What is this Red Zone?” I asked, taking my mind off past memories.

“No one in our guild’s been in it before, except Tarsus. Well, I guess we were in there for a quick while. According to Tarsus, the Red Zone’s a separation between the outskirts of the island and the border of the capital city, but it’s more than just a divider. The epithet ‘Red Zone’ is from the maroon-brown sand that makes up the area, but because of that sandstorm, I didn’t know we had already gone so far in. According to Tarsus, the dwellers in the Red Zone are much more aggressive and unpredictable. The Excavators that inhabit the outskirts only attack from behind, and occasionally, from the side, but those that dwell in the Red Zone attack from any direction. In fact, according to Tarsus, dwellers can even launch up from right beneath your feet, dragging you down into the sandy floor before devouring you piece by piece. Those dwellers, or Extirpators, are the main guardians of Gee Oluun’s gates. I’m not sure how Tarsus is planning to advance after today’s journey.”

“That’s a lot of from one man. Don’t know if I can entirely trust him, but after all I’ve seen, there’s a chance he’s not lying.”

“Tarsus may exaggerate with his words, but after Kadava’s incident, I would trust him.”

“So Extirpators are basically better Excavators?”

“Yes, the second tier of the sand dwellers.”

“Tiers? Am I missing something here?”

“Well, from your limited knowledge of the Red Zone, I’d assume you don’t know much about this island.”

“Yeah, don’t come here often,” I admitted. “Tell me about it.”

The island’s basically split into three rings: the outskirts, the Red Zone, and Gee Oluun, the capital city, located at the heart of the island. Each ring also houses a species of sand dwellers. As you venture deeper into the island, the sand dweller species become more fierce and dangerous. The first tier are the Excavators, living in the outskirts of this island, but they never compete against the Extirpators of the Red Zone, the second tier of sand dwellers. The highest tier, the third tier or sand dwellers, resides in the capital city, namely, The Exterminators.”

“Excavators, Extirpators, and...Exterminators. Got it.”

“As the tier number increases, the sand dwellers increase in size, speed, and hostility. Their protective skin also thickens as you progress deeper into the island. That’s why Tarsus was concerned about Fulcan’s army. Even their sharpest blades are no match for the impenetrable derma of the Exterminators.”

“So then how do we make it to Gee Oluun? And how do we get rid of the Exterminators?”

“I’m not the one to say. Tarsus might tell us his game plan when he gets back.”

“Where do you think the Army of Light is right now? We need to go get them before the Excavators finish them off.”

“Commands from Tarsus were to stay hidden. I can’t disobey him; we need to wait for him to return. And at this pace, the army may have already advanced to the second tier.”

“Where’s Tarsus?” A distant familiar voice cried out.

Glo approached us, exiting the clay hut. Local townspeople continued drifting in and out, checking on Kadava’s status.

“He’s still not back yet.”

“I’m worried about him,” Glo spoke to me. “Are you gonna go and find him?”

“Tarsus is a great fighter, and he knows the Red Zone well. He’ll be fine,” Konkurra quickly interrupted.

“I hope so,” Glo spoke sheepishly.

“I’ve been...noticing something between you and him,” Konkurra continued, glaring at Glo. “Are you in...do you like him?” Konkurra asked awkwardly.

“I’d...that’s...Ulterium, we should check on Kadava again,” Glo quickly instructed.

“Just wanted to let you know that I was hand-picked by Tarsus to be by his side. So don’t even think about it,” Konkurra stated coldly.

Glo did not respond, but grabbed my arm tightly instead and started towards Kadava’s hut.

Suddenly, dust rose above the sand dune behind me as voices filled the top of the sandy hill.

“Clear the path!”

Tarsus and Sylvan rushed down the slope as townspeople stepped out to greet them. Tarsus was carrying Arcanor around his shoulders, and Sylvan led Mirage, Drog, and Foku down to the huts.

Immediately, the small town was once again filled with chatters and sound as men and women hurried in and out of a hut Arcanor was placed in, tending his wound. He had a gaping cut on his right shoulder, but he was still conscious and well in mind.

Some locals quickly bandaged his shoulder up, others removing his cloak and quickly patching the ripped portion of his sleeve. In no time Arcanor was doing well again, but commanded by the locals to take a short rest on a stone platform, similar to the one Kadava was placed on.

“Tarsus. Great to see you again,” I greeted.

He was dirt-ridden, arms scarred and legs bruised, but the ferocity in his eyes blazed all-the-more. His bloody shuang-gou was sheathed behind him.

“Tarsus!” Glo yelled, running towards him and throwing her arms around him. Konkurra stood beside them, arms crossed, glaring at her. Glo quickly released her grip and shifted beside me again.

“Good to see everyone safe again,” Tarsus replied. “Where are the other two groups?”

“In the town,” Konkurra replied. “They don’t know you’re back yet.”

“All good. Well, good news. We have time to rest. I got a chance to scout on the army, and they were halted by the sandstorm and Excavators. They went off the path and found shelter a few kilometres east of us, in another overhang. They’re taking a short break as well; some of them had fallen to the Excavators, but most of them had collapsed from exhaustion.”

“So when do we get moving?”

“At daybreak, so in a few hours. I’d reckon that’s all the time Fulcan would give his men before continuing the journey. In the meantime, go befriend these people. They owed me one, so they’d be willing to share their houses with you. You should rest up.”

“As should you. What do you mean they owed you one?”

“Our guild was here two years ago when the Extirpators struck. It was completely out of the blue; all sand dwellers never go off the path to hunt. But I guess the Extirpators were famished and, out of desperation, came to this city to devour the locals one by one. But we so happened to be here that day and successfully defended this hidden town from the dwellers, so they owed us a big one.”

“Talk about timing. Well, I’ll tell my men the good news and you tell yours. See you at daybreak.”

“Sleep well, Ulterium.”

“Let’s hope I can.”

“Goodnight Tarsus,” Konkurra chirped, quickly pecking him on the cheek before running into the town, zipping past Glo.

Glo quickly grabbed my arm and stormed off the other way to another row of huts.

“Goodnight Glo,” Tarsus called after us innocently.

After spreading Tarsus’ message to my guild, I conversed with some of the sand folk. The local townspeople warmly welcomed us, allowing us to sleep in their small rock houses. Arcanor and I ended up in the same small hut, where two rocky beds were laid out in the small enclosure. Although the hard cot was not one to easily fall asleep on, I quickly dozed off as soon as I spread across the stone bed from an endless day of running and fighting.

 

I woke up to Arcanor’s soft voice. It was still dark outside, the stars brightly looming over the desolate wasteland.

He was calling my name and saying something strange. Asleep, lost in his dreams, but his eyes illuminated a pale blue.

“Ulterium...Cielos,” he seemed to whisper. Over and over again, the same, increasingly haunting name.

“Cielos.”

He wasn’t in danger, nor was I, so I shut my eyes, rolled onto my side, and let my weariness carry me back to sleep.

I’ll keep that strange name in mind.

 

XXII

 

“We’re late! Get a move on it!”

I opened my eyes and rolled off the stone bed, landing on my arm.

“Dammit!” I exclaimed, climbing up from the hard ground. The sun was bright outside, and from a small window, I squinted to see guild members streaming out of the huts and congregating around a man on top of a sand dune. Without thinking any further, I did the same, briskly shouting my gratitude to the owner of the hut.

“It’s way past daybreak! The army must have gotten further by now!” Tarsus shouted. “Follow my lead!”

Before I knew it, everyone was tailing Tarsus up the dune, ready for more action.

“Arcanor!” I quickly yelled, stopping him in his tracks ahead of me. “Come with me!”

I brought him into the hut Kadava was in and told him what had happened. He gathered his strength and summoned a small portal to our hideout in Sanoctuis.

“Stay with him for a while. If Kadava regains his strength, then join us in the war afterwards. But stay with him until then. We’ll miss both of you.”

“Understood,” Arcanor complied.

The portal was snapped shut as Arcanor and Kadava went home. I exited the hut and swiftly dashed up the sand dune, catching up to the two guilds.

“Where are we going?”

“We should be able to arrive at the gates of Gee Oluun if we pick up our pace. When we reach the top of this dune, keep your eyes out for Extirpators - they don’t only come from the back now! Onwards!”

The twelve of us streamed up the slope and split into our four modified groups again, taking our positions in the two banks besides the main path.

“Where’s Arcanor?” Foku shouted.

“I sent him back to Sanoctuis with Kadava! Just keep going!”

“Alright! Let’s go!”

We took a few paces in the bright blazing sun before Tarsus signalled us to stop.

“The army is over there! They’ve...stopped!”

We quickly jumped onto the main path, following Tarsus, and reconvened as one group towards the army.

The Army of Light and Purity had a significantly less amount of men, and Extirpators continued to devastate the men from every which way.

“Fulcan!” Tarsus boomed, surprising the worn-out king in the middle of the warriors.

“You’re back...with your goons,” he growled, approaching us.

We continued to head towards the army, covering each other’s back from the unpredictable Extirpators.

“How was your night?” Tarsus sneered, not slowing down.

Fulcan gave no response. He was swift with his heavy blade, slaying Extirpators left and right at ease though he was evidently tired. A small squad followed the king, protecting him from the endless waves of sand dwellers.

“Tarsus...I’m sorry,” the king suddenly spoke.

Tarsus stopped in his footsteps, a proud face contorted to surprise.

“I’m sorry - you’re...what?”

“Look, I was irrational, but you have to understand that we can’t afford to lose any time. When we stepped foot onto the desert path that night, I immediately regretted it. My men were tired, and many fell to the Excavators from a lack of alertness. You were right. And you, Ulterium, you were right as well. Tarsus is a good man at heart.”

We shifted closer to the main army, aiding it in fending off the oncoming Extirpators.

“That night, a soldier reported to me that he had noticed men flanking us,” Fulcan continued. “I knew it had to be both your guilds. Logic told me you were somehow helping us.

“We distracted the majority of Excavators for the army, travelling ahead of you.”

“Thank you. It meant a lot. When the sandstorm hit, we were completely blinded, but we kept going. You were right, Tarsus, we lost too many men that night.”

“Let’s keep moving; we can still make it to the capital city tonight,” Tarsus suggested. Fulcan immediately led his men forward, and we moved around to flank the army on the main path, slaying the Extirpators by the side of the warriors. Upon seeing our arrival, the remaining knights of Fulcan’s army had a renewed hope, smiling as we fought by their side.

“So how’d you make it this far? How did you make it past the second night?” Tarsus asked.

“It was a tough night. We set up a rotation of guards, a group of ten warriors awake for fifteen minutes to slay the beasts while the rest of the army slept to the side of the broad path. After every fifteen minutes, we would wake up ten others to take the place of guarding the main army. But even with this system, we lost a lot of men during the night. We can’t afford to lose any more.”

“Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is, if we keep up this pace, we’ll make it to Gee Oluun right before midnight. And, you also have us fighting with you now. The bad news is, it’s going to be a lot tougher. A lot. And you guys don’t have food.”

We were provided a hearty meal by the generous sand people of the hidden city before we slept, filling our stomachs and replenishing our strength. But as for the main army, they spent the night fending off Excavators.

“We brought rations from the cenotes before entering the island, so we were good for last night. As for tonight, let’s hope Gee Oluun will have meals to offer.”

Fulcan paused before asking another question.

“What did you mean when you said things will get ‘a lot tougher’?”

“Glad you asked.”

Tarsus explained how the island was segregated into three rings, with each ring significantly more dangerous than the previous. He elaborately explained to the king the differences between Excavators, Extirpators, and Exterminators.

“So we’re in the Red Zone right now?”

“Yes. It explains why the sand is red, and why the creatures are attacking from the front too.”

“Extirpators,” the king confirmed, looking at Tarsus.

“You got it.”

“So when we reach Gee Oluun, how are we going to get past the Exterminators, if their armour is truly impenetrable, as you said?”

“The region of Gee Oluun starts when the sand returns to the natural tan colour and not red. The city gates are a couple of meters within the ring, heavily guarded by Exterminators, meaning we’ll only have to go a few meters into the deadly area before we’re safe. To be completely honest, I’ve never been in the third ring, but I have an idea.”

“What is it?” The king asked impatiently.

“Have you ever wondered how merchants make it to the heart of the island?”

“The royal envoys I send to Gee Oluun are always on horseback,” Fulcan replied. “But come to think of it, how do they make it out alive very time?”

“Horseback. Exactly. All sand dwellers are frightened by loud and fast vibrations in the ground. Footsteps don’t bother them, even an army of footsteps; they somehow recognize the difference between a Grozorgian and a non-Grozorgian. Anything loud that isn’t a one of us will send them scurrying away. A couple years ago when I was venturing on this island alone, a large cactus had tumbled behind me while I was in the Red Zone, and I wasn’t disturbed by Extirpators for a long while.”

“Hold on,” Fulcan spoke. “We don't have any horses, and if we make a calamity of noise, Geonyte will be alerted by our presence; our whole plan will be foiled.”

“It was just an idea,” Tarsus replied, defeated.

We marched in silence within the Red Zone, slaying Extirpator after Extirpator. Some men still fell to the sand dwellers, and Glo did her best to save the warriors. Those that had been fatally bitten by the Extirpators were left behind to die on the path. We couldn't waste any time stopping to tend the wounds of fallen soldiers. The monotonous march continued endlessly, until the sun went down and the stars came up.

By dusk, we still could not figure out a way to distract the Exterminators. We were also posed with another problem: The gates of Gee Oluun were guarded by Geonyte’s staff.

The army was decimated, but still large in number. There were at least a hundred thousand or more men by Fulcan’s side, and dust rose high in the air behind us as we continued the march, endlessly slaying the Extirpators around us.

It was midnight when we arrived at the edge of the Red Zone. The lofty gate stood fifty meters ahead of us, separated by a region of light-brown sand.

“So what do we do now?”

The army had halted several feet from the edge of the third ring, still tiredly fending off the Extirpators. There were two towers to the left and right of the gate with archers positioned within to guard the city.

All of a sudden, a brilliant idea filled my head.

“Sylvan, can you get a clear shot at the two guards up there?”

“I can do that in my sleep.”

Sylvan nocked his bow in seconds, aiming at the archer in the left tower.

“Wait!” I hissed. “Put your bow down. Fulcan, do we have rope?”

“Sir Hoshea!”

At once, a warrior with a backpack stepped forward and dug into the sack, pulling out a coil of sturdy rope that had supported the tents whenever the army set up camp.

“What’s your plan?”

I took the arrow from Sylvan’s bow and tied the end of the coil of rope to the quill of his arrow, explaining my idea to the king.

“If this works, we’d have to move quickly. When Sylvan shoots the arrow, we’ll pull the rope back to drag the archer down. Sylvan will quickly reload, and I will hack off the rope and attach the end of the coil to his second arrow. He will then fire at the second guard, and we will pull the rope down again when it pierces the archer. When both guards fall dead onto the desert floor, it should be enough to scare away the Exterminators. If they come back, they’ll be feasting on the dead guards, giving us enough time to run across the third ring and into the city.”

“But the gates aren’t opened,” Fulcan spoke.

“Sylvan, that’s your job,” I quickly said. “You see that lever beside the left guard there? Nock a third arrow and hit that switch. That should be the lever for the gate.”

“And if not?”

“Then we improvise.”

“Well, it’s our only shot. Let’s make it count!”

Sylvan shot the first arrow, and instantly, the left guard fell. Soldiers immediately gathered around and pulled on the rope, dragging the archer out of the tower and down onto the desert floor. I cut the rope and tied it around Sylvan’s second arrow, and he fired it immediately. It pierced the second guard, and soldiers gathered around the rope to pull it backwards again. This time, however, the arrow slipped out of the deceased archer, failing to pull him out of the tower.

“Hit the lever!” I commanded immediately, moving on with the plan.

In a blink of an eye, the lever was pushed forward, but nothing happened. I looked around, and the army wore a hopeless look on their faces. Suddenly, the heavy gate began to slowly rise up.

“Run!” I yelled, leading the way. Fulcan and his army picked up their feet and followed me, sliding beneath the opening gate and into the capital city.

Half of the army made it through before the Exterminators began cleaning the flesh off the bones of the guard.

“They’re not going to make it!” Fulcan spoke, watching helplessly behind the open gate.

“Foku, Sylvan, follow me!”

I grabbed the coil of rope from Sir Hoshea and Sylvan, Foku, and I dashed back into the Red Zone. I quickly tied the end of the rope to Sylvan’s arrow as he fired it into the fallen archer, aiming for his chest.

“We need to get the archer down! Foku, cover us!”

I pulled on the rope, but the archer was caught behind the wall of the tower.

“Sylvan, help me pull on the rope! We have to move a bit closer for it to act as a pulley!”

The Exterminators had finished their feast, and began to move towards the frightened army.

Sylvan and I stepped into the third ring of the island and pulled down, hoping to bring the guard out of the tower. Foku moved swiftly around us, knocking back any sand dwellers leaping towards us. Some courageous warriors stepped aside from the sprint and helped us pull the dead guard over the wall of the tower. In a matter of time, the archer fell out of his tower and crashed onto the desert floor.

Immediately, the Exterminators retreated from the thundering sound. The rest of the army seized this advantage and darted the fifty meters into the city, collapsing at the foot of the gate in relief and in exhaustion. Sylvan, Foku, and I stayed behind until all of Fulcan's men made it across. As the last man crossed, we dashed across and Sylvan fired one last arrow onto the backside of the lever, lowering the gate and blockading the Exterminators from entering. We had finally arrived to Gee Oluun, capital of the rock domain, free of any sand dwellers.

XXIII

 

The entire city was molded from clay, lofty buildings rising to our left and right. After setting up a brief camp near the gate concealed behind a series of buildings, we rested for the night and woke early the following morning. In the centre of the city was a grand plaza, with a stone statue that resembled some hero mounted on a grand horse, and sculptures of sand dwellers trampled beneath the feet of the stone stallion. The entire city was strangely quiet, temporary markets and tents around the central plaza hastily abandoned. There was no sign of life in the tall residential clay buildings either; only a slow, hot breeze circulating through Gee Oluun.

We marched through the empty city silently, metal armour carelessly rustling upon each other with every step. As we crossed the deserted plaza, we noticed a tall, jagged structure in the distance with mahogany banners draping down the sides that was embellished with a rock insignia; evidently, Overlord Geonyte’s palace. With no hesitation, Fulcan picked up his pace and led the army towards the imposing castle.

The palace was, in fact, but a sharp, jagged pillar of rock that pierced through the ground. Beside the main palace stood two more hollowed-out shards of rock to the left and right of the palace, with many holes carved onto the surface as windows. The three jagged peaks reflected the pattern of the rock insignia, and a deep canyon encompassed the royal towers. We crossed a long, polished marble bridge that rose high above the pit surrounding the palace. Upon arriving at the foot of the clay castle, the palace doors were left open. There were no guards posted outside, contrasting the two archer towers guarding the city gates.

“Fulcan, send us in to scout the interior first. We’ll report back quickly,” Tarsus requested.

“Be careful.”

Tarsus signalled for the guild members to follow him.

“Tarsus, go with your men. My guild and I will stay by Fulcan’s side just in case anything happens.”

I expected a typical comeback, but Tarsus turned around and simply nodded his head, signalling for his guild to follow him. He was a changed man, a different man now, and our camaraderie grew stronger by the moment.

“Sir Othniel, lead Squadron Dragon west of the palace. Sir Ehud, Squadron Phoenix east. Sir Hoshea and Sir Samson, come by my side with the rest of the army. We will wait here. Ulterium, you can parcel out your guild to each of the three squadrons.”

In a fast, orderly fashion, three squadrons split up into their instructed direction, with most of the men by Fulcan’s side. I split my guild into three even groups, instructing them to join the three different squadrons.

All of a sudden, a volley of stones rained down upon us. A roar rose from behind the skyscrapers of the capital city, and hundreds of men exposed themselves and beleaguered us. Every soldier reloaded their slings and fired again, the sharp rocks denting the golden metal armour and knocking some soldiers unconscious.

“We’re surrounded! Go inside the castle!”

All three squadrons were thrown into confusion and panic, tripping over themselves into the castle.

“No...wait! Don’t go in, it’s a setup!” I hollered. My entire guild retreated to my side, and the Phoenix Squadron followed my voice as well. But Fulcan and the rest of his men had already entered the stone palace.

Bars dropped down immediately, blockading the doorway behind Fulcan, trapping him and his army within the stone building.

“We’re not outnumbered,” I observed, signalling for General Ehud to come by my side. The squadron instinctively formed a circle, with the outermost men placing their shields up to protect us within from the nonstop barrage of stones. “The rocks are sharp, but they won’t kill,” I strained, trying to deliver my message above the loud clattering of stones against metal. “If we can manage to place our men around our enemies and encircle them instead, they’ll retreat in no time. This squadron is at least double their men already.”

“What about the king?” Sir Ehud asked.

“Stay here with four or five men and watch over the gate in case someone comes for the king.”

“Follow Ulterium!” Ehud cried, pulling aside four men with him. They continued their defensive position with the general in the middle of the shielded circle.

“Keep up this formation!” I commanded, separating the squadron from Ehud to form two shielded circle of warriors. “On the count of three, it’ll be every man for themselves. Keep your shield up, and run towards the direction you are facing. Strike your enemies from behind!”

I gave a quick pause for the army to understand my plan.

“One...two...three, break!”

The entire squadron broke up, soldiers running in every direction. My guild had split up as well, following my command. Foku, however, ran towards the temporary prison and stayed with the general and his troops, protecting the king and his men within.

“Good man,” I whispered.

I ran across the plaza, using the tall statue to shield myself from the catapulted payload. Dashing towards a building with no soldier from the Phoenix Squadron within, I flung the door opened and silently climbed up the stairs. The building was dark, and almost everything within was made from stone, muffling my footsteps, to my advantage. After reaching the fifth floor, another flight of steps lay in front of me that led to the rooftops. Quickly leaping up, I pulled out my blade and swiftly pierced it into the back of the unaware assailant.

I leapt backwards suddenly as the shocked face of the stone slinger rolled towards me. He was a mere boy no older than fifteen. A black fog had clouded his eyes, and it slowly cleared as the life within him slipped away. I looked at my bloodied hands, then back at the boy. He was just an innocent child under a curse or a spell.

I was conflicted, crouched on the rooftop. Do I assist the squadron in taking down the rest of the innocent citizens? I looked around to see the men and women falling one by one to the warriors of Fulcan. It was a bloodbath around us, and the innocent lives that perished didn’t know how to fight back.

There had to be something controlling them, something that explained why their dilated eyes were clouded with a black mist. Something had to be strong enough to do all this, but what was that something? Tyrannust?

Looking around, there was no trace of him or his warriors. Suddenly, my eyes fell on a small figure that drifted above the main palace. I squinted and tried to make out who or what that strange levitating object was. All I could determine was that it was robed in black and brown, and it had two arms extended upwards. Could it be...the Geomancer?

There was no time to think. Innocent civilians were dying by the second and I could stop this. Picking up the sling still in the boy’s hand, I loaded a smooth stone and swung it above my head a couple of times. At the right moment, I released, and the stone soared gracefully through the hot wind, landing twenty meters short of the Mancer. It was impossible to reach the Geomancer with these low-ranged weapons.

If only Kadava was here with me. He could’ve nailed the Geomancer with his ranged weapon in no time.

I spun around frantically, trying to search for a way to stop it. My eyes landed on Foku, who was still by Sir Ehud, directly beneath the Geomancer. Slinging five stones in rapid succession, I directed each payload to the feet of Foku, trying to grab his attention. Luckily, the barrage of stones against Ehud and his men had drastically decreased, but that meant that more and more innocent lives were slain.

Foku finally looked up in my direction as the pile of rocks at his feet grew bigger and bigger. Instantly, I rotated my blade to let him know that it was me. He raised his lance up in response. I pointed my blade towards the Geomancer, and Foku stepped back and spun around, looking towards the object I had indicated. With no hesitation, he charged his lance, aimed it towards the Mancer, and fired.

I stayed on the rooftops, slinging stones at the warriors around me to catch their attention from killing the innocent lives.

A bright explosion halted all movement as Foku’s electrical beam engulfed the Geomancer. As the smoke cleared, the figure stepped out, unscathed, and descended upon Foku.

“Run!” I shouted instinctively. Foku required no more motivation before he fled towards my direction, crossing the plaza, only to have four tall stone walls suddenly erected around him, caging him in a rocky prison.

The citizens were finally out of its hypnotic trance and they tumbled down in exhaustion, ceasing the mass murder. I looked back to the Geomancer, and it was coming towards me, floating past Foku with arms extended.

“Fire!” A distant voice commanded. The soldiers of the Phoenix Squadron obeyed Ehud and picked up the slings around them, firing randomly towards the Geomancer. Clearly, none of them was trained with long ranged weapons.

The Geomancer spun around quickly, raising its arms, and in a blink of an eye, the entire city rumbled as stone prisons were erected around every soldier, confining them helpless in a tight space. Even Ehud and his men were trapped, leaving only me free from his stone prison. I couldn’t believe my eyes; the Geomancer was beyond powerful.

There were no words exchanged between the Geomancer and me. I stood on the rooftop, motionless, knowing the capabilities of the rock summoner. As it approached, I could finally make out every single detail. The Geomancer wore a black cloak with a brown robe, and the rim of its cloak was embellished with white crystals. It was also equipped in a brown stone breastplate with a strange stone embedded in the center, and two stone swords sheathed behind it. A simple stone mask covered its face, and the most eye catching feature was a glowing brown aura of twelve precious gems behind it, with a strange inscription that connected the ring of gems.

Raising its arms once more, the two swords behind it slipped neatly into its stone fists as the Mancer approached me.

It swung both swords towards me at the same time. Without thinking, I ducked, pulling out my two blades and thrusting them into the lower region of the Mancer. My confidence was quickly dispelled when the Geomancer spun around smoothly, deflecting my blades and whipping both krises out of my hands and helplessly onto the plaza floor meters below me. Showing no mercy, the Geomancer summoned the plaza statue and hurled it towards me, and before I could react, I was knocked out on the stone rooftops.

 

I couldn’t move. I was shackled to a pole, my head was throbbing, and it was pitch black around me when I woke up. I screamed, but it was a futile effort. The rocky walls around me prevented any sound from escaping.

Suddenly, the front wall fell, and the bright sunlight flooded in, blinding my eyes. I squinted, trying to make out where I was. It wasn’t long before the other three walls around me fell in succession, and as I slowly adjusted to the blinding light, it became evident that Fulcan’s entire army was all around me, each warrior chained to a pole alike my current condition.

We were on the ledge of some tall, elevated building, and the three-peaked palace stood a distance away, beneath our feet.

All at once, a peak of rock shot out from the side of the ledge, forming a long plank.

“Your end is near, King Fulcan,” a low, raspy voice cackled behind me.

There was a foot or so between me and the edge of the building, where the plank was formed. Fulcan was beside me, tied with his hands behind his back. He was pushed forward and onto the plank by a massive robed figure, and it was no other but the overlord, Geonyte.

“I can’t believe you fell for my bait,” he continued. He really needed to clear his throat. “I was unprepared, but I still succeeded in capturing your entire army. The high lord never told me it was going to be this easy. Now, prepare to face your death!”

Fulcan was pushed to the middle of the plank. He looked down, but his face reflected a stoic emotion.

A soldier to my right broke free and lunged towards the overlord. But before he could reach Geonyte, a stone pillar was erected beneath the warrior’s feet, instantly impaling him through his thick armour, leaving him lifeless on the makeshift stake. The Geomancer floated past him and joined the overlord’s side, watching over the rest of the army.

“You’re nothing without your Mancer,” Fulcan spat, a few steps from the edge of the plank.

“You don’t even have a Mancer!” The overlord cackled amusingly.

“I don’t need one. Rid yourself of that thing and challenge me face to face, like a real ruler of honour,” the king sneered.

“You question my honour?” The overlord’s tone suddenly changed. “Leave me, faithful servant. I will teach this useless king a death with no honour!”

The overlord pulled out a massive broadsword, almost alike Fulcan’s, but it was entirely made of stone. The Geomancer floated towards the king, cut the ropes that bound his wrists, and vanished. A few seconds later, it reappeared with Fulcan’s bright golden-white broadsword and placed it into the king’s hands, vanishing quickly again without reappearing.

The massive overlord stepped onto the plank, cracking the stone a bit. He was at least double the size of Fulcan, but not that much taller than the well-built king.

The king inched back until his left foot was at the edge of the stone plank. He raised his broadsword up and spread his legs out, gaining as much footing as possible. The overlord carelessly lumbered towards the king, suddenly pulling apart his weapon to form two thinner stone swords. The two rulers stood motionless, poised in an offensive stance against each other.

Geonyte made the first move. Bringing both blades up, he threw them down onto Fulcan. In a swift response, Fulcan ducked and placed his broadsword above him, absorbing the blow with his thick sword. In a counter-offensive motion, the king grabbed his blade with both hands and pushed upwards, knocking the overlord back. Seizing this moment, Fulcan spun around to gain momentum, slashing his broadsword at the overlord’s side. Blood began to trickle down his royal robes as the tip of the king’s sword sliced the overlord’s hip, but Geonyte did not wince at the pain. Instead, he regained his footing and jabbed at the king in quick succession, two blades against one.

Fulcan did not retreat, but swiftly evaded every strike, slowly pushing the overlord back. Suddenly, the king hurled his broadsword up to deflect both stone blades and smoothly slid under the overlord between his two stocky legs, switching positions with Geonyte on the plank. With no mercy, the king pressed forward and slashed back and forth, forcing the overlord to the edge of the plank. Geonyte swung his two blades aggressively against the massive broadsword, but it was no match for Fulcan’s quicker blocks and counter-thrusts.

“Enough!”

The sky quickly darkened at the roar. Tyrannust suddenly appeared, a cloud of smoke shrouding his presence. He hovered beside the plank, facing the king.

Without ceasing his movement, Fulcan lowered himself and rammed into Geonyte, catching him off guard and sending him flailing off the plank.

Tyrannust raised his palm and the overlord was instantly encased in a similar black cloud of smoke, suspended midair. He looked up at Tyrannust in gratitude, an expression of relief brushing across his face.

“So you’ve defeated Naterra and Geonyte,” Tyrannust boomed in a deep voice, drifting towards Fulcan. This was the first time I had heard the high lord speak ever since his corruption, and his bone chilling voice perfectly suited his corrupted transformed figure. “Don’t you realize you still won’t win this?” Turning towards the overlord, the high lord continued, “As for you, my weak and useless servant, have I not told you only the strong survive?”

Dropping his wrist, the smoke around Geonyte vanished, and the overlord dropped to his death.

“You are no match for me,” Tyrannust continued, “but I will let you witness the rise of my legion before you die.”

“Why are you doing this?” Fulcan demanded, standing up to confront the high lord.

“You know exactly why!” The high lord thundered as the dark clouds around him crackled with sparks, his face nearly against the king’s face. “You took my rightful throne from me, and you know what you did to get it. But now, you can keep your throne. To control Grozorg was your accomplishment; to control galaxies is my destiny!”

Fulcan stood there boldly, showing no fear of the high lord.

“Geonyte was weak, but he gave me and Helterium enough time. And Helterium won’t fail me, my loyal servant.”

Without any further words, Tyrannust vanished with his cloud of smoke. Fulcan rushed towards me and cut the thick ropes around my wrists and ankles. He proceeded to free the next soldier beside me and I followed his action, and the army was quickly on their feet.

“We ended Geonyte’s war, but now we must hurry to the water domain. Overlord Helterium will show no mercy against us.”

Fulcan quickly scrambled off the building and the Army of Light raced down the stairs, following the king. Tarsus and his guild rejoined mine as we followed the last of the soldiers down the building.

“Sir Othniel! Can we use the rock here?”

“We’re pretty far from the portalling point back at the crags - the closer we are to Mainland Grozorg’s portalling point, the safer. I fear we are too far out.”

“We cannot waste time! Give it a shot!”

“As you command, my majesty.”

Sir Othniel pulled out the brilliant white gem and a thick black slab. The obsidian slab had an indent in the center, similar to the bricks at the end of the tunnels in the elaborate underground system. Placing the gem into the slab, a faint portal materialized in front of the general, fading and reappearing unsteadily.

“My king, I’m not sure the portal is stable enough to transport men throu-"

“The first soldier to step through will be promoted to Corporal,” the king overlapped.

Immediately, a group of ten warriors raced through the translucent portal.

“This stone is the last of its kind, yet it is more powerful than all the other stones we’ve possessed before, Sir Othniel. And congratulations to you, Corporal Zartan. Now let’s move!”

The entire army and our guilds marched through the weak portal. We were transported back to where we began, at the portalling point on Mainland Grozorg that led to Geonyte’s island.

“The water domain is directly opposite of the rock domain,” Fulcan began, leading the way. “It’s the same distance between Naterra and Geonyte’s island. Perhaps this is how Tyrannust is planning to stall us, seeing that we have to march across Grozorg for every war.”

“Have you been to the water domain before?” Tarsus asked.

“I’ve never really interacted with Helterium, so I don't know much about Awk Roluun or the rest of the island. They’re pretty isolated from the rest of the nation. You?”

“Never even stepped foot there. How ‘bout you, Ulterium?”

“Same experience as you two. None of my guild is from the water domain.”

“Well this will be fun. We don’t know what to expect. I sent scouts to every island during Naterra’s war, but the ones to Helterium’s island haven't returned yet.”

“So will this be another two weeks of marching underground?”

“Approximately. But on the bright side, we’ve already stopped two wars. How bad can this one get?”

XXIV

 

Another two weeks passed before we arrived at the dead end of the tunnel. The monotonous non-stop march wore the soldiers out, but recent scouts had reported that the Almega Legion no longer had as much men perusing Mainland Grozorg, allowing able warriors to hunt for fresh game which not only provided the army with new food, but allowed training for the warriors to hone their combat abilities as well. Placing the white stone into the ridge, a bright flaming portal opened, and the army stepped through to enter the water domain.

“Wha...” Tarsus remarked.

The entire island was a body of water. There was nothing else to be seen across the vast, flat horizon but a deep, dark ocean.

“Where did your scouts even go?”

“The real question is ‘how do we even reach Helterium?’”

In the distance, some black naval ships drifted across the motionless sea. The Army of Light and Purity stood on the edge of a thin beach, spreading out to take over the only portion of land on the island. Only the perimeter of the great water domain was composed of sand; the rest of the island was one titanic sea.

“Well if the overlord is assembling his army underwater, there’s no way of stopping them but to wait until they rise out.”

“Incoming!” A nearby soldier suddenly shouted. He rammed into the king and me, pushing us aside as a heavy cannon ball sank into the sand at our feet.

“Watch your heads!” He continued to shout, picking himself up and frantically weaving through the army to repeat his warning.

The sky was filled with a barrage of lead payload that crashed onto the shore one by one. The army scattered chaotically, trying to escape the sudden attack. Some warriors were slow to escape and were crushed by the heavy cannon balls, instantly dead on the warm, soft sand.

“Hop aboard or lose yer life!”

The army looked up to see an incoming naval ship. It was a large, purple wooden pirate ship fortified with metal scraps, and it had a row of cannons on both sides of the vessel. The ship was followed by nine smaller vessels, each flying a flag that was decorated with a skull and the letter “V” behind it.

“King Fulcan, I’ll take yer landlubbers to the overlord directly if we survive this raid from the Leviathan!”

The ship pulled closer to the shore, throwing a wide plank overboard for the army to climb up.

“Captain Hestia Famming, at yer service. Ye can trust me and me crew, we’ll lead ye to safety. Ye have ma word fer it. Ye got one big army, but me fleet should be able to hold all of ya landlubbers.”

There was no other choice but to follow this strange female pirate aboard her ship. She stood on a higher deck on the main vessel, leading her nine other pirate ships behind her. Our two guilds and the king immediately boarded the ship she stood on, while the rest of the army split up onto her other vessels.

“The Leviathans are deadly, and ye can tell who they be by their jack. It’s that dragon serpent lookin’ kinda design.”

She pointed out towards the horizon, where the fleet of ten black ships drew closer.

“Ye can also tell what fleet a pirate’s from by their insignia they wear on their chest, except for us. The only pirate fleet that don’t bear their own insignia on their clothes are the Vindors.”

Her ten ships sailed towards the oncoming fleet of Leviathans. Evidently, her fleet was known as the Vindors.

“What assures me that I can trust you?” Fulcan asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Well, ye can hop off if ye want. So much fer the last hope of Grezorg.”

“Excuse me?”

“Grezorg, Grozorg. Same thing. Now let’s take out these sea dogs before all hope is lost. Vindors, onwards!”

“How is taking out a band of pirates going to get us to Helterium?”

“Not just any band of pirates, and takin’ ‘em out will git us one step closer to him, unless ye wanna be meetin’ Davy Jones’s Locker. Vindors, let ‘er loose!”

Famming’s fleet fired a barrage of cannonballs, but most of the shots landed around the Leviathan vessels as their ships strategically steered around to dodge the attack.

“Damn Leviathans. Bring us closah!”

As the Vindors sailed deeper into the heart of the island, the enemy fleet counter-attacked with their own cannons.

“Split up! Left, right, forward, verge! Gunners, gunners, take your positions! Powder monkeys, what ye be doing down there? Git up here!”

Famming barked out swift orders assisted by vigorous arm motions, and her ships followed swiftly and quickly, evading most of the cannon fire from the Leviathan.

The two fleets were a few kilometres away now, the twenty vessels sailing at full speed towards each other.

“These ain’t the only sea dogs on the island,” Famming began. “Ye got other fleets, like the Krakens, the Taniwhas, the Kaijus, and many more. But ye see this?”

She patted her chest, revealing a golden medallion in the shape of a skull with two diamond swords sheathed behind.

“This shows which fleet dominates the seas. Whoever wears this pin has the highest respect from the rest of these sea dogs. I defeated that damned Achoro Kamui years ago and now I proudly wear this pin. But it looks like he wants it back!”

“I’ll take it that this Kamui is the captain of the Leviathan fleet.”

“No captain like other. In these high seas, it’s just between him and me. Those other fleets have never even laid hands on this pin. They’ll turn around when they see the Vindors comin’ after ’em. They know the alphas of the sea.”

“Sounds like you’re a strong leader. I need generals like you and your crew.”

“Count me out, king. I ain’t ever deserting me crew to join some landlubber like you. I’m just here to bring ye and yer men to the overlord. I’ll restore peace on the seas. The land was never my kinda thing, thank ye very much.”

Suddenly, our ship scraped across one of the enemy vessels, sending some of Fulcan’s men overboard from the unprepared impact.

“Boatswain, cook, get those men outta the water! We don’t wanna be feedin’ the sharks now! The rest of ye Vindors, raid!”

All ten vessels of the Vindor fleet collided with the ten Leviathan ships, and every crew member hopped over the railing into the enemy ships, pulling out their cutlasses and swinging wildly at the enemy pirates.

“For yer safety, king, I’d advise ye to stay in the lower quarters, just down that hatch o’er there. I’ll try to make this quick. Oh, and please tell yer army to not engage. I’ve been doing this fer my life; I don’t want to look like I be needin’ help.”

Famming leapt across the railing swiftly, pulled out a long recurved scimitar and swung at the oncoming pirates.

“Should we fight?” I asked, turning towards Tarsus. “Just us two, I mean. She might not see us in the mess of all these pirates.”

“Well, we heard what she said, and she looks like the type to not mess with. Probably why she’s the captain.”

“Probably why she’s wearing that pin.”

“Probably.”

The fight between the two fleets was chaotic, but the Vindors kept pressing against the Leviathans. Though the battle was between two equally well-trained crews, it was evident that the Vindors had a winning edge.

“Hey captain! Looking fer...this?” Famming taunted, waving the golden pin above her head.

“Yer on!” A distant male voice shouted.

Famming ran to the poop deck of the main Leviathan ship, confronting Captain Achoro Kamui.

“Let’s stop this fight ‘n do a classic one on one,” Kamui suggested. “Winner gets the pin.”

“Weapon?”

“Gun ‘n sword - let’s git messy. Leviathans! Clear the ship! Captain Fammin’, ready?

“Ye kidding? Vindors! Retreat! Captain Achoro, lesgo!”

The two opposing pirate fleets stopped fighting instantly at the sound of their captain’s voices, retreating back to their own ships, revealing many dead bodies scattered across the vessels of the ships of both fleets. Fleet members eagerly stood on the rails of their own ships, ready to watch the duel between the two experienced captains.

“Quartermaster! My pistol!”

Both captains stood a few feet away, right hand placed on the hilt of their sheathed swords. The two leaders were poised in a frozen stance, eyes locked on each other.

Suddenly, without signal, both pirates pulled out their blades and swung at each other, both attacks deflected by the other sharp sword, creating a deafening ring. Famming retreated backwards while Kamui pressed forward, and in a series of quick slashes and jabs, the Leviathan captain forced Famming against the railing. The Leviathan crew went wild, shouting incomprehensible phrases and hollering recklessly.

In a swift turn of events, Famming performed an uppercut that sent Kamui’s blade flying out of his hands, sharply landing into the planks of another ship. Without stopping, Famming pressed forward against the unarmed Kamui, who swiftly evaded every swing. The crowd kept up the loud cheering, but this time, the hollers came from the Vindors.

Without hesitation, Kamui dashed towards the upper deck and pulled out his blunt pistol that had been handed to him by his quartermaster earlier on. Cocking the small gun, he aimed at Famming and fired, the bullet scraping Famming’s right forearm. The Vindor captain chased after Kamui, not flinching from the sudden pain. Quickly reloading his gun, Kamui fired again, this time grazing Famming’s left leg. She fell to the ground on all four, dropping her scimitar in front of her.

“Give me the pin,” Kamui sneered, approaching the fallen Famming with his raised gun.

“Ye know the rules,” Famming slowly spoke, head bent downwards.

“And I played by them fair ‘n square. Now I won’t ask twice.”

“The duel doesn’t end until a soul is lost or calls fer mercy,” Famming continued.

“If ye want to play it that way.”

Kamui cocked his pistol and pressed it against the top of Famming’s head. Both fleets suddenly fell silent.

“Let’s see who rules the ocean now,” he cackled.

“Let’s see,” Famming replied, a twisted grin spreading across her face.

The Vindor captain spun around on the ground with her legs extended, tripping the surprised Leviathan captain. He quickly fired, the bullet harmlessly nailing the crow’s nest of the ship. Kamui’s pistol slipped out of his hands from the unprepared attack and the captain fell to the ground, stumbling into the same position Famming was once in. Famming stood up quickly and caught his pistol midair, pulling out her own gun as well. She spun both pistols around her two index fingers and pointed both guns towards Kamui’s head.

The Leviathan captain ducked and lunged for Famming’s scimitar on the deck, but Famming fired both guns before he could reach any farther, both bullets pinning his chest to the ship.

The captain cried out in pain and hollered a strange word. Famming retreated at once and threw his pistol onto the deck beside him.

“Guess I’ll be keepin’ this a bit longer, boatswain.”

She tossed the prized golden pin up and caught it.

“I’ll git ye next time,” he wheezed through gritted teeth, lying motionless on his ship. A pool of blood beneath him spread bigger and bigger as his crew rushed aboard to save their dying captain.

As Famming returned to her ship, the Leviathan fleet pulled away and sailed towards the horizon. The Vindor pirates went wild, congratulating their captain and slapping her on the back as she returned to take control of the large wooden wheel.

“You’re a good fighter,” Fulcan approached her.

“Don’t flatter me king. The trip to the overlord is daunting,” she quickly spoke. “Vindors, set sail fer Helterium’s lair!”

The ten ships turned around and began to sail across the calm waters.

“What can you tell me about Helterium?”

“First of all, who are these people? They ain’t dressed like yer men, and I never got the time to ask.” The captain pointed directly at Tarsus and me.

“Prokun Ulterium, head of the Blood Guild. Pleasure to meet you.”

“Tarsus, Octavius Tarsus. Head of the Night Guild.”

“Ah, the two guilds. So I’ve heard tales of both guilds. The pleasure is mine. But weren’t ye two guilds...in discord?”

Tarsus and I looked at each other and grinned. Surely our legacy was widely known across Grozorg, including our rivalry.

“That’s a long story for another time. What do you know about the overlord?”

“Helterium was once part of the Pirate Empire. In fact, when his father was still alive, he was my first mate.”

“Woah...you’re his...master?”

“Was. That damned man led a mutiny against me, bringin’ away half me crew. I never got the chance to punish him before he left.”

“What happened?”

“Ye won’t believe this, but he was me brother.”

The Army of Light and Purity aboard the ship stopped in motion and stared at her.

“Hold on, if you’re the sister of the overlord, you’re the daughter of...”

“Yep. Royal descent. Heard that one before.”

“So not only are you related to Helterium, but you’re also a close relative to...the high lord!”

“Yep. But I can’t help yer army git to him. Sorry. Only to me brother.”

“How did piracy even start? I mean, you mentioned a ‘Pirate Empire’.”

“It’s a long hist’ry. After the fall of Zxyx, fleets were formed to raid passing merchant ships, and that was the beginnin’ of the Pirate Empire. Well, it wasn’t really an empire until I formed me own fleet, the only fleet of royal blood. When me father found out I chose the pirate life, he was not impressed. He disowned me as his older daughter. In return, he tried to make me brother conform to the plain, royal landlubbin’ ways. But me brother became envious of me happiness on the high seas and went against me father to join me fleet. Boy, did me father rage. But there was nuthin’ he could do about it, and he had to stay in his palace to continue governin’ the people.”

“So you both went against your father?”

“It’s not that simple. I deliberately chose the pirate life fer a reason. I knew me father hated the pirates, callin’ ‘em dirty werk ‘n goin’ against the law. But he made me do what I hated, and he punished me if I voiced out me opinion. Me words were useless to him. And so, after years of conformin’, I broke free and sailed the waters, doin’ what I loved.”

Famming paused and sharply spun the wheel, barking out sudden orders.

“Storm’s comin’! Curve left, Vindors!”

“First a sandstorm, now a thunderstorm...” I whispered to the king. He let out a grim smile.

“Where was I? Sumthin’ about revoltin’? Anyways, when Helterium joined the Vindors, I was more than glad to promote him to first mate. Don’t ye two guilds have a similar system?”

“More or less.”

“What I recalled. Well, things happened ‘tween Helterium and I through our journeys and a hatred grew ‘tween our siblinghood. He was jealous of me power and mad at being me subordinate. He wanted more. So he convinced half me crew to desert me and join his newly formed fleet, the Leviathans.”

“He started the Leviathans?”

“First captain. Took me boatswain and promised to promote him to quartermaster if he joined the Leviathans as well. Now he’s the captain.”

“Achoro Kamui? He was once a Vindor boatswain?”

“Told ya. Half the original Leviathan crew were Vindors. That’s what made ‘em formidable swashbucklin’ pirates. The Leviathans would be nuthin’ if I hadn’t taught ‘em me ways of fightin’. Ye know, shootin’ that scum Kamui was actually satisfyin’. Can’t believe me boatswain had the guts to call his former captain to a duel - and not just once.”

“Well he probably ‘called you to a duel’ purely for that pin you’re wearing.”

“The gold-diamond pin was crafted by me father and given to Helterium to git me to leave the pirate life. Apparently the expensive pin was supposed to convince me that life underwater would be more rewardin’. But when Helterium joined the Vindors, he gave me the pin instead, and we created a rumour that the pin was a treasured prize that asserted dominance amongst other pirate fleets, hence the creation of the Pirate Empire. When Helterium mutinied against me, he took the pin and gave it to Kamui. I only recently won it back from a previous duel.”

“So you do know a lot about the overlord.”

“Helterium wanted more. He wanted to be more than a captain, he wanted so much more. When father was near death, he left his fleet ‘n promoted Kamui to captain, givin’ him the pin. He sucked up to father, grantin’ his favour before he passed away, and father made him lord instead of me. He stole me rightful throne. Since then, he’s been tryin’ to rule the Pirate Empire from his underwater palace, placin’ fear on other fleets through the Leviathans.”

“Are the Leviathans his personal army then? I mean, he still is part of the Leviathans technically.”

“If ye’re talkin’ about an army for this war, no. When Tyrannust became corrupted, Helterium was the first to bend to the high lord’s power. He wanted more. After he was infused with the dark arts, he found a way of bringin’ the statues to life. It’ll all make sense when ye go underwater to meet him.”

“We’re going underwater? Hold on a second...”

“No other way of gettin’ to him. Were ye thinkin’ of waitin’ fer him to come out?”

I glanced at Fulcan. He showed no reply.

“If he comes out of the water with his army, all hope will fer sure be gone. Best stop him while he’s still makin’ his army. There’ll be a way of gittin’ all of ye down there.”

“Quick question, what if you can’t swim?” Pyrrhon asked nervously.

“Best learn now. Ye a fire type o’ guy?”

“How’d you know?”

“Yer clothing. Ye’re part of that...order, right? The famed fire order.”

“Ignis Ordo. You’ve heard of it?”

“When Helterium became overlord, one of me crew members told me about it and how Helterium and his fleet was similar to the fire overlord and his order.”

“Now that you say it, I guess.”

“Well, story time’s over. I’d advise yer men to git some rest while ye can, cuz we’ll be meetin’ the sirens pretty soon.”

“Sirens?” Tarsus asked, a bit shocked.

“How else do ye think we’re gonna breathe underwater?”

XXV

 

The vessel swayed back and forth as the wind began to pick up. Gray clouds clothed the blue sky, threatening the island with rain and thunder. The waves grew violent, beating against the side of the ship mercilessly and drenching the polished wooden deck.

“How far are we?” Fulcan bellowed, his voice hopelessly lost in the howling winds.

“Sirens tend to be hard to find. Bear with me!”

The captain navigated meticulously through the raging waves, struggling to keep the vessel upright from the tumbling wind and waters. Her nine boats followed closely, cutting through the harsh weather.

“Just hope we make it before the storm sets in. Storms on this island tend to be ugly. No fleets sail when the sky ‘n sea are one.”

A bolt of lightning cracked the sky far away, followed by a deafening roar of thunder. The heavy downpour drained out any sound, and the only way one could be heard was if they shouted. All around us were rocking waves, and no land could be seen for hundreds of miles. The vessel swayed upwards and down, the sudden rising and dropping making me want to lurch.

“Storm’s settin’. Vindors! Follow my lead and trace the shore! Just don’t go too close!”

Famming steered her ship again, driving the port away from the thunder and lightning.

“So just where do you tend to find the sirens?”

“They’ll be anywhere, but when the storm comes, they settle in the deepest trench of the island. Luckily for us, the storm’s far away from there, and if we sail fast enough, we’ll make it.”

“Always bothered me to ask, but how are sirens going to help us go underwater?” Tarsus questioned.

“The Legends of the Seas. Slay the sirens, gain a request, fall for them, nuthin’ but death.”

“So we kill a siren and we’re allowed to make one request? Sounds simple,” Calliphar spoke.

“Simple? Hah! Have ye even met a siren before?”

“Can’t be any harder than those Exterminators, right Tarsus?”

He glanced at Tarsus, but the Night Guild leader was off in his thoughts with a nervous face.

“No one can see your siren except you, right?” Tarsus suddenly asked.

“Yep. Why? Ye nervous of who’s gonna pop up?”

Tarsus regained his normal stare upon hearing Famming’s reply, shaking his head. A wave of relief washed over his face.

I would have begun to tease him if it weren’t for the unceasing rocky waves. Although the waters had settled a bit as we drifted away from the storm, I still stood by the rail and placed my hood up so no one could see me. My guts danced within me, and I had already emptied my stomach into the sea twice. I just don’t know how Famming lived her life on the seas.

Fulcan stood near the tip of the ship with a couple of his generals. He spoke to them inaudibly through the crashing waves, and his face was veiled with a serious and austere expression.

“What are these sirens anyways?” Calliphar asked instantly.

“Do ye love anybody?”

“No,” he quickly denied, raising an eyebrow.

“Well they lure ye to sea by enterin’ yer thoughts and mimickin’ those ye love. If ye git too close, they’ll snap yer head off clean. So best kill ‘em ‘fore they git ye first. And since we got so many on board, there’ll be loads of ‘em too. One for every one of us. How nice.”

“How many sirens are there even? How can there be the same amount as an army?”

“Well, legends say the sirens were fallen wives and widows reincarnated in a beast form. They sought revenge on their disloyal husbands. The first act of infidelity occurred right when Zxyx went berserk. Ever since Zxyx’s fall, many husbands became disloyal to their wives, and o’er the years, the ocean was filled with their bodies, all turned into sirens.”

“That’s pretty dark,” Calliphar spoke.

“That’s reality. Zxyx’s fall brought eternal darkness across the land, no matter how much ye thought ye could purge it. There would always be a portion of the nation that could never be brought back to the light.”

“Zxyx’s fall led to chaos on all the islands,” Fulcan spoke, overhearing the captain’s exchange with Calliphar. “As we’ve already seen, the tribal wars were an effect of his war. Pirates too, no offense, Famming.”

“None taken. Pirates raiding passin’ ships were a criminal offense, but the Vindors were formed to only take out other pirate fleets. So we technically pirated pirates. We turned an act of darkness into a twisted act of light.”

“But your father never knew that?”

“My father was stubborn. He would never listen to me. And let me tell ye sumthin’. The island was never like this before. Everythin’ was on land, except for the royal structures. It was strategically built like that so if one nation declared war on the water domain, the underwater palace would still be safe if all residential structures were demolished. Only those with a special ring could breathe underwater. The rest of the citizens lived on land; the rings weren’t easy to make.”

“What happened?”

“Well Tyrannust came along, gave me brother some otherworldly powers, and sank the island. Ironic. He drowned nearly everyone but those that owned ships and those that possessed the rings.”

The entire crew aboard fell silent, some recalling the incident, others paying respect to the fallen.

“Oh, I can assure ye me crew will take a toll from these sirens. Most of me crew are married men and women who had wives and husbands on shore before Tyrannust came. They’ll fall to the siren’s trap.”

“What about you?”

“I fancy somebody and I think he likes me too, but he’s far off from here. He’s from another domain. A cute fella, and he’s adopted. I think I’m strong enough for these sirens, though. Nasty things, they’ll become an image of a male to lure women to their deaths. They don’t just eat men. Look o’er there,” Famming pointed. “Ye sea those peaks? Those were once mountains. That’s how high the flood went. And those peaks are where the sirens’ll be. It’s the deepest part if the island.”

“You’re saying the army was standing on...mountains when we came?”

“Ye could say that. Before the entire land went underwater, the perimeter of the island were covered with mountains. If ye moved past the mountains and into the island, ye would be faced with a very wide and torrent river. Beyond that would be the capital city, Awk Roluun. In the center of Awk Roluun was a large, large pool, where the underwater royal structures were. That’s the water domain fer ya.”

“Then couldn’t we have just walked to those peaks?” Calliphar asked.

“One, ye were gittin’ attacked. Two, ye didn’t know where the sirens were before I even told ye. Three, it’s shorter sailin’, and four, ye’d lose around half yer men on yer brilliant journey, some from exhaustion, but most from other pirate fleets. It ain’t safe wandering about on this island. But like I said, I can lead ye to the overlord directly.”

“Thank you for your assistance,” the king quickly commented, glaring at the Night Guild’s first mate.

“Just worried about one thing. To git to Helterium, we’d have to make it to the center of the island. But would ye look at that.”

There was a thick gray swirl of clouds that rose above the center of the island. Lightning bolts flashed haphazardly across the dark sky, and the lofty waves crashed wildly around the enormous hurricane.

“Like I said, no fleets sail when the sky is one with the sea. It’s always this ugly. But we’ll worry about that when we git there. We’re almost at the siren’s trap, so brace yerselves. Gunners! Anchor the ships!”

The fleet approached the mossy gray peaks and the gunners climbed up a net to the crow's nest, revealing a large harpoon.

“An anchor's line ain't deep enough for regions like this. Gotta anchor me ship the new-fashioned way.”

I was more than grateful the ship was approaching a stop. I had been bent over the smooth wooden railing for the last half hour. Thankfully, no one noticed, or I would've been a laughingstock. If we were anywhere closer to the storm, I would've jumped overboard instead of continuing the journey.

The other nine Vindor vessels had gunners on their crow's nests as well, aiming their sharp harpoons at the clump of rocks.

“Fire!”

All ten vessels lurched to a sudden stop as the thick harpoons pierced into the rocks. At the sudden surprising halt, I hurled over the rails one last time.

“Land ho!”

 

We followed Famming's lead as she brought us onto the rocks.

“One ship at a time!” She commanded. “We don't wanna overwhelm ‘em; if there's too many men, they won't show up. I'll lead first! Vindors, stay on guard until we come back!”

We climbed over a gray peak and descended down a grimy, steep slope. The peaks were covered with a thick fog as we neared the heart of the rocks.

“Fog is good. Means they're near,” Famming informed us.

There were strange whispers that suddenly surrounded us. Voices filled my head, incomprehensible phrases, but a hypnotic sound.

“Ye’re on your own now!” Famming's distant voice seemed to say. The whispers grew louder and louder as I was encased by the dense vapour. “No matter what, keep yer weapon up and stay two...meters...away...” Famming's voiced trailed off into the distance. There was a beautiful voice that sung a melody behind the fog, a very familiar voice that rose above the whispers.

“Ulterium...over here!”

The voice teased me lustfully, and I dragged my feet closer and closer.

I reached through the fog with my blades still in my grasp. My mind was clouding, bewildered from the hypnotic voice. Why was I holding my knives?

“Ulterium!”

I stumbled across a rock and fell down.

As I looked up, there was a woman a couple of meters in front of me. Her pale, soft back was illuminating in the fog.

“Roslyn? Is that...it's...it’s really you!”

“Come closer, Ulterium!”

I sheathed both of my blades and stood up.

Roslyn was beautiful. She sat on the gray rock, her bare back turned towards me, draped by a thin mist.

“Ulterium, I...love you!”

A thick cloud passed between her and me as I drew closer to her.

She turned around teasingly and faced me, the silhouette of her curved body outlined by the fog. As the fog passed, she spun around again, revealing no more but her back again. Her head was turned towards me, her beautiful countenance shimmering through the dark sky.

“You know I want you, Ulterium.”

Her voice was soothing, and I drew nearer to her as she blew me a kiss.

“You know you want me, too.”

I stopped in my tracks. Something wasn’t right.

But if I kept going, I could be with the girl I loved.

Loved? Why would I think that? I still love Roslyn.

I slowly stumbled towards her again. Dragging my feet forward one by one, Roslyn was soon to be in my arms.

Something wasn’t right, Ulterium. Don't go.

I couldn’t stop.

I couldn't say no to her.

I couldn’t. Not this time. Not ever again.

Roslyn stood up and turned around completely, revealing her entire slim body bare before my eyes. She was stunning. Beautiful.

A goddess.

I reached out to her. She was who I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

Wanted?

Something wasn’t right.

A gunshot sounded in the distance.

No.

Everything's all right.

Roslyn.

I want you.

I love you.

I need you.

She reached out towards me and I spread my arms open.

I imagined her smooth, bare body brushed against mine as I gently caressed her between my arms and legs...her arms tightly wrapped around my bare chest...her lips tightly pressed against my bare lips.

I would never let her go.

I would've never let her go.

Suddenly, a hideous face emerged from Roslyn's countenance and the beast lunged towards me. The naked body transformed into a disgusting, scaled, fishlike body with many bones and fins that protruded outwards.

The siren ripped the flesh off my arm as many more sirens joined to feast on me. I was pinned to the ground, about to be eaten alive by the demonic beasts.

Another gunshot rang, and the siren on top of me howled in pain, retreating from my body. The rest of the sirens quickly slipped back into the sea.

“Ulterium! Kill it before it goes! Ye won't git another chance!”

I quickly pulled out my blades and lunged towards the injured siren without thinking. Sinking my blades into the siren's head, I was filled with anger, confusion, and grief.

The siren was lifeless on the rocky shore. Suddenly, it disappeared into the air, releasing an olive-green smoke and a putrid smell.

“What...isss...your...requessst?”

“I want Roslyn back!” I demanded, tears flooding my eyes.

“Foolisssh human...you cannot asssk for the impossssssible...I will let you pick again...one lassst time...”

“The ring of Aquilla!” Famming seemed to shout behind me.

I fell to the ground. I didn't want to do this anymore. Why was I doing this? Who was I doing this for?

“What ssshall I grant thee?”

I took a deep breath. There was a part of me that could never return ever since the death of Roslyn. I knew how to answer the siren's spirit, but the words just couldn't come out. I wanted the woman I loved back. That was the only thing I wanted.

Roslyn.

“The...”

Tears flooded my face. I choked on my words.

“The...ring.”

“Many ringsss I can grant. Cielossss, Aquilla, Tarantulusss. Ssspecify...”

“Cielos...” I spoke blankly. Cielos? That name sounded nice; it rolled smoothly off my tongue. And I had heard it somewhere befor-

“Aquilla!” The captain shouted frantically behind me.

“Aquilla!” I quickly corrected, “I meant Aquilla! Ring of...Aquilla!”

“An indecisssive one. That will be your downfall.”

A bright light flashed, and the green smoke suddenly disappeared. A strange ring dropped in front of me, half of it a pure glistening gold and the other half an emerald-violet. Why did it look different than everyone else’s solid gold ring?

I collapsed. I didn't want to do this anymore.

“Git up, landlubber! We ain't done yet!”

Raising my head to look around, the entire crew surrounded me. Tarsus was on my right. Fulcan stood on my left. My whole guild stood behind Famming in front of me.

These were who I was doing it for.

For Grozorg. For the nation. For my people.

For Roslyn.

I grabbed the ring and clutched it in my fist, regaining my strength and standing up. Glo quickly tended my flesh wound, and I held back my tears, slipping the gold-green-purple ring onto my right index finger like the rest of the crew.

I will make you proud, Roslyn. I will end this war.

I will end Tyrannust.

 

XXVI

 

The other nine Vindor vessels went ashore to endure the sirens and retrieve their rings. Ship by ship, the crew members were assisted by Famming onto the rocky shore. Though the captain did her best to save as many crew members as she could, some did not return from the snares of the hideous beasts.

At last, the final crew returned aboard with the last of King Fulcan’s army as well. There were over a hundred thousand rings created by the sirens, meaning over a hundred thousand sirens slain, and as the last group boarded the ship, Famming immediately cut the harpoon line and set sail to Helterium’s palace. I just wanted to get off this dreaded island. There was nothing about it I would appreciate - if there was one domain I absolutely hated, it would most definitely be Helterium’s island. This island was far from beautiful, if that was the last word to describe it.

I leaned against the rail of the rocking boat in silence, staring out into the distance. The storm was still raging on, but it seemed so far away now. My head was still filled with memories of Roslyn. Our short time together would never leave my mind. Why hadn’t I met her earlier? Why couldn’t I save her? I wanted so much more with her.

I should’ve been the one to pull the lever in the cenote.

A hand patted me on the back. I glanced beside me, and Tarsus stood there, staring out beyond the horizon.

“Sorry for...her,” he simply said.

“Never thought you were the sentimental type.”

“Can’t just leave someone in a state like that after they’ve saved your life.”

We stood at the edge of the ship in silence, leaning on the polished rail.

“Who was your siren?” I asked suddenly.

Tarsus pulled his hand back and bit his lip.

“I...unimportant.”

“Did you kill it?”

The Night Guild leader stood in silence and gave out a deep sigh.

“You were right. There’s a part of me that’s heartless. Yes, I killed her.”

“At least you pulled it off.”

“What will she think if she found out I did it? Do you think she killed me?”

“Glo?”

“Yeah, what would - no-uh, n-not Glo!”

To his embarrassment, both guilds had turned to face him. I turned around to see Konkura staring at her leader, a blank expression masking defeat. On the other side stood Glo, shocked. The guild members turned towards her as she scurried into the lower quarters of the ship bashfully.

“Glo!” Tarsus called, running after her. The two guilds laughed as Tarsus turned beet red, bashfully running down into the lower quarters after her. In all my years of knowing Tarsus, I had never seen him act this way once.

The guilds instinctively grouped together and spied on the two lovers in the lower quarters, trying to glance at the couple.

“Let them be,” I quickly instructed. The smiles were wiped off their faces as they retreated and continued to aid the Vindor crew in working the ship.

I walked over with a wooden plank to cover the hatch that led to the lower quarters to give Tarsus and Glo some privacy. Their interruption had taken my thoughts off Roslyn, but as I overheard their flirtatious exchanges, I was filled with more sorrow, recalling my brief time with her.

As I felt another upheaval within me, I ran back to the railing and emptied my stomach. How was it even possible to have so much within me?

Famming approached me and handed me a strange brown pill.

“First time sailin’?”

“Can’t recall.”

“Well, this sedative will help ye sleep. Ye should git sum rest, ‘specially after that encounter with the siren. I’m sorry fer yer loss.”

“Thanks. Oh, the lower quarters are currently occupied.”

“Go to me room. You’ll have to sneak past those two down there but me room will be on the right. Yer a great fighter, or so they say in tales. Don’t give up on us now because of a loss.”

Famming smiled at me and escorted me to her personal chamber. I nodded my gratitude to the captain, walked in on a surprised Tarsus and Glo, and entered the captain’s quarters. Swallowing the pill dry, I closed my eyes and fell into a deep, peaceful slumber.

 

I groggily woke up, blinking. A piece of timber lay across my body, pinning me to a sandy floor. My eyes were flooded with water, and I blinked many times to clear my vision, but it just wouldn’t clear. Instead, my eyes strangely stung every time I reopened them. As it became a bit clearer around me, I looked around and, to my dismay, was completely submerged in water.

I panicked, flailing my arms underwater, trying to recall what had happened. The timber slid off me, and I helplessly floated about in the suffocating liquid.

Roslyn...Tarsus...Glo...Pill...Sleep...

I couldn’t link the pieces together. I remembered receiving a pill from a captain, Famming, but that was the only thing I could recall.

Slowly moving through the water, something on my finger glowed a bright yellow. I raised my hand to my face, and a strange ring around my right index finger illuminated brightly in the deep, dark waters.

Then it came back to me. The ring helped me breathe underwater. But why was I underwater? And how did I even get this ring?

In the distance, the shape of half a ship was sunken on the ocean floor. I moved closer to it, and suddenly realized I couldn’t swim. I had never touched water when I was younger. I had never visited the water domain before. It was horrifyingly dark underwater, and I couldn’t see around me.

Keep calm, Ulterium. You can breathe underwater. Just stay calm.

Something in me wanted to get out of the water as quick as possible. There was something that was just bone-chilling about the dark, mysterious, ocean. But I remained calm. Moving in an awkward position, I kept myself close to the ocean floor and finally drifted towards the ship. The water was surprisingly hard to move through. It slowed my movement down, and I expended more energy only to travel a shorter distance than I would have on land. I really don’t know why anyone in the right mind would want to be a swimmer.

Approaching the broken mast of the ship, I unfolded the jack with both hands, the outspread flag almost the size of my entire body. Waving my glowing ring above the jack to make out the insignia, I determined a skull on it. There was another faint design painted behind the skull, but the saltwater stung my eyes, forcing me to shut them.

It was a weird feeling, breathing underwater. At first it was uncomfortable, then it became unusual. But it was instinctive, and it was the only way I was staying alive underwater. The water filled my lungs upon inhalation, and gaseous bubbles were expelled from my nostrils and mouth upon exhalation. It was suffocating, but somehow it worked.

Forcing my eyes open again, I looked at the flag. My mind was clearing from the strong effects of the sedative, and memories started filling my head again. There was a “V" behind the skull, and it had to mean something. In the back of my mind, something clicked, but I couldn’t tell what.

Looking around for more clues, I discovered the sandy floor littered with more ships that had the same-patterned flag attached. There was also a lustrous object on the sandy floor that glimmered in the corner of my eye. Turning my body to face down, I kicked my legs forcefully and began to move deeper into the ocean towards the shipwreck. My ears suddenly popped and my head was filled with pain. I turned around and waddled up helplessly, relieving the sudden pressure change. As my ears readjusted to the waters, I faced downwards one more time, grabbing onto parts of the sunken ship to assist my slow descent down. Reaching the small object, I picked it up and placed it close to my eyes. It was a small pin forged in the shape of a golden skull and two diamond swords. It rang a bell, but I couldn’t remember what it was. This pin had to be worth a lot. Securing the valuable metal onto my heavy water-drenched cloak, I ventured deeper into the ocean.

Short fragments of memories rushed into my head, in a random order. The pill’s effects were still strong. A region of my head also throbbed in pain, and I figured I had injured it prior to waking up underwater.

Vindors...Helterium...Leviathans...Roslyn...

Vindors? Is that what the flag was about? There was a “V" on it, so it was probable. The captain, Famming, was she the captain of the Vindors? What were Leviathans?

Famming...Hestia Famming...Roslyn...Kamui...Achoro Kamui...

There was a duel. A duel between Kamui and Famming. Gunshots. Who got shot?

The sunken ship was made of wood, but metal scraps fortified parts of the broken vessel.

Kamui got shot. But why? What did he do wrong?

Sirens...Roslyn...Fog...Roslyn...

Why did Roslyn keep filling my memories?

As I drifted near the ocean floor and circled the sunken pirate ships, I was suddenly confronted with a dead body. He wore a royal chainmail; he was part of King Fulcan’s army. He was lodged between two wooden planks, and beside him was a pure golden ring similar to mine that had slipped off his hand and onto the sandy seafloor. I picked up the ring and slid it onto my left index finger; it could probably sell for a lot as well. I opened his visor and gasped, taking in a mouthful of water.

The distorted face was bloated, swollen, but still recognizable.

Sir Ehud.

All of a sudden, my entire head cleared and I recalled every single detail. From Sir Ehud’s squadron on Geonyte’s island to the sedative given to me by Captain Famming, it all became clear to me.

But...why was I underwater?

It all made sense. The ship sunken was a Vindor ship...no, it was Hestia’s ship!

And the other Vindor ships...what happened?

I frantically flailed about, trying to search for survivors from the shipwreck. We were headed to Helterium’s palace, and a storm had guarded the entry way. Famming gave me a pill to sleep, to calm my sickness and my grief from the sirens. It was likely that we had been caught in the storm, which destroyed the fleet, sinking the ships. But where was everybody?

Rays of light were visible high above me. I figured I was pretty far down. Should I launch myself upwards, or continue moving along the ocean floor, hoping to somehow blindly make it to Helterium’s palace with no directions whatsoever?

I decided to drift up. All of a sudden, a black shadow passed above me. Realizing I was not alone, I quickly swam back to the sunken ship in panic, taking refuge in a makeshift cave formed from the broken planks of the vessel. I had completely forgotten monsters dwelled in the deep blue, and my heartbeat suddenly raced. I was frightened, lost, and I didn’t know what to do. The quick shadow revived every horrifying feeling I had about the deep waters.

In every other domain, I would never flee from a beast, but on this island, that was a whole new story. In other domains, I would have had every advantage over any creature; if I couldn’t outrun them, I could at least fend myself from beasts with my blades. But the water inhibited my movement, drastically slowing me down, and there was nothing to conceal me if I decided to swim out in the open. No trees, no rocks, no bushes, but a vast amount of water. I would be dead before I reached the ocean surface.

A school of fish fluttered past me, and a larger fish followed. I remained motionless in the underwater cave, holding onto the planks beside me to keep me from floating up.

Then, it awoke. Bright yellow and right behind me, a pair of eyes suddenly opened, staring straight at me. Each eye was the size of my body, the dilated pupils alert at the presence of a stranger.

There wasn’t any more thought given before I took immediate action. I let out a muffled cry and darted out of the cave. The behemoth rose from the sand and broke through the Vindor vessel easily, pursuing its small target.

Flailing my arms and kicking my legs as fast as I could, I launched myself upwards and gained as much velocity as I darted towards the ocean surface. The beast was right at my feet, but my panicked mind only focused on going up.

The rays of light appeared closer and closer, but so did the beast.

I felt it. The hideous fangs of the leviathan right at my feet, about to overcome me as the vast body of water began to slow down my ascent.

My head finally burst out of the water, gasping for air. It was much easier breathing out of the water, and I tried to keep myself afloat, kicking my legs and flapping my arms crazily. The beast had retreated, to my relief, upon nearing the surface. I wouldn’t know what to do if it kept coming.

The storm was still raging, and the dark clouds pelted me with a never-ending barrage of raindrops. The sky thundered with flashes of lightning and an unceasing howling gale. The waves carried me high above the ocean and then it tossed me underwater rapidly. Gasping for air at the unpredictable intervals of the violent, rocking waves, I decided it would be less exhausting completely staying underwater than trying to stay afloat.

As I swam a beneath the surface, I slowly began to lose feeling in my lower body. My legs were paralyzed and I flailed my arms in panic, trying to make sense of what was happening. I began to feel lightheaded and nauseous. The world around me began to fade. And there was nothing I could do. My legs were frozen. My arms began to petrify. I slowly sank in the water, helpless, losing consciousness. My thoughts were clouded and my vision began to black out.

Everything grew darker and darker. The water was a blur.

A shadow passed by.

What was this light on my finger?

Where was I?

Everything grew darker. The water was black.

I slid the light off my finger and placed it in my pocket.

Something fast was approaching me.

There was pain.

The air felt thin.

The world faded.

 

XXVII

 

These wars were slowly killing me. I couldn’t do this anymore. Sorry, Fulcan. Sorry, Roslyn.

Where...where was I?

Some sort of a metal chamber encased me. I don’t remember anything.

I was wearing a simple blue paper shirt and thin blue pants. I couldn’t move. I was dizzy, and in a lot of pain.

Wars? Who was Fulcan?

Who am I?

There was a voice outside the chamber. Faint, but audible.

“He’ll recover. It may take a while but he’ll recover.”

“How long will it take?”

“We can’t be sure. He’s been through a lot. There’s a minor fracture to his right skull, he’s still suffering from the bends, and he’s shown evidence of nitrogen narcosis. It’s a miracle he’s alive.”

“Can we see him?”

“Not until the pressurizing is complete. It’ll be soon.”

“I’m a healer.”

“Sorry, hospital protocols. We can’t let anyone see him, especially in his serious condition. We hope to get back to you as soon as possible.”

“Thank ye, doctor.”

“No worries, captain. Still remember those days when you gave me a chance to be a Vindor surgeon.”

“You’re always welcomed back to the fleet!”

The voices faded away as gas hissed into my chamber periodically. It made me want to fall asleep. Sleep. That sounded good. I liked sleep.

 

I woke up. I opened the door. I stepped out. Where was I?

I remembered. Father said, “Buy wood.” So he could build me a house.

I felt sleepy. Maybe I should sleep. That sounded good. I liked sleep.

 

I woke up. Why was I lying on the floor? Where was I?

There were people approaching me. They were running towards me. Help!

I crawled away. They all had a pattern on their clothes. A drop of blood with two swords sheathed behind. Were they a gang?

I kept crawling. They were calling a name repeatedly. Prokun...Ulterium. Was that me?

Who were they?

Someone caught me by surprise. He landed in front of me. He knocked me over. I started to shake. There was nothing to do now. I got caught.

He was wearing a purple cloak. And a purple hat. Why was he shouting that name?

I was surrounded. There was no escape. Surrounded by nine, ten, eleven people. Some had another gang symbol on their clothes. A knight piece from chess. I remembered chess. Why were they all around me?

I was getting dizzy again. I remembered this feeling. Maybe I should sleep. Yes, that sounded good. I liked sleep.

 

Where was I? There was a hospital bed, and I’m strapped to it. Eleven figures surrounded me, and they were all crying. Well, most of them. There was one man plated in gold with two curved swords who wasn’t crying. His arm was around a female’s waist, and she was sobbing like crazy. Why were they crying?

They were trying to talk to me, but I couldn’t take it in all at once. I pulled the covers over my head to block out the noise. Their cries grew louder and louder. I yelled for help.

Screaming was very tiring. The screaming was also hurting my head and throat. Maybe I should sleep, yes that sounded like a good idea. Sleep was always the answer, and I liked sleep.

 

It was black outside when I woke up and no one was here. I was in a dim room on a hospital bed. How long was I out for?

There was a war on Helterium’s island, but I don’t remember anything that had happened. Was the war over?

Still lying in the bed, I tried to recall everything. My arms and legs had regained feeling, but they still felt very weak. Where was my cloak? Where were my blades? Where was my guild?

I wondered if my guild had visited me. I wondered if Tarsus and his guild had visited me. I had so many questions, but I still felt very tired. I slightly remembered how I was hospitalized, but I couldn’t remember anything about my stay here.

The ocean was a scary place.

I sat up and forced myself awake so I could wait for the doctor to ask him some questions. Many questions. I kept waiting and waiting, but nobody came in.

It was probably the middle of the night I figured, and I’ve heard countless times that rest was a natural remedy for your body. Rest was good, and I could never say no to a good rest anyways, especially in a time like this. There was no one around, so I slumped back into my bed and drifted off.

 

The doctor was right above me when I woke up. She was a pretty girl, maybe a year or two younger than me. She reminded me of Roslyn. I sat up and grabbed her thin arms, trying to blurt out all my questions at once, but she managed to pull away from my weak grip and called for help. Two large men rushed in, pinning me down into the bed.

“I...I’m f-f-fine!”

My jaw felt strange. I hadn’t talked for so long the words came out of my stuttering mouth accented.

“Let him go,” the doctor commanded hesitantly. Instantly, the two men retreated and stepped outside the room.

“Prokun Ulterium, how are you feeling today?”

“H-h-how di-did t-t-the war g-go?”

“You need to exercise your jaw again. You haven’t spoken in...let’s see here...eighteen days.”

“Ei-Eight-Eight...teen d-d-days?!” I exclaimed, propping myself up.

“It’s a miracle you’re alive. Do you know where you are?”

“N-n-not under...water,” I responded.

The doctor giggled. She had a nice smile.

“Actually, you are.”

I didn’t respond. My head filled with memories of the recent adventure in the deep blue, and I simply sat on my bed with a horrified look.

“No worries, you’re safe here. It’s amazing to see you recover in such a short time.”

“A sh-sh-short t-time? Eighteen d-d-days is not sh-short!”

“Look at that, you’re already regaining your speech! You’re a strong fighter, Ulterium.”

“Where a-am I?”

“You’re in the Awk Roluun National Hospital. Do you remember Awk Roluun?”

“Un-unf-fortunately.”

The doctor giggled again.

“Well, the war hasn’t ended yet. The king and the captain that brought you in hopes you can join them very soon, but I told them you would need a lot of time to recover.”

“I can j-j-join them, I’m p-perfectly f-f-fine!”

“Soon, but not yet.”

“C-c-captain Famming brought m-me here?”

“I’ll let them tell you. They should be outside the hospital. They’re all on their toes waiting for your recovery; they’ll be overwhelmed when they hear you’re back. I’ll let them know about your temporary speech impediment so they won’t be too surprised.”

The doctor walked out of the room, gently closing the door behind her. I twisted my legs around and stood up, immediately tumbling down. My legs shook uncontrollably, and I crawled to the nearest wall to heave myself up.

There was a window on the wall blocked by a curtain. Curious, I whipped the curtain open to peer outside, only to stumble backwards and fall over again at the sight.

I was still underwater. There was an entire city outside, every building submerged in the deep blue. It was dark around the capital city, but large lanterns were anchored all around Awk Roluun to produce light to the entire city. Occasionally, a school of fish flashed across the window, their sudden appearance frightening me. Some would have called the city beautiful, but after everything I had been through, I slammed the curtains closed and crawled back to my bed. I didn’t want to be a part of any of it.

With what was left of my limited strength, I pulled myself up and rolled onto my back on the thin hospital bed. Thankfully, it was air all around me instead of water in the hospital. I looked around the room and noticed a small closet to my left. The hospital bed was placed in the middle of the rectangular room attached to a wall, and the closet was just an arm’s reach away to my left.

Trying my best, I rolled over and extended my left arm as far as I could, reaching for the closet door. I was certain all my belongings were in there, and seeing my cloak and blades would bring me comfort.

Strangely, I noticed the pure-golden ring on my left index finger. I thought I had always worn it on my right index.

The doors flung open as the eleven guild members rushed in. At first I didn’t remember why two were missing, but as I counted the faces, I recalled Kadava and Arcanor’s sudden return to Sanoctuis.

“Ulterium! You’re alive!”

“No k-kidding.”

Voices filled the room as delighted conversations and laughter ensued. I was embraced more than enough by the many guild members, and they all clamoured around my bed, voices overlapping voices.

As the group died down, I asked how I got here. The last thing I remembered before waking up in this bed was Sir Ehud’s distorted, bloated face. It was a terrifying image, but it was a starting point.

“Do you remember falling asleep aboard Famming’s ship?” Foku began.

“Yes. She g-gave me a p-pill.”

“Yeah, she told us that,” Foku continued. “Well shortly after you slept, the boat arrived at the center of the island. We were skimming the outskirts of the storm, and Famming had carefully navigated through the wind and waves, weaving closer and closer towards the eye of the storm. We would’ve made it, until we all got caught in a whirlpool. It was a sudden formation, but the waters violently stirred, dragging us all down. The last thing Famming told the crew before we went down was to put their rings on.”

He raised his right hand, showing the same ring as mine on his index finger.

“When we got sucked into the whirlpool, the lot of us were separated, especially when the ships broke apart. We were all scattered, but upon realizing how to breathe underwater, we were able to quickly reconvene with each other. When everyone but you was found, Famming sent a search party of twenty to go look for you while the rest of us headed towards Helterium’s lair. The only problem was that none of the search party dared to near the sunken ship, because they feared these superstitious monsters that dwelt in the deep.”

I swallowed dryly, recalling the bright, gruelling neon eyes.

“When they cowardly returned to Famming, she placed her Quartermaster in charge with Fulcan and personally went to find you. Apparently, she saw you darting upwards from a large nautical monster, and she told us how she baited the beast away before she swam up to save you. She also said something about swimming up slowly to avoid getting the bends.”

“The bends?”

“I didn’t know it either, but apparently it’s this build-up of nitrogen in your body that has to diffuse out before you ascend. If it’s stuck in your body when you ascend too quickly, you’ll face horrible consequences. And apparently, you got it. Anyways, by the time she reached you, you were already blacked out. She retrieved you and dove to Awk Roluun to place you in some pressurizing chamber at this hospital. It was the fastest way of getting rid of the bends, apparently.”

“Where is F-Famming now?”

“Out on the frontlines. The war’s not over yet, Ulterium. You woke up right in the heat of the war.”

Glo grabbed my hands. She breathed in deeply and slowly exhaled. Her eyes radiated an angelic white as she fully concentrated. There was something in me that felt renewed, something that felt refreshed. I shook her hands off and leapt onto the hospital floor, standing up confidently.

“I owe you a l-lot,” I smiled. My strength had recovered, and both my agility and endurance came back to me. “We’re g-gonna find Famming and end this w-war.”

Running to the closet, the two guilds patted me on the back and rushed out of my hospital room. My clothes and cloak were neatly folded on a rack, as predicted, with my belt and two refined krises sheathed on top. Taking the ring off my left hand and placing it on my right index finger, I threw on my clothes, tightened my belt, grabbed my blades, and casted on my thick cloak.

Helterium, here I came.

 

XXVIII

 

It was inevitable, but I followed the guilds out of the hospital and into the soaking, cold water. Recalling the same suffocating feeling of breathing underwater, I endured through the journey and ventured towards a large, underwater structure. Upon entering an airtight environment, I was greeted by an enthusiastic King Fulcan that firmly shook my hand and patted me on the back. Famming stood near the back and came to greet me as well.

“Good to have ye back, pirate.”

“Thanks for s-saving my life. I owe y-you one.”

“Call it even. Ye found my pin, and that’s as important as a life.”

She patted her chest, revealing the priceless gold-diamond medallion. I remembered finding the pin on the sandy floor, recalling the exact incident.

“There’s somethin’ ye don’t know about this pin. I’ve already told the king ‘n his army. This pin crafted by my father wasn’t just to boast pride to other sea dogs, no, its actual purpose was a key to activatin’ a large weapon my father had made. My brother told me in the past that the weapon was to destroy pirates, and that’s partly a reason why he gave it to me in the first place when he joined the Vindors. But when Helterium became overlord, he left the pin with Kamui because he didn’t know where this weapon actually was, so he instructed Kamui to search the sea surface while he looked underwater.”

“Do you know w-where this w-weapon is?”

“I know my father better than Helterium. Though he may have gotten father’s praise, I still had a winning edge against him. My search party’s just confirmed the location, my first guess. If we can activate this weapon, we can decimate Helterium’s army.”

“Army? What h-happened while I was out?”

“A lot has happened, pirate. We’ve been spendin’ the last week defendin’ all the residents underwater from his army. Remember when I mentioned statues a while back?”

“Vaguely.”

“Well back in the days, when a valiant fighter on this island died, he would be buried and represented by a stone statue that would be erected right outside the palace. Over the years, there have been over two thousand statues created, a stone army guarding the underwater castle. When Tyrannust came to grant powers to my brother, he gave him the ability of turning inanimate objects alive. It was a slow process of awakening the statues, but that’s how Helterium’s been creatin’ his army. Before ye and the king came here, the Vindor’s been trying to fend off the Leviathans from gittin’ back the pin. Kamui is only the captain of one Leviathan fleet. But there’s a whole lot more than those ten ships. Thankfully ye came right on time.”

“More fl-fl-fleets?” I questioned, spitting everywhere. “How many L-L-Leviathan pirates are there?”

“Five captains, which makes fifty ships. It’s odd, but it’s the Pirate Empire. I guess more ships meant more power to me brother. There’s only one fleet of Vindors, if ye were wonderin’.”

“So Helterium’s got a s-s-stone army and fifty Leviathan ships?”

“Yep. This past week, he’s been sendin’ out his statue soldiers to decimate the capital city. For the entire week, we were forced to defend the helpless and needy. And it wasn’t pretty. Blades and knives are ineffective against the stone. And our pistols just dent those rock golems. We be needin’ gunpowda. A lot of gunpowda.”

“But what will g-gunpowder do if your g-guns are ineffective?”

“The gunpowda ain’t for our guns, it’s for the weapon. Me father’s weapon is our savin’ grace, our only hope of defeatin’ me brother’s army. I’ll let the king debrief ye the rest, I gotta hurry with me crew to retrieve the weapon. Godspeed, pirate.”

The captain grabbed her famed scimitar and swiftly exited the tent. Fulcan turned towards me and slapped me on the back again.

“Thought I’d never see you again. Glad you’re back, and right on time, too.”

“Glad to b-be back.”

“What’s with the stuttering? You trying to talk like Famming?”

I chuckled, exchanging smiles with the king.

“Becoming a pirate is the l-l-last thing I’d do. I guess I’m still r-recovering.”

“Well the good news is, you didn’t miss the war yet. We didn’t want to leave you out from the most exciting part.”

“Thanks,” I replied, raising an eyebrow. The king gave a low laugh.

“You heard the captain. We were out defending Awk Roluun while you were asleep. I found my scouts, by the way. They had been adopted by some other pirates, the Taniwhas or something. When I sent more scouts to talk to them, they gave me some intel about the Leviathans. Apparently, Tyrannust was rumoured to be aboard one of the Leviathan ships at one point in time. Another account said that Kamui had been seen personally talking with the high lord. All in all, there have been many eyewitnesses confirming that the Leviathans are in league with the dark lord.”

“No s-surprise. So what is this ‘weapon’ F-Famming keeps talking about? How is it strong enough to defeat an entire army of s-stone?”

“It’s some high-tech upgrade of a normal cannon. I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, but from the search party’s report, it’s a massive, powerful, long-ranged launcher that can shoot even the heaviest payload at ease. Just think about its original purpose; to take out pirates on the sea surface from the ocean floor.”

“Well if it’s as remarkable as you s-say it is, how is the captain planning on r-retrieving it?”

“Beats me. But she does have the pin on her. Perhaps she’ll be taking out a few of the statues when she gets to the cannon on her own.”

“Your majesty King Fulcan!” A pirate proclaimed as he barged in, bearing the Vindor insignia on his chest. “Hestia wishes for you to come at once!”

As the king left the tent, something within alerted me. Something was odd about that stranger, but I couldn’t tell what. I decided to follow the king and the pirate, making sure none of the two knew I was tracking them.

It was hard to flail through the water in a concealed manner, but I managed to catch up to Fulcan. The pirate led him behind a strange outcrop on the seafloor where there was a small rusted submarine idled. I rushed around the dense underwater vegetation and passed the king and the pirate. Climbing down the hatch, I entered an airtight chamber and immediately swung to the right, ducking under a seat and enclosing myself in a tight space. In the single, swift movement, not a member aboard noticed my presence.

The heavy blades of the propeller groaned as the king entered the small submarine. Slowly, the vessel rose from the rocky outcrop and began its ascent to the surface.

 

The only thing I could see were two legs that dangled in front of me. The floor beneath me vibrated as the propellers brought the submarine upwards. There were at least two other pirates in the vessel; a total of five members aboard the small submarine including the king and me.

Fulcan sat silently beside the pirate that led him onboard, who sat on the seat I was hidden under.

“What does the captain want from me?” The king started, disrupting a long period of silence.

The pirate ignored him, sitting still in his seat.

“Do you know who I am?” Fulcan questioned, a tone of anger evident in his voice. “I demand an answer!”

The pirate remained silent, but his legs started to shake. Was he nervous? Why didn’t he answer the king?

Fulcan immediately stood up from his seat.

“Stop the vessel this instance!”

No one on board obeyed his command. Instead, the submarine sped up its ascent before abruptly stopping at the ocean surface, the sudden cease of motion sending the king tumbling down onto his seat. Peeking out the small window, the submarine was calmly docked beside a larger vessel. As the hatch of the submarine opened, a familiar voice greeted the king.

“Long time, my lord,” the voice snickered.

Achoro Kamui jumped down into the vessel and grabbed the king forcefully. Fulcan shook him off and threw a punch at the Leviathan captain, but he was immediately restrained by the three pirates in the submarine.

“Achoro Kamui, I hope you understand that you are committing a criminal offense!”

The captain laughed. There was fear, but he forced the laugh out.

“Looks like there’s no one to help you now, your highness. It seems the high lord was right in describing how helpless you were without your army.”

The enraged king burst out of the six arms holding him down and lunged towards Kamui, knocking the captain down and breaking his nose. Blood started pouring down the angered captain’s face as he stood up and regained his footing, only to be knocked down again by the powerful king, who threw a series of blows to the unprepared captain’s skull.

The three Leviathan pirates hastily leapt on top of the king, pinning the struggling king down. Fulcan managed to break free again, only to be greeted by more pirates that began to come into the submarine. The Leviathan fleet was evidently surrounding the submarine holding the king captive.

As the pirates heaped on top of the king, Kamui stood up and pulled out his pistol, the same scarred gun as the one he confronted Famming with.

“The high lord said it would be a disgrace if he killed the king personally. So I’ll complete his duty for him!”

There was no time to think. I exposed myself and pulled out my dual krises, slamming the captain down and cutting his throat in one swift blow. As the lifeless figure lay there in a spreading pool of blood, I jumped to my feet and closed the hatch, slaying the remaining pirates on board. It felt good. I felt good. Something in me was different since I woke up from that deep slumber. Killing those innocent lives in the submarine relieved a proliferated rage and frustration within me, and I...

I wanted more.

I pulled the king out of the pile of deceased sailors. He stared at me in a glad shock and shook my hand firmly, expressing his gratitude.

“When did you even get on?” He laughed, patting my back.

“I knew there was something wrong when I saw that V-Vindor badge. ‘The only pirate fleet that didn’t bear their own insignia on their clothes were the Vindors.’”

“Great catch, Ulterium. I didn’t even realize that. I owe you one, big time.”

“Call it even. You let me fight by your side during Zxyx, and th-that was enough.”

“My man,” the king chuckled, embracing me in a firm hug. “Let’s get out of here. I’m certain the fleet is just outside.”

“Yeah...about that. I don’t know how to d-drive a sub.”

“Nor do I. But we’ll pull through. Like you always say...”

“Improvise,” I smiled greatly.

The king walked into the cockpit of the vessel, confronted by a series of buttons and switches.

“Okay...maybe we might not pull through.”

“Eh, what can go wrong. To heck with it.”

I walked past the king and slammed the main array of buttons below me. A series of beeps and flashes of light ensued, followed by a sudden, violent oscillation of the entire vessel.

“I’ll...I’ll be back there. Just don’t kill me, it’s a criminal offense,” he weakly laughed, doubtful of what would happen.

There was a lever attached to a socket that could move in a circle. I figured it controlled the main movement of the vessel. Now I just had to determine how to get the propeller to start.

Banging began on the hatch as the Leviathan fleet became impatient. They had no knowledge of what had happened to their captain in the submarine, lifelessly buried in the deceased bodies of their comrades.

“Ah! Stop it! Get off me!” The king immediately shouted overdramatically. “Better hurry, Ulterium, I’m not an actor!”

The clamour outside stopped as I pushed more and more buttons randomly. A torpedo suddenly released from the bottom of the submarine and sank to the ocean floor.

“Oops,” I spoke innocently.

At last, the entire vessel rumbled a familiar rumble after a period of random button-pushing, slowly descending into the ocean.

“Hey!”

Angry voices shouted outside, banging all the more louder on the flimsy hull.

I pushed the joystick forward, speeding up the vessel’s descent. The Leviathan voices faded as we pulled away from the fleet with their dead crew members onboard.

“We need to move,” Fulcan spoke. “If Kamui knew where our main tent was located, there’s no doubt the other four Leviathan captains also know. That means they also know our every move.”

“Let’s hope Famming got to the cannon before the Leviathans.”

“It’s our only hope.”

“She’s our only hope.”

As we arrived at the underwater tent, we were ushered to get to Famming by true Vindor pirates. There was also a Vindor navigator who understood how to pilot the submarine, to my relief, bringing us quickly to the captain.

We arrived to Helterium’s palace, the first time I truly laid eyes on it. It was remarkable, the grand underwater castle built like an ancient temple. Green aquatic plants embraced the stone palace, and the entire garden in front was neatly littered by an army of tall, stone statues. The lofty palace rose high above the ocean floor, decorated with many windows that poured out a dim light, illuminating the whole royal structure. It was ancient, but it was an artwork.

The statues outside were imposing. Standing nearly seven feet tall, the soldiers wore a thick stone armour and blind visors. The design was clearly influenced from aquatic species, from decorative fins to embellished quills covering the bronze armour. Each statue held a bronze trident in their upraised right gauntlet and a large, bronze shield in their lowered left hand. Everything on the statues was enlarged, from breastplate to sandals. It would be ineffective for a normal warrior to wear, but proved to be deadly for these stone statues.

The Vindor navigator led us through the unmoving army of stone, weaving through the organized upright statues until we arrived outside the west wing of the underwater palace. There was a hidden door that slightly extended out of the wall, tilted sixty degrees from the seafloor. The Vindor pirate opened the hatch and led us down a staircase into a dark unknown.

After silently stepping down the blind tunnel, we approached the growing light at the end and reached some sort of balcony. Famming stood on the edge, crouched behind a short wall.

“If ye peer down, ye’ll know what I mean when I said army.”

Fulcan and I crouched down beside her and slowly lifted our head to look over the balcony wall that concealed us.

Below us was a grand auditorium filled with the same statues as the ones outside. They were also in an arranged in an organized fashioned, but this time, the statues moved. The smooth actions from the rigid rock warriors terrified me; each statue moved in unison with each other. In front of the entire army stood a man with a cloaked figure beside him; the corrupted Overlord Helterium in his blue and black flowing robe and a tainted crown with his Hydromancer. I recalled my confrontation with it back in the Chamber of Mancers, and shook off the thought of Kadava drowning.

The army of stone moved whenever Helterium gave a gesture. His hands were glowing black, evidently the power granted to him by the high lord. A plan started forming in my head, taking account of all of Helterium's troops and everyone on our side.

“Do you know what he’s planning to do once he awakens all the statues?”

“March to the main island to take out Tenebris. When yer capital falls, all hope is lost. Apparently all these elemental wars are helpin’ the high lord buy time to prepare his own legion. But if me brother takes ye out before that, the high lord automatically wins.”

“So our only option is to take him out before he turns the tables on us.”

“Yep.”

“I’ve always wondered what Tyrannust was planning to do with his own legion.”

“Not the right time to ask. We gotta go now. Look down.”

The army of stone began to exit the auditorium in a single file, marching in complete unison. As the last statue left, the first statue returned, carrying a petrified statue from the garden outside. One by one, the auditorium was replaced with non-moving warriors that were slowly given life by Helterium.

“Me brother is nearly finished. I hope me scout brought ye to the garden before comin’ here, because the ones in the gardens are the last to be awakened. After that, their conquest begins.”

“Let’s go back and talk. I got a plan.”

We returned to the large tent, only to find it destroyed. There was a note in front of it, words messily scrawled on a thin piece of bark tied to a large stone.

“Give us our captain back or our entire fleet will declare war on yours. Five fleets to one. Signed, the Leviathans.”

Famming wore a sullen look after reading the note. She had discovered what had become of Kamui after entering our body-filled submarine on our return trip.

“This ain’t good. If the Leviathans find out what Kamui be, we’ll be destroyed fer sure. And we don’t even have ships anymore.”

“What can we do?”

“I don’t know. The Leviathans are the deadliest sea dogs out there now. With all our ships sunken, there’s no way fer the Vindors to defeat the Leviathans. And like they said in their note, we’re outnumbered five fleets to one.”

“And the overlord is pressing forward. I’d get my army to assist you, captain, but then there would be no one holding the stone statues off.”

“There is one solution.”

“What do you propose, Ulterium?”

“We’ll need more fighters. More manpower.”

“That’s impossible. No one’s on our side.”

“It’s impossible now, but it’ll be our winning edge in this war.”

“Keep talking.”

“The ‘Pirate Empire’ determines which of the most powerful fleet rules the oceans, right?”

“Yep. And it looks like the Leviathans finally be holdin’ that position.”

“Not until they lay hands on that,” I spoke, pointing at the pin on her overcoat. “With that, we’ll convince every other pirate fleet out there to join our cause. We’ll turn the Pirate Empire into a Pirate Confederacy. And then we’ll outnumber the Leviathans. A couple hundred fleets to five.”

“I like yer idea, but it ain’t that easy.”

“Then we improvise.”

 

XXIX

 

Famming gave us the exact location of where the massive cannon was hidden before she embarked on her journey of recruiting other fleets to join our cause, assisted by the Night Guild. She took our submarine and had it repainted to bear the Vindor insignia, personally fixing a few parts to make it operate better and faster. As they rid the bodies off the vessel, Tarsus and his guild members bid their goodbyes to us, wishing us the best of luck.

I explained my entire plan to Fulcan, Famming, and Tarsus after a new location was chosen for erecting another tent. The plan seemed complicated, but it was no more than a simple procedure. If everyone played their part and succeeded on time, we would be able to take out the overlord and his men before he got the chance to destroy the capital of Grozorg.

Famming and Tarsus would try to reform the Pirate Empire, creating a union between fleets to fight for a common purpose. In this case, the fleets would band together to fight the growing power of the Leviathans, destroying the fleets to prevent them from ruling over the ocean. In the deeper scheme of things, destroying the fleets would destroy a portion of Helterium’s army, ultimately weakening him. Knowing Tarsus’ ability of ferromancy, I requested him to replicate Famming’s priceless golden-diamond pin, distributing the pins to every captain who joined the Pirate Confederacy. The goal of creating so many pins would also throw the Leviathans off; none of them would know where the real key was hidden. The true pin would be concealed by Fulcan underwater, while Famming wore a replicated one as well.

Meanwhile, Fulcan’s army and my guild would buy Famming and Tarsus time, compiling all the cannons we could from the shipwreck. Even the smaller cannons proved to be effective against the titanic statues, the heavy payload smashing the stone structures into pieces. The only problem was the large bronze shield each warrior carried. Surprisingly, the thick bronze could deflect a projected cannon ball, dealing no damage to the stone warrior. The Army of Light and the Blood Guild would try to demolish as many of Helterium’s warriors as possible before he woke the last of the statues. The overlord had also positioned his army around Awk Roluun since the auditorium in his palace was too small to fit the myriad of stone warriors, so our men would position cannons all around the underwater capital city of the water domain as well, taking out the statues as they arrived and catching them off guard.

When the fleets finished their mission, the Vindors would join us underwater while the other pirates would stay on the sea surface just in case the final step failed. All our troops underwater would march into Helterium’s palace with Famming’s champion cannon, and we would take out the statues within the auditorium, hopefully killing the overlord in the process. Famming had given us more information regarding the cannon, and to our help, we learned that the payload of the large cannon were explosives. If we could fire even three shots at the supporting pillars, the ancient underwater castle would crumble in no time. Upon taking out the overlord, we would finally end this dreaded war.

After salvaging a total of two hundred cannons, I divided the army and my guild evenly to take charge of one cannon, rolling it into position around Awk Roluun. It was night-time, but it was also impossible to tell in the deep blue. It would be dark underwater even during the brightest afternoons. Fulcan stayed in the main tent, guarded by General Othniel and Corporal Zartan, both personally selected by the king.

The entire city was finally encircled by our cannons. Each group carried only five cannonballs with them, so every shot counted. As the night progressed, cannonballs were silently fired, the sounds muffled by the thick waters. Communication was impossible outside any airtight environment in the ocean, so every man was on their own when they stepped foot outside of the conference tent. Famming had given us heavy ankle bracelets earlier which pinned us down to the ground, keeping us from constantly drifting upwards.

I did not assign myself to a group. Instead, I drifted through the water, circling the city to see if any one side needed more men or ammunition. So far, the plan was working fairly well. Though some soldiers from the Army of Light still fell to the deadly rock giants, many crumbled before the powerful cannons, and Helterium’s army was slowly decimated.

Famming had briefly instructed me on basic motion underwater prior to embarking on her mission, so my swimming technique had improved, granting a faster and more efficient movement underwater. Perhaps I would one day grow to appreciate water and its unique nature.

The night went on with more and more statues crumbling. None of the Army of Light was positioned near the palace, however, in fear of Helterium realizing what was happening to his stone army. Slowly, we were taking out his army before he could even complete it.

As I drifted through the water, a soldier of Fulcan’s army tugged on my cloak. He pointed to his cannon, then to the indented sandy floor beside him. Finally, he pointed upwards at an incoming stone statue a couple hundred meters away and closing. He had run out of ammunition, and there were no cannons nearby to assist him. As I turned my head to search for a solution, another soldier rapidly swam towards me, gesturing the same message.

The statue was surprisingly fast underwater. It approached us swiftly and smashed the cannon in one blow, not retreating in its steps. I motioned the soldiers to head to the king’s tent while I diverted the giant’s attention. I was greeted with more and more soldiers who had run out of ammunition. Slowly, the tables were turning against us as the statues destroyed our cannons and army one by one.

Gesturing for all the soldiers to return to the main tent, I tried to get everyone back in one piece. We had completed our duty, and our only choice now was to wait for Famming and the Night Guild.

“We need more time!” I shouted, entering the tent. “We’re out of ammunition, and Famming needs more time!”

I had originally planned for our duty to be completed in a much longer time frame, but with Helterium suddenly speeding up his process, there was nothing we could do.

“We just have to wait. Position all the men around the tent, Corporal Zartan. If it means we defend this tent with our blades, we must do it.”

“As you say, your majesty,” the corporal quickly responded. He gathered some of his men and left the tent.

“What if the overlord discovers the location of the weapon?” General Othniel asked.

“He won’t, according to Famming,” I replied.

“Should we bring it into this tent just in case?” the general continued, evading my statement.

“Listen to Ulterium, general. Bringing it to this tent will be the destruction of us. It would surely lure the overlord to us, and not only would he destroy the cannon, but he would also destroy our entire army.”

The general left the tent as well, grabbing a couple of soldiers with him.

“So we just wait now. For better or for worse.”

“Not what I would do in my younger years, but patience proves to be deadly, Ulterium. Perhaps waiting is our success in this war.”

“Don’t you find it odd?”

“What?”

“Why would Helterium be the first to join Tyrannust? If you recall, he was the first to become overlord, and in the same day Tyrannust became corrupted.”

“Some things are better off unknown,” the king said plainly.

“Do you know something?”

“I hope not. Get some rest, Ulterium. It’s late in the night and you did your part well. My men will protect us for the night. If I said thank you to you every time I owed you one, you’d be sick of it.”

“You have my loyalty, your majesty.”

“Don’t call me that. We’re brothers, just not by blood.”

The king laughed and slapped me on the back. I chuckled in return and left the tent, joining the fighting force outside.

 

Famming had finally returned, spreading her success to every soldier she met on her way before arriving to the king. The army had lured the statues away from the king’s tent, and I had just returned to check on the king before she barged in, boasting of the birth of the Pirate Confederacy.

“Thank ye fer yer suggestion, Ulterium. Now we have every pirate on our side, and we took out those damned Leviathans in no time. It was all one great success.”

“So how many more troops do we have now?”

“Well let me count. The Taniwhas were the first to join, those eager sea dogs, then we got the Kaiju, Afanc, Kraken, uh...Scylla, Tlanusi, Cetus, Zin, Hydra, and...the Qalupalik. Damn, those Qalupaliks were hard to convince, but they’re with the Confederacy now. And the best part? The Leviathans are no more. All fifty ships have been destroyed. Some pins were stolen by the Leviathan captains, but in the end, they all fell to our blades ‘n guns.”

“Perfect, we’re right on schedule,” Fulcan spoke. “Thank you, Famming, thank you, Tarsus. Have you told the Confederacy the rest of the plan?”

“Briefly. The Confederacy was excited to join the cause. But mostly to join us Vindors. I’m tellin’ ye, we’re the best troops on sea now. I told them that we had no more ships, and every fleet was inclined on lending their ships to us. Above all, none of those sea dogs like that damned Tyrannust. They were more then willin’ to help us defeat Helterium.”

“Great. We’re at a good start.”

“Not quite,” I interrupted. “Famming, our army underwater ran out of ammunition too quickly. We lost a good amount of men, and all the statues have been awakened. Helterium has already begun his march.”

“Where’s the giant cannon Famming talked about?” Tarsus asked.

“No one’s touched it. It should still be back at the palace.”

All of a sudden, General Othniel and three soldiers burst in, dropping to their knees in front of the king.

“I’m sorry, your majesty - please forgive me!”

The four soldiers begged for mercy from the king, faces pressed against the sandy floor in grief.

“General, what is it?”

“I thought...I thought I could help advance the war if we brought the champion cannon to this tent.”

“You what?!” Famming shouted.

“What happened?” Fulcan asked through gritted teeth.

“The Hydromancer just leapt out in front of us all of a sudden and destroyed the cannon and-"

“It what?!” Famming raged.

“I’m sorry, your majesty!”

Fulcan stepped forward and picked up the general by his collar. His fiery eyes glared into the general’s whimpering face, enraged.

“I thought I told you not to do a thing!” The king roared. “Who told you the location?”

“I’m sorry, your highness!”

“What is sorry going to do now? You destroyed our only hope!”

“Sir!” Another soldier from the Army of Light rushed in. “The troops are closing in! We have to get to the palace to take out the overlord before the stone warriors arrive at our hideout!”

Fulcan glared at the general without blinking. His face was twisted in rage, and his grip on the general’s collared tightened all the more.

“Othniel, welcome back to the frontlines. Zartan! Congratulations on your promotion, general!”

Zartan saluted and bowed before the king quickly.

“Army of Light and Purity! Change of plans!” Fulcan shouted, throwing down the general. “Everyone, retreat!”

“Sir,” the soldier that barged in began.

“We will all march back to Tenebris! That is an order!”

“But sir-"

“‘Sir’ me again!” The king roared, sending the soldier stumbling backwards. “Their march has begun, so let them march! Let’s see how far they can get when they reach Tenebris!”

 

XXX

 

The entire army retreated back to the mainland, many glad to be out of the tiring, suffocating ocean. After the last of the army stepped through the portal opened by the promoted Zartan, Fulcan pulled the two guilds aside.

“Ulterium, Tarsus, I’m going back with my men. I’m hoping Helterium will see us retreating so he won’t be on his guard, and that’s where you two come in. I need you two to try and take him out. But you both have to be careful, remember that he has the Hydromancer on his side.”

“You’re hoping that by killing Helterium this war will end once and for all?”

“Well it should. Helterium’s the only one controlling the entire army. Without their controller, they’d turn into statues again.”

“That’s reasonable, but it’s a high cost for both our guilds,” I spoke. “The Hydromancer is strong, and there’s no doubt of its ability to take out every single one of our members easily. It’s basically suicide.”

“I risked my army retreating. If the statues make it to Tenebris, you know our swords are practically ineffective. We have a minimal number of cannons around the city, but those won’t be able to hold off the entire army of stone. My men are willing to die for their nation...are yours?”

Both guilds fell silent. There were no glances exchanged between the guild members.

“We’ll do our best,” Tarsus said. “In the meantime, you should get some of your men to burn the bridge. It’s made of wood, right?”

“Yes, that is an excellent suggestion. It’ll be hard to get to the bridge with Tyrannust’s men patrolling the mainland, but it will stall Helterium and his army. Good luck, Blood Guild, good luck, Night Guild. If all fails-"

“Then we’ll improvise,” I spoke, smiling at the king. He nodded in return, turning to jump through the portal.

“Godspeed,” he shouted behind him as Zartan followed him through, pulling out the white gem from the obsidian slab and shutting the portal.

“Well, it’s just my guild and yours again. Like the good times.”

“Like the good times,” Tarsus smiled. “Well, after the arena.”

I gave out a short laugh.

“So where to?” He asked.

“Famming returned to the sea surface to tell the fleets of the sudden change of plans. Should we just wait for her to return?”

“We’d be wasting time. What did Famming say?”

“Nothing. She just left on the submarine after Fulcan declared the alternate plan.”

“Well I guess we’re on our own. Guilds, any suggestions?”

“We should split up. Scout the army, track their movements,” Konkurra replied.

“Splitting up sounds good,” Calliphar spoke.

“I’m down,” Foku agreed.

“Blood Guild and Night?” Drog asked.

“Doesn’t matter, as long as we get the job done,” Pyrrhon answered.

“Alright,” Tarsus intervened, “One group will go and track the Hydromancer, the other will track Helterium. If they happen to be side by side, then we’ll be back together to take them out.”

“Just like that?” Sylvan asked.

“You heard the king. We’ll figure out a way to get Helterium. Split up now!”

Two groups immediately formed, the twelve members evenly divided.

“Ulterium, you’ll focus on the overlord. My group will go for the Mancer. Remember to hide yourselves, and don’t do anything dumb. Let’s go!”

The groups left the tent, starting off in the same direction, everyone headed towards Helterium’s palace. As we arrived at the underwater structure, Tarsus’ group split up to search the outside while I led my group down the trapdoor on the west wing to the hidden balcony.

There was nothing in the dark, empty auditorium. The overlord and his army had probably left a while ago, and no trace of life could be found in the vast space below us. I led my group out, discovering my plan of tracking footprints to be futile. The underwater current washed away the sand quickly, leaving no marks for us to follow.

Tarsus met up with me, expressing the same hopelessness. We decided to follow the most probable track that led to the bridge at the edge of the island, where the statue army would march up the continental slope ashore, cross the wooden bridge, and step foot onto Mainland Grozorg.

Running along the seafloor with the weighted ankle bracelets was the most inefficient method of travelling underwater. After a while, both guilds took off the bracelets and began to swim along the sandy ground, gaining speed and catching up to Helterium’s army of statues.

After fifteen minutes of doubt, the army was finally in view. I motioned for Tarsus to flank left with his group while I led mine right. The statues marched slowly, to both ours and Fulcan’s advantage, and we caught up beside them in no time. The ocean floor was littered with coral and other tall aquatic plants that concealed us from the army’s view, and the constant fluttering of passing fish helped our smooth strokes blend in.

Once in awhile, a large predacious fish would approach us, but thanks to Famming’s preventive measures, our weighted bracelets were installed with a repellent that caused the flesh-eating fish to turn around and search for other prey. I had adapted to the sudden appearances of monstrous-looking beasts underwater, and overtime, my fear of deep-sea predators was soon dispelled.

Helterium was located in the center of the army which had completely filled the underwater pass. There were at least a thousand statues in front, behind, and on Helterium’s left and right. But the Hydromancer wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

I glanced to the left, and Tarsus started drifting away from the statue army with his group. If I guessed correctly, he was leading his group to seek out the Hydromancer. Reverting my attention back to Helterium, I tried to come up with a solution to get to him. There was no help from any of my partners, and even if they had devised a plan, it would be impossible for them to tell me underwater.

There was virtually no way to get to the overlord. Though Sylvan was in my group, though he could still fire an arrow underwater, his arrow would sail significantly slower through the thick ocean, and instead of arching down, the arrowhead would float up. And by the time the arrow made its way to the overlord, the stone army would have already noticed and shielded their commander from the fatal shot. It was truly a challenge even for a master ranger, and we only had one shot. I didn’t want to take this huge risk where the odds were not in our favour. There had to be another way of getting through the wide army unnoticed.

We followed the army from behind for the next thirty minutes, my group waiting to follow my lead. I racked my brain for all the formations we could create, but every single strategy could not permeate the four-thousand statue army. There was no way of getting to the overlord.

Suddenly, a fish snapped out from the sand, sending Pyrrhon flailing out of our guise in surprise. He drifted helplessly above the stone army without the support of his ankle bracelet, and floated directly above the throng of statues.

To our surprise, there was no response from any of the rock warriors. Pyrrhon floated right behind Helterium, and he quickly rebalanced himself, darting back to the group. The statue army continued their monotonous march, as if nothing had happened.

Now was our chance to strike. I motioned to Sylvan, and he immediately fired an arrow towards the overlord’s head. The entire group watched as the arrow slowly pierced through the viscous current, curving upwards and directly towards Helterium’s skull.

I don’t know what happened next. One second and the war would’ve ended, but the next, my head collided against a rock along the ocean floor, my vision blacking out for a short moment.

A huge current forced our group backwards, a forceful wave of water sending us tumbling along the ocean floor helplessly. After clearing my vision from the collision, a blurry wall of water was created between Helterium’s army and my group.

The wall of water separated the two forces, allowing the army to march on dry land as the mass of water was forced against us. Of course, it was formed by none other than the Hydromancer. The cerulean-black cloaked figure had its arms extended, as if pushing the tall wall of water against us, barricading us from reaching the overlord. On the other side, the march of the statues continued on dry land, now at a faster pace without the thick water hindering their speed. Sylvan’s arrow had been deflected by the sudden wall of water, piercing the sand a couple of meters away from our group.

Tarsus and his group arrived a minute later, floating beside our group, helpless behind the lofty wall of water. Sylvan had tried to fire another arrow towards the Hydromancer, but the wall absorbed and deflected the arrow back, nearly piercing Sylvan’s right ear. The water wall also prevented us from passing to the other side. I tried to lunge through, only to be sent floating backwards by the Hydromancer, hopelessly plummeting along the seafloor.

There was nothing we could do. We watched as the army slowly advanced up the sandy slope, disappearing high above us. Splitting up to distract the Hydromancer was no use. It was as if it could control multiple currents at once. When we tried to flank the Mancer, it would push us back together with a strong, forceful wave. There was nothing we could do.

We drifted helplessly along the ocean floor for the next half-hour, racking our brains on ways to overcome the Hydromancer’s blockade. Suddenly, the wall of water fell as abruptly as it was erected, the tumbling of the lofty water wall hurling the twelve of us backwards once again. The Hydromancer drifted upwards and beyond our vision, rejoining the army of statue.

Each of us climbed up the sandy slope slowly, relieving the nitrogen build-up within our bodies to prevent contracting the bends. It was a delaying journey, and by the time we finally reached the sea surface, we had wasted a lot of time. Looking beyond the horizon, the last of Helterium’s army entered Mainland Grozorg. The bridge was burnt, but the Hydromancer had recreated a bridge of water in replacement, easily overcoming our pathetic attempt.

We had failed Fulcan. The army rose out of the water and made it to the mainland. In no time, Helterium would arrive to Tenebris and destroy the ineffective militia there, crumbling the last hope of Grozorg. Is this how it would all end?

 

XXXI

 

Helterium’s army spread across the plains joined by a few members of Tyrannust’s legion, met by the Army of Light and Purity atop a green hill. It was the break of day, and the sun had begun peeking above the horizon as Fulcan brought his entire force to the edge of Mainland Grozorg. Though Helterium had many on his side, he was still outnumbered. We were stranded on the shore of Helterium’s island; there was no bridge that linked to the main island anymore when the Hydromancer destroyed its water bridge as the last statue crossed. The exchange between the overlord of water and the king of light was still audible from where we stood; a small gap lay between the water domain and Mainland Grozorg. Fulcan’s army had a line of long cannons behind the frontline on the crest of the hill, and every soldier was equipped with either a sword or a spear. The overlord gave a low laugh at the useless sticks and short blades.

“Fulcan!” Helterium shouted from his end of the battlefield. “Yer end is nigh! I’m afraid there's no other choice for ye! If ye choose to surrender, ye’ll still die in me hands today! Prepare to crumble before me mighty buccaneers!”

“Your words are meaningless, overlord. Not everything you see is everything that is against you. We will see who wins today!”

“What er ye even seying? Buccaneers, attack!”

The overlord raised his arms and the entire four thousand stone warriors stomped towards Fulcan’s army. The statues were towering and surprisingly fast, and in a matter of seconds, the unimposing frontlines were already broken through.

“Cannons! Fire at will!” Fulcan commanded.

“Hydromancer!” The overlord responded quickly.

Some payload from the king’s cannons smashed the statue warriors into pieces, but most were deflected by a powerful wave of water summoned by the Hydromancer, shielding most of Helterium’s army. Though it was a blur from where I stood, it was evident that Helterium’s army was overwhelming the Army of Light and Purity at ease. For every statue destroyed, thirty soldiers or so of Fulcan’s army had lost their lives. This was not a war in our favour at all, and our two guilds couldn’t do anything but stand on the other island, helplessly watching the unbalanced forces.

“Not doing so well, are ye, me king? Why not just give up? Slakaris, attack!”

The overlord cackled wildly, and there was no response from Fulcan. The war raged on, the clashing of stone against steel resounding through the nation. Suddenly, large scaled beasts leapt over our heads, swiftly clearing the twenty meter gap between the two islands impressively and aiding the army of water in its onslaught against the Army of Light and Purity. The cerulean dwellers were the size of three grown men, and the twenty of them ran on four legs with many fins protruding their slimy, spiny derma. Faster than an average land creature, the Slakaris devastated Fulcan’s royal army all the more, shielded by the powerful Hydromancer from the crushing cannonballs.

“Distract the Hydromancer!” Tarsus shouted suddenly. “If we can get it to come back here, more statues might fall to the cannons, and so will those creatures!”

“On it!” Pyrrhon replied.

Luckily, the water domain was the closest elemental island to Mainland Grozorg. Pyrrhon concentrated his mind, palms folded and clenched, until his ember eyes burned a bright incendiary red and his hands shone a magnificent yellow.

A blaze shot out from his suddenly extended arms, a trail of fire smoking the Hydromancer from the back. Although Pyrrhon had concentrated on his elemental attack for a long while, it was but a disappointing attempt, a thin trail of fire nearly licking the hem of the cloak that draped the master of water. However, the Hydromancer lost all momentum from the scorching element, only to quickly recover and drift towards us, enraged.

Pyrrhon kept shooting small flames towards the Mancer, but the Hydromancer’s elemental power was unparalleled to. The Hydromancer whipped its hands up, and a tidal wave behind Pyrrhon rose up and crashed down, drowning him into the deep ocean.

“Work together!” I shouted. “Sylvan, fire your arrows! Foku, use your lance! Whatever weapon you got, distract the Hydromancer! It’s the best chance we can get for Fulcan!”

The guilds worked in unison, attacking the oncoming Mancer from every which way along the shore of the island. Foku blasted his electrical lance while Sylvan fired arrow after arrow towards the Hydromancer. Drog pulled out his long whip and slashed recklessly while Chrikhil spun a large blade attached to a cord towards the Mancer. The synergy was impressive, each member aiming for a different region of the Hydromancer’s small body; however, it was able to evade our strikes swiftly and counter each attack with an elemental barrage.

“Keep it up!” I spoke as a beam of water exploded into my chest, throwing me high into the air and slamming me down. I quickly recovered and regained footing, lunging towards the Hydromancer again. “Tarsus, approach up-close left. I’ll go right!”

Tarsus hooked his shuang-gou and rapidly spun it above his head while I pulled out my krises and spun around as well. We approached the Mancer and attacked it from both sides. The Hydromancer summoned a protective wall of water around itself from the endless assault of both long-ranged ammunition and our two melee attacks.

“The wall is weakening!” Tarsus shouted, swinging his blade unrelentingly against the Hydromancer.

“I’m running out of arrows!” Sylvan shouted.

“My lance is powering down!” Foku added.

“Just a bit more! We need something big to knock it out!”

“Give it all you got!” Lexon yelled. He approached the thick wall of water and flung a series of rapid, powerful punches. The two guilds used the last of their efforts furiously to break through the protective aqua wall, and the Hydromancer was tiring, but it wasn’t relenting.

In fury, the Hydromancer slammed its arms down, the aquatic wall becoming a powerful, radial blast of water that sent all of us flying away from the master of water.

As we scrambled to our feet, a huge cannonball flashed before our eyes and into the oncoming Mancer. The Hydromancer quickly vanished in a black vapour as the cannonball passed through the mist of its body, and it was nowhere to be seen.

Lining across the horizon of Helterium’s ocean were a hundred ships that flew ten different jacks.

“Let’s end this war once and fer all!” An all-too-familiar voice shouted.

There was a smile on my face that could not be wiped away. Famming and the Confederacy came right on time; the turning point and the winning edge Fulcan desperately needed. I rushed to the edge of the island to observe the progress of the war. The king and his army was defending well against Helterium’s statues; Mainland Grozorg’s powerful grounded cannons that was built during Zxyx’s reign able to take out the bronze shields and metal armour of the statue army as opposed to the smaller cannons on a naval battleship. But even without the Hydromancer’s protection, the statues and sea beasts were pressing onwards, and more lives were lost in the war than stone statues demolished.

Famming extended her right arm out, and the blue sky was suddenly blanketed with thousands of lead payload fired in unison. The cannonballs crashed into Helterium’s unprepared statues from behind and a deafening boom thundered across the vast nation. The heavy payloads suddenly exploded, myriads of sharp fragments flying in every direction. A thick, heavy cloud of smoke rose high above Mainland Grozorg as hundreds of thousands of statues crumbling beneath the exploding barrage.

Famming took no chances. Three more waves of explosive payloads devastated the main island before the cannon fire was halted.

As the thick black cloud cleared, not a single Slakaris had breath within them, and the remaining statues that had survived the explosive attack stood in one piece, frozen in a stance, returning to nothing but a statue. Helterium’s disfigured body lay in a crater where he once stood, deceased among his stone army hundreds of meters away, parts of a cannonball buried deeply into his exploded chest.

And just like that, the war was over.

Famming’s Confederacy approached the shore. She leapt out of a Taniwha ship excited as the rest of the different fleets celebrated loudly together, some dancing, some singing, many drinking.

“Is that where you went while we were still stuck on the ocean floor?” I asked, a huge smile breaking across my face.

“Well, I figured we had to somehow use those explodin’ payload. And since the champion cannon got destroyed, I wondered if any of the fleets in the Confederacy had cannons compatible with those explosives. Turns out, most of them did! I guess the Vindors were behind on weaponry. Well anyways, the old is gone and the new is come. We git to rebuild our fleet now, and I’ll fer sure remember to git some explosives in me arsenal.”

The captain grinned and shook my hand and Tarsus’ messily.

“I’m sorry about your brother,” I started.

“Brother, overlord, first mate, first traitor - it’s all the same now. I’ve learned to cut ties with those that seek accomplishment through immoral ways. It’s strange; I don’t feel any guilt or grief. Only relief.”

“We couldn’t have done it without you,” Tarsus spoke with a large smile also spread across his face.

“Now ye’re wrong about that one. Ye couldn’t have done it without the Confederacy. To the everlastin’ Pirate Confederacy!”

Famming pulled out two pistols and fired towards the sky. The fleets roared and celebrated all the more louder, laughter filling the seashore.

“Well, ye best git back to Fulcan on the other side. Though this war may have ended, I’m sure another one’s already begun. Tough life, eh?”

“You’re right. Well, best of luck to you and the newly-formed Confederacy.”

“‘Till we meet again, guild leaders. Good luck on the rest of yer journeys!”

“Till we meet again,” I replied, nodding my head.

She grabbed our hands one last time and shook it firmly, winking at both of us.

“Send me regards and congratulations to the king, please. And remember, I’ll be here if ye be needin’ assistance. If ye need support, ye know where to go.”

She gave us a quick wink, clicking here tongue.

“Confederacy, we got a lot of fixin’ around here to do! Set sail!”

Famming boarded the same Taniwha ship as the fleets retrieved their anchors, preparing their voyage beyond the horizon. We stood on the shore and waved our goodbyes to the Confederacy as the naval vessels drew farther and farther away into the sunset.

The serene ocean glimmered mystically under the dying orange sun, and the calm waves overlapped each other rhythmically, hypnotically. From a distance, the gleaming water was soothing. Pleasing.

Beautiful.

 

XXXII

 

Fulcan helped our two guilds portal back to Tenebris after retrieving Arcanor from our hideout. Our two guilds and his army were back at Fulcan’s grand palace, celebrating the victory with great joy. We informed Arcanor of everything that had happened, from our first encounter with Famming to the creation of the Pirate Confederacy, and of course the brutal end of Helterium’s reign. He listened in amazement, celebrating with the army as well.

“How's Kadava doing?” I asked as he congratulated the king.

“He’s recovering well. It’s been a month since I’ve heard from any of you, and I was starting to worry about what had happened. Kadava’s regaining his strength, but I don't think he's ready for the upcoming war. He's still not used to his artificial leg, even though he's overcome the shock. He hopes to join you soon, though.”

“That reminds me...Fulcan, which overlord is declaring war next?” I called, interrupting the king’s joyful exchanges with his generals.

“I was trying to figure that out too. I’ve sent scouts again to search for activity on the islands that haven’t been encountered yet, but none have returned,” the king replied, approaching us.

“Can’t you foresee the future, Arcanor?” Tarsus asked.

“I could try, but the darker the future, the cloudier my vision is. I doubt I’d see anything at this point in time.”

“Well, give it a shot. What’s the worst that can happen?”

“I...”

“What is it?” I asked, noticing something wrong.

“I don’t want to do it,” Arcanor spoke frankly. “I’ve...I’ve been having these strange visions involuntarily and...and it’s the same vision over and over again.”

“What is it?” I repeated.

“It was strange. It wasn’t a vision of the future, but of the past. It was during...Zxyx’s reign. I saw the arrow in his chest, but instead of moving forward to see his corruption and the War of Zxyx occur, the vision rewinded; the arrow flew back to the archer. And I always woke up when the archer’s face glared into my eyes.”

“So you saw a vision...in reverse.”

“Yes, and you don’t understand. I’ve scrambled through books and scrolls while you were on Helterium’s island, and there has never been a documented vision of the past, played in reverse. This has to mean something. The vision kept repeating and repeating, whenever I ate, whenever I read, whenever I rested. And it occurred so much more frequently when the Army of Light returned to Mainland Grozorg. I would suddenly see the same vision over, and over again. And every time...it would always end when the archer glared its harrowing blue eyes into mine.”

“So, you know who corrupted Zxyx - who really started the war!”

“No, the figure was masked. It wore a gray cowl and a thick gray mask, revealing nothing but...two, haunting, blue eyes.”

“A repeated vision. What do you think it means?”

“I’m not sure, and that’s what’s worrying me more.”

“We don’t have much time,” Fulcan suddenly spoke, turning towards Arcanor.

“Alright, I’ll give it a go.”

Arcanor closed his eyes and placed his fingers on his temples. Sitting cross-legged, he began to slowly levitate in the air as his eyes shone a brilliant blue-white. Everyone around him watched in awe, soldiers and guild members halting their conversations to observe Arcanor.

His face was troubled and his brows were furrowed. He was deeply concentrated, but something he was seeing bothered him. His hands were shaking unsteadily, and soon, his entire body started to convulse. In a matter of seconds, he tumbled onto the ground, weak and out of breath.

“Arcanor! Are you okay?”

Everyone rushed around the exhausted oracle. Some tried to sit him up, others grabbed towels to wipe the sweat off his face.

“What is it, Arcanor?” The king asked, stepping through the crowd.

“I...I don’t know what I saw. My vision...there were brief pieces and short fragments. A strange symbol. A masked gunslinger. Zxyx. The arrow. The pair of gruelling blue eyes.

“From our previous experiences,” Fulcan interrupted, “the subsequent war occurred on islands directly across each other. With Arcanor’s fragments, and recalling which islands are across the water domain, it has to be the Pyro Faction.”

“Home sweet home,” Pyrrhus whispered beside me grimly.

“The symbol...it was a strange flame with a circle behind it, and some intricate patterns on top. Could that be the Ignis Ordo symbol?” Arcanor asked.

“None other,” Pyrrhus confirmed. “King Fulcan, I could be of great assistance in the upcoming war. If you hadn’t heard, I was part of the Ignis Ordo.”

“Perfect. We know where to start. Thank you, Pyrrhon. Army, you will get to return home for the rest of today. At daybreak tomorrow, we begin the march. Be at the palace at six, sharp!”

The soldiers immediately dispersed, leaving the palace through a trapdoor that led underground to retreat to their individual homes. The Almega Legion was still on watch throughout Mainland Grozorg, though not as many of Tyrannust’s men were on the prowl anymore. The battle between the king and Helterium was on the edge of the main island, where virtually no men of the Legion patrolled, but there was evidence of his corrupted warriors around central Grozorg. Fulcan insisted in the use of the underground passageways, stressing on the importance of every life in his great army.

“Tarsus, Ulterium, I can’t thank you enough for going through all of this with us. But on the bright side, three wars down, meaning nine left to go.”

“Not all that bright,” I chuckled. “We’re always here for you, Fulcan. Who would want to see their own nation crumble?”

Fulcan stared at me with a slim smile.

“Well, you and your guilds should head back to Sanoctuis too. Please send my regards to Kadava, Ulterium. Oh, and keep an eye on Arcanor. Make sure he doesn’t try to foresee any more events. He’s getting...tired.”

“Will do.”

“How long will it take to march to the fire domain from Tenebris?” Tarsus asked.

“With the underground passage starting from my palace, four days wouldn’t be a wild guess. I suppose I should tell you that there’s also a trapdoor near your hideout leading to a portion of the underground system that my army would have to march across tomorrow. Roslyn’s idea. Perhaps you should just use the tunnel system to go back home; that way, you’d know where the trapdoor is located. Tomorrow morning, go down the same trapdoor and wait for me and the army to arrive to join us.”

“Sure. Do you know the exact location of the trapdoor?”

“When we visited your place, Ulterium, Roslyn marked an area on your map. It should be around there. She was a bright girl, always thinking ahead.”

“I know. Let’s head home. See you tomorrow, Fulcan.”

“Take care.”

We exited the palace through a trapdoor. With no map, I headed in a general direction, leading the two guilds behind me. We stepped foot into the familiar underground trail and began our journey back home.

“Tarsus, feel free to stay over at our guild tonight. I mean, we have the location of the trapdoor anyways,” I suggested, voice ringing through the tight tunnel.

“Do you have room for seven?”

“Well, I think our guild can fit six more. That means you’ll have to double up with...”

I gave him a quick wink and the entire underground passageway was filled with laughter. Tarsus scowled and punched me in the arm, walking briskly ahead of me.

“Where do we stop?” He asked without turning around.

“Good question. With no map, we’ll just have to go up the first trapdoor we reach. It we reach a cenote, then we gotta scale up that as well.”

“Great. Is this what you call ‘improvise’?”

“Eh. More or less. Works every time. Mostly.”

The thirteen of us continued our march underground, joking around with each other. We had a lot more room and freedom to move at our own pace now that the army wasn’t in the way.

Through the dark tunnels we travelled, following the straight one way pass and losing track of time until the ceiling above us rose taller, with metal rungs climbing up the dirt wall to our right.

“That’s our exit,” I informed, looking up to see nothing but pitch black.

“And if it’s the next one?” Tarsus doubted.

“Then we improvise,” I quickly responded, a ghost of a smile across my lips.

“Of course. Up we go.”

We were greeted by the familiar forest our members trained in, the crooked canopies overcasting our hideout and barricading the bright glimmer of the millions of stars high above.

“Make yourselves at home,” I spoke, opening the front door to our hideout. The two metal doors that one would have expected to swing inwards slid up slowly, like a portcullis of the royal palaces. Behind the sliding grating lay two more doors with a heavy padlock binding the handles. I inserted my blade and the lock unlatched easily, opening the two doors to welcome the Night Guild into our hideout.

“Does that only work with your knife?” Tarsus asked as everyone stepped in.

“No. Any registered Blood Guild weapon can open that lock.”

I nodded my head to the weapon room across from us, and Tarsus twisted a frown that suggested, “Not bad”.

“Normally, the heavy grating would be up when every guild member was home. The inner doors would also be unlocked, just for the sake of convenience. But when times like now arise, security protocols like this would be set up, especially when one of our members are injured.”

“Interesting. Better start setting up heavier security around my hideout.”

“Oh,” I chuckled, “it gets heavier than this. This is only Tier One security protocol.”

“I’ll check on Kadava,” Arcanor spoke to me. I nodded my head as he went off to Kadava’s room, bringing Glo with him as well.

“Looks like your guild’s already found a room for themselves,” I started.

“Were you actually serious about having only six spare rooms?”

“Never thought I would need seven. Never thought of recruiting more than ten members. You thought I was joking?”

“Never mind. Anyone taking that couch?”

“Glo wouldn’t mind,” I winked.

“I’ll respect her, Ulterium. Anyone taking that couch?”

“It’s all yours. See you tomorrow morning.”

“Good night.”

Tarsus headed off to the couch while I checked in on Kadava. He was fast asleep, and his wounds were bandaged up. His face had colour, and his chest rose and fell steadily. Glo and Arcanor nodded towards me, and I headed off to my own room, hastily taking everything off and leaping into my soft, comfortable bed.

 

XXXIII

After meeting up with the Army of Light and Purity, we marched through the passages until we arrived at the all-too-familiar dead end. Our two guilds had cleaned themselves up, repacked supplies, devoured a hearty breakfast, and changed into suitable clothing earlier this morning; we were now prepared for the upcoming wars. Arcanor stayed behind with Kadava again, hoping to join us as soon as possible once he saw fit.

We arrived at the blazing hot island, stepping foot on Overlord Pyrrhus’ domain. The terrain was similar to Geonyte’s faction, a desert plain with distant hills veiled by overlapping waves of heat. However, Geonyte’s island offered a chance of growth in the shady regions of the deep sand, while the dry, cracked clay floor of Pyrrhus’ desert drought threatened any plant that dared to sprout through. Only the courageously thorn-armoured cacti emerged victorious from the barren drought floor, fighting against the blazing hot winds and the scorching rays of the unrelenting sun.

Where Geonyte’s island was comprised of rock huts and clay shacks, the fire domain’s architecture consisted of short, wooden buildings with tiled roofs and clay shingles. As we stepped through the portal, a saloon greeted us to our left and a small town of similar buildings scattered to our right. Though the two domains had the same desert biome, the appearance in both the nature and the structures were completely different. Both domains had another noticeable similarity - the citizens were absent.

There was no one in the town. The windows were boarded and the doors were closed, and not a single voice greeted us as the royal army filled the desert floor from the flaming white portal. An unceasing wind whistled by, and two tumbleweeds carelessly brandished against the wooden pole of the saloon, but there was no other movement.

“I don’t get it,” Pyrrhon spoke. “It’s not the siesta right now. Where is everybody?”

“What do you mean?”

“The siesta’s the hottest time of the day. Every day at twelve noon, everyone would retreat into the closest building and take a rest until the sun’s not as hot, which might be up to two hours long. But after that, everyone comes out to continue whatever their duties were.”

“Well it’s certainly hot now.”

“But it’s not noon. I’ve lived here long enough to know.”

There was movement in the distance. Through the wavering hot winds, figures slowly approached us, the heat wave distorting their appearances. I noticed a curtain hastily close to my right, followed by similar actions in other houses in succession; citizens peeking through the blinds to catch a glimpse of the approaching figures, safely concealed behind their rugged estate.

The army stood in an organized-fashion, the hundreds of thousands of warriors assembled in a square formation behind the king. Tarsus and I stood to his left and right with our ten other members, waiting for the distant silhouettes to approach us.

Five figures emerged through the blazing hot wave, two haughty men and two well built women behind a tall, muscular figure. They were minimally dressed in orange and robed in a revealing red, and each individual had a golden necklace with a small pendant hanging, a perfect circle with a flame and small patterns behind. It was exactly as Arcanor had described it. The Ignis Ordo.

The group of five stopped as they approached the king two feet away. The figure in the middle of the group was taller than the rest, and his clothing revealed most of his black-corrupted tan skin. He wore a ten-gallon hat that concealed most of his face, and a maroon bandana shrouded his visage in a mysterious, dark shadow. He had a leather belt with two long, silver pistols strapped to each side, and there was also a lasso and a coiled whip on the backside of his belt.

“Overlord Pyrrhus, we meet at last. To what do I owe this pleasure?” King Fulcan began, directing his greeting to the figure in the center.

There was no reply. Instead, the figure quickly pulled out both guns and spun them around quickly while cocking the firearm, pointing the pistols towards the king’s head, the muzzles of the dual revolvers a centimetre from Fulcan’s temple.

Tarsus and I immediately sprung to action alongside most of the army. We were abruptly halted by a wall of fire summoned by another figure behind the overlord, a hidden sixth member of the group. He was robed in black and orange, and the elemental summoning could have come from none other but the overlord’s Pyromancer.

The other four members of the order raised guns to the sky and fired, the sudden deafening explosions sending some soldiers ducking and halting.

“I could kill ya right now,” the overlord spat in a deep voice. “I could kill ya and it would all be ovah. Tyrannust would succeed, and I’d be standing at his right hand. But I’ve got something more urgent to address.”

The overlord turned his head and slowly pointed one of his gun towards Pyrrhon.

“Come ovah here. Now!”

Pyrrhon meekly stepped towards the corrupted ruler and bowed down on one knee, the overlord firmly pointing his pistols at both the king and Pyrrhon.

“Why’d you leave us? You would have been stronga. Why did you leave the order?”

“I...It...”

“Answa me! Why?”

“I-”

“Do you know what happened? Did you follow the code when we were slaughtered? Where were you when we were killed, one by one? Your brothas were killed, one by one!”

“I...I didn’t know! I don’t know what you’re talkin-”

“Shut up! Come here!”

Pyrrhon shuffled closer to the overlord until his feet was next to the ruler’s.

“Grab this. Now!”

Pyrrhus forced his pistol into Pyrrhon’s hand and grabbed his arm until Pyrrhon replaced the overlord’s position, threatening the king’s skull with a pistol.

“If you’re still part of the order, if you still want to prove your worth and redeem yourself, pull the trigga. Pull it!”

“I can’t! I...What happened?”

“You’re gonna pull that trigger right now, or your head’s gonna get blown off!” The overlord ordered, raising his second pistol back against Pyrrhon’s head.

“Tell me what happened! I...I wasn’t part of the order for a long time!”

“You want to know what happened? You really want to know?” The overlord shouted, spittle showering the parched clay floor.

The overlord slammed his fist down, knocking Pyrrhon out with the hilt of the silver revolver.

“Ordo! Take them to my castle. Now!”

In a quick shift of movement, a tall ring of fire suddenly encircled the entire army, leaving only the king and our two guilds with the group of five. The overlord placed Pyrrhon in handcuffs and grabbed him by his collar, dragging him across the cracked floor.

“Pyromancer, stay here,” Pyrrhus commanded.

The overlord brushed past the Mancer, whispering a few more words before proceeding.

The remaining four members of the order stepped behind the twelve of us and the king and pressed their guns against us, shoving us forward to keep up the pace behind the overlord of fire.

We moved through the hot breeze under the glaring sun, stepping through the abandoned town until we reached a significantly grander and fortified building on a hill.

We followed Pyrrhus through the doors until we entered a private chamber. His guards were clad in orange and wore minimal armour, reflecting the Ignis Ordo’s style of clothing; ideal for the temperature but impractical for fighting. The two fire guards closed the door as we stepped into the small, tall room.

The overlord proceeded to climb up three steps to sit on a throne, and the four members of the order followed up the stairs, two standing to his right and two on his left. Our two guilds faced the five Ignis Ordo members with Fulcan in between us.

“Fulcan, I hope you can forgive everything out there,” Pyrrhus suddenly began. “I’m...I’m truly sorry for what just happened.”

“What?” The king answered in confusion.

“Take a seat,” the overlord began. The woman to his right waved her arms around, and seats suddenly flew in from another room, thirteen seats for each of us. I glanced at Foku and he carried an impressed face at the sight of another illusionist.

As we sat near the overlord, he descended the stairs and sat on the bottom step informally until he was at the same level with us, sighing heavily.

“When Lord Tyrannust attacked, the order tried to fight back,” Overlord Pyrrhus began with a grave tone. “The forty-eight of us, well, forty-seven,” Pyrrhus continued, glancing at Pyrrhon, “all banded together to protect our domain when we were notified that Tyrannust had arrived on my island.”

“Why wasn’t I notified?” Pyrrhon interrupted.

“Brother, I sent for you, but the messenger never made it back. He crossed paths with the high lord and he never made it back. If I tried to send for you again, it would have been too late by the time you arrived. Sorry, brother Pyrrhon. On the other hand, it would have been better to not have sent for you at all. Tyrannust confronted the forty-seven of us and, to keep things short, well, this is what’s left of the order.”

The overlord glanced backwards and the four faces behind him were darkened at the thought of the painful memory. Silence filled Pyrrhus’ hall, and Pyrrhon dropped to his knees in anguish.

“I’m sorry...overlord,” the king spoke, still in a tone of confusion.

“I am not an overlord,” Pyrrhus responded, looking up. “When he destroyed the order, he threatened to kill me if I didn’t submit to his will. I agreed, I had to agree, and he infused me with his darkness. I gained powers, and it was tempting to do his bidding, but once he left, I fought against the darkness. His evil was very tempting, and I understood why so many lords craved his power. But I fought against his will, and here I am. Lord Pyrrhus, not Overlord Pyrrhus. I don’t ever wish to become one of Tyrannust’s pawns, in life and in death.”

“So you’re...good?”

“Good, bad, they’re all the same - they’re all subjective to your perspective. If fighting against Tyrannust is good, then I guess I’m, as you say, good, with an element of bad in me.”

“Why did you choose to fight against the power? Why didn’t you embrace it like the others?”

“If I did, you’d find yourself in another war right now. And wouldn’t it be ironic if the leader of the order, a supposedly strong order of honour, fell to the temptations of darkness?”

“You’re a strong man, Lord Pyrrhus,” Fulcan smiled, patting him on the shoulder and joining him on the bottom step of the throne. “And we thought Cryann was the last of the lords to fall.”

“I knew you wouldn’t fall for it, brother,” Pyrrhon spoke, smiling at Pyrrhus. “But all my life, growing up with the order, and now...”

Pyrrhon lowered his head again, a sullen face with tear-filled eyes.

“It took me a week to mourn for our fallen brothers and sisters, brother Pyrrhon. But I had a thought that kept me strong, a thought that helped me resist the almega. I would vindicate our fallen order; the only way to defeat this power was with the power itself.”

“Yes. Fight fire with fire. You must defeat Tyrannust,” Pyrrhon spoke with fury through gritted teeth. “We will rise from the ashes, and we will show him the power of the order.”

He pulled out a pendant from his pocket, the same necklace around the other member’s necks, and the insignia started to glow a blazing ember in his clenched fist. In response, the necklaces around the other five members’ necks burned the same colour.

“The order will rise from the ashes,” Pyrrhus replied, sharing the same rage. “With the order’s power and Tyrannust’s personal touch, I will end the high lord myself.”

The other members of the order shared the same emotion, brows furrowed and fists clenched in fury.

“King Fulcan, you need to understand that I’m being monitored,” the lord said. “Tyrannust found out that I had somehow resisted, so he placed his men everywhere on my island as spies to report back to him. That’s why I had to put on that show out there. Nowhere else is safe but this room.”

“What about the Pyromancer?”

“He’s part of the order,” Pyrrhon spoke.

“But he fell to Tyrannust’s power,” Lord Pyrrhus added. “Though he’s fallen to the dark side, he still listens to my voice. I told him to protect the army if anything unexpected happened before we left for my palace.”

“So what’s the plan now?”

“The only army on this island was the order. Without it now, it would take weeks until I recruited a full army. All I can do now is to tell you what I know. Brother Pyrrhonius, brother Pyrrhak, sister Pyra, sister Pyrina, bring out the map and the historical scrolls. Please be careful.”

“At once, my lord.”

The four members left the room swiftly, quickly closing the door behind them.

“There’s something I know that no other overlord will tell you. I’m not certain about this, but Tyrannust is powered by a source.”

“What?” The room gasped in shock.

“You’re saying that Tyrannust isn’t using raw strength and sorcery to harness his element?” Tarsus asked.

“When I agreed to become an overlord, Tyrannust took off his crown and placed it on my head. That’s what made it so hard to resist - the almega was directly infusing into my skull. I kept my thoughts straight and acted as if I had been corrupted - and I had been as you can see from my seared-black skin, but I resisted it in the end.”

“What crown?” I asked. “Tyrannust doesn’t wear a crown.”

“So it seems. That black ghost-like flaming head he has isn’t his corrupted face. It’s just a visage. Underneath that is still the young Tyrannust VI we knew of before he slaughtered his father. When he took off the crown, the visage disappeared and I caught a glimpse of his face. It was weary, scarred, cold, but it was still the same face. And the crown was the ancestral crown, the original crown passed down to his father from Tyrannust I. And that crown is the source of the almega’s power. The Ancient Crown.”

“So you’re suggesting...Tyrannust VI didn’t create almega?”

“Precisely, though I’m not certain. But it all makes sense; the puzzle connects.”

At that moment, the four Ignis Ordo members returned, carrying two ancient books and a large scroll.

“Thank you. Sister Pyrina, please bring us a table.”

“At once.”

The woman raised her arms, and a table floated in from the same room our chairs came from. Foku gave another impressed smile, straightening his leather overcoat and repositioning his seat.

We pulled our seats around the large oval table as Pyrrhus spread out the scroll in the centre to reveal a large map of Grozorg.

“Anyways, I studied the scrolls during my period of mourning to comfort myself. It was late one night when I connected it. Do you happen to know the scrolls?”

I glanced at Tarsus with a grin and he rolled his eyes.

“I know the history fairly well, but the Blood Guild here has brought it upon themselves to memorize the legends,” Fulcan replied on behalf of us.

“Excellent. Well, here’s where I started, page sixty-eight. Basically, Grozorg was populated and the people could not distinguish the ruler from the residents. A man by the name of Mavork Kakx offered to forge a crown for the king, and in this other book, it described the material of the crown, which was not stated in this first book. It was made of amalegaphonium-”

“The indestructible metal,” Tarsus interrupted.

“Yes. Have you read the scrolls?”

“I grew up in the metal domain.”

“Indestructible?” Fulcan asked.

“It was an alloy of many metals forged into one,” Tarsus replied. “At the core was the rare but natural Zornium, harvested deep within Grozorg’s heart. Other simple metals like gold and copper, and a myriad of others formed amalegaphonium, creating a metal that could not be destroyed. Since Zornium was basically impossible to harvest, however, the creation of amalegaphonium was both extremely expensive and dangerous.”

“In fact,” Pyrrhus added, “the only object on Grozorg made with the most amalegaphonium was the crown belonging to the first high lord. Anyways, reading back to page six of this second book, Zornium was described as a reactive metal with a strange ability infused within. It was with Zornium the high lords used to shape and expand the land, and Zornium gave the power for Tyrannust I to create the original population of the nation. But in the first book I was reading, it kept stating how the high lords possessed a dark magic and understood the dark arts in order to create and expand the lands. It took me a while since it didn’t add up, but soon I figured out that the dark magic was all possible due to Zornium.”

“So Zornium is the source of the dark arts,” I summarized.

“You could say it that way. Linking the pieces, amalegaphonium was not only indestructible, but also capable of immense powers, to the extent of forming and destroying land. Page two-hundred and eight of the first book explains how Tyrannust I was able to do so much after unlocking the secrets of the dark arts, and the date specified in this book of when he started using the dark arts to shape the land matches the exact date specified in the second book of when he gained possession of the crown.”

“Has there been any other recordings of the use of amalegaphonium in the lore?” Fulcan asked.

“Small cases here and there, but so small the power of the metal was virtually non-existent. One strange case documents the disappearance of the metal from the nation’s mine, but the amount of metal gone was so little it was considered insignificant. Why?”

“Just wondering if it would lead anywhere. Never mind that,” the king responded.

“Tyrannust II divided the metal’s power by granting it to his twelve sons afterwards,” Lord Pyrrhus continued, “granting them a fragment of the metal’s capability, what you now know today as Grozorg’s ‘elements’.”

“The beginning of all elements...” I whispered to myself.

“So the crown has been passed down from high lord to high lord?” Tarsus asked.

“Yes, every high lord before Tyrannust VI has had the ancient crown in possession. But in this second book, it specified that the crown was replaced with a simple golden crown after high lord Tyrannust II suffered from intense migraines later in his reign. Many chapters afterwards, it mentioned how Tyrannust V found the Ancient Crown after the War of Zxyx, which had been locked away, and placed it on his head in symbolizing the victory of the nation, returning to its former glory. So though every high lord has had it in possession, the only high lords who has actually touched the Ancient Crown was the first, second, fifth, and currently, the sixth.”

“We’ve read the scrolls, but I’ve never seen that book before,” I spoke, pointing to Pyrrhus’ second book. “We’ve only studied that first book, the edition where it proclaimed the sole use of dark magic to form the lands. I’ve never heard of...almaphononium-”

“Amalegaphonium,” Pyrrhus corrected.

“Yeah, that metal. Never heard of it before.”

“The first book has been published all across Grozorg, and it’s accessible by the general public. As for this second book, there’s only a single copy of it. It comes from Lord Ferrius’ island, and it documents the evolution of the usage of metal on Grozorg. During a certain occasion, Ferrius and the Ignis Ordo’s paths crossed, and when we defeated Fer Oluun, we raided the city and looted this book. If I had never grieved over the loss of the order, if I had never started reading the scrolls, I would have never found out Tyrannust’s source.”

“So we just steal the crown and destroy it to defeat Tyrannust?”

“Easier said than done. And remember, amalegaphonium is ‘The Indestructible Metal’, so destroying it would be a bit hard to do.”

“Well now we have a solid plan, a method of destroying Tyrannust.”

“Like I said, I’m not entirely sure if the crown is his source of power. Besides, the only way you can get that crown is if you get through the layer of almega coating and protecting him, and that in itself is not likely going to happen.”

“The crown is his armour,” I said. “Interesting. The crown produces the almega armour, and the armour protects the crown.”

“Wait a minute...Zornium’s at the heart of Grozorg?” Foku asked randomly. “If Zornium’s the heart of ‘evil’, doesn’t that mean that...Grozorg was essentially ‘evil’ from birth?”

The room fell silent. The people within glanced at each other, pondering on Foku’s simple words. It was inevitable, and Foku was right. There was no such thing as a utopia, no such thing as a former glory. Grozorg was already corrupted the moment it was created.

“Well there are bigger things to focus on right now, and there’s no changing of Grozorg’s history either. The only choice we can make now is how to save the nation from falling deeper into the chaos it already is in.”

“What else do you know about the high lord?” The king continued to ask.

“He’s currently forming his own army - that’s why all the lords are declaring war. It’s all part of his plan, to stall your army long enough for him to create his own.”

“And once his army is created?”

“I’m not sure what his intentions are, but I have a clear guess. With such a powerful element, it wouldn’t be right to just slave Grozorg under his command.”

“He’s targeting...the universe?”

“The multiverse. Once he gets this universe under his belt, it won’t be hard for him to get the other millions of universes out there. And once he commands the multiverse, he’d be crowned the highest title in all existence. That’s a reason why he corrupted every lord but you, Fulcan. He saw how every element would be vital in helping him conquer the multiverse, but yours. With Crothus, he could command time. With Ceiros, he’d easily seize planets. With Illya, he’d move from dimension to dimension effortlessly. Every overlord plays an essential role, and it seems he’s already completed this first step. But your element of light and purity? He won’t be needing that in a long time.”

“Then why not just end me, if he’s that powerful, and if I’m but a hindrance to him?”

“Another wild guess, but he’d probably want to test his forces against yours. You have the strongest and largest military strength in all of Grozorg. If the legion he’s preparing right now crushes yours at ease, he’d crush any other extraterrestrial military force out there in the multiverse. You’re a guinea pig, a test subject to him. But that’s just my guess.”

“An entirely appropriate guess,” Fulcan spoke through gritted teeth.

“I...I became so knowledgeable about the high lord ever since Tyrannust corrupted me,” the lord of fire confessed. “It’s as if I knew his plans, ever since I became one with his element. It’s as if...the overlords knew what he was thinking...and he knew what the overlords were thinking.”

“Makes sense,” Fulcan agreed, pondering on Lord Pyrrhus’ words. “That’s how Tyrannust figured out when an overlord was defeated, or how he found out you had resisted his power. What do you reckon we do now?”

Before the ruler could answer, the amulets around each of the Ignis Ordo member’s necks glowed a bright, fiery red, and the six faces stared at each other wide-eyed.

“Code red, the Pyromancer’s in danger. Let’s go!”

“Wait!” I shouted.

Everyone stopped in their tracks and turned towards me. A wave of embarrassment swept across me, but something inside me felt determined.

“What if...what if it’s a trap?” I spoke, collecting my thoughts. “You said...you said Tyrannust knows your every thought. So then he would know that you told us everything, and he could be luring you to the Pyromancer to kill you!”

The lord of the fire domain looked conflicted, his eyes wandering around, thinking about my words.

“And you said the Pyromancer was corrupted! The only person Tyrannust needs to dispose is you!”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Pyrrhus began. “Perhaps it’s a trap...but I can’t see another member of the order die. If this is the end, so be it.”

“No! Wait! This is all part of his pla-”

Before I could stop him, the lord and his order swiftly left the palace and headed towards the Army of Light and Purity.

The two guilds looked at me blankly as Fulcan chased after the lord, and I picked up my feet to pursue Pyrrhus as well.

 

XXXIV

 

We rushed out of Pyrrhus’ palace and returned to where Fulcan’s army stood, only to be greeted by the high lord himself and ten of his legion members. We couldn’t keep up with Pyrrhus’ pace, falling behind by a couple of steps and failing to stop him in his tracks.

The Army of Light and Purity was still surrounded by the Pyromancer’s ring of fire, and the Pyromancer showed no sign of peril, confirming my guess.

Tyrannust was hovering in the air, as usual, and he had his right fist held up. Swinging from his tightly clenched fist in the hot breeze was the Pyromancer’s pendant, glowing the same, bright red.

Fulcan instinctively stepped in front of Pyrrhus, and our two guilds blocked the lord from Tyrannust’s view.

“My faithful servant, what have you done?” Tyrannust began, approaching us.

“My...my lord...O highest lord in all of Grozorg...”

Pyrrhus stuttered in his words, his facade rapidly fading.

“Don’t play games with me anymore, dog!”

At once, the high lord snapped his wrists down and two whips appeared, dropping the Pyromancer’s necklace. At the same time, Pyrrhus and his four order members pulled out their revolvers, each gun cocked and pointed towards Tyrannust. Simultaneously, the Almega Legion surrounded the order, each holding up a tainted, black blade against the outnumbered order. The Pyromancer turned to face Pyrrhus, arms up in an offensive position.

“‘O highest lord?’ Is this how you treat your ‘lord’? Don’t think I don’t know what you are doing!”

“Don’t interfere,” Fulcan whispered harshly towards me, backing away. “My men need to make it to the next war.”

I quickly passed his message to the guild members beside me, stepping back subtly to observe the confrontation between the uncorrupted lord and the high lord. Lord Pyrrhus’ knuckles turned white from the firm grip on his two silver revolvers and sweat beads formed across his pale, fear-coated face.

“I would have wished for more time, but other overlords can stall this useless king and his army longer than you. Didn’t I warn you of the consequences that would rise if you let a word slip from your lips?”

Pyrrhus winced, lowering his head and shutting his eyes tight. There was something disturbing him, as if something was clutching his skull. He lifted his head and let out a howl as the veins across his neck tinted a familiar black. His eyes were wide-opened, and the bloodshot, dilated pupils were flooded by darkness.

“I’m a man of my words, overlord - or should I say, lord, as you wished. The day I gave you powers, the day you resisted, was the day of your downfall. If I told you there would be consequences, you should’ve expected it when you decided to leak everything to this man of a king. It won’t matter in the end - it’ll all end the same. Nothing can stand against me!”

Pyrrhus let out another inhuman shriek, shaking his head violently as if he was demon-possessed. The four Ignis Ordo members stepped forward and fired their pistols, but at a supernatural speed the ten almega warriors around Tyrannust leaped forward and deflected the four bullets with their swords, leaving the unflinching high lord unscathed.

“Today, another order goes extinct. In a matter of time, the multiverse as you know it will become the same!”

Tyrannust lifted one arm, and the necklaces around every member of the order’s necks were ripped off, making their way into the high lord’s open palm. Tyrannust clenched his fist and the amulets shattered, bits of metal trickling to the parched clay ground.

Pyrrhus howled again in deep pain, and his entire face was red with a dark tint of black corrupting his circulation.

“O unfaithful servant, I never needed you anyways. So what if the overlords die? Only the Mancers are the masters in their elements! You’re just as weak as Naterra, Geonyte, and Helterium. I’ll help end your suffering.”

Tyrannust opened his palm and let the remaining chains and scraps of metal fall out. He then slowly rotated his wrist, and pointed two fingers towards Pyrrhus. In response, both of Pyrrhus’ hands rotated and pointed the two muzzles towards his own temples.

“Not like this, your honour! Please!” The lord gargled through shrieks of pain. The veins in his arms had turned a dark black; he could not control his convulsing body.

Pyrrhus flailed around uncontrollably, screaming out inaudible phrases. His two arms were locked in position, pressing the muzzles against his own skull. Tyrannust turned to King Fulcan with a wicked smile.

“Four down, eight to go.”

“No!” Pyrrhus screeched. “N-”

Pyrrhus’ inhuman scream was cut off by two deafening gunshots. The lord of fire lay lifeless on the desert floor, a pool of blood expanding around his deformed head, drenching the thirsty ground and soaking the parched land. In quick succession, four more gunshots were heard, and the rest of the order fell lifeless around Pyrrhus.

“I’m tempted to destroy your army here and now, but then it’d ruin the fun,” Tyrannust began, face locked on Fulcan’s. “Well, it wouldn’t hurt to say that Askar and her Sisterhood is much stronger than this pathetic fire order anyways. I’ll be waiting for you, king.”

With a thunderous cackle, the high lord bolted upwards in a flash, disappearing in the clear blue sky. The legion around him vanished in a black mist, fading away in the hot desert wind.

No words were said. No looks were exchanged. We stood there in silence, in shock, in anger. But there was nothing we could do.

The Pyromancer had vanished in a blaze of flames as well, releasing Fulcan’s army from the ring of fire. We stood in the hot air in silence as the island witnessed the death of their ruler through closed curtains and boarded blinds.

Doors began to open as civilians started pouring out, surrounding their dead lord. No cries filled the air, however. Passersby glanced at the lord, scoffed, and walked away, carrying on with their deeds before Tyrannust’s interruption. Pyrrhus must have played his guise well, fooling even his own people. There would be no burial for him from the nation, no one to pay him homage, no one to attend his funeral. The nation was insensitive to their ruler, all because of their ruler’s will, their ruler’s love, to protect them, to protect Grozorg.

I was disappointed, frustrated, but the people wouldn’t listen to what I had to proclaim about Pyrrhus. He was dead with his order, and there was no one left the people could trust who would have testified Pyrrhus’ true intentions.

Pyrrhon stepped in front of me and pulled the two revolvers out of the dead ruler’s darkened hands. Slipping them into his belt, he pulled out the last Ignis Ordo pendant from his pocket as tears trickled down his face.

“I will avenge you, brother,” the last order member vowed through gritted teeth. “I will avenge the order. Tyrannust VI will be crushed, and the Ignis Ordo will rise again.”

 

XXXV

 

“What do you think he meant when he said the whole multiverse would be extinct?”

“It does link to Lord Pyrrhus’ belief,” Fulcan answered.

The king had insisted on titling Pyrrhus ‘lord’ ever since his death, stating how he was truly the last of Grozorg’s hope.

“How so?” I continued. We were underground again, passing time by discussing what we had just experienced.

“I’m not sure, but something inside me clicked,” the king spoke hurriedly. “There’s something else that has been bothering me, actually. Do you really think Askar is declaring war next?” Fulcan asked, setting my question aside.

“Are you wondering if Tyrannust told the truth?”

“It...it doesn’t fit with the pattern of islands that have declared war. Every island was directly across each other.”

“Maybe the high lord’s just throwing a curveball at us. It could be the next war; we have no evidence why it isn’t.”

“Wouldn’t Ferrius’ island be a more suitable candidate?” Fulcan continued to wonder, as if I hadn’t said a single word.

“Did you send any scouts out?” Tarsus asked.

“Only to Askar’s land, but they haven't returned.”

We arrived at a division in the tunnels; our one lane split into two.

“The left tunnel eventually goes to the metal domain,” General Zartan explained, interrupting the king’s answer, “and the right to the domain of air, according to this map. We have to make up our minds now.”

“I’d stick with the right, but you have the final say, Fulcan,” I immediately spoke.

The king and I both looked at Tarsus.

“I don’t know,” he quickly confessed. “Both islands have evidence on why they could be the next domain declaring war.”

“If you were forced to choose?”

Tarsus didn't answer. He looked down, thinking through his thoughts.

“What if we split our troops?” He asked, immediately responded by grumbles of complaint.

“We’d be facing a two-front war,” the king replied. “And I can't afford to lose more men now. We have to make a choice. So?”

“Well, I’d rather trust the high lord’s words than some pattern we’ve been following.”

“So we desert all order to follow the villain’s few words?”

“This isn’t a question between chaos and order,” I answered. “This-"

“What would happen if we stepped foot on the wrong island?” General Zartan questioned behind me, cutting me off.

“Most likely nothing,” the king replied, “so there’s no risk heading left to Ferrius’ domain.”

“We’re caught between a rock and a hard place; if we step foot on the wrong island and they find out, they would most likely declare war on us, and we’d be facing a two-front war then,” Tarsus countered.

“That’s an assumption,” the king scowled. “We’re going left.”

“I’m with you, King Fulcan,” the general responded. Another soldier voiced his agreement, then another, and soon enough, the whole army backed their king’s decision.

Without waiting for our counter, the king began to walk down the left path, disregarding both Tarsus’ and my decision completely, as before. Hopefully he was right this time.

Tarsus glowered as he picked up his pace, ready to confront the intransigent king. He was stopped in his tracks by a gentle arm firmly gripping his broad wrist, Glo halting him from unleashing his temper in front of the king again.

“He...that man...Fulcan...augh!” Tarsus choked on his words, trying to express his anger to Glo.

“He’s like that, and we already know he won’t change his mind once he sets it on something. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Glo gently cupped Tarsus’ hands in her pale palms and Tarsus’ flushed face slowly returned to its natural, tanned colour.

“Well, there’s only one way to know now,” I started with a quick sigh. “The king will be the king. There’s only one way to tell if that was the right choice or not.”

I followed the army through the passage, and the two guilds followed suit. It would be a disaster if we arrived at the wrong island.

 

And it was.

It wasn’t just a disaster.

No, it was chaos.

We stood on the battlements of King Fulcan’s royal palace, holding our ground against the two attacking forces. Devastating gales from the Sisterhood crashed against the fortified walls as the Overlord of Metal rampaged through the city in his adamantine battle machine and his artificial army.

It was the final stand, the capital nearly decimated by the unceasing forces of air and metal combined. Villages and farmlands all around Tenebris were decimated to nothing but ashes and rubble. The frantic villagers, citizens, and refugees of the metal domain had sought shelter within the palace walls that bordered Tenebris, but the ramparts of the city had been crushed, and soon the walls would give way, exposing the capital city, the last beacon of hope.

“Squadron Phoenix! North wall, one two one! Squadron Quetzal! Northeast watchtower! All forces against the overlord’s machine!”

Commands were thrown left and right, words spat out from the king and his generals unrelentingly. The entire Army of Light and Purity scrambled around the perimeters of the city, carrying out their tasks to hold back the powerful elemental troops.

The Sisterhood of Air had begun their unstoppable elemental barrage against the South Wall, which were reinforced by three quarters of Fulcan’s army. Meanwhile, Overlord Ferrius had scattered his artificial army all against the North and East Wall, specifically targeting the smaller Northeast Tower. The overlord himself bashed against the West Wall, the enormous machine effortlessly crushing the fortified capital.

Our two guilds had positioned themselves across the North wall, directly facing the oncoming cyber attack. Sylvan took position within a watchtower while Foku fired beam after beam at ground troops, quickly recharging and unleashing his stunning lance. Glo spared no time to rest, tending troop after troop to prepare them for the brutal force of war again. Tarsus and I were scurrying across the bricked platform, slashing at the androids that attempted to scale up the lofty castle wall.

“Back to the good times, eh?” Tarsus managed to joke, shouting above the heat of the war.

“Who could’ve guessed?” I responded with a small grin, hacking a robotic limb off and slicing through another arm. The torrents of droids were never-ending; as long as the overlord was still alive in his behemoth battle machine the waves would never cease.

“Honestly,” Tarsus continued in a strained voice, “I would’ve much preferred your plan of ‘improvise’ over Fulcan’s ‘improvise’.”

A metallic head flew from Tarsus’ blade, colliding into my right shoulder, sending my midair cut off course.

“Watch it!” I scolded.

“Not my fault!” Tarsus denied as another robotic hand slapped across my face from Tarsus’ decapitating swings. “Blame Fulcan, if there’s anyone to blame! If it weren’t for him, we could’ve ended Askar’s war first, then Ferrius’. The king was wrong, again! Honestly, I should be the king!”

“Hey, on the bright side, we’re defeating two forces in a shorter amount of time!”

I was getting tired, my arms sore from the endless slashes and jabs at the lifeless androids. But the lifetime I had spent training for days like these kept me going, fuelling every swing and cut.

“That’s only if we win!” Tarsus exclaimed. His golden shuang-gou continued its hypnotizing, circular path, slicing through anything that dared to enter the rotating blade. As I was caught in a trance by his mesmerizing blade, a robotic hand collided against his deadly shuang-gou, five fingerings splattering across my face.

“Mm-augh!” I spat. “Stop that!”

“Stop what?” Tarsus chuckled.

“We’re not gonna win if you don’t stop sending those robotic pieces every which way!”

I was immediately greeted by a metallic foot against my chest from Tarsus’ swings.

“Oops, my bad. Well, I guess we’re losing for sure then.”

“Good luck fighting by yourself! I’m joining Kadava!”

The swarm of metal droids scaling up the castle wall had diminished, but the northeast tower was now crowded with hordes and hordes. The barbaric androids were commanded to retarget onto the lookout tower, and the metal scraps clawed against each other, robot piling upon robot, slowly inching up the golden walls of the fortified watchtower. Kadava and Sylvan were alongside the soldiers positioned within the tower, and I ran across the battlement to assist them.

“We need more help here!” Kadava exclaimed as I approached. He sent out shurikens and kunai, each one impressively puncturing into an android’s skull or chest, throwing the metal skeletons off the tower. His reformed metal leg was concealed under torn pants, and his swift movements and agile speed questioned if he still had two human legs.

Just then, the first brick started to fall. Then the next.

A gleaming hand reached up, then another.

One by one, the northeast watchtower started to crumble before my eyes as the swarm of androids overwhelmed the fortified structure.

Tenebris was breached.

 

XXXVI

 

When we arrived at Overlord Ferrius’ island, we were greeted by a magnificently industrialized nation. The entire island was hard at work, steam piping from thick metal chutes, enormous gears constantly turning and grinding the city’s power. Though I had stepped foot on the island once many years ago, it was completely different from what it was now; an industrial revolution had wiped across the entire island.

“We’re in the civilized sector,” Tarsus informed us.

“What does that mean?” The king asked.

“There are two sectors on this domain: the civilized and the artificial. A couple years back, tension grew between the already ruling Grozorgians and the newly emerged race of artificial intelligence. After political turmoil and many peaceful protests, Lord Ferrius had decided to divvy up the nation to segregate the flesh from the metal.”

“No violence was involved?”

“When the first artificial intelligent droid defied its system, it started planting the bug into other droidic systems until it gathered an army. The Grozorgians were scared, but the droids approached the legislative grounds peacefully. After receiving no response from the government, the androids proceeded to sit until the entire plaza was filled with idle bots. When Lord Ferrius finally declared Amendment Four, the droids happily proceeded to claim the newly given land - the artificial sector.”

“But why would Ferrius do such a thing? It sounds like the people never approved of it.”

“Beats me. I was against the idea too, as was every single soul in the civilized sector. Why should we give up our rightfully owned land to something we created so they could gain equal rights? It didn’t make sense. But from the accounts I’ve heard, Ferrius was part droidic. Apparently he was caught in a life-threatening accident, and the majority of him was replaced with an android system. Maybe he was the one who woke the first robot.”

“A cyborg. Interesting. So we’re in the civilian sector? The Grozorgian sector?”

“Yeah. Over there was where the Night Guild originated.”

Tarsus pointed towards the east where a stack of metal balls were piled on top of one another, either modern art or a pile of rubbish.

“The civilized sector has harboured resentment against artificial intelligence ever since,” Tarsus continued to explain. “Every Grozorgian had vowed to stop the production of animatronics. But that doesn’t matter now; the artificials are reproducing by themselves by the masses. Right now, their population is the same as ours, but soon, they’ll exceed us. That’s why we fear an uprising and oppression against us. We’re weaker, smaller, and less knowledgeable. Amendment four was a mistake from the beginning.”

The Grozorgians of the civilized sector had started to gather around our army, fascinated that the king of Mainland Grozorg would pay them a visit. The civilians had soot and dirt mixed into their dark skin, but they greeted us with warm smiles and hopeful eyes.

“Momma, is that him? Is that King Fulcan, the slayer of the thousands?” A young boy to my left questioned, pulling on his mother’s arm, expecting an answer.

“Yes, dear,” she simply replied, a smile wiped across her wrinkled face. “That’s him.”

Soon, the entire sector had stopped their work to come and speculate the elite Army of Light and Purity, many in awe of witnessing the eminent guardians of Grozorg.

“Can someone show me the way to Overlord Ferrius?” The king asked.

Voices rose among the crowd in uncertainty, whispers spreading amongst the large sector.

“Are you here to set us free?” A male voice asked sheepishly.

“Are you here to redeem us?” Another female spoke.

“Are you here to reclaim this land for us?”

The crowd escalated into a growing clamour, awaiting the king’s response.

“Silence!” General Zartan boomed, plaguing the sector with a hush. “The king speaks!”

“My fellow Grozorgians, today will be the downfall of Ferrius.”

A roar rose from the crowd, quickly silenced by the general’s thundering voice again.

“Whatever he has done to you, whatever oppression you have endured, whatever property rightfully taken from you, everything will all be returned. Today marks a new day for this nation!”

The crowd went wild again. This time, the audience ignored the general’s command of silence, cheering and praising the king of Grozorg.

“Long live the king! Long live the king!” The group chanted in unison. Soon the entire sector shouted the praise, stamping and clapping and creating a thunderous uproar.

“Follow us!” A distant voice shouted. The sector continued their resounding chants, slowly shifting to the heart of the city.

When we arrived at the grand parliament building, our entrance had been announced well in advance to the elected body. We were met by ten government officials, clad in a black suit with visors concealing the majority of their faces.

“I am not going to ask again,” an official shouted through an amplifier. “Stand down!”

The crowd hurled insults at the official, clawing barbarically and trampling him underfoot. The nine other officials pulled out large, otherworldly weapons and pointed it towards the throng. The crowd quickly ceased in motion, frozen before the intimidating firearms.

As the civilized sector died down, I seized the opportunity to scan my surroundings. The large parliament building was built in front of a flat, colourless plaza, and a tall, sparking barbed wire fence stretched far from the east and west side of the government structure, evidently segregating the two conflicting sectors. Beyond the fence lay a whole new nation; extremely technologically-advanced structures and towering skyscrapers of otherworldly designs made it appear a fantasy more than a reality. The artificial sector had advanced well beyond present-day technology, futuristic aircrafts and maglev trains winding through the sophisticated area compared to the primitive civilized sector.

“Everyone on your knees! Hands above your heads!”

As the sector complied, the nine remaining government officials were reinforced by a military force. Armoured men weaved in front of the officials and dropped to one knee, setting up a barricade with transparent shields, while other law enforcers rushed behind the shield bearers to raise their guns towards us.

“They’re all cyborgs,” Tarsus whispered to the king. “Grozorgians would never betray their sector to work for the government.”

“I’m Senator Shane T-X1000. What seems to cause your arrival, your majesty? Why have you caused this uproar in our nation?”

“We know what you’re up to, Senator. Tell the overlord to come out and meet me face to face, then I’ll talk.”

“The king commands my presence?” A distant voice resonated from the building, amplified through a large, hidden speaker.

“The overlord can hear you from where you are. Please keep talking, your majesty.”

“I want to see Ferrius, face to face.”

Overlord Ferrius, Fulcan. Get these weak Grozorgians off my lawn, then we’ll talk.”

“We know your plans, overlord. If you choose to surrender now, I would gladly leave with my forces and you would be as you are.”

The civilian sector started grumbling, shocked at Fulcan’s words.

“Wasn’t he going to kill the overlord?” A voice whispered loudly. “What is he doing?”

“Surrender? You thought I was declaring war? You show up completely uninvited to my island with your full force, expecting to defeat me, who hasn’t even shown any hatred against you, and you expected me to declare war?”

Just then, a scout of the army came back at full speed, hastily picking up his pace until he reached the king.

“Askar-” he panted, hands on his lap. “Overlord Askar and the Sisterhood are at the bridge! If we - if we don’t go back to Tenebris, all hope - all hope is lost! The city - the city will be destroyed!”

“Askar declared war on us?” Fulcan immediately responded, taken aback as if he had never expected it.

“Since your army is already here,” the voice from the parliament continued, “I might as well fulfill the high lord’s request I had never even once considered before your arrival!”

At once, the windows of the organized structure shattered as an enormous machine leaped through. The battle machine was at least twenty foot tall and at the top sat the overlord, controlling two indestructible arms and legs with his own.

“The new age begins today!” Ferrius exclaimed.

Alarms suddenly blared across the entire island as the barbed wire gate was lowered.

“Run!” A civilian shouted. As the throng of Grozorgians scrambled to their feet in chaos, the law enforcers opened fire among innocent men and women, slaying the front row in a matter of seconds.

“Squadron Phoenix! Squadron Quetzal! Protect the civilians! Evacuate the city and bring them to Tenebris! Squadron Dragon, Squadron Wyvern, return to defend Tenebris from the Sisterhood! The rest of the army, hold off the artificial sector!”

Fulcan followed a squadron headed to Tenebris after whispering to his generals brief commands.

“Blood right! Night, left!” I exclaimed right after the king.

We ran to our designated spots. The artificial sector released thousands and thousands of humanoids towards us, metallic skeletons barely protected by any armour. Upon collision amongst the front ranks of the Army of Light and Purity, the droids tore through the thick golden shields like paper.

“Get to work!” I shouted, pulling out my blades and slashing at the dozens. Though they were barely armoured, their skeletal structure was nearly impenetrable, sharpened blades struggling to cut through the hardened dense metal.

The artificial sector was slowly pushing through, forcing us back towards the edge of the civilized sector.

“There’s a defence system here, but I don’t know how to activate it!” Tarsus shouted across the battlefield. “The Grozorgians had implemented heavy defence on their turf in fear of this, but now that everyone’s gone, no one can activate the system!”

“Weren’t you born here?” Foku shouted back, irritated.

“I was born on Nythar’s island!”

“What?” I yelled, dropping my arms. “You’re from the Necro Domain?”

I picked up my pace and hastened my movements, slashing and jabbing at the weapon-less androids that were swarming around the army.

“That doesn’t matter! Is there anyone here who knows how to trigger the emergency detonation sequence?”

There were no answers. Everyone that had lived in the sector had fled to Tenebris with the king; the only Grozorgians on Ferrius’ island was our two guilds and some of the Fulcan’s army.

My mind was focused on how much closer Tarsus and I actually was. We were around the same age, and to find out now that we were also born in the same domain. My father had always believed that everyone was related to each other in an elemental domain. Was I...distantly related to Tarsus?

“We can’t keep fighting like this!” Tarsus yelled.

“If we don’t slaughter the lot of them, they’ll take over the capital city in a rampage!” I shouted back.

“Then we fight to the end! Come on, guild members! We were trained for today!”

The battle raged on as more men and women from the Army of Light and Purity fell to the delirious metal droids led by Ferrius in his ravaging war machine. Tarsus was right; there was no way we could turn this war around. It was Fulcan’s mistake for choosing to come here, but the past was in the past, and there was no way to alter the events that had happened now.

“What do you know about the defence system?” Pyrrhon shouted, a fiery blast escaping his two palms.

“It’s located in one of the central buildings on the basement floor, but that’s all I know! There’s no way we can search all the buildings in time!”

“We’re gonna need a miracle to turn this battle around,” Pyrrhon muttered, sending another fiery explosion towards a crowd of approaching androids.

Suddenly, two colossal mortars slowly rose from a building to my left and right. The mortars were repositioned and locked onto the artificial sector.

“The defence system is activated!” Tarsus exclaimed. “Everyone, retreat!”

At once, the army and our guilds ran towards the edge of the island as the mortars fired the first round of devastating shells. The ground thundered and shook as the payloads contacted the island, sending debris and metal flying everywhere, clouding the land with a thick storm of dust. The pathway between the ever-growing droidic army and our two outnumbered guilds also exploded, landmines destroying the front ranks of the metallic army as the pathway erupted from the myriads of detonated bombs beneath.

More and more gargantuan turrets rose from each building, firing automatically towards the incoming droids. Soon, the wave of artificially intelligent humanoids stopped pouring through the lowered barbed wire fence, barricaded by deadly rounds of bullets and explosive payloads. We lowered our weapons and halted, staring in awe.

“Who activated the system?” Tarsus asked, confused as he scanned the area around him.

Out of the clearing smoke stepped two figures, one lanky in a cerulean robe, and the other figure lean but well built. In his hands were two triangular blades, and he was messily dressed in a simple sackcloth shirt with a patched leather vest.

Kadava was back.

“Didn’t figure a mess like this would happen when I left,” he spoke, approaching us with Arcanor beside him.

We were overwhelmed by his presence. Of course, we all instinctively looked at his leg which was concealed in the same pants he wore every day. We embraced him tightly, sharing our smiles with each other.

“Arcanor told me you guys were in trouble. Or at least a recurring vision told him that. Since I was all good and well, I figured it was time to rejoin the team. Glad to be back.” Kadava smiled and slapped me on the back.

“You activated the system?” I asked.

“Of course. I built the system.”

He laughed again, winking at the guild members around him.

“I helped plan and build the defensive layout for the civilian sector. The bullets won’t hold them off though; we’re gonna run out of ammo soon.”

“What do we do then?”

“Run.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Draw Ferrius and his artificial army to Tenebris,” Arcanor spoke. “Kill two birds with one stone.”

“That’s suicide! We all know how strong the Sisterhood of Air is - I reckon we already lost the capital city to them by now! We can’t bring another force into Mainland Grozorg!”

“I saw a war after this between Fulcan’s army and a strange horde,” Arcanor replied. “If I can foresee another attack so clearly, that means that this plan will somehow work. And it doesn’t look like we have a choice, either.”

He pointed to the segregating line, where the last round of bullets had scattered across the sector. The oversized weapons powered down, smoke fuming from the large guns as they retreated back into the buildings around us.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Kadava asked. “Don’t mind me; with this new leg, I can outrun any of you!”

“Run!” I shouted, delivering my command to the remaining soldiers of the Army of Light and Purity.

We made a break for the bridge at the edge of the island that linked to Mainland Grozorg. Arcanor opened a portal to send as many footmen as he could directly to the king’s palace before he tired himself out. The overlord soon realized we had run out of ammunition, and the artificial sector began pouring out to pursue us again. Sprinting back to carry Arcanor on my shoulders, our only hope now was to defend the capital city from two opposing elemental forces.

 

XXXVII

 

As the bricks fell one by one before my eyes, I grabbed everyone off the tower, pushing them onto the battlements. The overlord had commanded his entire army to overwhelm the Northeast Tower.

“We ran out of cannons!” A soldier shouted towards a general as he ran by. “Our ammunition was depleted after the war against Overlord Helterium!”

“The South Wall is about to fall!” Another footman proclaimed.

“Overlord Ferrius is about to take down the West Wall!” A distant warrior cried.

“What do we do?” Kadava asked.

The entire tower crumbled, bricks falling to the ground, revealing a gap between the North and East Wall. Behind the fallen tower were tens of thousands of worried faces, civilians from the metal domain and Mainland Grozorg helplessly huddled within Tenebris.

“Guild leader!” A figure shouted on the ground. I looked down and recognized a familiar face. She was a refugee from the civilized sector.

“There might be a way for us to power the androids down. Most of the robotic army was built by us!”

“What is it?” I asked. We had to try anything now, no matter the risks.

“The older models are controlled by a frequency emitted from the overlord’s machine,” she began, “so if we found an amplifier loud enough to override the transmission, the army would be frozen in motion!”

“Amplifier!” I immediately shouted to passing guards. “Find an amplifier!”

“Sir, all our amplifiers are implemented into buildings!”

The first android clawed through the rubble and into the city, immediately taken down by a fearless boy wielding a simple gun. I scrambled down to join the civilians, prepared to slay the artificial bots breaching through.

“We don’t have time!” I mumbled, watching the growing group of war droids struggling through the fallen watchtower and into the city.

“Air and Metal!” Arcanor suddenly shouted on the battlement above me. “It was in my vision; the two forces were fighting each other! We don’t need an amplifier, we just need to channel the air to mess up the frequency!”

“How do we do that?”

“Trying to figure that out,” he grunted, fending off incoming androids.

“Your portals!” Tarsus shouted from afar, approaching the torn-down tower. “Can’t you summon two portals?”

I glanced at Arcanor and his face immediately lit up.

“I...I can’t! I’m not strong enough!”

“Arcanor!” I yelled, irritated. “If you don’t do it now, you’ll never be able to do it again!”

“I just-"

“Our nation lies in your hands! Your fate lies in your hands! You said it yourself, we would make it out of this! Are you really gonna counter your own vision?”

He quickly glanced towards the crumbling South Wall, noticing the strongest point of attack from the Sisterhood against the bricked battlement, then he switched his gaze to the devastating war machine hammering down the North Wall. His eyes burnt a bright blue as he rapidly rose into the air. Placing two hands onto his temples, he focused and exhaled deeply. Suddenly, two portals opened simultaneously and in a couple of seconds, they were snapped close.

But a couple of seconds were all we needed.

The entire metal army fell still for a moment except for a few deviants that kept fighting as a gale encased Ferrius and his contraption.

“They’re newer models,” the girl explained beside me as she tore through a deviant. “I don’t know how they’re controlled.”

The overlord’s battle machine fell to the ground as a strong blast of air was shot directly into its chest through Arcanor’s two gaping portals. Ferrius looked up in confusion and he was greeted with Askar’s surprised face through the twin portals.

“Askar!” He shouted, enraged, eyes locked onto the Overlord of Air. His machine’s left arm had snapped from the fall, and the remaining three mechanical limbs were partially damaged, fuelling his anger all the more.

“Attack!” He shouted in fury. As the frequency was re-emitted, his troops came back to life and the metal droids scrambled along the East and West Walls to confront the Sisterhood.

The Sisterhood was the government of the aerial domain, an elite council of twelve females including the overlord and the Aeromancer that acted as both the governing power and law enforcers. From what had happened during this war, it was obvious that the domain of Air lacked a military force, compromised by the deadly skills of the twelve elected individuals. As Ferrius and his entire army took down the Northeast Tower, the twelve Sisters of Air accomplished a greater feat in the same amount of time, nearly destroying the entire South Wall while fending off the majority of the Army of Light and Purity. If this sudden turn of events had never occurred, today would have marked the last day of Fulcan’s reign, the last day of Grozorg’s only hope.

The thick waves of droids were easily demolished by the Sisterhood, who had now formed a dodecagon, vanquishing the oncoming metallic force. Each sister was equally talented in their element; it was as if the Sisterhood was a group of twelve Aeromancers. As Ferrius’ troops scrambled around haphazardly with no sense of organization, the Sisterhood bent the air and wind around the androids, crushing them from every which way and sapping the very life from the lifeless robots.

“Askar! You will not make a fool of me!” The overlord of metal thundered, the accreting rage fuelling his thoughtless impulsiveness.

Fulcan had briskly ordered his forces not to interfere with the two overlords out of fear of starting a three-way war. The Army had scattered around the fallen walls, quickly working together to repair damaged sections of the battlements. The citizens had also split off into groups, scurrying around with scraps of wood and metal to create temporary barricades against the fallen watchtower in great synergy, learning new ferromancing techniques from the civilized sector.

I climbed up the Southeast watchtower to reconvene with the other thirteen guild members who had also gathered there, silently watching the exchange between Ferrius and Askar behind the bricked battlement.

The metal overlord threw a series of punches and jabs through his mechanical machine towards an invisible aura surrounding the Sisterhood. His surviving army scrambled around the hemispherical force field and attempted to claw through. Two sisters were holding the force field in the center, while Askar, the Aeromancer, and the remaining eight sisters were faced inwards in a huddle, as if plotting a devious scheme. The center of the huddle started to grow brighter and brighter as Ferrius’ entire army of droids surrounded the twelve sisters.       All of a sudden, a bright explosion filled the skies as the eight sisters released a pent-up elemental eruption.

The South Wall crumbled completely from the sudden devastating force, taking down part of the Southeast watchtower. Instinctively, we all made a break for the East Wall before the tower could take us down with it.

Chrikhil, who had stood nearest to the South Wall, lost footing and slid down as part of the battlement crumbled, quickly grabbing onto a loose metal rod that was exposed from the unstable watchtower.

“Chrikhil!” Tarsus shouted, the first to notice his guild member hanging on for her life. “Don’t let go!”

“It’s slipping!” She yelled hysterically, frantically trying to pull herself up.

I quickly ran with Tarsus towards Chrikhil. The rest of our guilds had already made it onto the East Wall, and falling debris prevented them from returning to help us. Arcanor, helplessly slumped along the top of the East Wall, was fast asleep, recovering.

Those few strides towards Chrikhil felt like an eternity. If I had known to be a step faster, she wouldn’t have died.

We were just a step away, diving down to grab her bloodied wrist and pulling her up. As Tarsus mirrored my sprint towards Chrikhil, we dove down in perfect unison as the metal rod dislodged from the brick. Chrikhil dropped with the rod a hundred feet down as Tarsus and I peered over the ledge, arms extended a second too late. We watched as she flailed downwards helplessly, brutally colliding against the stone ground with a cold thud, splattering the bricks around her a bright crimson.

I turned towards Tarsus as we both lay on our stomachs on the cold battlement, head extended over the ledge, arms drooping over in defeat. He lowered his head and sighed in grief as a drop of tear fell down the same one hundred meters, kissing Chrikhil’s still cheek.

“She was the best of the guild,” he simply noted, head buried into the battlement floor. The lack of empathy in his tone was expiated by an immense anguish. “She was better than me.”

I lowered my forehead onto the battlement floor. The ghost of my memories flooded my head and my eyes as Tarsus repeated his words.

“She was better than me.”

We lay hopeless on the tower, defeated. The shifting bricks around us were crumbling, but Tarsus was flat on his stomach, unmoving, in grief, in pain.

Kadava and Calliphar quickly leapt across the battlement and picked each of us up, bolting back towards the East Wall as the entire Southeast Tower collapsed behind us. I had no words to say to comfort Tarsus. There were no words to say. No words could ever change the harsh reality, the sudden realization that a loved one would never be by your side again. I shared Tarsus’ hopelessness as he sat against the East Wall, his body drooped and expression defeated.

“I could’ve saved her,” he slowly began, turning towards his guild members.

The very same words echoed in my head.

I could’ve saved her.

Words of justice were delivered from the Sisterhood. There was a celebration in the background. Tens of thousands of chants and cheers, praises and songs, but the thirteen of us sat lifeless on the castle wall. The sound became inaudible as the memories flooded my head. Chrikhil’s frightened face as she dropped for an eternity. Roslyn’s fearless face as she pulled the lever.

“I could’ve saved her,” Tarsus repeated, dwelling on the same hopelessness.

I couldn’t do it. The pain was too much to bear, the past was too much to relive. I walked away hastily, finding my own space further down the broad East Wall.

“Take a break,” Kadava spoke as he approached me. His words were comforting, but demanding. “We won the war. Go and take a break, and I’ll tell you everything tomorrow morning.”

How was I able to run a guild, yet fail to save not one, but two lives? All I had to do was jump. I played it back clearly in my head. If I had jumped forward just one more step, I would’ve caught Chrikhil. If I had jumped forward just one more step, I would’ve caught Roslyn.

Kadava ushered me down the makeshift Northeast Tower remade by the celebrating civilians of the nation and placed me on a horse. I was completely lost in my thoughts, and I slumped down on the white stallion. He took the reins and the mechanical gait underfoot automatically began.

Badadump, badadump, badadump.

Heaps of scrap metal lay on one side of the road. A disembodied Ferrius lay on the other side beneath his crushed machine. To his right, a deceased Askar with a metal shaft impaled through her chest, sprawled lifeless on the emerald plains. I could’ve saved her. The mechanical gait continued, and I shut my eyes for a few seconds.

Badadump, badadump, badadump.

I jolted awake. Chrikhil’s unnerving face, her helpless black eyes bore into mine. I could’ve saved her. Trees passed by as we entered the forest line that marked the beginning of Sanoctuis.

Badadump, badadump, badadump.

We celebrated their death.

We mourned her death.

Badadump, badadump, badadump.

I could’ve saved her.

I didn’t save her.

Badadump, badadump, badadump.

I didn’t save her.

 

Kadava brought me into the hideout, threw me onto the couch, and pulled two blankets over me. He gave me something to drink, and I drank it. It was bitter, but my memories more. None of this would’ve happened if it weren’t for the wars. How did it all begin?

Who was Grozorg’s downfall?

I vowed drunkenly to Kadava that I would find and kill the person who started all this, no matter who he was. Kadava chuckled and spoke something, but my heavy eyelids succumbed to the fluid and I drifted away into a dark, dark dimension, where even hopelessness and defeat ceased to exist.

 

XXXVIII

 

Everyone was gathered around me when I woke up. It must have been late in the afternoon; the sun was glaring victoriously outside the small guild window. Voices around me conversed silently, fearful whispers afraid to wake me from my slumber.

“How are you feeling?” Kadava asked, noticing me shuffling under the two blankets to gain a better position.

“Fine, thank you,” I responded subconscious, my mind still processing the quick turn of events that had occurred yesterday. “What did you give me?”

“A classic brew of Wyvern’s Wing,” he smiled. “Works every time.”

“My favourite,” I responded sarcastically. “How’s Fulcan?”

“He was feeling agathokakological,” Kadava responded eloquently.

“Agahko-what?”

“That’s how he described it to his army in his post-war speech, ‘we won with an agathokakological conclusion’,” Kadava imitated.

“What does that mean?”

“Beats me. I would guess it meant something along the lines of both good and bad, but I don’t think anyone bothered to look it up anyways.”

“He told you to rest well,” Arcanor added. “The walls around the city have been destroyed and are in need of immediate repair, so we won’t be marching for a while.”

“What if the next faction attacks?”

“We’ll be defending from home,” Tarsus answered. “Bring the fight to us, and not us to the fight. We should’ve done that from the get-go.”

There was a knock at the door, which was unlocked except for the very inner layer. Glo, closest to the door, immediately stood up and opened it to reveal the king with two soldiers at his side.

“Ulterium. Tarsus.”

“Your majesty,” we both responded in unison, in habit. We had stopped bowing down or showing gestures of respect to the king after his unending protests against it. “We’re all equal Grozorgians anyways”, he would say, and it was both a commendable and respectable statement.

“I’m sorry,” he stated simply, taking off his crown and lowering his head.

His statement was vague and accounted for two separate instances; he was asking for forgiveness and expressing his condolences.

Tarsus’ cold face carried an unforgiving expression, an indignant look that made the king turn his head towards me to seek forgiveness. I was swaying between disappointment and frustration, but my weary, tired face must have concealed my emotions well.

“I should have listened to you two,” The king continued. “It...won’t happen the third time.”

It was a strange feeling; the king apologized to me and Tarsus, figures of less significance within the nation. His genuine words and humble realization of his wrong forced me to pardon his mistake, as before, but Tarsus was unrelenting.

“What happened while I was out?” I asked, switching thoughts. “The North wall, no, the South Wall crumbled,” I described, collecting my thoughts, “and the Southeast Tower fell. That’s all I can remember up to.”

I was careful with my words. I didn’t mention Chrikhil to Fulcan. Bringing her up would trigger Tarsus’ memories as well as additionally burdening the king with the unspoken knowledge that his forces were getting weaker and weaker. The king proceeded to sit down on the couch beside me, his two guards standing watch beside the closed door in a motionless position.

“Right,” the king began. “Just to note, the South Wall was our longest wall around Tenebris, and I thought there would be no more hope when twelve individuals took it down at ease. Anyways, Ferrius somehow engaged in a war with Askar, setting us aside. The confrontation between the two overlords resulted in a dynamic feud and the entire South Wall fell when the Sisterhood summoned a collective elemental attack against the metal domain. I was busy gathering the army and I didn’t witness what happened afterwards, but I’m sure my two generals here can provide their accounts.”

“Overlord Ferrius’ machine shielded him and absorbed most of the damage, but his army wasn’t so lucky; most of the androids were blown to pieces from the attack,” General Zartan continued. “And that was the same with ours. When the South Wall crumbled, the men directly behind the wall all lost their lives, a devastating blow to the Army of Light and Purity. We had at least a fifteenth of our army positioned there, every single soul slaughtered by whatever the Sisterhood had released.

“The turning point was when Ferrius seized the opportunity to attack while the Sisterhood was recovering,” the other general continued. “He brought his battle machine to the group of twelve and took down two of them before the Aeromancer completely obliterated the war machine. Ferrius was trapped by the remaining members of the Sisterhood of Air, and without his battle machine, his troops lingered helplessly around the downtrodden field. With no mercy, his body was cut in half by a smooth blade of air from Askar herself and-”

“Hold on...the overlord of air was a female?” Foku asked, cutting the general off.

“What’s surprising about that?” Fulcan deflected. “Actually,” he confessed after a moment of silence, “I had the same initial reaction.”

“That breaks tradition,” Foku continued. “All who inherited the throne from their fathers were males. Every lord that ever existed, lord, high lord, and overlord, were all males!”

“There hasn’t been much trade with the domain of air in the last few centuries, given that the path to the governing palace was too onerous. Even if I had sent messengers, they would have never seen Askar’s face. It’s something in their laws that none was allowed to come face-to-face with the overlord unless they were of equal or higher rank,” Fulcan explained, “and I’ve never set up any personal meetings with her, so I wouldn’t know.”

“Well anyways,” General Zartan spoke as Fulcan finished, “right as Askar killed the overlord of metal, Ferrius weakly raised his arm, and a long thin blade replaced his cybernetic hand, piercing through the heart of the overlord of air. The remaining eight sisters fled from the scene in an elegant display at the death of their ruler. We waited for a while, but after realizing that they had gone home, we celebrated with abandon. The two-front war was over.”

“I never figured out why the two forces turned against each other,” Fulcan wondered. I glanced at Arcanor and his unmoving face constrained a proud smile behind the wrinkles of hard work and practice. “I guess I’ll never know. Then again, some things are better off unknown.”

“So now we just sit and wait?” I asked. “Wait for the next overlord to declare war?”

“If that’s how you put it, yes. We’ve defeated six overlords-”

“Five, actually,” Pyrrhon butted in.

“Right, five,” Fulcan responded understandingly. “We’re halfway through if every elemental faction is declaring war. I know this is hard on you,” Fulcan said, addressing the thirteen of us in the room, “and it’s the same for my army. We’ve lost nearly half the army ever since we started fighting against Naterra’s forces. I’m hoping in this timeframe before we get news that a faction has declared war, we can rebuild Tenebris, rebuild our spirits, and rebuild the refuge for every citizen. Thanks to the civilian sector of Ferrius’ island, our defensive structures are quickly repaired now. Hopefully, we can recruit and train more to join the army so we’ll be well prepared to face the next force of evil.”

“Who do you think it’s gonna be?” General Zartan asked.

“The domains of Illusion, Electricity, Ice, Time, Death, and Space have remained dormant. It’s most probable to be Overlord Crothus of Time if we followed the ‘across the island’ pattern, but from what I’ve learned, I don’t think we can afford a wild guess. I’ll just wait for a surprise when they decide to attack.”

“Good plan,” Tarsus simply stated with his arms crossed.

“I’m gonna head back now. The kingdom needs a lot of work, especially when one fourth of its defences have been knocked down by twelve people. I’ll hold a public meeting to receive feedback from how our people are doing in a time like this, and I’ll decide how to fortify our walls to make it stronger than it was. It should be a lot easier now with the influx of skilled workers from the metal domain. In the meantime, all of you should rest. A little drink and fun won’t hurt, just be on your guard at any moment. If the domains of Ice or Time decide to march to Tenebris, they’ll have to cross the forest of Sanoctuis, and I’ll be expecting the news from either guild personally.”

“At your command, your majesty.”

All of us bowed down, not in formality but in understanding, and the king was soon on his way with the two generals tailing behind him.

As the royal figure left, we put down what we had in hand and gathered around to play a traditional game of Syndicate, followed by a short jog to the outskirts of Tenebris to grab a drink. We partied together for the whole day, two guilds as one, the thirteen of us closer than brothers and sisters. With the little gap of relaxation and rest, we fully seized advantage of it to leave behind all the sorrows and sadness. We all went through the same traumatic experiences, physically and psychologically, some more difficult to bear than others, and we all shared tears, laughter, joy, and pain with one another. Once a bane to my guild now a brother-in-arms to my family, Tarsus and I were a lot closer than I had known.

 

“Tell me about yourself!” I spoke too loudly, unable to control the flushing of my cheeks. We were all drunk or nearly, scattered around the emptied tavern haphazardly. It was a bit past midnight, and the tavern keeper had already retreated to his bedroom upstairs. He knew both Tarsus and I, and he trusted that we wouldn’t destroy his building while he rested.

“You know everything about me!” Tarsus boasted, equally as loud. Some had already fallen asleep, but most were still awake, sipping on the last drops of their spirits before helping themselves to more from the never-ending keg.

“No I don’t,” I denied. “Where were you from?”

“I already told you, I grew up on the island of metal!”

“Where were you born?”

“Nythar’s island!”

“It don’t match up, buddy,” I responded messily, pointing my two index fingers together but missing by an inch through my blurred vision, chuckling at my own clumsiness.

“You really want to know about me?” He spoke. He seemed more awake all of a sudden, as if he had faked his drunkenness before and had a huge tolerance for alcohol.

“Yesiree,” I answered ecstatically. What could I have not known about him?

Tarsus looked around uncertainly with sealed lips, but seeing our drunken state and Glo’s soft smile, he began.

“Well, the story goes like this,” he enunciated, falling back into a careless tone. “I was born into this world by a Skyla Chrako and an Augustine Tarsus. They somehow found an infatuation with each other on Nythar’s island.”

I burst out in laughter. Love on my home island of death and decay? The irony. That led me thinking to how I was also born there.

“When they got comfortable, they had me and no other child, as far as I know. But somehow, I, as a baby, was incompetent to them. Unworthy!” He shouted. “Unworthy, and I was only a few days old!”

The whole room had woken up to his sudden shouts. His already-intriguing story had begun to lure some out of the fog of the drunken liquor effects and back into reality.

“They placed me in an orphanage on Nythar’s island, they decided that they couldn’t raise a boy. Just one boy and they couldn’t do it! Nunny’s Home for the Bright and Brilliant. Bright and brilliant, they said. I was the youngest there I had no one as a friend when I grew up. The only lesson I took away from that damned orphanage was the art of necromancy. But all I could remember was spending the most of my days scrubbing the bathroom stalls and sweeping the unlit basement and continuing labour meant for a fully grown, placed in the hands of a five-year old. A five-year old!”

He paused and took a great swig.

“Some of those damned kids played tricks on me while I was down there, locking the only door and trapping me in the eternal darkness while they made harrowing sounds. If I hadn’t been scarred by that already, they would come into my room every night, steal my blankets while I lay helplessly asleep, and cut my garments into pieces. Every day, every damn day, I would wake up cold with barely anything on.”

The unfocused gazes now turned into attentive listening, the infuriated Tarsus capturing the whole room with the revelation of his mysterious, traumatic childhood none had heard of before.

“When I turned eight, I broke out of the prison. The night before, they had decided it fun to drench myself in gasoline. Gasoline!”

He paused and lowered his head. The whole room was silent.

“I was awake, but I stayed frozen in my bed. The four of them, four years older than I was, had picked on me ever since I was put in there to when I left. I had known that they were screwing around with me, but if I woke up to fend off the burly gang, they would torture me all the more. So I stayed still in my bed until I was fully drenched in gasoline. At the age of eight, I thought the water just smelled foul. But before I knew it, my body burst into flames, the overwhelming heat scorching me with third degree burns all over my body. I rolled off my bed frantically, dropping head first onto the ground. The gang didn’t stop there. The bloody gang didn’t stop there. After I had miraculously put out the flames, I couldn’t move. The four held each of my arms and legs, and they stripped me until I was only wearing light undergarments. What did I do wrong to deserve that? Tell me! One of them pulled out a knife and cut the burnt flaky parts of my skin off, as if I was a roasting hog over a campfire. A damn hog over a fire! I hollered in pain, but was quickly muffled by a suffocating towel around my mouth. When the night felt like it would never end, they finally let me go. That night, I slipped out the barred window I had always kept chipping away at every day prior to that night. I ran and ran, until my lungs gave out and my thin legs could run no more. I had reached Helterium’s island, but the thought of my burnt body submerged in icy cold water motivated me to keep running. Somewhere I would never be found again. Somewhere I could start a new life. And that’s how I ended up on Ferrius’ island. The divide of sectors had not occurred yet, and the presence of artificial life was limited. I had no home in the alien domain, so I lurked around the streets of what you know now as the civilized sector, familiarizing myself with each hidden underground route and path. I fought for myself, defended myself, and taught myself to be strong in the slums of the metal domain. And through that process, I taught myself the art of ferromancy. With slight knowledge of controlling death and metal, I became strong and concealed my history from anyone who dared to ask.”

“Except for me,” I replied. “I...didn’t know you were in such a tough position.”

I was fully awake, as if Tarsus’ story cured all the drunkenness within me.

“Your parents left you because you were weak, no?” Sylvan asked.

“No. It was because if this.”

Tarsus slowly removed the golden spiked plate that covered the left side of his face - he had always kept it on, even while he rested. Beneath was a strange birthmark; an infamous birthmark.

“The Mark of Sagular,” many voices gasped around the room.

“Yeah, some Grozorgian myth to scare children. But apparently it was enough to make my father and mother abandon their one and only child.”

“What is it? Sagular?” Pyrrhon asked, as if he was the only one to not know.

“A myth turned into a cult,” Tarsus answered.

“It was folklore started by some estranged man,” Foku continued. “The true story dates back to the ancient days of Tyrannust II, when a strange blight started killing many civilians in Pulchrachao, the small village a bit west of Tenebris. Many were infected by the plague; however, a small portion of the population was strangely resilient against the disease, and when they were affected by the blight, a mark like Tarsus’ would show up somewhere on their skin.”

“How does that relate to ‘Sagular’?” Pyrrhon asked impatiently.

“I’m getting there. There was a strange mystic in that town, a medic that could heal the sick with unknown powers. She was the best doctor in those times, and everyone would see her. Of course, when the blight came, she was overwhelmed with patients. But even she couldn’t explain the strange phenomena, and a few days later, she died from the plague. As generations passed, the story got skewed, and somehow, Sagular was blamed as the one to start the blight. According to that edition, those that received a personal “mark” from Sagular showed that they had made a pact with her dead spirit and that the individual with the ‘Mark of Sagular’ was to be burnt at the stake, like the witch.”

“But the witch wasn’t burnt at the stake...” Pyrrhon spoke slowly, comprehending as the words left his mouth. “Oh...I see. People really do know how to twist a story.”

“So how did Tarsus end up with the mark?” Glo asked. She had been silent all this time, seated next to the keg behind the wooden counter.

“The resilient gene was passed down from generation to generation,” Foku explained. “Those that had the birthmark would be immune to the plague, whatever it was, if it returned, but those that had the birthmark must also conceal it for a lifetime now to protect themselves.”

“That’s why it was hard for me to have been accepted by others. After I learned what that birthmark meant the hard way, I escaped death twice and found something to hide it. My parents probably had it too, just in a less visible and obvious place. But for me, it isn’t easy hiding a mark that big directly on my face. Calliphar helped me out with that. He was a poor man’s son, and he scurried around the slums the same way I did, searching for food everyday to keep ourselves alive. He told me what the mark meant, and he made me this to conceal it,” Tarsus spoke, pointing to the golden plated mask he had taken off.

“You rejected me,” Callipher added. “You didn’t want to befriend me. I saw your desperation, your persistence, and I just wanted to help you.”

“Now you know why it was hard for me to make a friend. I was so used to independence; my perception of trust was completely warped when I grew up. But you kept trying to help me out, and I truly appreciate that. If you had given up on me, the Night Guild would have never been formed.”

“Was that why you were so hostile the first time you encountered me?” I asked.

“Possibly. I think it was built into me from birth, an initial reaction of rejection, scepticism, and fear turned to hatred towards every stranger I met.”

“Well the past is in the past, so let bygones be bygones.”

“I can let it all slide, but I will never forget, nor will I ever forgive my parents nor will I forgive those four bastards. If it’s the last thing I get to do, before my last breath, I will have my vengeance on Marth Jovick and his goons. What did you think my ulterior motives of forming the guild was? Stopping petty crimes?”

His guild members didn’t speak. Obviously, they had known nothing about this prior to joining.

“I’m with you on that, brother,” I spoke, heartfelt. “Damn those bastards.”

Though it was wrong, perhaps unlawful, I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone bullied to Tarsus’ extent. He didn’t choose his life, nor did he choose his birthmark. The only thing he chose was his will to live, and that headstrong will inspired me.

“As am I,” Calliphar nodded, with the rest of the Night Guild and Blood Guild in full assent.

Tarsus simply looked at me with a stone face, but the gratitude was truly reflected in his golden eyes.

I was not a friend fighting for a friend.

No, I was a brother vindicating a brother.

 

XXXIX

 

We had five more days to spend with each other and we became well acquainted. We shared our strategies in combat with the Night Guild, from formations to abbreviated commands, and in return, they taught us different techniques and practices to hone our skills on the battlefield.

“Attack!” The sentry announced as he rushed to our hideout. “Overlord Ceiros is crossing the bridge, and the king is in danger! The king requests your presence immediately!”

I quickly sent Kadava to the Night Guild’s hideout to deliver the sentry’s same message as the seven of us packed for the incoming war.

It wasn’t long before the thirteen of us arrived on horseback to the castle walls that circled Tenebris. The framework for the South Wall and the two fallen towers had been rebuilt in a surprisingly short amount of time, and the other towers and walls were fortified with pieces of strong metal bars and slabs of stone. We crossed the bridge and entered the palace, arriving before the king.

“The invasion’s coming from Overlord Ceiros, and it isn’t pretty. He’s gathered an impressive army of extraterrestrials, aligning his forces with two other nations from beyond our galaxy.”

“At least we didn’t march to Lord Crothus’ island,” Tarsus pointed out.

“Yeah,” the king muttered embarrassingly. “I don’t tend to make mistakes the third time. Anyways, his forces are large, and though my men are well rested, we can’t take on these numbers. Every other army we’ve faced has had significantly lower amounts of warriors, but Ceiros is commanding throngs of hundreds of thousands. I summoned all of you here for suggestions. I...don’t know what to do.”

“How far are they?”

“One day and a bit from Tenebris.”

“That’s all the time we need,” I boldly spoke, formulating and devising a plan instantly in my head.

“What are the extraterrestrial forces? Anything we’ve faced before?”

“I’ve caught a glimpse of one. It’s a sub-Nirvonian race; the Faedrixes.”

“As if I knew what that meant,” Tarsus replied.

“The Faedrixes are lowly-armoured humanoids with flaky skin and two pairs of large, ugly wings, as if they were a cross breed between an ogre and a dragonfly.”

“Great, is their low armour our key to winning?”

“I don’t know much about them, but from other accounts, the Faedrixes clone themselves when hurt. Say, if you were fighting against one Faedrix, it could multiply into an army of a thousand if it isn’t killed immediately on the spot.”

“That might be a problem...”

“The problem doesn’t lie there. We don’t know the second race of extraterrestrials, and if Ceiros managed to harness a peace between those two nations with Grozorg, he would have gotten very powerful. Do you have any ideas, Ulterium?”

“You still have the crossbow on the roof, right?” I asked.

“Yes, never bothered hiring anyone to take it down.”

“It’s automatic, right? What’s the firing rate?”

“The most skilled ballistic adepts can fire three shots in one second, but they haven’t trained ever since the War of Zxyx.”

“It should hold off the Faedrixes. We need to send word to your adepts immediately to start practicing. As for the other extraterrestrial army, we’ll just have to wait until they arrive.”

“We need to evacuate Tenebris. It isn’t safe to be in the capital anymore.”

“There’s nowhere else to go, Fulcan.”

“The bunkers from the War of Zxyx are too old to provide refuge. They’d shatter into pieces instantly. Our best bet is scattering the people all across Mainland Grozorg.”

“Tyrannust’s men are still patrolling the area!”

“There’s nearly none of them left. Most of them have returned to Zxyxngrad where Tyrannust is forming his legion. It should be safe enough for the citizens to go out of these castle walls.”

“I’ll tell the citizens that the main priority now is to fix the bunkers, then the wall,” Tarsus volunteered. “Ulterium is right, it’s a suicide plan if you scatter the people. Where are the bunkers?”

The king thought about Tarsus’ proposal for a while, placing his chin between an index finger and a thumb.

“You summoned us here for advice, so take our advice!” Tarsus shouted at the king’s hesitation.

He wanted the good for his people, but he didn’t know what was good. An intransigent attitude conflicting hard-learned humility.

“General Hoshea! Bring me the map of the War of Zxyx!”

“At once, my lord.”

The general returned with a dusty, old map that represented a detailed Tenebris. There were strange black boxes scattered around the magnified capital city, fifteen to twenty dark boxes signifying the location of the bunkers.”

“Take this map and gather as many people and resources as you can to fix the bunkers. We only have a day before the confrontation, so you must hurry. Also, some bunkers may not be there since Zxyx destroyed parts of Tenebris in his dark conquest. But make haste and shelter as many citizens as you can, and if they ask what’s happening, don’t hold back from telling them the truth.”

“At your service,” Tarsus and his guild quickly bowed, departing hastily.

“Ulterium, please go through the archives with your men and women to find any documents on extraterrestrial invasions that could give us an edge in this war.”

“Straightaway,” I responded, leading my guild out of the castle.

The castle walls surrounded the glorious capital of Grozorg, and within the tall walls were cobblestone streets that weaved through busy marketplaces and trade stores, hotels and houses, alleys and plazas. Having spent most of my life on Mainland Grozorg, I knew every nook and cranny of the streets on the back of my hand. We took a quick right, then a left, then another slight left again until we reached a dead end where the archives were located. The door was unlocked, as always, and we stepped into the dark room, bringing it to life.

The wind rushed in and the darkness poured out as we opened the door. Rows of scrolls and thick manuscripts covered all four lofty walls, neatly organized from shelf to shelf. The archivist was not present at the moment, the small empty desk at the entrance failing to greet the seven of us.

“How’s it sorted?” Drog asked.

“Don’t remember,” I admitted. The last time our guild was here was when we memorized the legends as part of our training, before the fourth high lord was corrupted and declared war.

There was a tall ladder that could slide from one end of a shelf to another, and I ordered my guild to split up. Soon, two of them were looking at the bottom right corner of the grand shelves, two of them searching the bottom left, one scaling up and down the ladder, and the rest of us seeking in between, trying to find information on extraterrestrials.

“‘The Nirvonian Race’,” Mirage read out loud. “I think it’s over here.”

“Keep that on the side. It may come in handy.”

She placed thick cerulean leather book onto the ground and continued searching.

“‘Homo sapiens: From you to I’,” Foku spoke from the ladder, blowing the dust off the pages of the hardcover. “What does that even mean?”

“Irrelevant. Keep searching!”

“These books are all based on life outside of Grozorg!” Foku exclaimed, placing back his hardcover and reading the spine of the books aligned on his shelf. He was high up on the ladder above Mirage, and the only person who could reach those books in that area was him.

“Toss them down!” I quickly yelled.

One by one, books fluttered down, filling the whole room with a cloudy haze of dust. As the dust smeared across our garments, we caught most of the books thrown down and began our quick search through the titles.

“‘Earth, a House Divided’,” Glo read. “Is it this?”

“I’m not sure. Scan through the book to see if there are references to Faedrixes.”

“‘Destination Prodiga’... I think this is it!” Mirage shouted. We all gathered around her as she turned the first page, revealing an accurately drawn Faedrix. Or at least it looked accurately drawn.

“Prodiga, the origins of the ancient Faedrixes,” Mirage began to read patiently.

“Next page,” I ushered her.

“There’s a letter on this side,” she spoke, flipping through a chunk of the book. “The Faedrix manipulate through rapid gene cloning only known through local culture,” she began again, “and I have ventured deep within Prodiga, but with no avail did I find out their esoteric craft. I was forced to abort the mission when my two crewmates were brutally hunted down and killed by the Faedrixes, and I have no intentions on returning to that dreaded planet.”

“Who wrote the book?” Drog asked.

“That letter was from a Chad Fliedirs, co-pilot and biochemist, but this whole encyclopaedia is a collection of authors; a potpourri of accounts from different sources,” she answered. “There’s another one here, by astrobiophysicist Screheim Chiriderf: ‘The rapid cloning of genes is caused by an extracellular component, in which I shall give the name nuclonium for now. Nuclonium is both an enzyme that catalyzes cell division, as well as a retrovirus, in such a way that it receives an undivided cell’s genetic information and duplicates that information as well. It travels in and out of a nucleus at ease, and catalyzes the deoxyribonucleic acids within to a rapid, rapid pace of replication. Through my time spent on Planet Prodiga, I have seen the wonder of nuclonium work with my own eyes. Through isolated experiments, the results show that a nuclonium accelerates the cloning by immeasurable standards. A normal Faedrix cell takes a week to divide, but with nuclonium present, the cell divides in three minutes; eight seconds the fastest I have recorded. It is a fascinating component, acting both as a living and non-living organism, and somehow, the nuclonium can target specific cells to duplicate; namely, if an arm was missing, the Faedrix could easily grow it back due to nuclonium. Only Faedrixes and no other species seem to possess this in their flaky epidermis.”

“I don’t know what half his letter meant, but all I know is a ‘nuclonium’ is involved in this,” Kadava spoke.

“Didn’t the king say Faedrixes only divide when hurt?” Arcanor asked.

“Good question. Mirage, what else does it say in there?”

“Give me a second...got it. This excerpt is anonymously written, and it reads: ‘Sir Chiriderf’s research has given me insight to seek the mystery and motivation behind the Faedrix’s duplication...’ hold on...” she spoke, sliding her finger down the page to the end of the paragraph. “‘...when a Faedrix is injured, the bodily sympathetic nervous system is immediately triggered thereby increasing the production of nuclonium three hundred times, allowing the beast to quickly duplicate itself within minutes.’”

“That explains it. So how do we kill it then?” I asked.

“No time for that. Bring the books back to the palace,” Arcanor interrupted, his eyes a faint blue.

At once, the guild picked up anything that could possibly provide us with more information regarding the incoming attack. We slipped through the archive exit, snaked down the narrow cobblestone street, and headed back to Fulcan’s castle.

As we lay the books across the marble ground, I grabbed a quill and an empty parchment and wrote down everything we had just learned.

“Keep reading!” I directed, scribbling across the old paper.

Suddenly, the ground violently shook as something large collided into Tenebris.

“Kadava, Foku, go check what just happened! Mirage, Drog, Glo, protect the king in the throne room beside us! Arcanor, stay here with me!”

Immediately, my guild split up into three groups.

“What else does it say?”

Arcanor traced his eyes across the page, through the books, but nothing else was important for our cause.

“Has no one killed a Faedrix before? There are no accounts on how one kills a Faedrix,” Arcanor told me.

“Anything about its weaknesses?”

“Not directly, just a repeated mention of how the extraterrestrials are lowly armoured with flaky scales containing nuclonium that protects their slimy skin.”

“Okay, how about the other books? Are there other extraterrestrial races mentioned?”

Arcanor picked up books littered on the ground and began skimming through each one of them to find evidence of the second extraterrestrial army Ceiros was controlling.

“Humans, Martians, Faedrixes, Sulkons. That’s it.”

“Check the strengths and weaknesses of each race. Better to be over-prepared than underprepared.”
      “That doesn’t sound like you,” Arcanor spoke, looking up. “What happened to ‘improvise’?”

“We’ll improvise when we find out what the second group is. But if we have the chance now, we’ll seize it before it’s too late. Quickly, what are humans?”

“Humans...”

Just as Arcanor was about to read the description, Foku and Kadava returned with the six Night Guild members, a calamity of voices filling the grand hall.

“A meteor just struck a kilometre from the palace!” Kadava proclaimed. “The archives...it’s all gone!”

“Are there any civilian casualties?” I asked, quickly rising from my ink and paper.

“The bunker was covered in ashes, but it wasn’t destroyed. The people there should be safe.”

The king ran into the room upon hearing the news.

“Did you finish?” He abruptly asked Tarsus.

“I couldn’t fit everyone in a bunker, so most of them are hiding in your underground passage. I told them not to venture off, explaining the dangers of the tunnels.”

“Good. Thank you, Tarsus. This means a lot to me. To the nation. The fact that you accomplished all this within an hour is amazing.”

“The people were actually nearly all in the bunkers before I announced Ceiros’ arrival. Your people brought the refugees of Ferrius’ domain to the hidden bunkers. If they didn’t have that head start, I wouldn’t have been able to get the rest underground.”

“Great. I just got an update from our messengers, too, and it isn’t good. Ceiros’ forces are less than ten kilometres away. They’ll be attacking any second.”

“What happened to a day away?”

“Did anyone manage to catch a glimpse of the second extraterrestrial army?”

“My messenger only claimed to witness Ceiros leading a pack of Faedrixes. Ceiros himself has his personal army of a thousand warriors too, but don’t expect much from them. They’re not well-trained; we’ll only need to worry about the Faedrixes and whatever the second force is.”

“And the meteor?”

“The Caelomancer. It was a showboater even before its corruption, so there’s no doubt it would give us a show before the attack.”

As the king finished his sentence, the ground shook again, this time a much greater magnitude than the first time.

“Army of Light and Purity!” The king shouted. “All men to their positions! Go!”

He quickly left the room, giving us final instructions on trying to keep the damage minimal, especially since the aftermath from the last war was already devastating.

The thirteen of us left the palace and we raced to the East wall a few kilometres away. As we reached the damaged wall, we scrambled up the nearest wall to witness Ceiros’ march.

Before our very eyes, the entire green terrain beyond Tenebris was covered in a sheet of grotesquely purple humanoids, evidently armoured men of Ceiros’ army. The sky was flooded with a swarm of faded green, and every three minutes, another would spawn.

Beyond the green and purple, far behind Ceiros and his Caelomancer, marched the second extraterrestrial force.

A hundred titanic Decimos.

Decimos, a newly-found race a couple of years ago beyond the edge of our galaxy, were too recently discovered to be recorded in the archives. They were titans of immeasurable strength and possessed an intimidating appearance.

And they were distant relatives to the four, legendary Primos.

 

XL

The enormous crossbow on the roof of the palace was positioned, a champion weapon representing Fulcan’s kingdom. I ordered the guilds to spread along the top of the east castle wall, preparing to defend against the first wave of Ceiros’ attack.

Tarsus had spoken to the people of the nation, taking initiative as a leader and equipping some of them with the armoury’s spare armour. He had instructed them to repair any damage on the wall from the approaching forces, reinforcing the wall to provide a greater resistance. As for other civilians that proved to hold some fighting experience, they were immediately drafted into the Army of Light and Purity, a prestigious army that wouldn't have been remotely as easy to join before the wars occurred. The spirits of the city were bolstered; the fighting force was filled with a new found rage as the men and women fought from their very homes, for their very lives.

“Ulterium!” The figure behind the crossbow yelled. “My squadron is hopeless without me! Can you take my place?”

I nodded my head and quickly rushed inside the palace, climbing the stairs until I reached the rooftop.

“The king suddenly pulled me from my group minutes before the invasion. If I don’t hurry back, my squad would basically be running into a suicide. Thanks a lot, Ulterium.”

General Zartan, a master with the crossbow but better with the blade, patted my shoulder and quickly flew down the stairs, returning to the battlegrounds and finding his squad. I came to realization that I had never actually operated the champion crossbow as I stood before the intimidating siege machine, let alone a simple crossbow. Sylvan was nowhere in sight, and by the time I called him over to replace me, the stampeding wave of extraterrestrials would have already demolished the front ranks.

The controls, however, were not intimidating. The golden plated crossbow had mechanical parts attached here and there, and a nice low seat behind the enormous bow for the arbalest. In front of the seat, attached to the curve of the bow, was a metal wheel and a lever beside it. I figured the wheel would control the rotation of the weapon while the lever powered the crossbow on and off.

To my relief, I was correct. Quickly jumping behind the wheel, I yanked the lever down and veered the weapon towards the nearest approaching Faedrix. The enormous siege machine rumbled violently in my grip as the first barrage of arrows pierced through the emerald sky of aliens, killing the cloning Faedrixes by the masses.

All attention in the sky suddenly converged towards me as the Faedrixes witnessed their fallen brethren from my crossbow. On the battlefield, the Decimos had already arrived at the outskirts of Tenebris, recklessly parading through the farmland, mercilessly sparing nothing behind.

The Faedrixes dropped out of the sky, one by one in rapid succession as I steered the bow left and right. As I jolted back and forth on the lethal machine, every shot was fatal, and more were killed than could be duplicated. As the congregation got closer and closer, the maddened Faedrixes suddenly spread apart, a flying net of aliens targeting a lateral weapon. I pulled the wheel downwards frantically, hoping for the crossbow to aim upwards, and as if it was designed to my hopes, the crossbow swerved upwards and continued its Faedrix massacre.

Overlord Ceiros soon realized this wasn’t a solution, observing that the Faedrixes had no chance of spawning against the champion weapon. He quickly signalled something, and all the Decimos ceased in action while the flock of Faedrixes quickly retreated. I quickly switched the lever down, instantly powering the weapon down and conserving what was left of my ammunition. A grim thought crossed my mind; surely, I was about to run out of arrows very soon.

With another whistle, the overlord resumed his march, but this time, the Faedrixes were flying low to the ground, completely concealed by the monstrous Decimos. I turned on the weapon again, only to have the arrows ineffectively rebound off the thickly armoured Decimos. The Faedrixes began multiplying again, and if they weren’t stopped, they would quickly regain the number they had started with.

The Army of Light and Purity had its main force at the gates of Tenebris, while I saw two lines of Fulcan’s men on the right and left as well, concealed behind a hill and a forest. From my vantage point, the tallest point of Tenebris, I was granted the ability to witness every movement. Tarsus had redirected both guilds to the ground, every member behind a soldier on the front lines to confront Ceiros. Some of the army had already begun attacking the approaching Decimos, but they were easily flung to the side or crushed underfoot the powerful giants mercilessly.

Titans filled the horizon, a hundred of them holding the capability of demolishing the royal fortress in minutes. Most of our cannons had been destroyed in the war against Helterium, and the champion crossbow was now ineffective against the shielded, rapidly cloning swarm of Faedrixes. Even some of the guild’s weapons proved to have negligible damage against the overlord’s army, Foku’s electrical lance scraping the giants and Kadava’s sharp kunai deflected by the Decimos.

The truth was simple, and it had to be spoken. There was no way we could win this war.

The frontlines were soon crushed. The Decimos slowly approached while the Faedrixes darted in and out from behind the giants’ protection, an effective strategy slowly destroying the strongest army of Grozorg.

Fulcan and his generals were trying everything they could, but they were restricted by the balance of an effective strike to the overlord’s forces and saving as much of the army as they could.

The left and right squadrons ran out from their hiding positions and flanked Ceiros, Fulcan’s sharpshooters slaying the Faedrixes from behind the line of extraterrestrial giants. Ceiros waved his arms around in response and the two ranks were instantly killed by another stream of meteors.

I quickly positioned my bow towards the unguarded Caelomancer and switched the lever on. To my dismay, two arrows bolted out before the weapon hopelessly clicked rapidly, signifying the end of its nearly unlimited ammunition.

The two arrows soared through the sky, travelling the long distance, only to have the first arrow accidently deflected by a soldier’s raised sword. The second arrow soared a bit higher, past the blade, continuing its deadly path towards the Caelomancer’s heart.

Kadava must have seen my plan, because the arrow was soon tailing a fast kunai. A Faedrix soared up to take the full impact of the arrow, only to be slashed to the side by the heavy kunai. As the Caelomancer turned around, the arrow sank into the dark cloak, and the Mancer instantly disappeared in a cloud of black mist.

Ceiros didn’t seem to notice. The march continued without the master of space in their arsenal, and the Army of Light continued to fall to the impenetrable throng of Decimos and Faedrixes.

I hopelessly sat behind the empty crossbow, hands still firmly clutching the thin wheel. Nothing seemed to be working, nothing hindered the march. I lowered my head, and my eyes caught the golden gleam on my right index finger. The Ring of Aquilla.

“Tarsus!” I hollered above the deafening stomps, running down the tower. “Bring the men to Helterium’s island!”

Tarsus had learned to listen first and question later. It was probably the most significant change in him that made me admire him when I got to know him better. He quickly ran into the palace where the only other significant figure inside was the king.

Within minutes, the command spread throughout the entire army, and the Army of Light slowly retreated, fully revealing the unprotected walls of Tenebris to Overlord Ceiro’s army. I scrambled down the tower and met up with Tarsus and our guilds, retreating with the army and the king.

“What’s the plan?” Fulcan asked as he brushed towards me, moving through the masses of golden-plated men and women.

“Bring them to Helterium’s island. If we reach the Confederacy in time, we could turn this war around!”

“But then Tenebris would be left abandoned, wide open for Ceiros to seize it!” Tarsus exclaimed.

“What would make them follow us?”

“Pride,” the king immediately responded. “Ceiros is a man of pride, like the rest of the overlords. Quick, run to Hestia and alert the Confederacy!”

Fulcan leapt to the front of his army and exclaimed in a loud roar, “Ceiros! Where’s your dignity if your massive army can’t even catch up to mine?”

Ceiros roared a command in return, and his troops picked up their pace. The Faedrix now followed an obscure, chaotic pattern, wreaking havoc among any soldier nearest to them without the careful darting in-and-out from behind the Decimos as before.

The army began to run. As I moved down the valley towards Helterium’s island, the stampede of the Army of Light and Purity began to follow. The two guilds had stayed behind to assist the king’s men, and if I didn’t make it fast enough to Hestia, the war would not be in our favour. Mainland Grozorg was fairly planar, with the frequent occasion of knolls and hills, bodies of water, and a forest here and there. As I pushed myself to keep my legs in a constant motion through the all-too-familiar land, the blue horizon soon appeared above the green flatland.

But then I recalled that the bridge was burnt.

It was a coincidence, however, that we were given time to pack before Ceiros declared war. I quickly pulled out a coil of rope, realizing the potential it could’ve served if I had it on me during the previous wars. After tying a noose and swinging it overhead, it sailed across the sky and hooked on successfully. Smoothly leaping off the edge of Mainland Grozorg, I drifted through the empty atmosphere, a lifeless flight for a few moments, landing softly onto the edge of Helterium’s island.

There was no time to waste. The heavy brushes of metal on metal were approaching as the king and his army neared the dead end. I tucked my coil of rope away and sprinted to a nearby ship on the shore. The jack had a different design, the insignia a merge of all the different fleets that made up the Confederacy. Below that flag waved a smaller jack, and it flew the Vindors’ emblem.

“Hestia!” I called out frantically. “Hestia!”

I took out both blades and waved it around in the air, still in a full sprint towards the docked ship. The bright sunlight gleamed off my moving krises, hopefully attracting the attention of someone onboard.

Reaching the base of the large pristine ship, the buccaneer on board greeted me with a shout of joy, calling for Hestia immediately. Within seconds, the captain appeared above me over the railing of the ship with a large smile. It was a miracle the captain was on this specific ship and none other.

“We need your help!” I demanded instantly. The smile on the captain’s face was wiped with an austere look. “Ceiros is attacking, and we were forced to come here! The Confederacy is our last hope; if you don’t assist us, all will be lost!”

“Sound the horn!” Famming called immediately.

Instantly, a deafening bellow was emitted from the tallest crow’s nest of the ship as a sailor blew into an amplifying instrument. In a moment of silence, five foghorns responded in the distance, all at staggered intervals.

“The Confederacy will be here quickly. I’ll send some of me buccaneers to assist the king in the meantime,” Famming called down.

A stream of men and women leapt out of the ship, sliding down coils of rope to join me on the glistening sand as I began the sprint back to Fulcan’s island. The ragtag group of corsairs matched my pace as we ripped through the soft beach, grains of sand flying through the humid air as we reached the edge of the open island.

“There’s no bridge here! How’re we gunna git across?” A large pirate observed to my right, catching his breath.

The king and his army had reached the edge of Mainland Grozorg. In the distance, a horde of green and a stampede of giants closed in on them, but they were still a distance away.

“When’s the Confederacy coming?” I asked impatiently.

“We’ve never had to sound the horn before,” a girl to my right spoke. “This is the first time the Confederacy horn is sounded, so it might take a bit of time.”

“We don’t have time!”

“How’d you even get here? There’s no bridge!” The man to my left insisted.

“I flew! That’s not important, we need to help the king!”

I looked around helplessly, as if a solution would just be lying in front of me.

“Join Hestia when she comes back,” I told the crew. “You won’t be able to make it to Mainland Grozorg.”

As I finished, I took out my rope and swung back to Mainland Grozorg, joining the first of the retreating soldiers trapped by the dead end. I navigated through the ocean of metal plated warriors until I found my guild, surrounding the king and his generals near the frontline.

The attacking force was a couple hundred meters away and closing now, their fuel-raged pace unrelenting.

Within a minute, the two armies merged, the thick cloud of reborn Faedrixes hammering against the gold emblazoned shields of the Army of Light and Purity.

The ground shook as the Decimos thundered toward us, ripping through the frontlines at ease. Luckily, they weren’t the fastest beings, so some swift soldiers of the army were able to evade the titanic steps milliseconds before their lives were lost.

We all knew the outcome; this war was a lost cause. There was still no sign of the captain or the Confederacy, and our final stand was slowly diminishing while Ceiros’ swarm contrastingly increased in numbers at an exponential rate.

Slowly but surely, Ceiros’ chaotic army moved closer and closer to the edge of the island, sparing no life behind. A line of many lifeless bodies lay still on the green grass, proudly bearing the insignia of the Army of Light and Purity on their crushed chests.

All hope was lost. The final stand, the final confrontation. Was it really the best idea in bringing the army here?

Did I really mess up for the nation?

What happened to...improvise?

Soldiers left and right fought valiantly until their last breath. If not ripped apart by the monstrous Faedrixes, they were trapped by the titans, crushed underfoot by the never-ceasing steps of the Decimos. Cries filled the air as the Army of Light and Purity fell to the extraterrestrial forces, the last hope of Grozorg quickly diminishing. I fought with valour, with anger, and I lost sight of all my guild members as they dispersed throughout the army. Dashing around the crushing stomps, I slashed my blades at overhead Faedrixes, only to have more multiplied. The war was over before it began. A new era of Grozorg had begun.

 

Then there was a boom.

A thunder shook the ground, an all-too-familiar thunder.

And another boom.

The sky was littered with a barrage of lead payload, a glorious redemption soaring above us.

The Confederacy had finally arrived.

 

XLI

 

“Army! Fall back!”

Generals shuffled through the disorganized army, pulling back the frontlines as the cannons littered the ground ahead of us, decimating most of the cloning Faedrix army and crushing a few Decimos from the powerful, explosive payload. The Confederacy had remarkably upgraded their weapons; the eruptive force that scattered across the rim of Mainland Grozorg shook the entire island with a trembling quake.

The siege was nonstop. As one ship reloaded the massive cannons, another ship continued the attack, deadly lead weights unpredictably crushing the opposing force unendingly.

Then, as if the impossible had happened, all motion was ceased, a plethora of cannonballs suddenly suspended motionless in the air. As the ships continued their incessant bombardment, more black specks joined the strangely suspended payloads, failing to crush the extraterrestrial army beneath.

Instinctively, I immediately searched for the cause. As what was left of the opposing force resumed its onslaught, my eyes were directed through the thin group of Decimos to the overlord, shielded behind the wall of titans. He was moving with his army, but his right hand was slightly raised, and an object glimmered on his index finger.

A memory came to my head. I glanced at my hand, and the Ring of Aquilla greeted me with a golden glimmer. There was something the siren had said, something that could’ve been the answer.

It was hard to focus. No matter how far I pushed Roslyn aside to recollect my memories, she kept flooding back in. The heavy regret of not expressing my emotions for her when I had the chance lingered in my thoughts, assaulting me at unexpected intervals, tearing me away from my concentration.

The Ring...the Ring of Cielos! Cielos, Ceiros, was it a coincidence? There was something within me that assured me that the Ring of Cielos was somehow related to this but...I had forgotten where I placed the ring. And the other part of me, the majority, was of self-doubt. A ring, at this climatic point of the war? Really?

Self doubt led to self deprecation, and self deprecation inevitably led to failure. It was a long journey for me to learn that in my lifetime, but I overcame my thoughts and frantically patted myself down, trying to search for a needle in a haystack.

Then I saw it. As Ceiros’ attacking army grew back again; the cloning Faedrixes seemingly immortal, the overlord took off the glowing ring and flipped it upside down, placing it back onto his index finger. All at once, the collecting mass of cannonballs suspended high in the sky plummeted down, destroying at least two whole squadrons of the Army of Light and Purity.

Ceiros repeated his technique. Flipping his ring, the warped, isolated area of gravity upheld the nonstop barrage of cannonballs, the increasing black mass slowly blocking out the bright blue sky again. There was no way of contacting the captain to stop, and if she did stop, there was no other factor that would catalyze our victory in this war. We were caught in a trap, and I still couldn’t find that damned ring.

I was forgetful, but I wasn’t disorganized. It came back to me that I usually placed anything important in the hidden pockets of my shirt, but anything seemingly miscellaneous but could be of future use in the inner pocket of my cloak. And I suddenly remembered that I had slipped my ring off while I was underwater, right before I blacked out. Fumbling through my pockets, my fingers brushed across a cold, smooth object, and I knew I had the answer to the war.

Placing the gold-purple-green ring onto my right middle finger and directing the angle of my palm towards the sky, the cannonballs suddenly dropped, to the overlord’s great surprise and dismay, decimating his army once again. I noted the position of the ring on my finger, the green half of the ring pointed towards my arm while the purple half of the ring directed towards my fingertip.

Was it a coincidence I received a different ring, or was it predestined? My tri-coloured ring was different from the rest of the purely golden Rings of Aquilla all others had received, and I figured it was due to me mentioning two names to the fading siren. Was the source of my mistake, an accidental slip of tongue, the winning edge for this war? Then I recalled it. If I hadn’t been woken up by Arcanor’s voice that one night on Geonyte’s island, we would’ve completely lost this war - we would’ve completely lost Grozorg.

Was it all predestined?

The cannonballs quickly went up again as the overlord took off his ring and placed it on without flipping it, the glowing emerald half pointing towards his fingertips. I concealed the brightly illuminated golden green-violet ring as best as I could behind my cloak, careful not to give myself away to the staggered overlord of space and gravity. Taking my ring off and placing it back on without changing the direction the two coloured halves faced, the increasing mass of explosive payload once again dropped down, only to rise up from the overlord’s quick action.

“Tarsus!” I shouted, noticing his swinging blade nearby. “You gotta find a way to distract the overlord! Trust me, this plan will work!”

“Gotchu!” He responded quickly, moving through the diminished Army of Light and Purity to report to the king.

Some words were exchanged between the king and his generals while I kept taking off and putting on the ring, making sure to distract Ceiros from focusing on the war. The generals quickly ran in opposite directions after the brief discussion, and in a matter of time, two sides flanked the overlord.

In a shout of rage, the overlord commanded his troops to surround him, protecting him from the approaching flanks of Fulcan’s army. The Caelomancer couldn't help him now; the Caelomancer was nowhere to be seen. As Ceiros gave out his order to what was left of his army, the suspended cannonballs continued its forward course, and I assisted by flipping my ring around.

That was probably the final blow, the determining factor of the war that marked the end.

 

The ground exploded as the barrage of cannonballs collided into the occupied overlord. As the smoke cleared, all Faedrixes were surprisingly wiped away; not a single clone remained. There were a few dozen Decimos left, but compared to the hundreds before, they were not threatening. And Ceiros lay in the center of his hired troops, crushed by a fallen titan that he could have prevented if he had only flipped his ring around.

The Confederacy saw the outcome of the war, and the barrage finally came to a stop as a loud cheer filled the clearing sky. It was a deadly war, perhaps the elemental war with the most casualties from both forces. The Decimos simply limped back to Ceiros’ island, and not a single soul dared to interfere with the titans’ retreat.

“Another day, another fight,” Fulcan spoke as he approached me, placing his firm grip on my shoulder. I quickly pulled off my ring, slipping it into an inner pocket on my cloak.

“Did you see how the overlord of space couldn’t even fully control space?” The king continued, a short bark of laughter following. “The irony. Thank you for your service, Tarsus, Ulterium.”

“The greed for power is man’s downfall. Your army’s suffered a lot, Fulcan,” I pointed out, smiling.

“I know. I don’t look forward to the upcoming war.”

“There’s more, your majesty?” A fellow soldier of the Army of Light asked in disbelief.

“There's likely to be an attack from every elemental faction. I don’t reckon a guess for which nation will declare war next, though.”

“I understand. It’s just felt...it’s just felt like we’ve already fought twelve wars,” The soldier responded. “I don’t even remember how my life was before the wars occurred.”

The king gave quick instructions afterwards for every warrior to go home and rest, ready to continue their service for the glory of Grozorg in the rapidly-approaching future. I told the two guilds to meet up at our hideout, to relax and rejuvenate before submerging ourselves into another inevitable war.

Upon passing the overlord of Space and Gravity, I quickly bent down and snatched the ring off his finger. A third ring wouldn’t hurt anyways.

 

XLII

 

Crothus declared the eighth war on Tenebris, a once opulent and lavish capital now in ruins, but still standing. But when Crothus came, the capital was no longer in ruins, nor was it a war.

It was a revolution.

On the first day, he walked into the capital alone with the Chronomancer, concealed as two young boys, deceiving all that had lay eyes on them in thinking that they were citizens of Mainland Grozorg. As they passed through the marketplace, where I had happened to be in search of new leather and fabrics, they transformed into two gentlemen of honour and class, instantly impressing those around them.

Within two days, they were well-spoken of in town; the two Chronethian gentlemen that helped everyone they passed, from widows to orphans, from the motherless to the childless. They introduced themselves as aristocrats from the domain of time, and were present to guide the nation to freedom through eloquent words and rational methods. They were fully accepted by the citizens of Tenebris as well as the refugees of Ferrius’ domain that had now permanently resided in Tenebris, and they had won the favour of both our guilds as well.

By the third day, they were admired, revered, if not worshipped. A throng of civilians followed the two wherever they went as they prophesied a hopeful future to come. If not their ground-breaking declarations, their stunning, handsome physique also captured more hearts around the vast land. They claimed that they could see into the future, and coming from the domain of time, it wasn’t a half-lie. There was only one problem with the duo, one thing that kept me dubious and observant. They were preaching twisted truths, facts exaggerated and points part fictional. It was easy to believe their words, and for those who didn’t know the legends well fell for their traps. It kept our guilds divided, Tarsus and his members avid supporters of the concealed overlord and Chronomancer, while I questioned the two more and more.

The fourth day was a laborious, yet joyous day. The people rebuilt the walls in unison, wondering if the famed figures’ reputable words of the upcoming war delayed were true. Brick on mortar, mortar on brick, the walls were quickly erected, then the palatial structures. Fulcan had openly welcomed the two to his island, but now he had begun to question their presence as well. He had seen their strange empowerment upon his nation for they had become figures of significant power. He knew he couldn’t keep them here, but if he kicked them out, a major backlash would fracture the nation worse than any war. No one knew their esoteric identity, yet no one questioned their exoteric prophecies.

A divide was surfacing between the nation on the fifth day. Tarsus stood with the majority of civilians in supporting the influential figures while I fixed my loyalty steadfast to the king. Though every soldier declared allegiance to Fulcan, it was evident that many had been swayed by the lucid words of the duo. The Blood Guild had returned to its independent state of the Night Guild, all the bonds built from the wars fought together broken by a difference of belief. Fulcan voiced his rising concern to me, observing the number of men loyal to him decreasing at every moment. But there was nothing we could do.

In six days, the king held his title, but not his power. Two figures of nothing surfaced to become the most influential figures in all of Grozorg’s history, and many were ready to crown them, but through Fulcan’s tight control over his army, none dared to speak a disloyal word. Little did they know; if they had voiced out their intentions of crowning the overlord and his Chronomancer, the army wouldn’t have stopped them anyways. The emblazoned insignia on each warrior’s chest had no value now; the Army of Light and Purity was already in new hands.

There was no rest on the seventh day. In seven days, the war was over, and on the seventh day, Grozorg fell.

Grozorg crumbled.

“Hear ye! Hear ye! We bring forth an unsettling proclamation!”

The entire plain outside of Tenebris was seated every citizen of Grozorg. The two famed figures stood on a pedestal set up in the middle of the throng by the people, and the nation gathered around to obey the awe-inspiring characters’ every word. Even most of Fulcan’s warriors had come to listen, despite Fulcan’s repeated words of warning.

“Thank you all for coming out and sacrificing the very essence of your time from your very busy lives to hear us. Who are we to speak, but lowly figures and mere mortals like you all?” The figure continued. “Our goblets overflowed with joy and gratitude at your warmest welcomes a week ago, and we hold all very dearly in our hearts.”

“Thank you for coming to help us!” A man shouted amongst the crowd.

“We love you!” Another woman responded. An uproar of enthusiastic agreements rose from the throng, quickly silenced by a careful gesture from the Chronomancer.

“We came a week ago, strangers from nothing. No one knew who we were and no one glanced in our direction. But we were truly blessed to find our fellow brothers and sisters with their welcomed arms opened and heartfelt smiles greeting us as we proclaimed our small messages.”

Another wave of joyous cheers rang among the nation.

“Today, however,” Crothus continued, “we bear...heartbreaking news.”

He gave a pause, a very effective pause that ensured every soul was listening. Something of a tear rolled down his cheek, and it was impossible to determine the authenticity behind it.

“We have looked into the past to find the source of error, the source that caused all this grief and misery for our family and friends. It could’ve been prevented, my sisters and brothers. Innocent lives that were so suddenly lost could’ve been prevented. Mothers could’ve lived. Fathers would still be here. Sons would be alive and feasting in your homes.”

There were some quiet sobs as the nation recalled personal, dark memories.

“Peter! Your son would still be there by your side, working the lands with you! Priscilla! Your daughter would have been your greatest joy, the greatest seamstress in all of the lands!”

Cries broke through the crowd as the overlord personally addressed many of them.

“No matter which direction we looked, which of the many possible outcomes that could’ve occurred, every single source pointed back to one person. He was the one who started the war, he was the one to taint Grozorg!”

A murmur rose through the crowd, voices of grief, anger, confusion, pain.

“I’m gonna rip whoever started all of this apart,” a townsfolk whispered beside me to another.

“He was the one who caused all of your pain!” The overlord suddenly proclaimed, raising his voice. “Who could’ve saved your sons from his snare, Mary? Who could’ve saved your daughters from his clutch, Josef? He was the one who started all of this! He put you in turmoil, in desperation, in pain, all for his own self-satisfaction! Even the strongest warriors crumbled before his very grasp; his dark, corrupted, immoral grasp! And yet...you still chose to follow him?”

“What?” The audience gasped. Every ear was turned towards the proclamation.

“Your glorious, selfish king has betrayed you all!”

“What?” The crowd repeated in a chaotic roar.

“You thought the high lord, Tyrannust, was the source of evil on Grozorg? Tyrannust came to save you! You were blinded by your king’s self-obsessed actions; he used you as pawns to serve him, to fight against the very salvation Tyrannust tried to graciously provide for everyone ever since he was placed in power!”

The crowd went wild, an air of fury rising from the tens of thousands.

“Has your king ever done anything good for you, Lydia, or for you, Arnald? Has your king mourned with you in times of grief, and celebrated with you in times of success, Samuel, or with you, Eleanor? Has your king ever fought for you, Tenebris, and not for his own sake or reputation?”

Point by point, he refuted the once reputable king’s deeds. And point by point, the people hated their king all the more.

But point by point, the overlord increased in validity.

“Who was the first to commit treason, the first to betray their nation? Who stole from the nation’s forge a piece of priceless metal to corrupt and kill our royal and purest high lord, his majesty Zxyx the Fourth, only to enlist in the royal army afterwards to win the very favour of the high lord’s son, rising in ranks to betray the nation furthermore? Who took the righteous throne of Lord Tyrannust VI, causing grief and darkness in our former land of glory and prosperity? Who killed your husbands, your wives, your daughters and sons all in a careless act of seizing the throne?”

Crothus’ voice thundered across the plains as he roared his last statement.

“The root of all darkness, the source of all deaths, the lives of all those innocently slain are all upon Fulcan’s bloodied hands!”

The Chronomancer extended his arms up and a strangely massive portal instantly appeared above his head. It appeared different from any portal I had ever seen, but then again, I had never met anybody who could look back in time.

The portal played an image, and on the hovering screen appeared the infamous ruler Zxyx. Everyone around the Chronomancer fell silent, the entire nation standing before the two figures to witness the raw truth of Grozorg for the first time.

An untainted, human Zxyx was standing on the balcony of his palace, delivering a powerful message to a captivated audience on the high lord’s island. Throughout his inaudible speech, the portal panned outwards to reveal the brilliant palace, including Prince Tyrannust V standing next to his father. Panning out further, a small array of buildings were located in front of the palace, and on the roof of a stone hut lay a masked figure with a bow in his hands.

The masked figure nocked an arrow on his bow and pulled back, when a sudden gust of wind blew the coverings off his face, revealing the young man within. The young Fulcan let go of the bowstring and the flaming black arrow sank into the high lord’s chest, vanishing immediately as Zxyx fell to his knees, corrupted.

Fulcan gave a wicked smile, fixing his cowl as his eyes bore into ours; his bright, blue eyes.

The image faded and the portal was taken down. It was brief, but it was enough to start a riot. No one disbelieved what they saw; no one questioned the validity of the images. No one could. Every piece of evidence recorded in history lined up, and it all proved Fulcan guilty.

The truth was finally revealed. Darkness and chaos wasn’t introduced to the island by an innocent Zxyx.

It was introduced by the very king of Light and Purity.

I ran back to the palace before the crowd stirred into a mob. Though I was in a lost state of shock and confusion, I scrambled my mind together and picked up my feet, knowing that the king was in grave danger. Ceiros’ war may have been the deadliest war, but Crothus’ war was by far the most effective. If Tyrannust couldn’t break Grozorg from the outside, he tore it apart from its very heart.

“Fulcan!” I shouted, desperate, infuriated. “Fulcan!”

The king stepped out, fully equipped in heavy armour.

“There’s nowhere safe,” the king replied. “I can’t go anywhere.”

“Not even my hideout. Someone will rat you out there. I know them like I know myself.”

“Is this the end?”

I didn’t know why I was helping the treacherous king, but I couldn’t see another way of restoring Grozorg’s former peace if the king fell into the hands of his people.

My heart tried to stop me from aiding the king. The hilts of the two piercing blades wobbled at my side. I could’ve done it, right there and then. I could’ve pulled out my streaking blades and ended it. What was even good for the nation now?

What was even good?

“Crystallia,” I muttered, restraining my hands from the linen-wrapped hilts. “We need to hurry.”

Fulcan immediately led me to the royal stables where we leapt onto the king’s stallions and galloped to the abandoned shack. A distant uproar sounded behind us, but there was no time to look back. If anyone caught sight of us, the end would most certainly come.

Flinging the wooden door of the abandoned shack open, I led the king to the entrance of the mysterious portal of the isolated island and sent him off.

“I can’t come with you. If my guild realizes, they’ll trace my tracks and reach you in no time. Once you’re there, find Oracle Uzefer.”

Fulcan grabbed my arm before I could turn to leave. I shook it off instantly, distancing myself from the king’s impure hands - hands that shed the blood of an innocent nation.

“Why did you come back for me, Prokun?”

I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t. To discover a close friend betraying everyone he had ever loved was more than I could bear. I remembered my vow. The day of Ferrius’ and Askar’s fall, I swore the vow before Kadava. How fake was my king?

How fake was the king?

“Look, I...I confess my sins in the past, Ulterium, and I know a sorry won’t cover the mess I’ve created. It wasn’t supposed to be like this, and if I had time, I would explain it all to you. But thank...thank you for coming back for me.”

Could I believe anything he said now?

“Go,” I quickly demanded. “Now!”

The man ran through the portal as I ordered, and I quickly stepped out to free the horses to the wild. Before long, my guild found me.

“Have you seen the king?” Kadava asked.

“They’re burning the castle!” Foku added. “If Fulcan is in there, all hope is lost!”

“I haven’t seen him. He must’ve gone somewhere safe, somewhere nobody knows of.”

“Where were you, Ulterium?” Glo questioned. “When the mob marched to burn the palace down, you weren’t there.”

“Grozorg will live to see another day,” I diverted.

The Blood Guild looked at me indecipherably, but it was better to hide the truth from them. Some things were better off unknown.

And if I had time, I would have explained it all to them.

There was nothing left to improvise. The smoke clouded the darkening sky as the flames licked the clouds, the palatial structures crumbling in fury, in infidelity. The hard effort placed in rebuilding Tenebris vanished in a blaze of ash and smoke, as did the nation’s hope, faith, and love for the days gone by. Tenebris had become a stronghold of darkness, and the elemental wars purging it were far from over.

In fact, the real war had just begun.

 

Epilogue

 

The stormy night did not hinder the prince’s hasty steps. He reached the docked ship and walked aboard, welcomed by every Vindor pirate. As he headed towards the captain’s quarters, he was greeted by the captain herself, the girl he had been looking for.

“Jovan! What are ye doin’ here?” Famming asked, delighted.

The prince carried a rigid, unsmiling face that must’ve torn the captain’s heart.

“We need to talk.”

“What’s wrong?” The captain asked, in an entirely different tone of seriousness.

The couple stepped inside Hestia’s private quarters, away from every sailor’s earshot.

“I know where the king is,” Jovan started.

“You do?” Hestia asked, startled. “He’s been gone for a month now - nobody knows where that traitor be!”

Grozorg had fallen into utter chaos, Tyrannust’s work of building his legion completely unhindered for the past thirty days. Tenebris was destroyed, and the Army of Light and Purity, the former strongest army of the nation, had crumbled. Since the absence of the king, all hell broke loose.

“Though he may have done some wrong acts in the past,” Jovan continued, “he’s saved my father’s life before. I made a vow to keep him safe, and ever since Tyrannust took the life of my father and twisted his soul to serve his dark order, my allegiance was pledged to the king no matter what circumstance.”

“What are ye suggestin’?”

“The two guilds that fought by the king’s side has divided,” he continued. “There is no one to support the king anymore.”

“So...?”

“A new age for Grozorg has come. As the rightful heir to the throne of ice, I hold power to recruit twelve elite members to form the strongest group on Grozorg, starting with you. Together, we will make things right.”

“Me? You know I ain’t no landlubb-”

“For the nation. For my father. For me.”

The prince brushed his lips against Famming’s forehead, and the captain quickly yielded.

“Alright, alright,” the captain blushed. “So what’s this ‘group’ then?”

“Oh, it’s a group alright,” the prince chuckled.

A smile spread across his face, dashing the once rigid and solemn expression before.

“Nuthin’ can be better than the Confederacy.”

“I would like to agree, but your confederacy is missing something,” the prince quickly responded.

“I object.”

“My group will have everything. Strength, skill, speed, you name it.”

“So does the Confederacy.”

“Ah, but there’s one more thing,” he continued with a grin.

“What?” Famming interrupted impatiently.

The prince looked at her with a new-found ecstasy, a renewed determination. He placed his palms on the captain’s hips and delivered his response.

“Vindication.”