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Absence

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         “Planning on blinking any time soon, Defender?” Zar asked, staring at the utterly transfixed Defender. He was sitting cross-legged and staring at the screen of his tablet. His eyes had been reflecting the screen for so long that Zar wondered if the reflection had been burned into them. Defender did not even budge after hearing the question –- he just stared, stared as if he were the only sentient being inside the pavilion.

         After the fall of the flying Exo ships, Defender had declared that he would not participate in the next event as wholeheartedly as he had all the previous ones in hopes of accumulating a substantial amount of resources -– by which he meant Nux bits and Aja leaves –- to burn all at once when an event as cataclysmic as that one happened again. The event that had followed had been yet another dungeon expedition with new fighters guarding them, except that time there had been two in each. The Elemental Dungeons that time around had been Stormcote, home to Celestia and Emeric; Loamden, home to Witchberry and Tideborn; and Blazegate, home to Gela and Iaazipaa. Another aspect of the event that had taken Zar by surprise had been the introduction of Thrillers, guardians that were exceptionally hard relative to the others in the dungeon. These Thrillers were so powerful that Defender had begun to pray to whomever Humans prayed for salvation for a chance to finish the dungeon without encountering too many of them. Whoever that god was, he did not listen.

         Defender’s band had what he called “a very solid setup.” He had two “STP” fighters: Evenglory and Esmellion. He also had three “STG” fighters: Ahati, Iudith, and Wigo. Wigo had cost Defender an arm and a leg, or so he said. Zar still did not care much for that horrid market; he would only be pleasantly surprised whenever a new face would enter the pavilion and saddened whenever there was a familiar face missing. His other go-to fighters were Gulbahar, Jinxan, and Witherclay. The ninth spot on the band was reserved for whoever wanted to stretch their legs. Since Defender had such a decent band, he had not felt the need to levy any new fighters from the dungeon event and ended up selling them all.

         Zar stretched his fingers. Defender, even after having spent a few minutes discussing his plan to withhold from any unnecessary spending, had only been able to save his resources for that one event before going all out during the one that was happening right then. That event was similar to the massacre of about a month prior, the massacre of all the Tier C. This time, defenders were to battle each other but in a far more “civilized” manner. There was to be no killing of defenders whatsoever, yet destroying bands was more than fine. Zar was annoyed by the hypocrisy but had grown rather tired of constantly being annoyed by Humans. There were so many things wrong with Humans that Zar would much sooner finish counting the stars in the night sky than state half of them.

         “Defender, staring into that screen can not possibly be healthy,” Zar broke the silence once again. The defender-versus-defender event was coming to a close. In fact, there were only about one and a half hours left in the penultimate day, hence Defender’s stressed-out state. The event was orchestrated by Tier A, who had coded into the tablet an entirely new feature: Echelons. Aside from acquiring resources, defenders were also granted points after each victory. The more victories, the more points, and the more points, the greater one’s probability of being promoted to the next Echelon. The goal was to reach the final Echelon, to prove one’s worth by being a member of the Elites.

         There were three new warriors this event: Fainglory, who was built by the divine totem whenever Defender reached a certain number of points; Zalmoxis, who was built by the divine totem at the end of every day; and Ataneedusu, who was built by the divine totem not only after Defender reached a certain milestone in points but also as a thank you after the event was over. The higher the defender was in the Echelons, the more Zalmoxis pieces he would acquire. However, Defender was not interested in Zalmoxis in the slightest; he was more focused on Ataneedusu –- or as Defender called him, Atan. Atan was not an STP, which stood for Single-Target Preempt, but an ATP, an All-Target Preempt. Defender had said that such an addition to his team would be unfathomably beneficial during dungeon events but that acquiring Atan from the market would be nearly impossible. As such, his only hope of acquiring Atan was to acquire as many as possible from point milestones and the thank you gift from the divine totem. He merely needed Zalmoxis as a bargaining chip or source of currency for his Atan.

         “I know you are staring at that tablet because you are worried someone will surpass you during the last hour of the day, but should you really be depriving yourself of sleep because of it? The sleepier you are tomorrow, the less points you will be able to acquire.” Zar felt as though he was speaking to the thick darkness that lingered inside the pavilion only obstructed by the soft glow from the tablet’s screen.

         Defender had failed to promote to a higher Echelon the day prior, but luckily the top defender of each Echelon was promoted twice if he had failed to promote beforehand, allowing defenders a chance to catch up. That day’s being the penultimate day of the event meant that Defender only had one more chance to seize that opportunity.

         “For crying out loud, Defender!” whispered Zar fiercely as to get his point across but not to wake up all his companions who were resting after a hectic day of Defender blowing through all his resources to establish a lead between himself and the defender in second place so huge that no defender in his Echelon would be crazy enough to attempt surpassing him. “Do not make me go over there and snatch the tablet from you!” Defender then jerked up and pressed one of his hands against his mouth, as if in an attempt at not screaming at the top of his lungs. His hands, for the first time in hours, unclenched and let go of the tablet, his fingers cracking multiple times in the process.

         “Zar, he’s back. That bastard is back and jumped from fourth place to second in the blink of an eye!” whimpered Defender.

         “Calm down, I am sure that this defender is still significantly behind you.”

         “There is still a little under an hour left, Zar. At this rate, he will surpass me. I must continue encountering other defenders.”

         Zar sighed heavily. “Fine, Defender. Suit yourself.” He crawled to where all the others were sleeping and nudged awake the nine warriors Defender had requested. Iudith sat up, stretched, and yawned exaggeratedly loud. Her yawn was so loud that the others Zar had tried so hard not to nudge groaned and rolled away from her, covering their ears. She smirked.

         “Oh dear, are you alright?” Esmellion asked, gliding her way to Defender and taking hold of one side of his face. Defender shook her hand off and stood up.

         “Not now, Esmellion. We must reclaim the number one spot,” he stated.

         “May I remind you that there is nothing to reclaim? That you have not lost the number one spot?” Zar emphasized.

         “Not yet,” Defender claimed through gritted teeth. Everyone moved out and Defender began his search for any nocturnal defenders that were still roaming the land at such a late hour. After each encounter, Defender would look at his tablet and make sure the number two defender had not surpassed him. To Defender’s horror, unfortunately, the defender, although not having surpassed him despite there only being twenty more minutes left, had been narrowing the gap between them.

         “There you are, Defender,” the number two defender said, startling Defender. The defender was the same one that had had a full band of Ia during the first defender-versus-defender event. “I was not planning on going all out this event, to be honest. I was more than satisfied having made it to Echelon III, but my friend there,” he pointed at the only Ia in his band, “just had to let me know that you were in first place. I wanted to fight you again for having assumed I was fooling around instead of taking the extermination of vermin seriously, for having insulted my intelligence, for having told me what to do.” His tone had gradually turned deeper and more aggressive than the flamboyant one with which he had started.

         Defender remained unmoving, staring at the defender. He twitched his pupils, something he had not done in over thirty moons. Zar had noticed that while all the other defenders automatically checked for Defender’s name, Defender never bothered to acquire such “trivial” knowledge. Because of this habit, Zar knew that Defender had begun to consider this defender as no mere defender but a rival -- an enemy worth knowing the name of.

         “I would love to just stand here and hold a staring contest, but I am sure you are aware that our time is running rather low. Very soon shall we bear witness to which one of us is superior,” the defender said, showcasing his band. There was only a single Ia in the entire band. The rest of the band consisted of three Esmellion, three Ahati, and two Atan. Defender’s band consisted of the usual eight but with the addition of his own Atan.

         “Although I am unable to tell what SEF and LV any of your fighters are because of those scumbags rendering the contacts useless for this event, I am certain that you will die as quickly as you did on our first encounter a month ago,” retorted Defender.

         “Your confidence truly excites me. It will be a pleasure destroying your pride. Have you asked yourself why I have made it to Echelon III and am posing a threat to you? Do you truly believe that all the defenders that I have faced have been simpletons and miserable excuses for leaders? Now, let us commence. You shall not stall for time any longer, Defender.”

         Defender smirked as his eyes slowly moved from the defender’s eyes to the defender’s straw hat. That was the first time Zar had ever seen a defender wear any form of garment on his head. The yellow straw hat had a black band and seemed brand new except for a couple spots where it had been scorched or slashed. “As you wish, Slangerr, but you shall learn that the only thing that changed in the past month is your god-awful hat.”