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Before the War

Chapter Text

         There existed a magnificent field green as far as the eye could see. The wind whistled, bringing forth a cool breeze that could send pleasant goosebumps down anyone’s spine. The sun showered down its rays upon the grass, bringing about warmth so cozy even the most irritated of men could not help but lie on the vast carpet and sleep their troubles away. The clouds had enveloped the field not too long ago with their love; water droplets slowly traversed from one end of a blade of grass to the other, eventually leaping off onto the ground below them valiantly and gracefully. To think that such a perfect view could possibly exist in a place as awful as that one, full of outcasts and undesirables. That day was a very peculiar day, however, as there was one object amidst the green sea that did not belong in that world full of joy and beauty –- a lump of meat the color of dirt repugnantly pulsating, disturbing the otherwise peaceful meadow.

         A gust of wind attempted to wake up the sleeping man; so did the blades of grass, tickling his nose in a futile attempt at stopping his pestilent breath from bullying them. The man had seemingly appeared from thin air, although the air would never admit to being guilty of introducing the field to such a scrawny, shirtless, unfortunate man. His head was protected by a cheap, poorly-made straw hat with a black band. Even darker, unruly hair spilled from the top of his head down to his shoulders. An equally chaotic moustache jammed between his nose and upper lip was not enough to hide his unsightly visage. With a sudden jerk of his head, the man frantically sat up and observed his surroundings. He protected his eyes from the flood of bright, exuberant hues with his right arm after he had overcome the initial shock of waking up to such a lively place. He had come from… from…

         He grasped his head firmly with both hands, squeezing his temples desperately trying to stop the headache that had ambushed him. He could not remember whence he came, but images of dust swirling menacingly in the wind, tiny houses that could not successfully shelter more than three individuals struggling to maintain ten people satisfied, a scorching sun that would shrivel up all the remaining crops that those poor victims were desperately hoping could keep them breathing for a few more weeks, and… a tiny, violet flower forcing itself through the cracks on the dehydrated earth, miraculously surviving the extreme conditions of such a wasteland, poured into his mind. His headache subsided ever so slightly, enough to give the man enough strength to stand up and begin shuffling forward. He did not know where he was, nor where he was going, nor where he had come from, but neither did he find enough will to ponder such matters. All that was driving him forth was his innate urge to reduce his pain and remain alive.

         Having navigated through the field subconsciously, the man suddenly found himself in front of a pub with no recollection of how he brought himself to such an unprecedented location. He looked about him and noticed that he had stumbled upon a city full of houses unlike any of the houses he had imagined not too long ago. They were large and proud, able to satisfy three times as many as the shacks from his visions. There were no vile clouds of dust, and the ground was a healthy brown sprouting flowers and trees. So mesmerized was he by the culture shock that he did not realize the most astonishing feature of the town: its inhabitants were not creatures he had ever seen in person, rather characters he would only read in books or hear about in tales passed down through his family’s generations. At first glance they looked not so detached from the inhabitants of his own world, but he soon gasped at the horns protruding from their heads, horse torsos replacing their legs, butterfly wings sprouting from their shoulder blades, and even blue, green, and red-colored skin, if they were made of flesh at all. Everyone had halted their daily routines to stare in awe at him, a man equally as peculiar as they were to him. No, in fact the man seemed more familiar. Their astonished expressions began slowly contorting into that of anger -- of disgust -- as everyone’s surprise was soon replaced with the same false assumption of the man’s origins.

         Acknowledging this, the man hurriedly entered the pub in hopes of being provided a cure for his agonizing head. He walked as swiftly as his skinny, malnourished legs allowed him to and grabbed on to the bar for his dear life. He was looking down at the ground, partly because that was the position in which his head had ended up after nearly falling over, partly because he had no energy left to lift his head, and partly because he was begging, with the raspy voice of a man who had not tasted any drink other than dirty water and his own urine in years, “please, would you be so kind as to provide me with anything that may extinguish the fire spreading throughout my head and body?” Every word that managed to leave his vocal chords shredded the inside of his throat and made his eyes water. When was the last time he had uttered a sound other than whimpers?

         There was a long moment of silence as everyone in the pub stopped chattering and gazed upon the strange creature that had limped into their gathering place. Slowly, whispers broke out as everyone began theorizing the possibilities. Who was this man? Where had he come from? Why was he wearing shorts that covered only down to his knees, ripped in multiple places, yet no shoes, no shirt, and most peculiar of all a hat made of straw? As had been the case with the other inhabitants, who were presently loitering just outside the pub entrance in anticipation for what may become of the creature, they all began assuming the same identity for the man, the tone of their whispers beginning to shift from confused and mildly fascinated to angry and hostile.

         The man, who could no longer bear the anguish, mustered his last remaining energy to grasp his straw hat, hold it against his chest, and look ahead at the bartender towering over him. Before he was able to utter his plea, his whole entire body froze, leaving him gawking with his mouth agape. The bartender was a tall, muscular man, so muscular he could easily shred the quivering child into tiny little pieces; the bartender’s green, rough skin and blood-red eyes intimidated the child to no end; every move, no matter how small, caused the bartender’s pectorals to bulge out, making the child flinch. At long last, the words began to leak out of the child’s mouth, “I beg of you, I am unable to bear this anguish any longer!”

         The bartender stared into the man’s eyes, his gaze stern and to the brim with exasperation, but all of a sudden the bartender looked up at all his customers and bellowed “friends, laugh to your heart’s content, ridicule till you no longer have the energy to do so, for in front of you is a Xana so dragged down from his pedestal of glory that he finds himself groveling at the feet of a lowly Hemi!” The entire pub exploded in a series of howls, shrieks, and squeals as bottles of green liquid and red cubes began hurling toward him. A bottle shattered on his head, causing him to drop to his knees and begin bleeding. The bartender had lifted himself over the countertop and proceeded to grip the man, who was in too much pain to distinguish anything his eyes were able to capture through the thick blanket of tears, by the neck and hurl him outside of the pub, causing the man to face-plant onto the ground and skid at least a quarter of a meter. There he lay, dirt inside of his mouth, blood running down the sides of his head, unable to move nor ignore the blazing inferno that had took hold of his entire being. He could feel his consciousness leaking out of him alongside his blood, as if it were clinging on to the wound but the flood of blood were too strong for the consciousness to hold on for long. The laughter that surrounded him never ceased, but as he fell deeper and deeper into unconsciousness, the laughter sounded more as though everyone were submerged in a black sea, sinking lower and lower, their laughter growing fainter and more muffled.

         In a distant field full of beautiful flowers, a water droplet slid down the flower’s violet pedals, and if any romantic had happened to see that, they would have concluded that the flower was weeping.

Chapter Text

         “Mama? Mama?” a child, no older than four years (but who was counting anyway), scampered from place to place under the scorching sun in search of his beloved mother, who had nourished and loved him on behalf of herself and her husband. The child never knew the love of his father, a man who had fallen so deeply in love with his wife that, unbeknownst to the wife, he had reduced his own rations to feed her the same amount month after month. The man endured days without food in order to see his pregnant wife smile at the end of each day. That smile, that beautiful smile, was his only oasis in a world rammed to the brim with avarice, famine, and suffering; that smile, that gorgeous smile, flooded the husband with so much warmth and love that he starved to death, his own smile forever carved into his rotting face; that smile, that marvelous smile, was never seen again.

         “Mama!” The child shouted a third time, and his uncle rushed out of their house, if such a run-down shack could possibly be perceived as such, to embrace the child tightly. The child was in shock at the sudden attack from his uncle, a man who he had come to view as a father figure throughout the years as they tossed a rock at each other, pretended to be wild animals, and tossed and turned on the dirt until the child’s mother would shout at them for being too childish and wasting their precious energy in shenanigans. The child began to feel drops of water on his back and, almost as if by instinct, immediately looked up at the sky, devoid of any clouds, in hopes of seeing rain falling. “Uncle, did you feel that? It may be raining at last!” Oddly enough, the rain began pouring down faster and kept falling only on his back and nowhere else. “Quick, we need to get a bucket and place it right here to catch the water-”

         “No, it's not rain. Sorry to have upped your hopes, but it's my tears.” The uncle stood up and wiped his eyes with his dirt-encrusted forearms. The child asked why he was crying but the uncle just stood there, wiping his eyes over and over and over again, sobbing louder and louder. A woman, who the child had come to call auntie out of politeness, walked out of their house and bellowed amongst tears of her own “she died!”

         The man woke up to the sensation of a liquid being poured down his throat. He rolled on his side and began coughing, some of the green liquid flying onto his hand. He found himself once again amidst a meadow, this one with even more vibrant colors than the first. His headache had subsided to mild pulses, and he was able to breathe with far more ease than before. He sat up and pondered for a couple seconds about his dream with tears streaming down his cheeks, which he wiped with dirt-encrusted forearms. Not too long afterward, he returned to his senses and spun around to discern the mysterious source of green liquid. In front of him was another muscular man; however, his pigmentation was not the same green as the bartender’s, rather a fair brown, or at least not as dark as his own. Chartreuse hair flowed down to his broad shoulders, and his eyes glared at him not with the same ferocious and hungry glare as the bartender’s but one full of curiosity and concern. His right hand firmly grasped a bottle of green liquid, the same kind of bottle that had been thrown at him at the pub. At that moment, the man noticed that the stranger was missing his lower body and was instead sporting the body and legs of a dark brown horse, a red bandana of sorts wrapped around his waist, if waist is the correct term, and a silver, scorpion’s stinger rather than a normal horse tail.

         The creature remained silent and unmoving, but later stated in a matter-of-fact tone “no need to be alarmed, for I am not like the other delinquents. I am still young and free of the mindset adults seem to develop at some point in their lives –- that anyone not a Hemi is to be hated, and that even fellow Hemi are not safe from their own people’s wrath. The moment I saw you, I knew you were different somehow. I have not seen a Xana in person, but I have heard descriptions that do not seem to sufficiently match your appearance. You may be wondering how you got here.” The centaur stood tall and proud, puffing out his chiseled chest. “I am relatively young in this community, but that fact does not affect my extraordinary strength as a centaur. Picking someone as light as you with one hand does not pose the slightest of challenges. I also stole two Bitters from the pub by rushing into the building during all the commotion and picking them up from the floor, situated you on my back, and made a bee-line for this place.” The man felt great gratitude for the centaur’s muscularity, yet could not shake off the fear that even the “young” could shred him into little pieces in that world. “Oh, and I decided to snatch this hat I found from a bystander before they destroyed it.”

         Grabbing the hat full of gratitude, the man asked “what are Bitters? They taste sweet.” The man wondered why this, of all the questions clambering inside his head, was the one that managed to out-perform the others in the gauntlet.

         “How do you not know what a Bitter is? It’s a sweet, alcoholic beverage made from the Aja leaf with very potent healing abilities, a delicacy in all of Texel. All of Texel. Do not tell me you do not remember the famous slogan Bitter makes your better. Are you suffering from amnesia? That could very well be the case, seeing how roughly you had been damaged when I got there to save you.” He said the last sentence with an excess of pride, the man thought.

         “Amnesia? Perhaps. I do not understand all these terms I’ve heard since I woke up… Xana, Hemi, Texel… I cannot name any of the objects I have seen, namely the red cubes thrown at me. I do not understand why everyone looks like creatures from fantasy stories told to me by my family when I was a mere baby! I do not understand why everyone attacked me so violently! I-”

         “Calm down! I see now that you are seriously unsettled by all of this. Let’s take it slowly, alright? What do you remember?”

         The man closed his eyes and pondered for a long time. The only sounds were the wind whistling by, carrying serenity in every particle. “Dust. I remember vile clouds of dust swirling menacingly in the wind, fowl reminders that yet another day went by without rain. I remember death from starvation, dehydration, and in some cases even murder.” He shuttered at the thought of the raid his community had been subjected to. He was old enough to join the armed forces, which consisted of several men with spears, slingshots, and fists. “The lengths in which people go for food and water…” he whispered reminiscently. There was silence once again as the two pondered over the description the man had just provided until the centaur broke the silence.

         “Never have I heard of stories as gruesome as that one, not even fictional stories deliberately devised to scare us. Death, to us, is an extremely rare occurrence and definitely not natural. What is starvation? What is dehydration? It seems to me as though my world is as foreign to you as your world is foreign to me. There is, however, a man I know that may be able to resolve, or at least attempt to resolve, the seemingly unapproachable conundrum towering before us.” The centaur began to rise.

         “Where are we?” The man asked as he, too, rose, not being able to contain the inquiry much longer. The centaur, with his signature move of puffing his chest out, spread out his arms as if he were displaying the entire world around them in an auction house.

         “This, my friend, is Wounding, my world. I was birthed and raised in this very field, in this very town, and here is where I shall remain for all eternity.” The centaur slowly lowered his arms and looked at the man with a bewildered expression. “Where have my manners run off to? We have not even introduced ourselves yet. My name is Bolefang.” He extended his hand for a firm handshake, which the man grasped and squeezed as if to prove to himself he was not the weakling he was currently seeing himself as.

         “As for me… you may call me NXT.”

Chapter Text

         Bolefang, knowing that their entering the town once again would result in nothing but yet another needless altercation, deliberately led NXT through the vast field. As they walked, the two of them began making small talk about how beautiful the meadow seemed when compared to the desert NXT remembered or about how much suffering a glass bottle shattering over their heads could procure. As they conversed more and more, NXT began to feel less apprehensive of the fact that he was socializing with a mythical creature at least twenty times as strong as himself and more welcome in this foreign world devoid of pain and suffering, or so claimed Bolefang. To NXT a world without pain, suffering, and death was beyond his scope of imagination, just as how to Bolefang a world full of chaos, starvation, and murder was beyond his.

         After what seemed to NXT like half an hour of continuous, steady travel, the two friends arrived at a forest, the first forest NXT had ever seen in person. The trees towered over him higher than anything NXT had ever witnessed other than the sky itself. The trunks were thick and brown, the leaves were abundant and green, the birds were chirping, and the wind was blowing the trees from side to side, making the trees become animated right before NXT’s eyes. With childish fascination and curiosity, NXT placed a hand on the trunk of a tree and began pushing on it, feeling its coarseness, hugging it, and shaking it from side to side. He skipped from one tree to the other, baffled at the sheer quantity and concentration, and began spinning in circles as if trying to take in all his surroundings at once. The fauna, the flora, the climate, the warm feeling inside of his chest, the giddy laughter that escaped him involuntarily, the sun’s rays penetrating the thick canopies, the- there was just too much for NXT to digest, all his senses were being drowned.

         NXT would have remained trapped in his own world of absolute awe if it had not been for Bolefang's having reminded NXT that there was a man he wanted him to meet. The two of them continued deeper into the forest with sporadic halts to allow NXT to observe certain plants or animals that revealed themselves along the way. At long last, the two of them caught a glimpse of a bipedal creature camouflaged by all the brown and green sporting three long claws on each hand and a hood over his head. Despite the weapons, the creature did not seem to be actively hunting. In fact, its body language and speed suggested to NXT that he was returning home from a pleasant stroll throughout the forest.

         “Drymead! So glad to finally see you, old friend!” Bolefang shouted at the creature. The creature stopped but did not turn his head toward them.

         “How many times have I told you-”

         “That you came to the forest to escape the hassles of the city and enjoy the serenity of the forest, blah-blah, blah-blah. Just hear me out, alright? I have found something that may interest you quite a bit.”

         “Speak. What could this something be?”

         “A creature not of this world. A creature that I hypothesize entered our world through the iris.” Drymead perked up at the ridiculous suggestion and turned his head. After a pause, Drymead began making his way through the bushes and trees until his face came mere inches away from NXT’s. Grasping NXT’s chin with his hands, which terrified NXT to no end considering the long blades protruding from Drymead’s knuckles, Drymead began to tilt NXT’s head from side to side, as if to make sure NXT was not a creature from Texel. Their eyes met and remained locked for a considerably long time, long enough for NXT to feel even more awkward than he had felt from his head being wielded as the stranger’s toy. Drymead’s stare was intense, dissecting NXT to his very core.

         Drymead, after being satisfied, let go of NXT’s head and began to pace back and forth for a short while, pondering the possibility of NXT indeed being from another world. “Describe to me, stranger, the world whence you came.” NXT inhaled deeply, allowing all the oxygen to stimulate his memory, and exhaled slowly. He recounted his experiences working on the fields, his sleepless nights pondering the possibility that rain may never come, the swirling dust, the cracked earth, the death of his parents to starvation, the scorching sun, the freezing nights, the disease-ridden community, the impending raids, the murderous rampage people from his world would resort to when their stomachs howled too obnoxiously, and on and on he went. After NXT had finally revealed himself to the fullest extent, Drymead stared vexed at him for quite some time.

         A memory began to slowly surface from the depths of Drymead’s mind, a very faint recollection of a man simultaneously a mix and absence of Xana, Hemi, and Theri -- a man who had been traveling far and wide writing down any of his findings on journals long lost. He, too, had shared stories of a world straight from the vilest of horror stories. The creature’s intelligence and versatility had allowed him to mingle with peoples across all of Texel, from the Hemi slums to the Gallants at Alabast Hold, from the tree Theri to the highest Mages at Allodiael. Drymead had been a mere child named Winespill before he had ever fathomed he would end up as an ascetic wanderer of the forest. A being such as that is difficult to fathom, and if Winespill had not met him, Drymead would have most certainly lived his life discarding any news of the so-called Human as an intricate ruse. Drymead had never imagined that such a creature would ever find itself back into his realm. Could this… NXT… be of the same vein as that creature? He stared into NXT’s dark-brown eyes some more just to make sure, but it was unmistakable. The aura he had felt from that creature so long ago was the same aura, although fainter, that he sensed whenever he peered into those eyes, those weakened, frail, yet determined eyes.

         “Child, the description of your home world is none like I have ever heard before, aside from one instance long past. Have you visited us from Earth?”

         “Yes, that is the planet I’m from.”

         “How much do you know about Texel?”

         “I am unaware of many things. I just recently learned what Bitters are, but I am unaware of what the red cubes are, what the difference between Xana, Hemi, and Theri are… I am aware of this world’s lack of death, but does that mean you all have very long life-spans and even immortality? What about starvation and dehydration? Do you all really have enough self-sustainable resources to be able to feed everyone everywhere?”

         “Alright, we must not keep you in the dark for too long, lest you do not enjoy your visit here.” Drymead smiled for a moment before proceeding. “You say you are aware of our highly-effective healing, as well as intoxicating, drink –- the Bitter. However, the red cubes, as you call them, are Nux, which are sold mostly as snacks and even romantic gestures.” NXT could not help but chuckle at the irony of the last statement, but Drymead did not press the matter.

         Drymead continued, “We Texeli do not fear a lack of resources -- our world is vast, far too vast for us to conquer all of it -– nor do we fear death. Keep in mind, from your perspective we are immortal. Our life spans are relatively endless, and we do not kill other Texeli –- aside from the terrible Dot Sacrifice that is admonished in today’s society. This also means we do not mind spending thousands of moons wandering across all of Texel, or at least the ones that have the opportunity to do so, but I will touch on that later. The point is, all of this world has three components: The Silver Sea, Texel, and The Amber Sea. The travel from one sea to the other is estimated to last an average of thirty-five summers. Incredible is it not? But more astonishing is the idea that Texel is so thin when viewing the globe in its entirety that it looks more like a thin strip of brown and green wrapped around a ball. How long, I wonder, would it take to cross one of these seas, from one side of the girdle of land to the other?” Drymead graciously allowed NXT and Bolefang, who was still in his youth and was learning alongside NXT, to contemplate and interpret his flood of information.

         “Child, what say you of a walk alongside me as I discuss our last topic, the Three Tribes of Texel? I cannot remain standing still for too long before I begin feeling a little… uneasy.” With a nod of NXT’s head, the three individuals began what would soon reveal itself to be a long, long trek.

Chapter Text

          Drymead remained silent for a while as the three of them continued their stroll, as if giving the two younglings more time to ponder over the explanation of Texel’s geography. At last, Drymead broke the ambient sounds of the seemingly never-ending forest, stating in his best didactic voice “there are three tribes here on Texel, and each one has a certain… abhorrence toward the others. I shall start with the high-and-almighty-gods-of-Texel Xana, or so they love to arrogantly proclaim to the skies from atop their throne.” NXT remembered the bartender at the pub in which he was assaulted bellowing similarly to arouse his customers. “A less biased description would be to first split the entire Xana population into three categories: the Gallants, the Mages, and the Barbarians.

          “Gallants are all those knights and higher-class individuals that are born into royalty and privilege yet somehow deceive themselves into believing they earned their status through hard work, as if they were worthy and entitled to bear such responsibilities due to their pious character.  Most Gallants reside in the most extravagant palace in all of Texel as far as I know, Alabast Hold, far, far away from here.

          “Mages are the second most arrogant beings in this world, although they love to think of themselves as better than the Gallants due to their intelligence. These beings, as their title suggests, focus primarily on spells for either combat or day-to-day errands. Most of them reside in the Mage city of Louran, which conveniently has its own palace dubbed Allodiael.

          “Finally, the Barbarians are the most respectable Xana but still too disillusioned by grandeur to allow themselves to mingle with the other tribes too much. Barbarians are much like myself in the sense that they wander rather than settle in palaces. In fact, they are the most respectable because they do not allow themselves to fall prey to a luxurious lifestyle and instead dedicate themselves to admiring and respecting nature. You may even go as far as calling them ascetic. Now that I think about it, most Xana, with some few exceptions here and there, look very much like yourself, NXT. You are far humbler, but the fact still stands that if you were to ever assimilate into one of the Texeli tribes, you would have the best luck trying to fake being a Xana.”

          NXT began feeling exhausted. Perhaps the healing effects of the Bitter had expired and the fatigue from his sudden transportation into Texel was coming back to haunt him, perhaps his weakened state from nearly starving back on Earth was still taking a toll on his body, or perhaps he had been traveling from place to place a longer distance than he had estimated, but he could not deny the pain circulating from his abdomen throughout his entire body. Bolefang, upon observing NXT’s growing malaise, retrieved the second glass of Bitter he had stolen from the pub and offered it to him. NXT gratefully accepted, and Drymead continued his discourse.

          “Do not worry, the descriptions for the other tribes are not as intricate nor loaded. The Theri tribe consists of magical creatures blessed with knowledge unparalleled by anyone. As I noted before, the Mages are the most intelligent among Xana, but between just the three of us, I am a firm believer in the intelligence of the dumbest Theri being the intelligence of the smartest Mage ten-fold. Always philosophizing, always debating, always discovering. They are similar to Xana in the sense that they see themselves far too superior to socialize with the other tribes, which in my opinion is more than justified, but the difference between the two is that Theri distance themselves from the other tribes whereas Xana are overtly aggressive towards the other tribes. Gallants, oh the Gallants, they are the first to exile us Hemi from their palaces.” Once again there was a long pause as Drymead began formulating a way to elucidate the third, final tribe.

          “We Hemi,” he began, his tone shifting from his quasi-didactic tone to a far more somber one, “are the mistake. We Hemi -- yes dear Bolefang, you shall today admit to yourself we are all mistakes –- are no more than the hideous, segregated, taboo byproducts of the union between a Xana and a Theri.” Drymead looked down at the floor and Bolefang to his left, as if both of them were utterly embarrassed of revealing themselves to the Human too ignorant to hold any grudges against them anyway. “There is no manner in which I can sugar-coat the truth; in fact, there is no manner in which I am able to properly convey the extent to which we are the… the excrescence of Texel,” resumed Drymead, his tone gradually devolving to one of utter self-reprimand, “half-Xana, half-Theri, our appearance is, well, that of mystical creatures jumbled together in an infernal blender with Human-like creatures.” Both of them began analyzing themselves, Bolefang staring back at his lower-body and Drymead leering at his nose, which could only be described by NXT as a blue, pointed proboscis that failed to complement the otherwise brown and green appearance of a hunter. “As far as our tribe has existed, it has been pushed farther and farther away from the rest of Texel, always groveling on the outskirts of society. Remember when I mentioned one could walk from the Amber to the Silver Sea only if one had the opportunity to do so? Well, we Hemi have no hopes of doing so. We are fated to forever reside here, the slums.”

          There was silence, the most salient of them all. The entire forest had stopped making noise, as if the entire world were holding its breath in sorrow. The only sounds came from the cracking of twigs on the ground as the three of them walked; not even the wind was blowing. NXT began feeling uneasy, as if his coming to that world had brought some sort of unbalance, as if his being there was somehow a paradox the universe will soon enough attempt to rectify by erasing his existence forever. Shaking his head as if telling himself that he was overthinking the cumbersome situation and that he should stop pondering over the science-fiction his family had read to him as bedtime stories, NXT was about to interject the insufferable silence when Drymead asked “do you know of a Human by the name of Abbott-Abbott?”

          After the initial shock of finding out Drymead knew of another Human and digging deep into his hippocampus, NXT answered meekly “my village may have had a book written by someone with a similar name, but I cannot say I knew him personally.” NXT furrowed his eyebrows and looked at Drymead quizzically.

          “Did the book not mention Texel or Texeli?”

          “No, it was a philosophical and theoretical town of miniature men, or something to that extent.”

          “Hm. Regardless, I am glad to be one of the very few Texeli able to say they have not met one but two Humans.” There was silence for an instant as Drymead made eye contact with Bolefang, as if to thank him for the opportunity to meet another Human, but NXT could not help but discern a hint of loathing. As the three of them walked deeper into the forest, Drymead began elaborating on what he believed and remembered regarding Abbott-Abbott.

          “Before I, Drymead, came Leesdown, and before him came Winespill. One crucial piece of information I have neglected to inform you about, NXT, is the fact that we Texeli become new beings the longer we remain in this world -- we evolve. Winespill was a very humble fellow, one without resentment toward the other tribes, much like our young Bolefang. He could not conceive why anyone could hate someone else, but soon realized that the hatred Hemi suppressed within them would be projected on other fellow Hemi! He had lost all respect for the tribe. Perhaps Xana and Theri were justified in their hate for us if we could not even control ourselves from attacking each other. Xana are known to fight amongst each other, but the infighting we Hemi practice is on a higher level. Only Theri have been able to bond relatively peacefully, perhaps due to their intelligence, but I digress. Winespill was becoming more and more distant from the town of Wounding. Nay, not distant, but critical. Clinging on to the hope that the Hemi people of Wounding would one day redeem themselves, he decided not to emigrate to a far-away land; despite his efforts, the hope was slipping farther and farther from his grasp. Then, as Winespill neared the point of surrender, came a traveler unlike any Winespill had ever seen, a man many people assumed was a Xana but later revealed himself to be a completely new creature. How could this be? He explained to us in a very eloquent and diplomatic manner that he had arrived through the iris and had had the pleasure of traveling to many locations before finding Wounding. He was immensely amiable and would always document his findings on notebooks long lost…” Drymead trailed off into silence, and the two followed suit, walking farther and farther toward a place unbeknownst to both of them.

Chapter Text

         NXT could no longer walk in silence. The entirety of his mind was cluttered with his own theories and inquiries regarding who Abbott-Abbott had been, or was. How long ago did that happen? How long had he been there for? Was he still there or had he returned to Earth? NXT had trouble understanding the last phrase Drymead uttered, the one about the journals written by Abbott-Abbott being long gone. If they were long gone, could it be he was no longer there to preserve them? If he was not there, had he returned to Earth? But who in their right mind would want to return to Earth, such a desolate world ridden with plagues and suffering? Texel was Heaven, Earth was Hell, no question about it. Perhaps Abbott-Abbott had traveled to Texel and back before the Earth was in such a state of disarray, yet NXT nor anyone in his community remembered the days when Earth was as prosperous as described in novels or paintings. The more he thought, the more his control waned until finally he busted out in a series of questions one after the other, bombarding Drymead left and right with no remorse. When he had finished, Drymead took a deep breath and tried to answer the few questions for which he had answers.

         “Abbott-Abbott’s stay lasted a hundred years, believe it or not, and this all happened hundreds upon hundreds ago. Yes, he did return to Earth, hence why I asked you if you knew of him and his fate. As for why his journals were destroyed, I cannot answer you. Keep in mind, he did not remain in Wounding very long, and as such many of the ones I consulted for information about him hardly knew him either. He is a mysterious historical figure, but we Texeli do not forget such a peculiarity so easily. Oh, we are here.”

         NXT, having been deep in thought, had not realized that the lighting around him had slowly become brighter and brighter as the three of them neared the end of the forest and more sun made its way through the trees.

         “Why have you led us here, Drymead?” Bolefang asked.

         “I want to provide our little Human here with a VIP tour of our Hemi land.” Drymead smiled, a very convincing one at that, but NXT knew better. Drymead seemed to have reached the end of his patience. He wanted to go back to his peace and tranquility in the forest rather than have to deal with a Human. NXT, however, was not about to pass up an opportunity at getting to know this mysterious yet fascinating new world; that is until he saw what towered before him after what seemed like only a few more minutes of walking in the open air.

         “Are we really going to go up all those stairs?” NXT exclaimed incredulously as he shielded his eyes from the blazing sun, staring at a mountain stretching so high he could not distinguish the summit. Steps lined the side of the mountain, which made NXT grateful. He could not imagine having to scale the side of such a treacherous mountain just for the sake of exploration. Did the air not get thinner the higher one went? What if he stopped being able to breathe half-way up? He began panicking.

         “Absolutely. How else would you be able to enjoy the delights awaiting you at Oldtown? Seeing as you met Bolefang, I will assume you already had your fun in Wounding, but anything you experienced there pales in comparison. Do not worry, Bolefang and I will protect you in case anyone attempts to… impose themselves on you due to your appearance. Right, Bolefang?”

         “Yes, I shall protect NXT.” Bolefang began to puff out his chest once more. “I have done it once and I shall do it again. No one would dare get in the way of a centaur as mighty as myself.”

         “What say you, Human?”

         NXT nodded with a dry smile. Drymead began to climb the stairs, and NXT followed closely behind, hoping he did not get shoved over the side and meet a slow, painful death tumbling down the mountain like a straw doll, his bones breaking after every bounce, covered in the blood that sprayed everywhere leaving a red trail down, down, down the side. His only hope would be to twist his body mid-air and hope he was able to break his neck quickly, ending the pain with the soothing numbness that is eternal sleep. Texel is Heaven, Earth is Hell. NXT shuddered at the idea of dying in Heaven and being sent back to Earth. There was nothing waiting for him there except anguish. Would he be able to commit suicide on Earth and be transported back to Texel? Is life just an eternal back-and-forth between Texel and Earth? For all he knew, his experiences in Texel thus far had been a starving man’s delirium, and the afterlife was still yet to be reached. Could Hell be worse than Earth? At this point, NXT shuddered non-stop, trembling like an infant who had just witnessed his neighbors being impaled by the spears of enemy tribes raiding their village for nourishment… The strong gusts of wind as they rose ever higher did not improve the situation, swaying the lightheaded NXT ever closer to death. His anxiety forced him to involuntarily gaze down on Wounding, which had become no more than buildings reduced to tiny specs of dust. He attempted to amuse himself by trying to distinguish the pub but soon had to bend over and gulp down the vomit that had nearly exploded from him. Bolefang rushed to his side not knowing exactly what to do.

         Drymead exploded into laughter. “He sure looks like you after a visit to the bar, does he not?” he managed to say to Bolefang between laughs. “I remember back when you were even younger and riskier. You told me once you could chug down three full Bitters non-stop, remember? You poor centaur, cursed by your blood with the inability to partake of the most wonderful beverage there is.”

         “I can still partake!” Bolefang shouted defensively while helping NXT stand. In a quieter voice, he added “just not in excess.”

         “Are you alright there, NXT? We are almost there.” A blatant lie, NXT noted as he gazed up at the ever-stretching steps. Whatever was in Oldtown better have been worth the trouble. Higher and higher the three went, Drymead without breaking a sweat, Bolefang desperately trying not to reveal his fatigue and weakness, and NXT about ready to regurgitate again. NXT knew his stomach was far too empty to risk throwing up. He would resemble a lizard spewing acid at an enemy far more than a man merely allowing his food to free itself from his grasp.

 

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         A miniature, silver creature scampered about in the usual featherbrained manner. Absent-minded as always, these creatures would navigate the forests, beaches, and mountains until summoned. Their only purpose in life was to assist in a ritual for strengthening Texeli folk, which they accepted without struggle. Hundreds upon hundreds of these silver creatures with pointed noses, spikey hair, and needled arms enveloped the land awaiting the ritual. Among these were their golden counterparts, equally as care-free, numerous, and wandering, anticipating the moment they could fulfill their purpose. This particular silver critter, however, happened to saunter to the wrong place at the wrong time. Having witnessed a scene so horrendous, so out of place, so catastrophic, the critter scuttled away nearly stumbling on its own stubby legs. Overcome by a menacing feeling, the once naïve, merry creature was corrupted into a quivering, helpless thing no longer able to control itself. These silver and gold creatures may not have much intelligence, but they have enough to understand whenever one of their own kind is acting unlike anything they had ever seen in the entirety of their lives. Soon the uneasiness began spreading across the population like a virulent plague. More and more were at a loss of how to feel or what to do. Suddenly, they were all summoned, and as always everyone immediately heeded the beckoning. As they all gathered, they began shaking their needles frantically not due to joy but fear, an extremely unusual reaction to being summoned. Afraid of these new developments, the creatures refused to part from their homes in the caves and forest. Confused, barely able to speak, their characteristic obedience had been replaced with fickleness and mild rebelliousness. The intelligence of a Mage or Theri was not needed for one to conclude the world was upside-down, that something sinister was afoot, that the natural order of Texel was at stake. Whatever the silver fellow had seen, whatever emotions flooded his being, no one may know, but as the creature began growing more and more fearful, he stared at the figure who had summoned them and uttered the phrase that would resonate throughout the forest for many moons to come: “Change coming!”

Chapter Text

         At last, at long last, NXT stretched out his bloody hand scraped raw from having been used repeatedly to drag his decrepit corpse up the steps. Covered in blood, sweat, and tears, sporting a shredded chest and mutilated legs, the sack of meat oozing blood from every laceration managed to force itself upon the final step and semi-consciously behold, through bloodstained irises, Oldtown. In reality, NXT had only tripped on the last step and was whining on the floor.

         “Stop embarrassing yourself, Human. Look, we Hemi were nice enough to build a pub right next to the entrance for the weak-minded and weak-hearted folk who expended all their energy attempting to scale the mountain,” Drymead stated, pointing toward a building to their right.

         “I am hungry, so hungry. You would think I would be used to such a sensation, but even after multiple decades this pain has failed to diminish. I am grateful for the Bitter’s ability to abate the suffering, but it only does so temporarily before my brain wakes from its intoxicated state,” NXT mumbled through jarred breaths.

         “Come to think of it, you are yet to taste Nux bits, correct? Be right back,” Bolefang said as he started to walk toward the pub, but Drymead stopped him. 

         “You cannot possibly be serious, Bolefang. Stop pampering him and force him to grow a backbone for once. He may not be a Hemi, but that does not mean he is not able to persevere through the pain. Am I correct, NXT, or do you really need to depend on a young centaur to survive?”

         NXT had lost his pride long ago, but somehow hearing Drymead tease him in such a manner infuriated him. He forced himself up on two feet and began wobbling toward the pub. He heard Drymead remark something but, unable to distinguish any words even though he was certain the utterance had just been more chaffing, remained fixed on situating one foot in front of the other rhythmically and properly as to not lose balance. The world around him began to sway from side to side as if his mind were recollecting the sensation of being tossed around by the wind he experienced not too long ago. NXT managed to reach the entrance to the pub, but fear paralyzed him before he was able to open it. What if that bartender, too, decided to chuck him aside by the throat and break several bottles over his head? Drymead had assured him earlier that he would protect him if such a scene were about to start, but NXT found both Drymead and Bolefang far away when he turned his head around. Spectacular. No aid. He had been betrayed. Inhaling deeply, the fear-stricken child stumbled into the pub. History repeats itself. Just as before, NXT forced himself unto the bar and begged for the bartender to provide him with nourishment. Just as before, there had been silence.

         “Oh, what a surprise to see you all the way up here, Drymead,” NXT heard an excited voice shout across the pub. NXT raised his head and was met with an extremely familiar sight. The bartender was the same muscled, huge man as before except this bartender’s pigmentation was black with some instances of red as opposed to the mossy green of the original. The air about this bartender was far friendlier than the other, and he was not even focusing on NXT at all but rather smiling at Drymead, who had entered the pub and was navigating his way toward them.

         “Redrime, how I have longed to see you again,” Drymead responded.

         “Both you and I know that is a lie, Mister I-do-not-want-to-jeopardize-my-peace-and-tranquility-for-anything. I am assuming this peculiar child is the reason you have dragged yourself here.”

         “Correct. This child is none other than a Human, Redrime. A Human.”

         “A what?” Redrime hoisted himself over the counter and picked NXT up by the armpits, rotating him left and right like a kid trying to decide whether or not to have his parents purchase that particular action figure. “Are you telling me this is the kind of creature Abbott-Abbott was? Using your descriptions, I painted him a hero, a creature of great strength both mental and physical, yet before me is a scrawny baby hardly able to walk or speak!”

         “Just as we Hemi come in all shapes and sizes, so do Humans, I suppose,” Drymead responded.

         “Ah, Bolefang, welcome! I am just now seeing you,” Redrime stated, letting go of NXT. Sprawled on the ground, NXT had to endure the sounds of three bickering men recollecting memories of adventures long gone. At least the pub was empty and the bartender not hostile. Perhaps it would have been better to be hit by a Bitter and forced to pass out than have to remain awake there on a wooden deathbed.

         “Redrime, would you be so kind as to feed the new, fleshy carpet some Nux?” Drymead interrupted. Redrime was taken aback but soon realized what Drymead was referring to and hopped behind the counter to fetch some Nux.

         “Here you go, little man,” Redrime stated, tossing a couple Nux beside NXT’s hand. NXT grabbed the Nux and stuffed them inside his mouth. Nux were the first treats NXT had ever eaten that were in the shape of a cube, and as peculiar as the shape was, he could not help his eyes from rolling back into his head from ecstasy. The sweet snack melted in his mouth and began to dance around as if it had a mind of its own. So, this is what food from heaven tastes like.

         “Drymead, is this normal? Does your friend normally convulse so? Not even children that taste Nux bits for the first time react in such a disgustingly exaggerated manner,” Redrime asked, his face looking down on the spasming horror with execration.

         “From what I heard him say, he comes from a world that undernourished him the entirety of his life. Texel must be heavenly for a man that has suffered as much as he has. Just look at how frail he looks. Who knows how long he had gone without eating anything other than trash,” Bolefang explained solemnly.  

         “Regardless, such a scene was not one my eyes ever wanted the displeasure of witnessing.”

         “Give him a break, you guys. Let him have his fun. Soon we will continue my tour,” Drymead interjected.

         “So, you are giving this Human a tour of the land? Why? Would you not rather return to your home in the forest?”

         “Of course I would, but I am using him as an excuse to finally visit some of the friends I have been neglecting this whole time, such as yourself.” NXT finally regained his composure and stood up. Drymead ordered several Bitters for their trip and off the three of them went. NXT, having finally quenched his hunger, could for the first time since he woke up in the middle of the pasture enjoy his surroundings to the fullest extent, even more so than when he giddily hugged the trees in the forest. Luxurious buildings, cabaret houses, gymnasiums, battle arenas, and much, much more. NXT noted how much livelier Oldtown seemed than Wounding, but Bolefang was quick to clarify that NXT only thought so because his only experience in Wounding was harassment in a pub. Both Wounding and Oldtown were home to many wonderful attractions, sights, and most importantly, women. Even NXT, who was only accustomed to gawking at Humans covered in dirt, fell victim to the enchantment innate in the females of Oldtown. From fair maidens with snakes as hair to mermaids dancing in a pond to flying specimens with wings of all shapes and sizes, there was no woman safe from the gaze of these three perverts. Unfortunately, their adventures were about to come to an unexpected close.

         “We have reached the end of our tour,” Drymead stated. They were standing in front of a bridge connecting the mountain they were on with another far in the distance. “This, NXT, is called Traverse. A portal to a land far, far away. We Hemi are highly discouraged from crossing, but as I said earlier, you may be able to mingle with the Mages of Louran. Go forth, NXT. Live a life much better than the one here in Texel’s Hemi slums.”

         Before NXT even registered what Drymead proposed, a familiar bellow rang from behind them: “Halt, Xana scum!”

Chapter Text

         NXT whipped around instinctively. The voice sounded familiar, too familiar. NXT and the other two were greeted with a chilling scene: a mob of Hemi carrying pitchforks, spears, and clubs stood before them blocking the path from which they came. The leader of the mob was none other than the mossy bartender; behind him stood vaguely familiar faces NXT had discerned from his peripheral vision while being bombarded with Nux and Bitters, and behind those were even more Hemi, each with the same scowl on their faces.

         “Makepeace! Drop your axe, toss aside your club; we are not here for battle!” Drymead shouted back.

         “Dear Drymead, you of all should know best we Hemi will not stand for traitors such as you and your centaur for having shielded this Xana from us. We have had enough! Now you want to help him escape our grasp? This is our chance! Our chance to finally vent our frustrations! Look at him, his frail figure, his dead eyes. He was clearly gifted to us by the iris as our punching bag-”

         “ENOUGH!” Drymead bellowed. “Do not dare accuse the iris of committing such an atrocity! Listen to yourself, Makepeace! Be you so corrupt your emotions have blinded you? How many Bitters have you chugged down?”

         “If you have not noticed, Drymead, I am not the only one who believes his existence is nothing more than a training dummy, a stress ball. Is that not correct, fellow Hemi!” The mob rose their weapons in the air and roared at the top of their lungs a battle cry intimidating enough to send shivers down NXT’s spine more ferocious than any he had ever experienced. This is true fear. Gaping at the deformed faces, exaggeratedly muscled bodies, lengthy fangs, elongated snouts, he felt defenseless. They terrified him more than any beast, any tribesmen, any natural disaster that had been thrown at him back on Earth. Texeli do not kill. Was that true? What about then, infused with rage greater than any NXT had ever witnessed? What if Humans were an exception? No, they saw him as a Xana, not a Human. To spill his blood would be to spill the blood of a Xana. Torture. Eternal torture. They will impale, incinerate, shred, quarter, obliterate, eat, yet heal with Bitters just so they can repeat the process all over again. No, Bitters only remedy illnesses, not physical disfigurement. How can one know for sure?

         “This is bad, Drymead,” Bolefang whimpered, for the first time allowing himself to cower in fear. NXT began to retreat slowly until his heel touched the bridge. The pain that shot from his heel up to his chest was immense. He instinctively pulled his leg back, a grave mistake for the bridge had grasped his heel with no intentions of returning it. A second wave of pain coursed through his body as the bridge ripped the skin off his foot. NXT fell on the ground and turned around. He had not noticed before, but the bridge he had assumed was made of crystal was steaming.

         “In the name of iris! Did you make physical contact with the bridge? With no protection, the bridge will grip your body, never let go, and consume you.” Drymead looked around frantically for anything to cover the bleeding foot as the horde of monsters bellowed in laughter. “Bolefang, allow NXT to use the red cloth that hugs your waist as shoes. As unconventional and ineffective as it is, some protection is better than none. I shall remove my cloak, which shall serve as his upper-body protection.”

         “Do you really expect us to stand idly by as you all plan his escape? Fellow Hemi, charge!” Makepeace pointed towards the sky with his axe, signaling his minions to stampede.

         “Post haste, NXT.” Turning to NXT, Drymead urged him “don these cloths and scatter. Do not look back. You will not be able to outrun these beasts, but we may be able to buy some time. Run, and explore every dot in this world from top to bottom for us Hemi condemned to a life in these violent slums. Do it for us!” Drymead turned around, prepared his blades for an attack, and ran headfirst into the mob. Bolefang quivered for a short while but soon composed himself, puffed out his chest, and smirked. Giving the red cloth he had ripped in two equal pieces to NXT, Bolefang smiled as if assuring NXT everything would be alright and begun to charge the mob alongside Drymead.

         “It is about time I am able to beat up some Hemi, to prove my strength as a centaur. Fear the great Bolefang!”

         NXT quickly bound the cloth around his feet, wrapped the cloak about him, and sprinted toward the light at the other extreme of the bridge. His frail, skinny legs appeared to hyperextend with every leap, but NXT could not let their sacrifice go in vain. The steam rising from the bridge blanketed his vision as if he were running through thin clouds. His feet, although protected from the ravenous, icy clutch, ached tremendously. Cold, so, so cold. His adrenaline attempted to combat the freezing temperature, but the cold was overpowering him. If the Hemi did not kill him, the temperature would. Texel is more hostile than Earth. Back on Earth, Humans killed Humans for their resources, but here… there is no reason to. Plenty of resources, plenty of blessings, plenty of miracles; why the hostility, the violence, the pain? Was this world not supposed to be Heaven? Behind him he could hear the flapping of demonic wings approaching faster than he could run. Run, run, run, run, RUN!

         The winged creature squawked as it dug its talons into NXT’s shoulders and hoisted him up. NXT frantically flailed his arms and body in hopes of freeing himself, but the talons dug themselves even deeper into his shoulder. Blood gushed forth, frightening the young Texeli who lacked the stomach to withstand such an outrageous display of gore. Its talons unclenched, dropping NXT on his back. All the air left his body at once, but as he regained it, he thanked the gods for having him land on his back. The gruesome image of his face plastered against the bridge, the bartender forcefully scraping him off, and blood cascading down onto the ice and overflowing down the sides gave him enough energy to sit up without touching the bridge with his hands. Now to stand up. He peered at the battle ensuing on the mountain. He was too far to distinguish anybody but soon noticed more flying creatures escaping the bloodbath and flying toward him. The fear of being mutilated by the talons overpowered his fear of skinning himself alive. He placed one palm on the bridge, pushed himself up, and ripped his hand off. Run, run, run, run, run… NXT could feel his makeshift shoes becoming increasingly brittle. He did not have much time. Faster. Faster. The flapping sounds became audible once more, but definitely more numerous. That was it. If he were captured, the birds would have their fun tearing him to shreds, using their beaks to wrench out his intestines and impale his eyes. FASTER! The blood on his hand had frozen, but the bleeding was yet to stop. Pressure was beginning to build up on the increasingly numb hand. In fact, his entire body was becoming numb. Exhaling and inhaling was nearly impossible from how excruciatingly painful it was. NXT never in his life had regretted donning only the necessary clothes to protect his pubic area and buttocks since Earth was a scorching wasteland -- the only times anybody would even use the word cold would be to describe locations in textbooks or in a figurative sense -- but as his bare chest and thighs collided with the subzero mist, as the tears in his eyes froze his eyes shut, as the enemies flew ever closer, and as his feet were only a few steps away from becoming one with the ice below, NXT recited the prayers his mother had sang as lullabies all those years ago.

         The flapping stopped abruptly, and silence cloaked him. Suffocating silence. Eerie silence. Did he die? Did he fall unconscious without even realizing? Warmth began to envelop him. His limbs no longer felt as numb as before. The ice on his eyes melted enough for him to open them, but instead of observing the light he had seen from afar, he began to discern… he could not describe it. As if all his senses were malfunctioning, he began to see his own painful wails, hear the colors surrounding him, taste the water droplets running down his face, smell the dryness of his mouth, and feel the lingering odor of blood, which would continue to cling on to him for far longer than he would like. Then there was nothing.

Chapter Text

         There exists a third sea, although not generally addressed as such. Just as the other two perilous seas sweep anything and everything, trapping them for all eternity, so does this third boundless, yellow realm. Any foolish creature who dares traverse Parchland would have to first prepare themselves mentally and physically for a lengthy, arduous trek ankles-deep in scorching sand. There, the sun glares down on all from its mighty throne up above. So intimidating is he no cloud, as ungovernable as they seem to be, has ever been caught in his proximity. Furthermore, Parchland is no ordinary desert. Far north lies the Mage City of Louran, one of the most prominent gathering places for the conceited mages. Towering over the landscape is the palace Allodiael, where the Mage King resides. To no Texeli’s surprise, then, Parchland is a desert full of magical sand, full of lethal sand. Aside from its scorching properties, the sand is infused with a spell that turns any organism unfortunate enough to inhale enough of it into stone. These gorgons have decorated Parchland with countless statues and trophies commemorating the foolish Theri, Xana, and Hemi who incorrectly assumed they could be one of the few to survive the dangers that are the Sun, the Sand, and, perhaps the most petrifying, the Sandstorm.

         With a loud thump, the heap of flesh previously teleported to a lush grassland splattered blood in all directions as the sand welcomed it with open arms, embraced it, and ogled at it with maleficent, gluttonous eyes. As if with a mind of their own, each individual particle began creeping up toward the nostrils, eyes, and mouth of the massacred NXT. One such particle committed the grave mistake of tickling NXT’s nose, jolting him awake. The culmination of the crippling fear experienced during the entirety of his agonizing sprint across the ice surged through him all at once, springing him to a sitting position and forcing him to involuntarily flail around as if being assaulted by the winged beasts. After several long seconds of delirium, he gradually realized there were no beasts, no ice, no pain, but the complete opposite of his hallucinations: a vast and desiccated landscape devoid of any sound or life form. A new breed of fear and confusion replaced his previous discomposure as NXT concluded he must have teleported back to Earth. Although back in his settlement there had not been nearly as much sand, the arid climate and the nagging feeling of having been abandoned by God yielded the same neurosis as did Earth.

         He excruciatingly heaved himself to a standing position and proceeded to examine his wounds, which seemed to have miraculously stopped bleeding. His shoulder had scratch marks and a deep hole where the talon had dug; his left palm resembled a potato, bruised with random spots and gashes were his skin had been removed; and the balls and toes of his feet, although they had been protected by Bolefang’s donation, were flayed, presumably from the cloth having become too brittle to do much good toward the end. In fact, the crimson, tattered memorabilia barely resembled its original form. NXT could not help but thank the years of navigating on the steaming hot land back home for toughening his feet and allowing him to continue running despite the pain of his feet being shredded with every step, not to mention protecting him from the torture the blistering sand particles would be inflicting upon him otherwise. Drymead’s cloak had also remained with him despite the teleportation, albeit equally as tattered. There was one, and by far the most important, article of clothing that did not seem to have survived. As NXT rose his hands to his head, absolute despair struck him as violently and suddenly as lightning. His straw hat was missing.

         All rational thought left NXT as he dropped to all fours and began scooping, tossing, punching, kicking, and scratching sand in hopes of somehow, perhaps by an act of pity from the gods, finding his straw hat. Did it disintegrate during the teleportation?  Did it fall off when the creature picked him up? When, how, why, why was it missing? What had he ever done to warrant such severe anguish? So desperate was he to find his hat that even after having discovered a dark, thick cloud of sand, which could only be the doing of the rabid winds of a sandstorm, rushing toward him, NXT refused to stop his frantic search. It can not be gone, it can not be gone, it can not be gone! Tears began pouring from his eyes yet again. Please, it has to be here. Please God do not forsake him! What has he done to deserve this! NXT felt himself being harassed and dragged across the sand and the wind from the ever-approaching sandstorm intensifying, yet NXT remained steadfast in his task. One gust of wind knocked him backward, rolling him a couple times before he was able to regain his composure. At that moment NXT was presented with a fleeting image of a black object floating in his peripheral. Whipping his head around, the straw hat he gambled his life to find was swiftly floating away from him, surfing the storm’s winds. NXT sprung to his feet and blasted forth just as the outermost sand particles from the storm reached him. Using the violent winds to increase his momentum, NXT slowly but surely decreased the distance between himself and the hat. Almost there, almost there. Come to him! His right hand grabbed the rim and pulled the hat into his chest. At long last, the two life-long companions had been reunited right before the stone arm of one of Parchland’s countless trophies rammed into NXT’s head. Stunned, NXT fell on his face and felt himself being lifted by the winds. The storm had caught up to him, and no longer was his escape possible. His feeble figure from years of starvation had made him exaggeratedly underweight, an attribute no one would want when being harassed in the middle of a tempest as ferocious as that one. He closed his eyes, tightened his jaw, squeezed in his hat more, and braced himself for one hell of a flight.

 

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         The iris may take many forms, among which are a flower and a wormhole (simply addressed as Portal by the ancient peoples of Texel). Regardless, its importance to Texeli is indisputable. Revered as a deity by many, the iris is both a provider and a defender of the world. Some have even observed the iris to hold certain restorative capabilities, as described by a man whose blindness was cured by merely entering it. Any time Texel finds itself in trouble, the iris provides the necessary resources for Texeli to either reconcile, heal, or defend themselves against outside forces. The iris, however, is not depended on frequently since often times Texel is in a state of equilibrium, of peace, with each tribe minding their own business rather than being at war with each other. In fact, far more than half of Texel’s conflicts are from infighting rather than inter-tribal affairs. The paradox created by the iris simultaneously being the most useful asset of all Texel and the least depended upon resource, coupled with the mysterious nature of an omnipresent entity that could manifest itself into various physical forms and whose actions are as unpredictable as nature itself, has elevated the Texeli perception of the iris beyond any god, beyond any miracle. The iris is the world, the provider, the balance. Whoever controls the iris rules Texel. This quote, found amidst the perspicuous pages of the most ancient, enlightening, abundant, and disseminated text in all of Texel –- Mazit-Uii –- encompasses the importance of the iris. In truth, without the iris there would be no Texel.

         Abbott-Abbott. He was never meant to come to Texel. He was the first, and most fatal, mistake, discrepancy, curse. Neither any Texeli, nor Abbott-Abbott, nor even the iris could have guessed, let along comprehended, the utterly devastating reverberations the innocent visit by a curious human who wanted no more than to document his incredible findings was about to have on the entire Texeli population.

         As the end approached ever closer, unbeknownst to everyone except the iris, in a distant meadow there quivered a beautiful flower with violet pedals. Dripping dew as though it were perspiring or crying, the flower was bent forward, resembling a centaur who had just guzzled down three full Bitters but was actively forcing himself not to hurl. The quivering picked up speed, and the flower hunched over even farther. Alas, the flower whipped back and in a wail of self-reprimanding surrender regurgitated the disassembled metal remains of a death-bearing machine. Although the iris was glad it was able to destroy the contraption, Texel had yet again been tainted by these fowl creatures. Wherefrom were they coming? Wherefore were they invading? Wherewith were they strengthening? The iris remembered the first instance, a mere metal husk that would later be dubbed by Texeli historians as Exosk. However, the metal remains were no mere husks anymore. They were blinking and bleeping and steaming and mocking. How much longer could the iris hold back the monsters? Not even the iris knew.

Chapter Text

         After what seemed like hours of repetitively being lifted half a meter just to be slammed back down, constantly praying that none of the stones ended up impaling him or gifting him a concussion, and unwaveringly holding his eyes shut (having his eyes open would not have amounted to much, considering the storm had lifted such a thick billow of sand that even the mighty sun had his radiance momentarily obstructed), NXT, to his utmost bewilderment, splashed into a deep body of water -- an oasis. Relieved, NXT decided to let himself sink a little before swimming back up. The sand cloud was significantly less dense inside the oasis, allowing him to breath much more easily than before. NXT decided to swim around in the water, something he would never have even dreamed of back on Earth, as he waited for the storm to pass, which did not last much longer anyway.

         After swimming full of childish giddiness for a while, both because that opportunity was the first he had ever received since his birth and because he felt he deserved that gift for courageously withstanding a sandstorm head-on, he begrudgingly swam ashore and began his long journey across the desert in hopes of finding civilization. He looked back at the oasis for a long time, feasting his eyes and soul before the agonizing period of fasting he was surely about to endure, and marched on. He imagined the trek to be excruciating beyond belief, but with Drymead’s cloak and his straw hat, the sun’s futile attacks were not enough to discourage a man whose entire life had been spent subjugated by similar, and at times even more extreme, climates.  His only concern was another sand storm erupting from no where for no reason. Fortunately, such a storm never arrived.

         NXT lacked optimism during his journey across the dunes with no knowledge of where he was, no compass to guide him, and the sun moseying along with no intent of setting any time soon -- if he was even setting rather than rising, there was no way to tell. NXT’s pace began to slow down, and he soon began wishing he had brought with him an empty Bitter so he could have filled it up with water from the oasis. Up ahead, he discerned a mound slightly higher than its neighbors and decided to scale it in hopes of being able to scan the area. Finally, after repeatedly climbing a couple meters in order to lose balance and plummet down half of that distance, he stomped on the mountain of sand triumphantly with his fists stretched toward the sky. Initially, he saw nothing but more sand dunes, but as he began to turn around, he noticed a structure that looked an awful lot like bones. He did not seem too interested in the bones, although he did find how the bones were the only objects he could discern odd. During the storm, he had seen and felt the statues, but he could not distinguish them anymore. As he kept turning, he noticed the oasis, the massive body of water he had swam on, off into the distance. He was about to keep turning when the sudden realization that the oasis seemed almost the same size as the bone structure he had seen earlier snuck up on him. Awestruck, NXT whipped his head from the oasis to the bones and back as if trying to figure out if the relative sizes were just an optical illusion from perspective, but there was no denying it. A monster so humongous his eye socket could serve as a home for three humans had existed in Texel at some point, and NXT was not about to stick around until he found another one lurking close by. For all he knew, the mountain of sand he was standing on, and had stomped, was actually one of those creatures covered in sand.

         At that moment, NXT turned around enough to see a city. Leaping with joy, NXT began to slide down the mound. At long last NXT had found a goal, a direction. He had hope, hope of not dying all alone in a desert after having seen his only two Texeli friends sacrificing their lives for him. The surge of joy did not allow him a moment to analyze the situation, did not allow him to even consider the distance between him and the supposed city, did not allow him to even acknowledge the possibility that the city could all be some wicked delusion, a mirage. No, his usually pessimistic mind was completely replaced with a new optimism. Even after having reached the bottom, NXT could not contain himself and took off on a sprint. Ironic how the poor man who had done nothing but grovel on the ground at the mercy of starvation had become a professional sprinter, albeit for only half a kilometer before faceplanting on the sand and wishing he had not been so stupid.

         The faceplant from earlier had slowed down NXT tremendously, but the entrance to the city was starting to creep up above the horizon nonetheless. The entrance was nothing special -- just a couple cacti on either side of a barely-noticeable path leading deeper into the city. As NXT journeyed farther, the scattered shacks on the outskirts of the city transitioned gradually into a bustling marketplace. All around him were creatures very similar to Humans. Short, tall, young, old, males, females, long-haired, short-haired, and so many more. There was a sort of relief about finally discovering a community of Human look-alikes. Some were wearing cloaks, others were walking around far more casually, but they all seemed to ignore him as he walked past, unlike the Hemi who had stopped what they were doing to gawk at him. NXT was not sure if the difference in reactions had been due to Hemi thinking he was a Xana or if the community was simply aloof toward outsiders. He also assumed that having Drymead’s cloak somewhat hide the fact that he was wearing nothing but dirty rags about his waist contributed to his being ignored or disregarded.

         That city was much fancier than the previous city, and for the first time NXT was beginning to understand just how under-privileged Hemi were. In contrast to the Hemi homes he had observed in Wounding, these homes were tall, even taller than some mountains he had seen. Windows decorated the sides of the incredible architectural accomplishments, and there was far more structure in the way people respected each other’s personal boundaries, as if everyone in the city knew of some invisible path in which to go if one wanted to head north or south or turn left or right as opposed to being a chaotic mass of people clashing into each other just to cross the street. His empathy for Hemi for their poverty and discrimination almost forgave, and even justified, their aggressive nature toward him, but he also could not ever forgive them for whatever they may had been doing to Drymead and Bolefang for having defended him -- for being “traitors.”

         NXT was walking aimlessly, observing the trinkets, cosmetics, and snacks that some market stands were selling, when he noticed ahead of him a cloaked, ominous, unmoving figure staring at him. NXT, too, remained unmoving, and the both of them spent a while standing there unbudgingly. At last, the shrouded figure stepped forward. As the figure approached, NXT could make out more of its features. The gown was black except for some golden outlines, and the creature was relatively short and green-skinned with ears and a nose that were at least three times the size of NXT’s own.

         “Ghastly is the sight of you, stranger,” the man complained, his face full of repulsion. “Sand and dust cover you entirely, as if a trek across Parchland was your sense of an afternoon recreation. By iris! Not a shred of decency! Cover yourself with that cloak of yours some more, for no one here is bent on laying a single eye on your bare skin. That is better, but you are still a victim of sand and dust. Fortunately for you, stranger, I have the spell just for you.” Extending his arms and furrowing his eyebrows in concentration, the wizard shouted Flodd, sending forth from his hands a stream of water that splashed against NXT and cleansed his body of any dirt. Unfortunately, the spell caused people around them and even some market stands to be damaged as collateral.

         “Now this takes the nux” an old, short man with a white beard approached the two, “Ama, have you no shame! Have you no morals! Your water has bespattered everyone and everything in mud!”

         “Sorry. I acknowledge using my magic may not have been the most intelligent decision, but this stranger’s appearance was equally as insulting.”

         As if suddenly experiencing an epiphany, the old man stared at NXT and then at Ama, saying “Ama, did you realize that a storm brewed not too long ago?”

         “I... wait, you are not insinuating that–”

         “Correct. This filth that has audaciously infiltrated our marketplace is none other than a retched Hemi.”

Chapter Text

         Before NXT could evade the water soaring straight at his face, his lower back was rammed into by an intense gust of wind, making him lose concentration and rendering him unable to evade it. The two opposing forces combined to apply enough torque on his body to flip him more than 360 degrees and cause the back of his head to embed itself on the ground beneath him. “Marvelous aim, Diggo,” he heard a voice say, followed by “likewise, Ama.” One thing was to outrun a bunch of ogres and goblins chasing him with clubs, another was to flee from a couple magic-wielding, Human-like creatures that could probably make him explode by shooting water down his throat and air up his-

         “Stand!” Ama commanded, kicking NXT on the side.

         “I shall submit him to your care, Ama. As for me, I shall scout the entrance to Louran for any other Hemi.” NXT widened his eyes at the mention of the name. Louran. I have found Louran. That explains the Mages.

         “Farewell.” Ama grabbed NXT by the hood of his cloak and began dragging him toward a narrow alleyway. He flung NXT against the wall and pointed his hands menacingly at him. “Speak! Are you honestly a Hemi? What is your business in Louran? Have you any friends as foolish as you who traveled here?” NXT quivered in fear as he attempted to assess the situation. How should he respond? Would Ama, thinking he was lying, become more enraged if he admitted to not being a Hemi than if he lied about being one? “I recall demanding that you speak, cretin!” Ama shouted, blasting a sphere of water at NXT’s diaphragm. NXT doubled over as Ama continued shouting “if you do not speak, I shall flood your nostrils so full of water your eyes will explode from your skull, and I shall then carry you over to the slums and hold your defiled corpse as a precedent to what happens when you abominations attempt to desecrate this land with your incorrigible sight!”

         “I am not a Hemi!” NXT shouted once he regained his breath. He slammed his eyes shut and covered his nose in a desperate attempt to survive. Ama lowered his arms, pleased with himself, and chuckled.

         “At ease, young one. Diggo could have massacred you without a second thought, but I am far more benevolent than that old man. I only bothered to ask you questions because I was not willing to hurt you right away.” Ama’s voice then lowered to a far more serious tone. “But believe me I could if I discern even the slightest of lies creep out of your mouth. You say you are not a Hemi, so tell your story.”

         NXT wondered what Ama was thinking. He claimed to be benevolent yet his initial hostility betrayed his attempts at cordiality. Ama tucked his hands inside the sleeves of his cloak and sat on the ground. NXT half-expected Ama to begin floating, but those books of wizards he had read so long ago proved to be fiction in that regard… or at least thus far. Feeling awkward about looking down on Ama, NXT decided to sit down on the floor and begin recounting his adventure from his waking up in a field. The pub, the centaur, the wanderer, the steps, the tour, the confrontation, and even the desert. All of it. He made sure to explain how, although he was unable to understand himself, the Hemi who gifted him his cloak inferred the iris had something to do with him, a Human, inexplicably materializing in an open field in Texel. He also briefly mentioned Abbott-Abbott, hoping Ama knew of him and could relate Abbott-Abbott’s innocent situation to his own.

         Ama yawned, stretched his back, and peered into NXT’s eyes. “Certainly, you can not possibly be a Hemi. No Hemi holds the necessary intelligence to procure such an elaborate lie. I do not recall ever meeting an Abbott-Abbott; surprising, considering a measly Hemi has the honor I lack. I shall let them have this honor -- about time they felt proud of something.” He added the last statement with a snicker before continuing. “The Hemi who provided you with the cloak is an interesting fellow. Not only does he know of this Abbott-Abbott, but he had the insight to protect you from the bridge using his cloak. Indisputably a rare specimen among Hemi, perhaps due to more Xana blood than Theri blood.” There was a pause, as though he were still processing the information a little longer. “Human -- that is what you call yourself, correct? Human, I did not sense any false testimonies from your long speech, albeit my intuition for detecting lies has never been my strong suit. Not only am I benevolent enough not to harm you, but I shall even hand you over to some of the guards at the entrance to Allodiael; perhaps they may decide upon your fate with more clarity. Am I naught but a source of light amongst the rest of this benighted, malevolent, and frenzied city? How I wish more people were so.” Ama gazed up at the sky with hands extended to either side of him, as if half-heartedly expecting the sun to dismount from his throne and embrace him in a congratulatory gesture. “Follow me.”

          The two of them rose to their feet and proceeded to weave their way through the crowded marketplace toward a castle that extended straight into the sky, piercing some of the very few clouds floating there. NXT was amazed upon seeing such a structure, reflecting upon how he could not recall ever seeing it whenever he peered down on the city from atop the sand dune. He must have been so overcome with joy upon seeing Louran that he did not even bother noticing the palace. As anyone would expect from a castle built by mages, its towering walls seemed to glow with a blue aura sparkling underneath the sun -- most likely the after-effect of magic being used to construct the building. However, none of the buildings in the market place glowed the same way, making NXT wonder if the palace walls were encrusted in jewels of some sort. NXT spent the entirety of his walk alongside Ama gawking at the palace, but Ama did not mind. As a Mage, he could appreciate moments of deep pondering.

         The buildings stopped abruptly, and there was nothing but sand, a faint path that seemed to lead toward the entrance of the palace, and a guard in front of them. The guard was an intimidating, blue-skinned witch atop a mighty steed. She wore a red gown on top of blue armor and peered down on everyone with intense, red eyes. On her hand was a wooden staff that curled at the top, and NXT assumed she used it to hook the neck of her enemies as she rode her horse past them. Almost subconsciously, he began to massage his neck as Ama spoke to her.

         “Greetings, dead Machtild.”

         “I take it you meant to say dear,” Machtild responded. The horse made a sound that NXT had trouble distinguishing between a mocking laugh and an angry snort. Ama smirked. “Regardless, what business have you here? I see you made a friend.” She stared at NXT for a while before commenting “You seem awfully familiar, yet unlike any Texeli I have seen throughout my years.”

         “And only the iris can comprehend how exaggeratedly many years,” Ama muttered.

         Machtild glared at Ama, inching ever closer to the end of her fuse. Addressing NXT, she asked “you, what may your name be?”

         “NXT”

         “And what brings you here?”

         “The iris!” Ama interjected.

         “Excuse me?” the annoyed Machtild asked.

         “He claims to be a Human, whatever those are. He believes himself not to be a Texeli. What say you of this? His appearance does seem to support his ludicrous statement.”

         Machtild widened her eyes as if realizing something. “Human, you say?” She recalled a brief encounter with Abbott-Abbott and the relief her previous self had experienced after finally encountering another being who could understand the flow of time the same way she could. Although she, too, was immortal like any other Texeli, her views on the passage of time were unorthodox amongst her fellow people. Abbott-Abbott had been what she needed to not lose sight on her studies all those decades ago. “But time still marches for us…” she murmured. “Ama, you are dismissed. I am well aware your only motive for introducing him to me is so you can retreat into the shadows in which you tend to lurk and be rid of responsibility.”

         “Gladly,” Ama stated, bowing slightly.

         “As for you, NXT, there are certain individuals to whom I would like to introduce you.”

Chapter Text

         Simply put, NXT was overwhelmed by a tremendous quantity of unrelenting dumbfoundedness that seemed to gnaw at his very core. There were so many inquiries fluttering around in his mind that he could barely pay attention to his surroundings for longer than a few seconds before daydreaming once more. First was time. What was going on? To him, the time in Texel seemed far slower than Earth time. After all he had gone through, he would have expected day to have turned into night. Was the power of the sun so powerful not even the moon was able to push him off his pedestal of heavenly influence? What about his own internal clock? He had fallen unconscious after the events at both the pub and Traverse, but he still deemed his lack of drowsiness unbearably peculiar. What about Abbott-Abbott? Drymead had said Abbott-Abbott remained in Texel for a century, but if days were drawn out in Texel, would that not mean he lived for much longer than a century on Earth? Simply not possible. Texel was most certainly a time anomaly, and NXT feared what implications such a conclusion held.

         Second was his health. Could Bitters and Nux really be that powerful? He had lived his entire life undernourished until very recently, but all he needed were a couple Bitters to walk across an entire forest, scale an entire mountain, run faster than he had ever run before, survive under the scorching heat of the sun, and withstand an intense beating from a sand storm. He looked down at his arms, body, and legs. Any dust and blood had been washed away after Ama’s Flodd, leaving nothing but scabs and scars. Even the wound on his shoulder and the peeled palm of his hand were not nearly as grotesque as they had been earlier. His figure remained the same lanky, visibly repulsive one he had always had –- the figure of a sentient twig. He also imagined himself to have remained as light as he had always been, considering how Ama was able to drag and fling him against the wall with such ease.

         Third was his luck. NXT would have died eight times if Bolefang had not saved him and known of Drymead; Winespill had not met Abbott-Abbott, causing Drymead to feel enough of a connection with NXT to provide both a tour and security on their way to Traverse; Bolefang and Drymead had not the courage to sacrifice themselves; the storm had not disentombed his straw hat from the sand at just the right time for him to have caught a glimpse of it in his peripheral; the stone structures had impaled him as they swirled around and blasted through the storm; the direction of the winds had not led NXT into the oasis, allowing NXT to drink water and wait the storm out; the sand dune had not created a pedestal on which he could find Louran; and Diggo had not decided to leave Ama, who apparently was far more lenient, in charge of his disposal. Additionally, he was riding on Machtild’s steed toward Allodiael, a palace of Mages! He, a man so depraved of luxury and status, was about to step foot in one of the most prestigious locations in all of Texel, and for what reason? Because he did not seem like the normal, run-of-the-mill Texeli? Because so many up to that point had given him the benefit of the doubt by trusting his claim that he was Human? Because somehow Machtild had also met Abbott-Abbott in a past life? So many coincidences, so much luck, NXT could not bear it. Was that all the doing of the iris? The iris, the god, the overseer of Texel, could it have been doing all of that? Guiding both Texeli and a Human to a specific outcome? Was the iris so desperate as to meddle with the freewill of all? And if so, what force could possibly be strong enough to corner the iris to such a drastic extent? NXT, unfortunately, had ran out of time to ponder over his experiences thus far.

         Machtild slowed her horse down as they approached a flight of stairs. At the bottom of the steps was another witch atop another horse. The horses began neighing back and forth, although NXT could not discern whether they were arguing or greeting each other warmly. The two witches made eye contact, and the one besides the stairs reprimanded Machtild for having left her post at the other extreme of the passage.

         “Oh please. Is it not your job to guard the entrance into Allodiael in the event a pesky commoner somehow gets through me? By making this journey, I have just given your job more purpose!” Machtild bantered, but instead of laughter she received growls.

         “Who is that creature behind you?” the witch asked, pointing her staff at NXT. NXT had not noticed before, but that witch’s staff was not curled at the top like a cane but instead adorned with a skull.

         “Ama brought him to me, claiming that this creature is a Human.” The other witch seemed shocked, but then squinted her eyes at Machtild.

         “Pardon my skepticism, but why would you ever trust Ama of all people?”

         “Precisely because Ama was the one who told me that I believed such a far-fetched claim. From whom could that young hellion have ever heard of the term Human?” The witch began circling around the two of them, her horse scoffing the entire time. After having analyzed NXT to her satisfaction, she asked him “So, Human, what do you call yourself and what business have you here?”

         “I… uh… I’m NXT, and I stumbled upon this city after having escaped the wrath of a Hemi mob through Traverse.” The two witches looked at his scars and shoulder as he said so.

         “What could you possibly have been doing there?”

         “I am fairly new here in Texel –- I have yet to see the moon, even –- but some Hemi have speculated I may have been transported into this world by the iris. I woke up in the middle of a field near Wounding and have since been trying to collect as many pieces of the puzzle that is my purpose here and what Texel is.”

         The witch turned to Machtild to question Machtild’s motives one final time, but after Machtild reassured the witch “I shall bear full responsibility for any evil he may cause, Yasamin,” the witch finally yielded access into the palace. With a gesture of gratitude, Machtild began to ride her horse up the stairs. “Oh, and do not worry, I shall not take long to come back and resume my guard duties.”

         “You better not,” NXT heard Yasamin utter. NXT had no idea horses could trot their way up steps, but there he was sitting on one that could. The journey hurt tremendously for someone who was not used to riding horses, so the moment the two of them had reached the castle entrance, NXT had to get off and stretch while Machtild argued with yet another guard until the doors opened. NXT was amazed at how the exterior paled in comparison to the luxurious, sparkly-clean interior. There was a humongous, elaborate chandelier made of what seemed like golden crystals hanging from the ceiling. The walls were adorned with crests, images of what NXT could only assume were famous Mages, and an exaggeratedly huge portrait of the king. The furniture was as gorgeous and exuberant as it was comfortable. NXT felt himself melt in ecstasy, almost allowing his legs to buckle underneath him as the carpet tickled his bare feet.

         Suddenly, self-awareness struck him like an anvil. He was desecrating this Xana domain! He may have been washed by Ama, but the stench of Hemi still lingered about him, clinging on to every one of his wretched pores! He suddenly felt the urge to claw at his own skin as punishment for the sin he was committing by stepping a single foot inside the castle. Just look at him! Filth! Repugnant beyond rectification! All around him Mages, with their elegance, their meticulously spotless attire, their immaculate aura, stood where they were and stared in utter shock, and rightfully so, at the staggering squalidness audaciously infecting their lives and well-being. NXT, as he glanced from one baffled expression to another, wished he had been clawed to death by Hemi rather than currently inconveniencing all the innocent Xana that did not deserve to suffer from descrying his pitiful existence.

         So strong was his self-deprecation that Machtild bunked the top of his head with her staff. “Cease your needless sulking, young one. I, Machtild, have deemed you worthy of accompanying me through these halls and even riding my horse, yet you dare be dubious of my judgement?” She then turned to a group of guards who were protecting whatever was behind a tall, golden, shimmering door. “Greetings, friends. I have found a Human. That is correct, the creature from The Vision. Allow me to introduce him to the King. He shall become a citizen of Allodiael, both in body… and in mind.” The guards looked at each other, shrugged, and opened the door. Machtild turned to NXT, smiled, and jokingly added “if he survives the assimilation process, that is.”

Chapter Text

         High up in the castle, there was a window overlooking all of Louran and Parchland, and a man wearing a marvelous straw hat with a black band on top of his long, black, wavy hair that flowed down to his shoulders placed his right hand, whose muscled arm had a red piece of cloth wrapped around its bicep, on the glass window. The man opened it, allowing the wind from outside to rush in, momentarily lifting his rejuvenated brown cloak. His moustache was no more, and his beard never was; his face was no longer that of an undernourished man, long with sunken cheeks and bags under the eyes, but that of a warrior; his eyes were resolute, his jawline far more chiseled; his legs, arms, and neck had ceased to be the same in diameter as a candelabrum -- they could even rival those of the bartender who had exploited the weakened state of the man to bully him into unconsciousness all those long, painful turns ago.

         Allodiael, for the first time in many, many turns, had been conducting business with a goal in mind. The palace was no mere congregation of opulent Mages wandering the halls aimlessly anymore. For the past three turns, the best of the best Mages had been hard at work training a Human both in combat and Texeli culture. The Mages had soon realized NXT lacked magic running through his veins, which seemed to discourage them slightly but fleetingly. There was a vision, the Vision, which one of the palace Mages had witnessed in their sleep.  Apparently, a Human was to enter Texel, and this creature was to be the key to salvation for the Mages of Louran –- a blessing from the iris. Texeli, even the Mages, were not known for being oracles or somehow being able to see into the future, so the news was taken lightly by everyone… until NXT entered the King’s quarters being escorted by a necromancer. At first, everyone ridiculed poor Machtild for being naïve, but she insisted on placing her trust in the run-down twig. Her stubbornness granted her the honor of being the Human’s first master of many. She was the one who first concluded NXT could not learn magic. She was also the one who recommended NXT to instead focus on increasing his physical strength. As a disciple of a Mage, however, he was not allowed to sacrifice intelligence for brawn and as such began to develop both abilities simultaneously.

         Over three turns, NXT was subjected to intense workouts, anti-Gallant and anti-Hemi combat training, and lectures on Mage doctrine. During his free time, NXT was advised to read Texeli literature, explore the market, and socialize. The palace had an endless library flooded with books ranging from bedtime stories and lullabies to philosophical papers written by the most brilliant minds in all of Texel, which of course were all Mages. Two books NXT had been recommended after becoming used to Texeli literature were Anatomie Texeli and Mazit-Uii. Anatomie Texeli had a certain flare to its descriptions of not only the anatomy of different species found throughout Texel, as its name suggests, but a history and background of how the species came to be. Filled with diagrams, illustrations, and maps, Anatomie Texeli provided NXT with an immense quantity of knowledge over creatures he would otherwise have never imagined. Mazit-Uii, on the other hand, was peculiar in its own right. Although popular throughout all of Texel and overflowing with wisdom about anything imaginable, fellow Mages had warned him not to be fooled by its “brazen, uncorroborated, and casuistic Hemi propaganda” no matter how rare and sporadic, but NXT knew well not to trust such falsities. Hemi were nothing but scum, and shall forever remain scum -- the quintessence of incorrigible. In fact, NXT no longer viewed his brown cloak and red cloth as mementos of heroic Hemi who saved his life -- what a childish fool he had been -- but as reminiscence of Hemi brainlessness for being savages who could not think of anything but fighting whatever budged or imbecilic enough to give up their lives for a complete stranger, and his own incompetence -– a sign of how much he had grown over the turns, from being dependent on those pests to being called a peer by Mages.

         “May I come in?” asked the Mage King, knocking on the door. Ironic, given that the two of them were currently in the King’s chamber.

         “Good afternoon, Your Majesty,” NXT answered bowing.

         “A splendid day, is it not?”

         “Lovely indeed,” NXT answered, continuing to gaze out the window.

         “Your transformation is yet to stop impressing me, NXT. I remember how when I first laid my eyes upon you your legs were barely strong enough to withstand the weight of your own body, which must not have been much anyway. Look at yourself now! Every dot on your body is infused with vigor and the wisdom of Mages!”

         “You flatter me, Your Majesty, but your praise is unwarranted. For three turns have I trained, becoming stronger both mentally and physically, and the iris knows I would sacrifice myself for the sake of Louran in a heartbeat, yet… as much wisdom as your competent subjects may have furnished, I am unable to protect you. I am imperfect, incompetent. As hard as I may train, the fact still stands firmly and unbudgingly: I am unable to cast even the simplest of spells.” With a feeble motion of his wrist, NXT mimicked the act of casting magic.

         The King walked over to NXT and, placing a gentle hand on his broad shoulder, consoled him. “Listen, you have grown powerful. You do not need to cast a spell in order to wipe out a legion of Gallants! By combining your wit and your strength, you have proven yourself time and time again to surpass my expectations. Your growth is outstanding for a creature who is not even a Texeli, unable to partake of our Big Sisters or Little Brothers. Your astonishing growth rate is enough for me to feel secure. If the Vision is true, and there is going to be some sort of invasion on our land, I am confident in both you and the iris’ abilities. I can only imagine that out there somewhere the iris is trembling with joy. What if another three turns go by? How much stronger would you be then? Keep training, warrior. You have the entirety of Louran cheering you on.”

         “Thank you, My King,” NXT uttered, wiping his tears. Just then, the doors blasted open and Arnza rushed in, his red cloak flittering behind him. An interesting man, he was. At the early stages of NXT’s training, Apatrui had served as his sparring companion, and as NXT grew stronger so did Apatrui, becoming Aranthur and finally Arnza. His preferred weapon was a sword because he claimed to feel more invigorated after his enemies were sliced in half than “full of magical mud.” NXT, although far stronger than Arnza by then, could not rid himself of envy. Arnza, despite focusing on physical attacks, had always been able to conjure up earthly spells. One may even argue the rivalry between the two provided NXT with more momentum he could ever have gained by working with a Guru –- those who specialized solely on magic. Warlocks, they were called -- those who had found a balance between the magical and the physical. NXT viewed himself as a weaker form of a Warlock, a bastard Warlock, a Warlock that could not use magic.

         “I bear terrible news, Your Excellence!” Arnza squeaked.

         “Regain your composure, child. I shall listen,” the King declared. NXT could tell the King was more annoyed than worried about whatever Arnza had to say.

         “Forget the Vision -- it was naught but crock! There is nothing we can do about the invasion!” All of a sudden, his eyes widened, his skin grew even more pale than it normally was, and even his lips became blue. “Destruction is here. Destruction has been here for a long time,” Arnza continued as if talking to himself, “but we Mages are too self-centered to have noticed.”

         “What do you mean?” the King asked.

         “The Theri have been gathering in Parchland for a long time, as if plotting something. They never bothered us, and we never bothered them. All we did was create the barrier around the city after we found out that someone as weak as a starving Human -- no offense -- could enter easily, but the Theri just kept congregating without much fuss. Perhaps we did not notice because they have been gathering gradually for a long time, but their numbers have grown incredibly. If they ever decide to invade, the barrier we have will not be enough to hold off the horde for long. We must do something.”

         “Enough!” the King shouted, “how dare you pretend you are in any position to advise me!” Arnza had crossed a very delicate line by attempting to persuade the Mage King into taking action rather than just presenting him with facts. “I shall investigate this myself.”

         NXT sighed. He strolled about the castle making his way toward the library. He knew naught of the Theri congregating in Parchland; he had been too entertained reading all day and all night, and that was exactly what he was planning on doing next. After all that talk of gladly sacrificing his life for the King and Louran, he was not about to seek trouble. He would wait for the King to order an attack or go on the defensive and only then join. He cared not for all that planning and hassle. He would rather read and read some more.

Chapter Text

          Several moons dragged by loaded full of turmoil across Louran. NXT heard rumors of a few Mages being kidnapped by Theri -- what a shame it was. The King had already started working on a new spell with which to supposedly strengthen the barrier around the city. If the spell were to work, which it most certainly will considering the King was the most powerful Mage to ever exist, then NXT would be able to continue reading more books without the need to worry about war. As even more moons strolled past, more and more people were rumored to have been kidnapped or gone missing, but NXT cared not. They were just townspeople after all.

          “Your Majesty, but the Alliance would be–” NXT heard a completely new voice say outside the library door. Intrigued, he set down his book and began to follow the voice.

          “Nonsense. No reason is there to merge forces with Gallants of all people. I have finally achieved the perfect defense; this new spell will surely hold all those Theri back for good,” the King interrupted.

          “Stop focusing on the Theri, Your Majesty! There is a far more pressing matter, one you have been allowing the feud between tribes to veil: the Exo hordes! Your Majesty-” NXT stopped listening. Exo? What the Nux could an Exo possibly be? In none of the novels, manuscripts, and textbooks did he ever come across the term Exo. Not even Mazit-Uii had anything about Exos as far as he could recall.

          “Watch, Zarathustra, as I rid you of all your concerns.” NXT witnessed with a feeling of pride -- pride in serving underneath such a powerful Mage -- how the King cast the spell he had been so diligently agonizing over, fortifying the entire city by encasing it within an impenetrable barrier. NXT could feel the magic in the barrier. It was far stronger than the previous barrier. Nothing could possibly go through. He turned his head to witness the astonished faces of the strangers, to ridicule the faces of men who dared underestimate the might of the King. To his surprise, however, the strangers all had a look of disappointment and fear. Angered at their reaction, NXT was just about to attack them when out of seemingly nowhere came blasting through the barrier a horde of what seemed like metallic creatures. Wires, gears, sparks, and lights covered all these invaders… robots of some sort. NXT remembered reading about machines that replaced Humans back on Earth, but that was mere science fiction! There could not possibly be a world out there in which these hordes of robots could possibly exist! Whatever world they may have come from did not matter. What mattered was how easy they were to defeat.

          “Zarathustra, I may have changed my mind about the Alliance of which you spoke,” the King murmured in defeat. NXT felt infuriated. What did those Exos think they were, barging into Louran so audaciously! NXT fetched his gauntlets, gauntlets made of the strongest material in all of Texel -- the material used to create the impenetrable armor some Mages donned. He ran from Allodiael all the way down to the marketplace where the most Exos were and suddenly found himself in the middle of explosions, geysers, and gales. The time had finally come for NXT to prove to himself and everyone that the past three turns had prepared him for anything, even the invasion of these so-called Exos.

          Before he began his offensive, however, he noticed that the stranger who had been conversing with the King, the one named Zarathustra, was casually weaving through all the Mages desperately trying to replenish their magic for another spell. Intrigued by the bravery and confidence of the man as well as curious about the blue hand that rested on his shoulder, NXT could not help but keep his eyes fixed on him, wondering what he was planning on doing. Something about the man seemed different, as if something about his demeanor or appearance stood out from the rest of the people surrounding him. Was he even a Texeli? Nonsense, of course he was.

          Zarathustra had a total of nine companions, not including the blue hand, and would strategically send three at a time to attack one of the metal beasts. Entranced by this odd tactic, NXT could not stop watching. Whenever one of his companions were ready to use their skill, he would send them over and destroy an Exo. Zarathustra, no wonder he was able to converse with the King despite his not being a citizen of Louran. His military strategies and intelligence seemed unparalleled by the Mages that were either running away from the horde or just randomly using their magic. He had killed seventeen Exos using his strategy before NXT smacked himself in the face to bring himself back to the task at hand. He had to fight. There were too many Exos for just that one man, no matter how efficient he was at killing, to deal with. He, the savior from The Vision, had to prove himself even more powerful.

          In front of him were tons of humming, buzzing, and steaming hunks of metal rolling, floating, or crawling their way toward him. The Mages had been shooting at them relentlessly, but there were too many. NXT shouted at the Mages nearest to him to cease fire, and they all stopped stupefied at the sudden assertion of power. “Fellow citizens of Louran, I shall take care of this horde. Do not fire unless you feel competent enough in your skills not to get in my way!” His training had made him nimble, allowing him to dodge all the lasers, bullets, and bombs the Exos tried to stop him with. One by one, NXT began punching the Exos left and right, destroying them into tiny metal pieces. He felt invigorated, as if his entire life had been leading up to that very moment, the moment in which he was able to shine above everyone else. He was the strongest being alive, and no puny Exo could possibly stop him. Yellow, red, black, gray, blue, it did not matter. They were all his size or smaller anyway, so they were nothing but sparring partners to him. His speed allowed him to attack before the Exos even had the chance to rev up their engines. He was indestructible! Not a single Exo had laid a computer screen, metal appendage, or probing tube on him, yet he had successfully destroyed ten, twenty, thirty, forty of them! He was not even tired; in fact, he felt as though he were becoming faster and stronger with every Exo he destroyed. Unfortunately, there were still too many of them -- an endless supply of punching dummies. NXT tried finding Zarathustra to see how he was holding up but could not find him anywhere. Had he been reduced to a pile of dots already? Had he fled away, scared to his very core? Had he witnessed NXT’s unfathomable prowess and decided there was no need for him anymore? Whatever the case may have been, the fact had already been made abundantly clear: NXT was, and will always be–

          CRACK! A loud noise boomed, stunning NXT. The entire marketplace –- buildings, shops, and people –- flew to his left as if an atomic bomb had detonated, wiping out everything before him.  He blacked out momentarily before attempting to wipe the haziness off his eyes but noticed he could no longer lift his left arm. He looked down and noticed he had magically developed a second elbow. He chuckled before letting out a bloodcurdling scream. He tried griping his arm with his right hand, but the pain was beyond anything he could have prepared himself for. He looked ahead of him and reverted back to that one fateful day inside the pub. Towering over him was the bartender but at least four times taller. His green skin had become gray with age. His red eyes had become even more red -- a sinister glow. The cloaked figure in front of him bent down, wrapped its slender, metallic fingers about NXT, and raised him up. It remained silent as it squeezed NXT harder and harder and made him shriek anguished wails for help. NXT's left arm was granted a third elbow even more excruciating than the last by the hooded Exo's right thumb.

          “Y-you want Texeli right?” NXT asked. “Y-you seek the creatures of this world, right? I AM NOT A TEXELI!” NXT could no longer see. Tears were flowing down his cheeks and mixing with his blood. “Look at me! I am bleeding! My arms are broken! I am not made of dots! I never was and never will! Let me go!” In response, the hooded figure dug its claws into NXT’s skin. NXT grit his teeth and furrowed his eyebrows. Pain was being converted into anger. With all his strength, he freed his right arm from the Exo’s grip by blasting two of its rusty fingers off. “You physical manifestation of tetanus, you short-circuiting tin can, you grotesque pile of crock, I shall dismantle your every dot, do you understand!” NXT began pounding the Exo’s hand and arm with his gauntlet. The Exo was old, worn down, and spasming as if it were malfunctioning. Its red eyes sometimes flickered blue before returning to a steady red, and sparks rained down from atop its head. NXT was not about to let himself be killed by such a weak-looking Exo no matter how huge it was compared to the others. Every pound from his gauntlet left a dent on it, but the Exo remained staring at him, its glitching becoming more chaotic. “YOU SHALL NOT KILL ME YOU-” Before NXT could finish his cry, however, the Exo lifted its arm into the air, let out a shriek that sounded like a Human’s anguished wail for help, and slammed NXT down on the ground. As if the first two extra elbows had not been enough, he landed on his left arm, resulting in it becoming nothing but elbows protruding from his skin like a field of red and white poppies. At least he still has his straw hat… NXT slowly struggled to get his right hand to touch his hat –- the hat that was no longer there. The Exo bent down, its blue eyes staring at NXT, and whimpered like a hurt dog. Stop crying, bastard. He is the one supposed to be crying. You took his left arm and his hat. You will pay, you will pay, you will pay. His breathing began to quicken, his heart began to break his ribs more and more, his teeth began to shatter from how hard he was clenching his jaw, but the Exo kept staring and whimpering. Then, the Exo’s eyes changed to being red again. The Exo let out a final scream before scooping NXT up from the ground. No longer able to fight, and having lost his straw hat, NXT fell unconscious.

          And to think that such anguish had only been the beginning.