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Absence

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         Zar’s mind was numb. The sounds of the defender’s cries as his bones were being turned to dust were ringing in his head. Defender had received his share of cuts and gashes running down his back, across his thighs, and up his arms, but he was less concerned about his outward appearance than something he called “esteedy.” He kept murmuring to himself stuff about contracting “aids” and other terms Zar was unfamiliar with.  Whenever they were confronted by a defender, Defender would nod his head toward the newcomer –- a wordless command directed at Iudith, Gulbahar, and Ahati for them to strike. Zar wondered if Defender was even bothering to analyze defenders for their Tiers anymore. In his bag were twenty bloody Voxites and ten bloody Pixites that he had taken from the corpse of the deranged defender after they had stopped rolling. He had been increasing his stash of ixstones gradually by receiving them from the defenders he kept winning against, but that also meant he had to relinquish some of his own whenever he lost. There were rumors of a formidable fighter having joined the fray, one that was possible to build. His name was Evenglory, a Hemi who had the ability to strike before the enemy, to attack preemptively.

         Zar had to force himself to look presentable and to articulate his words adequately when the band had finally reached Oldtown’s city center, but despite all his attempts, he failed to provide as good of an argument for the mobilization of a Hemi army as he had for the mobilization of a Gallant army back at Alabast Hold. Fortunately, the highly-impressionable and blood-thirsty Hemi had no trouble agreeing to the plan. They were hungry for the sweet taste of revenge against the Exos for what they had done to their land. So strong was their cravings that they were willing to work alongside the tribes that had kept them secluded and oppressed for hundreds of turns.

         They remained in Oldtown for a while as they tried to dispel the haze that still lingered about them. The death of that Tier C had rattled everyone, although Defender had seemed to be more concerned about his own health than the fact that he had just crushed someone to death. After drinking their soberness away, the band continued their journey. This time, Zar wanted to head to Allodiael to talk to the Mage King. Conveniently, the Hemi led them to a bridge made of ice with some sort of portal on the other side. Traverse, they called it. Apparently, on the other side of the portal lay just what they were looking for. The Hemi had assured them that the sudden spike in temperature as a result of the Exo invasions had made the ice warm up enough not to be as deadly as it used to be. Zar did not want to think about how ice could be deadly.

         The experience of being teleported was one Zar did not want to experience ever again, especially not after having drunk so many Bitters. All his senses had merged into each other. Hearing colors, seeing sounds… just a massive, convoluted mess that made his mind such a mushy pool of tissue that his abhorrence toward Defender’s murder seemed to dissipate alongside his sanity. After the… riveting… ride, the band found themselves surrounded by sand in all directions with a sandstorm fast approaching. The band attempted to escape, but the scorching sun in conjunction with the scorching sand made everyone barely able to think. The only ones who were able to move freely were Gulbahar, Eku, Jadewing, and Ahati –- the ones able to fly. Iudith was also relatively at ease by making her horse the one to suffer from the burning sand. Their time of suffering, however, soon came when the sandstorm finally caught up to them. The erratic winds had formed sand tornadoes that whipped them all left and right. Poor Jadewing would have been lost forever if it had not been for Defender having grabbed hold of her left foot and having reigned her in at the last possible moment.

         To make matters worse, Exos were already prowling the dunes in search for any Texeli they could find, leaving the band no choice but to fight during the storm. There were also other defenders who would be insane enough to ambush them and demand a show of strength and intelligence. Whenever they were ambushed by Tier B, their battles would last too long and would have to be cut short because of the devastating winds, but whenever a Tier C approached them, Defender would not even bother. The moment a Tier C spoke in their butchered language, Defender would kick them hard enough to send them flying. Because of their scrawny and undernourished figures, the Tier C would be easily picked up by the winds and banged against the sand repeatedly without mercy.

         As they made their way across the desert, Zar noted that the sand was infused with magic that could turn anyone into stone after inhaling enough of it. Defender quickly pulled his tattered shirt over his mouth and nose, making him look like a bandit of sorts. Zar also noted that some Theri were attacking them just as much as the other defenders and Exos. This observation was especially confusing because Theri were not known for their aggressive nature, and of all the times to change character, a war against Exos should not have been an option in the first place. “What new madness is this?” he shouted over the wailing winds. “These Theri hunt us as though we’re Exos.”

         “This way!” shouted Iudith to Zar’s left. “OASIS!” Thank the iris! The band joined the other defenders inside the oasis surrounded by trees. They decided to wait the storm out and dip their feet in the water. Someone explained to everyone present that there existed a poem about the origins of the oasis, of the Well of Allax.

On Covey Eve

Came a Storm

Turned Every

She-Dragon

To Stone The

Tears of The

Males Sunk

An Oasis And

Feed it Still

         “Seems we’re mending, ‘spite everything,” Zar stated. “We might turn to stone, but not today. But these Theri attacks… there’s no reason –- and no reasoning with them. This desert is a killing place now, where Exos and Theri hunt…”

         “No point in ruminating such unanswerable questions,” Iudith pointed out. The defenders that were already in the oasis began to challenge each other as their worries began to lessen but their adrenaline remained intact. Needless to say, Defender was able to increase his stash of ixstones quite a bit. After everyone was satisfied and all the Tier C were floating on the surface of the well –- dead –- Defender continued their journey toward Allodiael. They had to first cross Louran’s marketplace, a bustling town full of valuable materials. Human markets had also sprung here and there, and Defender decided to test out his luck trying to recruit Evenglory. Alas, the divine totem was not on his side, and out of all the ixstones sacrificed clawed out just a couple Bloomhoof. Zar had hoped to find answers for his questions concerning the unusual Theri behavior, but he should not have expected that much from the Mages. Mages were, after all, conceited to their very dots. Rumors were being spread around with a sybarite’s unconcern, but their true attention was allotted to the new Spell their King was concocting in Allodiael. To make matters more aggravating, there were some very intimidating necromancers guarding the path to Allodiael and declaring that any state business would have to wait until the Spell was complete.

         “More the fool me. Why fret about those who worry not about themselves?” complained Zar. “There's much to learn, however. We'll keep our ears open and our heads clear.”

         “Well, since we cannot go to Allodiael, we might as well start cleaning up this place of the random Exos that are popping up here and there,” declared Defender, massaging his neck.

         As they fought, they heard rumors of Theri going around abducting Mages. “The spell is to enhance the magical barrier around the city, but -- nobody seems to be asking, why would a Theri suddenly do such a thing?”

         “Do they even know about the Exos also crossing their pathetic barrier?” exclaimed Witherclay, contorting in the faces of all the Xana in their band a scowl of men who wanted to teach a dog his place but feared Defender’s wrath.

         “If they do, they sure don’t show it,” Jadewing responded. Suddenly, a bunch of Theri began crawling from their hiding places in alleyways, between market stands, and on top the roof of buildings. They were not seeking a fight; in the contrary, they were leaving.

         “What is up with these hellions?” asked Zar. Just as suddenly, however, a horde of Exos came barging in.

         “Okay, that King really does need to work on that Spell,” sighed Defender as he prepared his band for another onslaught. Even amidst the commotion, defenders were still attempting to one-up each other as if the Exos wreaking havoc were a mere side dish and their War Games the main course. Defender proved once again just how heartless Humans could be when he was confronted by yet another Tier C. Defender had merely looked at the scrawny man and knew instinctively to “take care of him” by picking him up and throwing him in such a well-timed manner that an Exo unintentionally crushed the defender’s ribs under his feet before being destroyed himself at the magic-infused hands of Ahati and Iudith.

         When Defender finally caught a break, he decided to try once again to get past the necromancers. Luckily enough, they granted passage for the King’s almost being done with his Spell. They followed a faint path on the sand leading to a flight of steps. Yet another necromancer greeted them with a slight nod and a gesture from her staff adorned with the skull of an unfortunate man. The interior of the castle was marvelous, and Zar could not help but flinch at the thought of allowing those lousy Hemi soil the beautiful carpet. Then again, there were worse animals soiling the carpet –- Exos. They had somehow made it in and those necromancers were acting like today was no different from any other day! They were probably thinking about how they were going to acquire more ingredients to add to their boiling pots of green liquid in their dark and mossy dungeons concocting iris-knows-what. After some time, the band finally met with the King.

         “Your Majesty, may I have a word with you?” asked Zar when he was within hearing distance of the King.

         “Welcome, dear traveler. Here to see my Spell in action first-hand?” the King responded with a smile, as if his city were not in flames. “And how do you call yourself, stranger?”

         “My name is Captain Zarathustra, and actually, My King, I have come here to propose to you a plan for defeating the Exos: an Alliance between the Gallants of Alabast Hold, the Hemi of Oldtown, the Mages of Louran, and the Theri of the Moorlands!”

         “An Alliance? What rubbish you do speak!” the King exclaimed.

         “Your Majesty, but the Alliance would be-”

         “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-”

         “Cease! I would rather not have a so-called captain who has been reduced to nothing but a blabbering hand command me!” The King then began to prepare his Spell, the Spell that would prove to be as ineffective as Zar’s initial pleas for an Alliance.