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Absence

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          Many, many thoughts were running through the hand’s mind, if mind was the right term, but there was no time to ponder over any of them! Once again, a metal beast had materialized before them. This time, the… what had she called them? The Exo? The beast was a six-legged freak of nature with fangs and several glowing eyes. On top of his main body was another, more Xana-like body with arms and bulging shoulders. Instead of spinning blades on either arm, however, there were laser guns. The hand nearly fell off of the defender’s shoulder from how utterly terrified he was from seeing such a massive creature begin crawling its way toward them at top speed. The defender took a deep breath and shouted “all of you, I am counting on you to give it your all against this foe, lest we all die here!” Die! All that remained of him was a hand, a feeble hand. Was that what dying was like? Being reduced to nothingness? Floating forever in space as scattered remnants of what once used to be a Texeli? Their new friends also seemed to be as perplexed by the notion of death but understood that now was not the time for a philosophical discussion (not like Hemi were experienced in such matters anyway).

          “Count me in, boss,” the centaur exclaimed, going on his hind legs in excitement.

          “As he said, we are yours to command,” reassured the hydra, licking his four lips.

          “Throw me at ‘em, defender!” shouted the fairy. The defender smiled, pleased with the small band he had been lucky to gather, and once again the hand stared at him in amazement. Defenders, all of them… they were born to command them, as if they were created by the iris for that specific purpose!

          “You, knight, I want your sword to slice through every single cable on that monster. Centaur, punch it till it cannot stand any longer. And you, hydra, bite those legs right off its abdomen,” the defender commanded, receiving a “yessir!” in response. The three of them charged, sword, fist, and jaws proud in the air. After the three had attacked, the angry… Exo… blasted the three of them away with flames. Those were not laser guns -- those were flamethrowers! The next two attacks were the centaur with the fairy followed by the hydra with the fairy again. The Exo sustained attack after attack, each time basking them in flames, until finally, with a final slash of his sword, the knight left a gash running from the Exo’s right shoulder down to his left hip. They had sustained too many burns, but that did not seem to stop them from leaping into the air from joy after seeing the Exo finally shut down and crumble onto the ground.

          “Now that’s what I call a win!” shouted the fairy amidst her panting.

          “We push them back, but the Exos, they always return…” the knight complained, staring into the distance. The defender looked in the direction the knight was glaring at, and from the trees sprung forth a girthy, mighty, winged beast! Each flap of his wings would send some of the nearby people flying every which way. “Look sharp, another foe appears -– and a fearsome one too!” he added, forcing himself on his feet using his sword as a cane.

          “Then break out the skills for fearsome damage!” shouted the fairy. The three of them nodded at each other. Skills take up a lot of energy, so it was not surprising to the hand that they had been reluctant to use them until now. The defender, on the other hand, seemed confused. “Let us show you our true potential, defender,” the fairy reassured the defender after noticing his troubled countenance. The defender nodded and began giving orders as before, this time making sure the knight, who had proven to be the mightiest of the four, had the most chances to strike. All of a sudden, the knight smirked and rushed at the Exo. As he did so, his entire body became a blue beacon getting brighter and brighter until finally, when he was close enough to the Exo, he conjured forth a mighty tornado merciless enough to even rival the gusts of wind resulting from the Exo’s flapping wings. The tornado rattled the Exo left and right, but he remained standing. Taking advantage of that momentary state of weakness, however, the defender commanded the four of them to attack once more in hopes of witnessing the skills the others possessed. Unfortunately, the Exo’s stupor did not last long enough, and in one swift motion, he rose up into the air and flew away from them, letting out an ear-splitting shriek as if in a last attempt at asserting power. Panting, the four of them stared at the defender apologetically, but he only shook his head.

          “Do not fret. A battle well fought, I would say. I am glad none of you died.” Again, that verb -- to die –- left a foul taste on everyone’s mouth. However, a broken Texeli pride (yes, even whatever was left of Hemi pride) left an even fouler taste.

          “Damn it, turned tail and fled! We almost had him…” the knight cursed.

          “Then we must follow,” stated the defender gravely.

          “There he is! Over there!” shouted the knight, pointing his sword at a silver spot descending behind the trees in the horizon.

          “It means to take the village. Not on my watch, no siree!” exclaimed the centaur. The hand tightened his grip on the defender’s clothes in shock. All the thoughts running through his head were beginning to clutter his judgment, and the inability to pause for even a second to ease the cognitive dissonance building up inside of him until that moment had left him dizzy. Until then did he realize why his thoughts had been raging. There had always been something off, and he finally pin-pointed it -– the unlikely allegiance! In front of him were two Hemi, Hemi, and a Theri working together with a Xana! And now, the Hemi wanted to protect a Xana village? The war that was unfolding before them was unlike any war he had ever experienced. Death? Tribes working together? This was a war to alter reality itself!

          All six of them left behind the massacre at the foot of the mountain and entered the deadly forest littered with random minor Exos. Wasp-like and Xana-like metal robots came from all sides, even crashing from above, but every single one of them met the same broken-down end at the hands of the fearsome four. The more they destroyed, the more comfortable the band felt about their rampage; all except the hand, that is. The hand, of course, had not joined the others in their massacre -- what could a hand possibly do? –- so it stared at them in horror. Their once terrified demeanor turned into a metal-hungry force of destruction bent on nothing but ridding the land of the Exos. As horrified as he felt, he knew that to defeat monsters one must become a monster, but for them to have adapted to their new life so easily! As if Texeli had had within them the ability to destroy this entire time! Had the iris been holding the tribes from waging war on each other all these eons? On another disturbing note, some of those Exos must have ransacked some cities because the band kept finding Texi on left-over wreckage. The defender had no idea what Texi were, so they had to explain to him that Texi were made of a valuable material used as currency in nearly all the markets in Texel. The defender’s eyes had lit up at the mention of currency; ever since then, he had been the first to rummage around the Exo carcasses.

          “Time to battle! By the iris, we must destroy him!” shouted the knight. The Exo they had been looking for the entire time was mere meters away, and the band had already warmed up with the minor Exos. Their morale, experience, and hunger for battle had increased tremendously since they last faced the Exo, so there was no doubt in the back of anyone’s mind that the Exo would crumble once and for all, not that allowing the Exo to flee was an option any longer. The Exo had nearly reached the city, and would most certainly do so if they did not stop him right then and there. The defender sent the two Hemi first, followed by the hydra and the knight. The Exo saw them approaching but did not retreat. Instead, he lowered his body to reveal rocket launchers installed on his back. A rocket shot straight at the poor Hemi, obliterating them both into a pile of golden cubes –- dots. Just like that, they were nothing but dots. The hand began quivering, remembering what had happened to his body. Upon seeing what had transpired, the hydra turned around and quickly said “gather our dots def-” before blowing up. The knight stopped running and looked at his dead friends (or what remained of them). He turned toward the Exo who was tauntingly allowing him to strike and, fueled with rage, jumped into the air to slice at the Exo’s head. The sword, however, broke in two when it made contact with the somehow stronger steel. The Exo launched another rocket, which the knight was able to deflect with his shield. Unfortunately, the rocket’s impulse was far too great for him to handle, and he was sent flying backward, exploding from yet another rocket that hit him mid-air, his dots spraying in all directions.

          The defender stared in horror as all of that massacre happened in the span of just a few quick seconds but snapped out of his daze quickly enough to hurriedly scoop up the dots and place them in a bag he created by lifting his shirt up. The Exo stared at the defender as if laughing to himself while charging up his last rockets. The defender began running away, zig-zagging through the trees as the hand held on to his shoulder for dear life and the rockets exploded against the trees behind them. He ran as fast as his legs could manage through explosion after explosion after explosion until the noises finally quieted down and he felt he was far enough to rest. Panting, he let go of his shirt, dropping all the dots he had managed to salvage into a heap on the grass. Sitting on a rock and trying to catch his breath, the defender stared intently at the heap. Why had the hydra told him to pick up their dots? The hand also stared intently at the heap until it began glowing. Each cube began to vibrate and clump together with others until finally four distinct heaps were made. Their luminescence kept on increasing until they reached blinding levels. In a final flash of light, the heaps became their respective Selves. Before them stood the centaur, the fairy, the hydra, and the knight… alive! The process took a very long time, but at last the band had been reunited again by what seemed like a miracle to both the defender and the hand.

          “H-How… What?” The defender was dumbfounded but managed to say two more words than what the hand was able to even think.