“This is the place, correct?” Feyk asked as he got off the bike.
“According to the map, this should be the fabled Grotta Etheria,” Taurus replied, turning off her tablet. The two of them entered the caves to carry out their orders.
“By the way, Taurus, we have been working for a while together and I have been meaning to ask you-”
“Stop right there. I will request to be paired with someone else if you dare go any further.”
“No, I did not mean it like that, I just wanted to know how you made the palm of your hands so strong.”
“I mean, every time you apprehend a Tier C, you just heel-palm them in the forehead and pretty much instantly kill the bastards.”
“Not for that god-damned Qavl.” She massaged her wrists and spit on the ground. “I swear I will find whoever kidnapped him from us and make him pay for messing with our victim.”
“Unfortunately, we do not have any leads nor will we ever. Best to forget about such unsolvable mysteries.”
“Unsolvable mysteries like the cloaked Exo?”
“We shall not talk about that.” Feyk shuddered as he remembered the cloaked Exo. The two of them had been ordered to scout for any possible Exo spawn areas in Parchland. There, they saw in the distance an Exo standing under the sun without moving a single wire. The two of them had been perplexed by it and had approached it. It was humongous and humanoid, perhaps the most humanoid of them all. Even though it had been just standing like a statue, the two of them had felt utter dread. Just looking at the behemoth had infused them with horror. They had known immediately that something about the Exo made it significantly different from the others. Perhaps it had been the newest model. Whatever may have caused the two of them to nearly wet themselves by merely gazing at it did not matter anymore because the Exo was gone, gone from their grasp. They had tried to apprehend it for further examination back at their headquarters, and they had thought they would have been able to considering its comatose state, but the moment they commanded their Texeli to strike it, the monster began to spark and jerk every which way. It had been spasming and shrieking Human anguished wails for help so violently even the Texeli they were commanding had frozen in place, petrified by the faulty and glitching Exo before them. It had slammed both of its arms -- its right hand covered in someone’s blood and missing two fingers -- on the sand and had took off at top speed, crawling away without even attempting to kill them. It was not until then that Feyk and Taurus had realized the Exo did not have a lower body. It had been levitating the entire time.
“By the way, have you heard of any progress with the new moto-cycles?”
Feyk thought for a second. The Texeli to which they had taught the word “motorcycle” accidentally called it a “moto-cycle.” ‘Twas an inside joke that amused the defenders back at headquarters. When the new Exos began to show up, the ones made of dots instead of metal, they were unable to keep producing motorcycles from the scraps. This gave the Tier A brainiacs an idea, though. They began to find ways to harness the power of dots. If those damned Exos could, so could Humans. “Yeah, there has been no progress made. Understanding how dots function is hard even for Tier A. The enigma that are dots may elude us for some time. Even Mages and Theri are unable to provide us with the necessary insight.”
“A shame. I’m tired of having to use that hunk of metal. We do not even have that much fuel left. Sooner or later we’ll-”
“Shush!” Feyk whispered. The two of them stopped walking and held their breath. Feyk turned off the flashlight feature on his tablet and the two of them stood unbudgingly for a few seconds. “Sorry, I must have imagined it.”
“Do not scare me like that, you bastard.”
“I said sorry!”
“What do you even think you heard?”
“Flapping wings.” He looked behind him at the three Goldfleece they had brought with them. “None of you began flapping your wings, right?” All three shook their heads.
“Do not blame them for your own hallucinations and keep walking. I see a faint glow in the distance now that you turned off that flashlight.” Sure enough, Feyk discerned an extremely faint blue glow deeper into the cave. They trudged ever deeper, the glow getting ever closer, until finally they found a glowing blue cube. Feyk went over to pick it up, but the moment he touched it, a terrifying, silver-armored Texeli with bat wings, a shield, and a two-pronged lance flew from the shadows and pinned Feyk’s neck against the cave’s wall, Feyk’s neck between the prongs of its lance.
“Hands off the treasure!” the creature screeched. The three Goldfleece attacked the creature and scared it off as Feyk began coughing and trying to recuperate his breath.
“He said treasure, did he not?” Taurus asked, observing the three Goldfleece tear the creature to shreds. “Shall we get moving and report this to headquarters?” Feyk was only able to manage a cough and a slow nod in response. The two of them turned around to leave but noticed a crowd of Texeli blocking their exit. “Damn. I guess it is about time for another dungeon event, huh?”
* * * * * * * * *
The tablet began to ring again, but the war up to that point had been so repetitive and systematic that everyone already felt very confident in the message being an invitation to another set of dungeons. Lo and behold, the message stated that there were three dungeons full of gear –- Grotta Etheria, Hemiolis Mines, and Xanadu Caverns. This meant that this event was not about Texeli trying to test defenders’ power; the event was a treasure hunt.
“Time to finally start using the armory,” Defender stated, his eyes twinkling with lust for treasure.
“Hopefully the caves have some very cool looking swords,” Gulbahar said as he kept cleaning his sword.
“I would never stop using my beautiful trident,” Esmellion stated as she hugged her trident and coiled her tail around it, the other two Esmellion nodding in agreement. The three Iudith looked at their staff and squinted their eyes. They never said a word, but Zar could imagine them picturing in their minds a staff adorned with skulls about its entire length.
“Alright, I would like Atan and you three Ahati to accompany me to the grotto. If anybody wants to catch a wisp of fresh, moldy, cave air, feel free to fight for the remaining five spots on the band,” Defender announced as he began collecting his items and preparing the pavilion to be shrunken into the pouch. Gulbahar kept cleaning his sword and did not bother to fight. His time to shine would be whenever Defender invaded the Xanadu Caverns, so he was in no rush. All three Iudith also thought the same. The Hemi, however, wanted to loot as much gear as possible, so Witherclay, Jinxan, and the three Esmellion won. These five would be the five who would accompany Defender into the Hemiolis Mines the following day.
For Defender, the grotto and mines were easier than the caverns simply because of Atan and Esmellion being preempt. His Iudith line did wonders during their invasion of the caverns, but when the final day was upon them, Defender decided to focus all his resources on the mines, not because they were the easiest –- although Esmellion made it so -– but because the Hero who was to join them for doing so was none other than Witherclay! At last, Witherclay was to evolve to Slateshanks and completely destroy the Exos. The other warrior whom Defender recruited after his expeditions was Illenswift, someone whom he called a “recolor” merely because she resembled Jinxan. A while ago, Defender had complained about the many terms Texeli had, but Humans were the ones slamming labels on nearly everything under the sun.
As for the gear… oh the gear! They came in the shape of blue cubes, but whenever Defender would leave the dungeon, the blue cubes would glow and transform into their true forms before them all: wings, armor, swords, amulets, shields, capes, anything! Whenever Defender equipped someone with the newly-found gear, even if they did not use it, their performance would be significantly improved, as if just the act of carrying them around served as a way to excite the band’s dots. Esmellion, who had stated she would never replace her trident, began to carry a small scythe around. A small but noticeable increase in her damage output was discerned, and her destroying of those beasts inside the cave became easier.
Those beasts, those repugnant beasts who would attempt to destroy anyone in their path, as if they were protecting their children from monsters, were without question Texeli, yet they were attacking Defender with the intent to destroy, unlike the enemies in previous dungeons who would only aim at Texeli and never at Defender. Zar inferred that these creatures had been living inside the caves their entire lives and did not know of the outside world, of the Exos, of the fact that Defender was a Human and would not be able to piece himself back together. They were ruthless and quick, and Defender seemed even more scared of them than he had been of the Exo bosses during the Battle of the Empyrions. Granted, their two-pronged lances were not to be taken lightly; in fact, Defender had three long gashes on his back, chest, and legs because of them, not to mention the hole on his shoulder where a prong had penetrated and emerged from the opposite side. The hole on his shoulder was so large Zar could even crawl through it! Not that he would want to, of course.
When everything was all said and done, and the last day of the event had been left behind alongside the setting sun, Defender, with his many makeshift bandages made of tattered clothes, reclined against the tree on the other side of the bivouac’s cloth. They had all just finished their final summons and were about to rest for the night before Defender started haggling on the market the following day. He was planning on selling most of the gear for as much Texi as he could while also selling the new recruits for Nux. Defender had been accumulating resources little by little and had a decent stash of items. Defender complained about the pain on his shoulder repeatedly as Esmellion kept pushing him around seductively and Iudith kept snickering on the far side of the pavilion. Zar could not help but smile with the mouth he no longer had as he gazed at the family before him.
* * * * * * * * *
“Capsule to be filled with concentrate depending on subject. Subject Amalgam-29 to be awakened. Daily check-up. Nearing end of examinations. Success to a high degree of certainty. Commence concentrate draining. Revitalize. Subject Amalgam-29 began to show signs of consciousness at 22-58-34-97.”
Yellow. Sea of yellow. Bubbles. They tickle. Not amusing. The tickles do not amuse. Pain. Burning. Yellow. Yellow. Yellow.
“Open your eyes, Subject Amalgam-29.” The Texeli painfully opened them. They had shone a bright light directly at his face, but he knew that his eyes were to be forced open if he did not do so himself. Standard procedure.
“Open your mouth, Amalgam-29.” As was with his eyes, his mouth felt as though it weighed a ton. He could hardly move his jaw, but after having opened it far enough, he felt his mouth snap open and was unable to close it. Jaw too heavy. The standard tests carried on. Vitals. Performance. Sentience.
“Commence final test.”
Final test? All tests are done with. There are no more tests. This is not standard procedure. The Texeli began to quiver. The Exo stared at him with his red eyes but said not a word.
“Subject Amalgam-29 to mayhap be first success. 28 failures.”
Twenty-eight times have I died.
“Lie.” The Exo’s cold hands grasped his shoulders and laid him on his back. He could see the ring of familiar circles.
1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8… and the 9th in the middle…
“Remember, you are no ordinary Xana…” the Exo recited, his monotone and robotic voice echoing in the otherwise silent, cold chamber. His shivering did not stop. It did not stop even after two others, their eyes glowing the same red, approached and peered down on him. “You are a divided being. Two selves that rage as one…”
Remember, I am no ordinary Xana… I am a divided being. Two selves that suffer as one…
It suddenly struck him at the moment right before blacking out, the moment right before he was sent back into oblivion, that this was not the first time he had heard “commence transformation,” that this was not the first time he had heard “you are no ordinary Xana,” that this was his sixteenth time hearing “commence final test,” that his memories, the ones he had thought were his, were actually the memories of all the other Amalgam before him. He realized right then and there why he had thought twenty-eight times have I died. He truly had. But amongst all those memories, amongst all those past lives, amongst all those failures, he did not recall, not even once, not even a tiny bit, any of the Exos ever stating “success to a high degree of confidence.” Could this be? Could this truly be the last time? His consciousness began to fade. A deep-seeded burning enveloped his body. He was in flames, he could see it, but he did not feel it. He was losing consciousness, he had his eyes closed, yet he could see, he could see as though through the eyes of another being. He had fallen unconscious, yet he was awake, as if staring into the eyes of all those Exos through the eyes of another. He could not move, yet he could feel his limbs erratically spasming every which way. He did not think to do so, did not plan to do so, did not desire to do so, yet he grabbed the necks of all those Exos, he unhinged his jaw, he engulfed the entire lab in his flames. Wings sprouted from behind him, but he wanted it all to stop. This was not him, not him at all, yet there he was, approaching the door, blasting it down, stumbling away, never to look back. He wanted to control his body, to regain what he had lost to this new entity, but he was not himself anymore, he was not a Xana anymore, he was something different, something fierce, something gluttonous and exploding with wrath, something invincible.