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         “So we meet again, Defender,” Slangerr stated as the two members of Echelon II shook hands.

         “And this time, none of us will be killing each other for first place because we both will be promoting once anyway. No double promotions,” Defender added.

         “Speak for yourself, loser. I will destroy you like I did last time. Although, I do see that you have updated your band since then.” Defender’s band now consisted of three Iudith, three Esmellion, two Atan, and Jinxan –- the one who had won the stick draw back in the pavilion.

         “Yours is not looking too shabby either,” Defender noted, observing the three Wigo, three Esmellion, and three Atan. “A shame you do not have your frog prince tagging along.”

         “Who said that?” Suddenly, Ia croaked from behind Slangerr. “You get to carry around a hand on your shoulder, so I began carrying around a frog.”

         “Amusing. I do have a question before we start, though.”

         “And what would that be?”

         “Your hat -- it’s missing.”

         “Oh, that… I…”

         “You got cocky, did you not! You lost a bet and had to give your precious hat up!”

         “Shut up!”

         “What a loser. Who was it?”

         “Why does it matter if you know the name of the defender or not? It’s lost, lost forever.”

         “Entertain me.”

         “It happened shortly after I fought you for the double promotion. I got too cocky. I was up against a Tier A! A TIER FUCKING A! Excuse my language but the bastard completely annihilated me! Word of advice, Defender: do not mess with Tier A.”

         “Dully noted, but it would help if you hurried up and told me the bastard’s name.”

         “Some doofus… ah… dammit. Can’t remember, but it had something to do with fairs.”

         “Fairs?”

         “Yeah. For some reason, whenever I think of that night, I think of going to a local fair for the day, buying funnel cakes, popcorn, etc.”

         “Sorry, I have never gone to a fair before. B4 and whatnot.”

         “Oh. My bad. Sucks to suck.”

         “Sucks to suck…” repeated Defender both embarrassed and angry.

         “Anyway…” Slangerr broke the awkward silence, clapping his hands loud and hard. “Time to see who has improved more between the two of us. Spoiler alert, I am almost certain that will be me. I got to observe how Tier A battle, after all.”

         Defender smirked and sent his three Esmellion to attack first, and Slangerr’s three Atan rushed forth to stop them. One Atan tried to claw at an Esmellion but she stopped his attack with her trident. She was forced down on the ground but did not sustain any damage because another Esmellion quickly stabbed the Atan in the face, launching him off her and crumbling him to dots. The third Esmellion had already decapitated an Atan by the time the Esmellion who had been pushed down to the ground stood up. She pulled back her trident like a javelin as the last remaining Atan kept his distance and prepared himself to dodge out of the way.

         “Oh, how cute. You think you’re fast enough to avoid my attack,” Esmellion chuckled. Her trident flew so fast from her arm that Zar for an instant perceived the trident as being twice as long. It embedded itself on the ground almost up to its base, but it did not pierce Atan. Instead, the gust of wind as a result of the spear’s motion was strong enough to snuff the fire out of Atan’s body, dropping him to the ground and crumbling him to dots.

         Slangerr began to laugh hysterically. “I cannot believe this! I read you like a book!” Zar could not understand why he was laughing as hard as he was, ridiculing Defender, when three of his warriors were destroyed in the blink of an eye without Defender sustaining any damage. Even more baffling was how hard Defender was shaking. His eyes were wide open and he was mouthing something to himself. Was he having a mental breakdown?

         Once the Esmellion returned to Defender’s side of the battlefield, all three Iudith charged Slangerr’s three Wigo. The only sounds were the galloping of all six ferocious beasts as they were ready to ram against each other. Of course, if they were to ram against each other, then Iudith’s horses would certainly crumble the moment their fragile heads made contact with the horned, gilded armor on the heads of Wigo’s beasts. To prevent this, the Iudith began charging their abilities as fast as they could… but they were not fast enough. Two of the Wigo rose their staff in the air and flooded the path of two Iudith. Their horses were not apt for running against the strong current and inevitably faceplanted, setting both themselves and their riders for a painful crumbling to the water that enveloped them and crashed them against the ground. The third Wigo, however, was not as fast as the others. Iudith was able to reach him and bludgeon him to the ground with her staff, jumping off her horse and proceeding to smash his beast’s face until he crumbled while her horse took care of Wigo himself by stampeding on every dot in his body.

         “Truly is a shame you are this predictable, Defender,” Slangerr lamented, shaking his head slowly with a fake expression of concern. Defender’s two Atan and Jinxan were up against the three Esmellion. Jinxan never had a chance. An Esmellion blasted directly at her and skewered her to the ground, grabbed her wings, and ripped them off her back before she crumbled. The Atan were also equally as helpless. Although both their skills were ready, they were not fast enough to incinerate the demons before they made their move. One of them simply sniped an Atan from afar, but the other decided to enjoy herself a little more.

         “I bet you would be perfect to roast marshmallows, fire bird,” she said, “a shame I do not have any.”

         “I will not let a Hemi ridicule me like this!” Atan shouted, charging his skill to incinerate all three Esmellion at once. All three began to double over in laughter.

         “I am so scared!” one of them shouted sarcastically, shaking her hands in the air.

         “Finish the poor fool off already,” another commanded.

         “Goodbye, candle flame,” the succubus uttered as she skewered Atan and destroyed him similar to how she destroyed Gulbahar –- raising him in the air and shaking him around until he crumbled entirely.

         Zar then understood why Slangerr had been laughing his head off and why Defender was now on his knees, grasping his head and pounding the ground. “Humiliating, is it not?” Slangerr asked as he begun to collect the dots. “Now you have no hope of winning.” Defender, albeit having eliminated all three Atan and a Wigo, was left with only his Esmellion line and a single Iudith to face Slangerr’s own Esmellion line and two Wigo. Zar could not fully understand how only one more fighter could upset the odds so drastically, but Defender sure did.

         “You played me good, Slangerr. This was a total massacre, but do not delude yourself. You could not possibly have predicted my strategy. This was all luck.”

         “All luck you say?”

         “I sure do. I call hindsight bias on this one.”

         “To think that you’re this much of a sore loser; I am ashamed of you, Defender. Here, let us make this more interesting. I think you have accepted the fact that you utterly failed at stopping me, so we can have some fun on our last turn. Let us see whose Esmellion are stronger. Your Esmellion line against mine. How about it?”

         “Let us get this over with already.” Slangerr’s three blood-thirsty succubi giggled maniacally as they remembered how they had massacred some of Defender’s Esmellion during their last battle but were baffled when only one Esmellion and Iudith stepped forth to face them instead of the entire Esmellion line.

         “Wait, this was not the deal Defender!”

         “Shut your mouth, Slangerr. I do not recall ever agreeing to your terms.” The Esmellion whom Defender had commanded to join Iudith in her suicide mission was the most agile of all the Esmellion. So agile that she was able to sneak up behind one of the Esmellion and choke her with her trident.

         “We meet again, dear! This time, you will not be sawing me in half!” She jerked back and cracked Esmellion’s neck right before one of the other Esmellion tackled her and began punching her face repeatedly until she crumbled. While Defender’s Esmellion was being pummeled, Iudith was being taunted by Slangerr’s third Esmellion.

         “I see you are not extending your arms to either side of you this time, Mage,” Esmellion observed.

         “I have come here to crumble, but I find refuge in knowing that you will crumble painfully at the hands of the other Esmellion,” responded Iudith.

         Esmellion gripped her trident tightly. “I hate those eyes of yours. Even mere seconds before your crumbling, you Xana still stare down at us like we’re somehow beneath you. Wake up, sweetheart! This war has tipped the scales! We now have a voice, we now have power! War has poked the wasp nest. Fear the swarm that will surely follow.” She sliced Iudith’s horse’s legs one by one and then proceeded to grasp Iudith by the neck. “How much do you love your horse?” she asked right before ramming Iudith’s face into her horse. The both of them crumbled.

         “Defender, you will pay for this,” Slangerr shouted through gritted teeth. Next up were Defender’s two Esmellion against a Wigo and Esmellion team -- clearly, Slangerr had planned for a completely different outcome. Both Wigo and Esmellion could not out-pace Defender’s Esmellion and were laying on the ground as a heap of dots before they knew it, Wigo having been impaled from above and Esmellion having had her wings sliced off before her stomach. For the third battle in the turn, Defender had told Iudith to strike, but since she had been decommissioned, nothing happened and the defenders began gathering the dots. “That was such a low move. So desperate were you to win that you resulted to backstabbing me.”

         “Having observed Tier A made you too conceited, Slangerr. You fell for the trap all villains seem to fall for in movies. You let me win and you know it yet will not admit it.”

         “Conceited? Perhaps. All I wanted to do was have some fun, but now I know you are an untrustworthy prick.”

         “Let us end this debacle. Pathetic seeing you result to insults in order to avoid responsibility.” Defender sent his two remaining fighters –- his two Esmellion –- against Slangerr’s remaining fighters -– Wigo and Esmellion. Zar may have been biased toward his friend, but he could not foresee Defender losing.

         “Come here, you hag!” Slangerr’s Esmellion shouted, flying straight toward one of Defender’s Esmellion. She rammed the bottom of her trident into the Esmellion’s solar plexus but had grabbed Esmellion’s ankle with her tail so Esmellion would not be sent flying back. She whipped Esmellion upward and smashed her against the ground, stabbing Esmellion’s shoulder once she had faceplanted on the ground. She quickly twisted her trident and dislocated Esmellion’s arm. All the helpless Esmellion could do was scream in agony as Slangerr’s Esmellion took her time crumbling her. “You poor, poor old hag. No one will ever love you with such a repulsive visage stamped on your deformed head. You make me sick! Your sight is hideous enough to make an ogre vomit all over himself!” And then, for the final blow: “No wonder they left you stranded in Wellmeant, you good-for-nothing, nauseating harlot!” Finally, she relieved Defender’s Esmellion from her misery.

         “No, do not attack her!” Defender shouted, but 'twas too late. His other Esmellion was overwhelmed by a rage she had never before experienced. Her entire mind had shattered and had left nothing but her wrath to manipulate her like a puppet. “Attack Wigo, not her!” Defender’s shouts were all in vain. Zar joked around by calling her a demon, but at that moment, Esmellion had truly become a demon. Her mouth unhinged as she shrieked like a banshee, her hair began to levitate, and her staff began to glow with an uncharacteristically high amount of magic. Slangerr’s Esmellion stared at her. She must certainly had expected her copy to go berserk, but so violently had her copy reacted that her wrath had surpassed all expectations! Not even she had known she was capable of such blood-thirst, of such madness. She closed her eyes in an attempt to escape her inevitable pain, but they were torn off immediately by the rampaging Esmellion.

         “I would not want you to miss this for anything, babe,” the monster growled as she began to puncture holes all over Esmellion’s body with her trident’s base. Over, and over, and over again. Once Esmellion’s body had been reduced to naught but a trypophobe’s worst nightmare, the berserk Esmellion dug her fingers into ten of the holes and ripped Esmellion in half, finally crumbling her to dots. She heaved for a few seconds as she slowly regained sanity.

         Wigo stared wide-eyed, too afraid to get near and too afraid to call her a hag. He slowly pointed his staff at Esmellion and water began to encircle her. His staff glowed for an instant and the swirling water gushed into her ears, mouth, nostrils, and even eyes, eventually causing her head to explode.

         Although Slangerr had won the fight, no one managed to triumph that day. Zar and Wigo fainted shortly thereafter from the shock of seeing such slaughter, and even the stone-cold, gore-desensitized Humans were frozen –- transfixed -- without being able to say a word, aghast at the innate, latent, and intensifying barbarity that resides in the depths of all Texeli hearts, appalled by the Pandora’s box the war had begun to pry open.