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         “How long has this war been going for?” asked Iudith, fanning herself with a big leaf she had plucked from a nearby tree. Defender turned on his tablet and accessed the calendar.

         “If I’m not mistaken, the iris is said to have started teleporting us to Texel sometime in the Eighth Day of December on the Human calendar. If we go by that date, then it has been approximately three months and two weeks.” Everyone began trying to calculate how long that was in their heads. The Hemi even began counting with their fingers.

         “Oh wow, a little over a hundred moons already? How the moons fly.”

         “A lot has happened in a hundred moons. More than had happened in the hundred turns before the invasion,” added Gulbahar.

         “I would go as far as say a thousand,” interjected Zar.

         “It sure is hot in here!” Jinxan moaned obnoxiously loud. As if she had been anticipating that moment all day, Iudith instantaneously blasted the fairy into the next sea with a blast of freezing water.

         “Feel free to blast me too!” Slateshanks volunteered only to be ignored. He made a pouty face and drenched himself with his own skill.

         “That was the most pathetic thing I have ever seen a Texeli do, you poor Hemi,” Atan stated with a face full of repulsion.

         “You know, I bet that if we extinguish those two fire birds over there, we’d feel far less sweaty and stuffed than we do now…”

         “I’d like to see you try.”

         “Oh, now you’ve done it!”

         “Calm down, all of you,” Defender interrupted. Everyone sat back down on the scorching earth. “You all will be able to let out some of your frustrations soon enough.”

         “That’s right! You have finally made it to Echelon I! Congratulations.”

         “Knock, knock,” a voice sounded from outside the pavilion. Defender stared at the entrance of the tent, dumbfounded that anyone would attempt to converse.

         “And who may you be?”

         “Is that an invitation for me to enter?”

         “No. Just tell us who you are.”

         “Ah, come on. Do you not recognize my voice? What if I told you I was the one who-”

         “Say no more. I remember now. That still does not explain what your business with me is.”

         “Well if you would only let me in…” Defender sighed exasperatedly.

         “Are you planning on waltzing in and being carried away by a motorcycle again?” Chuckles rung from outside.

         “I promise I am not planning on doing such a thing this time.”

         “And your friend?”

         “Neither do I,” a strange and deep voice responded. He must have been the one driving the contraption.

         “Just let them in already, asocial machine,” whispered Zar from Defender’s shoulder.

         “Fine,” Defender responded quietly but sternly. “Come on right in, Sirs of the Higher Order,” he shouted in the most sarcastic tone he had muttered thus far, and that was saying a lot.

         “Do not mind if I do,” the first voice responded, walking in. He truly was the one who had given Defender the tablet back in Alabast Hold. The one behind him was taller, hairier, and more muscular than the short, scrawny one. His voice truly matched his foreboding appearance.

         “What brings you two to them here parts of the woods, and whatever other malarkey and made-up colloquialism I can muster when I’m this aggravated?”

         “Our goal here is not to aggravate you, Defender. My name is Kohai and this here is Jibberish. Do not mind him, for he tries to act tough, but in reality, his voice is far more girly and his-”

         “That is enough,” Jibberish stated with his real voice, the voice that was not forced to sound deeper. “Also, Defender, that is one horrendous name. Could you not have chosen a better one?” Defender looked at his Texeli, and they all looked away except for Iudith.

         “They are right, you know?” she said.

         “I like this girl,” Kohai said, pointing at her but looking straight into Defender’s eyes. He had not broken eye contact since he walked in.

         “Please, just tell me what you came here for. I would much rather rest this heat wave away,” pleaded Defender.

         “Do you remember Qavl?” Jibberish asked.

         “Qavl?” Defender pondered over the name for a while until Iudith shouted “the hellion that kicked your behind when I was a wee little girl. How could you forget one of the most embarrassing moments of your life: being beaten in front of a young girl.” Defender gritted his teeth but continued. “Yes, I remember him now, but I let him win because I was following the rules.”

         Kohai snickered, momentarily letting his eyes break eye contact but quickly regaining it. “Listen and listen carefully. Do. You. Know. Where. He. Is?”

         “What? Sorry, I didn’t hear,” Defender taunted, cupping his hands about his ear and turning his head so his ear could come closer to Kohai. Kohai gripped Defender’s neck and swung him down to the ground so swiftly that Zar was sent flying from Defender’s shoulder across the pavilion, but his trajectory was intercepted by Iudith’s bosom.

         “Of all the ones I deemed audacious enough to grope me, I am dumbfounded by my inability to have assumed the one who would end up doing so would be the one whose entire body is a hand,” stated Iudith calmly as the embarrassed Zar hurriedly stumbled his way to the ground.

         “Please, forgive me.” When Zar next saw Defender, Defender’s solar plexus was being crushed by Kohai’s knees after Kohai had rolled on top of him. He stayed on top of Defender and asked the question once again, tightening his grip after every word.

         “That is enough,” Jibberish stated. Kohai loosened his grip, got off Defender in the most painful way for Defender as possible, and returned to where he had been sitting. Defender began to cough violently and stared at Kohai.

         “You’re lucky there are not any young girls this time around,” Iudith bantered.

         “Not now,” Defender declared, still staring at Kohai. “You are strong for a two-year-old.”

         “Fourteen, Defender, but that is beside the point.” Zar did not know how much fourteen was in Human years, but Zar could deduce that Kohai was younger than most defenders he had seen.

         “I do not know of what happened to Qavl. As far as I know, a maniacal woman heel-palmed the living daylights out of the poor bastard and dragged him away into the sunset never to be seen again by mortal eyes.”

         “Maniacal woman, you say…” Jibberish snickered as he made eye contact with Kohai. “Listen, Defender, just change your name already. Even Qavl sounds better than Defender. This is war, you know… if you do something amazing, your name may be showing up on history books. Do you really want your name on the history book to be something as stupid as ‘Defender Defender’? I can already hear the complaints and ridicule.” Jibberish puffed out his chest, sat up straight, and made the gesture of putting on imaginary glasses. He pretended to hold a book and flipped through some pages after licking his fingers. With a deep voice, he said “audacious the author who submits the reader to iterating.”

         “Before you know it, they will start calling Defender Defender-twice!” The two of them began chuckling to each other as they left without saying another word, not even a goodbye.

         “Bastards,” Defender uttered as the sounds of the motorcycle rumbled their way to their ears.

         “You should have challenged them to a battle,” Iudith bantered.

         “I would have beat them real good for you, Defender,” Slateshanks admitted, cracking his knuckles.

         “If you all are truly that desperate to fight, then by all means let us do so,” Defender responded. He looked at Esmellion, but she, alongside the other two, were contemplating their recent actions so deeply that they had not said a word since the battle against Slangerr. Defender had been levying three Ahati instead.

         “We all know we will not win, but I am curious as to what a Tier A band looks like and how it performs,” Atan said.

         “Well, all who want to join me in a suicide mission say Aye!” The Iudith, the Atan, Slateshanks, Jinxan, Illenswift, and Gulbahar all agreed while the Esmellion remained in their fetal positions without acknowledging any of the planning. Zar crawled to Defender’s shoulder and the eleven of them departed. They traveled for a bit without necessarily looking for a fight. Defender was analyzing his competition, but he smirked knowing that he was out of his league. The difficulty spike between Echelon II and Echelon I was baffling. However, Zar could not intuitively asses the bands like Defender did. To him, the bands were similar to Defender’s or Slangerr’s. A line of Esmellion or other STP, a line of Wigo or other STG, a line of Atan, etc. The difference in power, Zar deduced, was the “level.” The same fighter could be much stronger than another if they had had more training, more experience, or more power fodder.

         “No way!” exclaimed Defender suddenly. “Guys, look –- the hat.” Sure enough, Zar could distinguish the familiar straw hat on top of a stranger’s head. Defender approached him to read his biography. “Hm. The name is Cotton Candy. No wonder he mentioned a fair.”

         “Cotton Candy?” Slateshanks asked.

         “Just think of sweet, edible clouds.” Slateshanks quizzically looked at the sky. “Good afternoon, Cotton Candy. My name is Defender.”

         “Subpar nomenclature,” Cotton Candy responded with a stoic expression on his face Zar could already tell would remain frozen during the entirety of their encounter. The voice was monotone, the eyes lacked shine, and his entire body was rigid. The Human seemed like more of an Exo than some Exos!

         “So I’ve been told. Perhaps I should change it,” Defender blushed.

         “Have you business with me?”

         “I would like you to be the first Tier A I face, if you do not mind.”

         “I acknowledge.”

         “Sweet.” Defender assured his band that their deaths would be “nice and quick.” And he delivered. All Cotton Candy had to do was tell his Atan to strike and flames engulfed all three of Defender’s lines before any of them were able to defend themselves. This was the first battle that Defender had lost in the first turn. This was also the first time Defender had not been able to lay a single finger on the enemy.

         “How have you achieved Echelon I?” Cotton Candy inquired.

         “Luck and a plethora of items, Cotton Candy,” responded Defender as he began scooping up all the dots.

         “Address me simply as Cotton.”

         “It would be an honor, Cotton.”

         “I shall depart. Submit to alternate appellation.” And with that, the curious fellow turned around to leave.

         “Wait, I want to talk about that hat of yours!” Cotton slowed to a stop, turned around, and took off his hat to reveal nearly perfect hair he made perfect by very meticulously straightening the few stray hair strands that were shoved out of formation by the hat.

         “Your inquiry?”

         “Have you been able to deduce anything about the hat, about why it is both simultaneously straw and dot?” Cotton’s eyes widened ever so slightly.


         “Oh. Well… thank you for your time.”

         “I acknowledge.” He turned around once more and left for good, putting his hat back on.

         “Jeez, that was awkward. Not sure what I was expecting a Tier A to be like, but that was not it,” Zar admitted.

         “As a B4, I had not been able to have a conversation with a Tier A before. This was my first time listening to a Tier A in person instead of from news broadcasts and such,” Defender said as he placed the last dot into his pouch.

         “Well, now that we know that we are severely outclassed, we should head back to the pavilion and let your band heal.”

         “Sounds like a plan.”

         Later that day, after Defender’s band had healed and he had told everyone how brutally his band had been incinerated, Defender decided to summon the divine totem.

         “Long time no see, Cradle. I have tons of… delicious? … ixstones for you this time,” said Defender, holding a Voxite. He fed the totem ixstone after ixstone, increasing his stash of power and XP fodder. The only fighter he felt like keeping was one of the new ones: Thesanthei. He was a peculiar fellow with red armor, two flaming chains he used as whips, and a body that could not be seen underneath the armor but was nevertheless enveloped in fire as was evident from the flames that would creep through the joints of his armor. The totem was gracious enough to build enough of his pieces to evolve him to his Epic form.

         “How are you, Thesanthei? Some others have said that my forceful evolution screws them up momentarily, so you may be feeling somewhat overwhelmed, but do not worry –- it shall pass,” assured Defender but cut himself short. Thesanthei had let go of his whips and had begun screaming at the top of his lungs. A solar flare erupted from him and nearly destroyed a group of five silver brothers. “Woah, okay, calm down. Oh my… Iudith, Slateshanks, contain the fire. I am so sorry, Thes. So sorry.” All three Iudith blasted their ice-cold water at Thesanthei as Slateshanks used his magic for something other than pitifully drenching himself. Thesanthei kept screaming and shouting as his flames were extinguished, but only a few seconds later and the flames were back with vengeful wrath, stretching to the top of the tent and even lighting a portion of the cloth on fire. “Damn it, carry him out of here; I can’t have the pavilion burning to ash!” Atan swooped down on Thesanthei and chucked him out as Iudith blasted the spot that had caught fire.

         Defender rushed out of the pavilion and Thesanthei was nowhere to be found. The Xana had vanished and in his wake lay a dragon whose wings were flailing as wildly as his claws and tail. The Theri then tried to change back to its Xana form but failed, momentarily morphing into the Thesanthei they had first laid eyes on but with horns protruding from his forehead and hands before snapping back to his dragon form. He dodged another one of Iudith’s blasts and began to feebly hover away from them. Defender ordered everyone to stop attacking him.

         “Let him be. He seems to be going somewhere and I want to figure out where. Keep an eye on him as I pack up the pavilion.” After doing so, Defender and the others kept their distance as they followed Thesanthei through a field, through a forest, up some hills, and on and on and on. So long was the journey that Thesanthei had healed and was comfortably flying toward wherever his destination was. Fortunately, Defender and his band had been able to conceal themselves well enough for Thesanthei not to be paranoid about being followed. His speed was slow enough for even Defender to keep up with.

         “Perhaps I should stop waiting until the last moment to summon Cradle and then proceeding to forcefully fuse so many pieces all at once,” Defender whispered.

         “I do not think the forced evolutions caused the mental breakdown. His mind was already deteriorated,” Iudith commented.

         “I concur. The slight discomfort I felt when you did the same to me did not warrant such an overdramatic tantrum,” Illenswift added.

         “The Cradle is able to build Texeli with their memories intact. Perhaps somewhere, somewhen, one of his Selves experienced something so horrendous that he had a mental breakdown when built,” speculated Defender, sending shivers down everyone’s spines.

         “Whatever may have happened, do not blame yourself for it. We need to instead figure out what made him this way,” said Ahati.

         “I am desperate to figure out where he’s going and why,” Jinxan said.  

         “He is truly an enigma,” Defender stated, and the band stayed quiet for the remainder of their stalking until finally everyone reached the entrance to a structure they had all come to distinguish for its unique features -- an Exo base.

         “How did he know about such a remote place?” asked Zar.

         “Perhaps the memories that caused the mental breakdown originated here, and now he’s going to finish the job,” Jinxan inferred. As the band got closer, they realized that the structure was not as pristine as the others they had invaded during Exo Raids. The base was decrepit to say the least. Its dilapidated exterior could only mean that the base was in no stretch of the imagination new nor inhabited. An abandoned base in the middle of nowhere, yet Thesanthei somehow knew where it was located.

         Thesanthei swooped down and stared at the crumbling structure without attempting to enter. He took a deep breath, reflected on his actions, and slowly heaved the colossal doors open. Defender’s band followed after an adequate amount of time -– long enough to keep their distance but not enough to lose him in the dark and labyrinthian corridors. Thesanthei’s flames were convenient for the stalkers who needed only to follow the faint, crimson glow, but Atan’s flames were risky. Too late to have them retreat into the pavilion, however.

         The darkness was momentarily sliced by the rays of sunlight piercing through the tiny cracks on the exaggeratedly high ceiling. A faint, new smell became discernible the moment Thesanthei started to descend some steps leading to another labyrinth underground. Clearly, Thesanthei knew where he was going; he had been there before. Defender stepped on a liquid and looked down. A yellow, gooey puddle had stained his shoes, and Defender lifted his foot to try and clean it off. He lost balance and hopped a couple times trying to regain it without letting his foot drop, but he slipped on the gooey substance and crashed through the floor. The entire decayed, rotten floor collapsed on itself and caused everyone to fall even deeper into the abandoned base.

         When the dust settled, Thesanthei shouted from the floor above them “why did you fools follow me here!”

         “You do know I built you, correct? You expect me to just sit and watch as my ixtones fly away from me?” Defender shouted back.

         “Leave me alone! This is my birthplace and would rather have this moment to reflect by myself in peace.”

         “I would be delighted to, but if you did not notice, I am in sort of a dilemma here.”

         “Just stay out of my way! I will come back to you at some point. I just have something I need to check out.”

         “Suit yourself. In the meantime, I will try to find a way out.” Thesanthei was gone before Defender had even finished the sentence. “Can anyone see anything?” Both Atan began to burn brighter as to illuminate the corridor. Zar was half-expecting to see the capsules full of yellow liquid he had seen in the previous bases, but this particular base did not have the capsules. The corridor had absolutely nothing. An empty passageway leading to iris-knows-where.

         “This base must not have been fully operational before whatever cataclysmic event either killed all the Exos or had them fleeing,” concluded Defender. “We might as well head deeper. Not like we’re going to encounter any monsters.”

         “Good job jinxing us, Defender,” Iudith stated. After a short while of walking, the corridor came to an abrupt stop. Before them was a door with an electronic passcode number pad. Even if they were somehow able to guess the passcode, the lack of electricity would impede them from entering.

         “Well, this adventure was quite short-lived,” Defender commented. Before he turned around, however, Slateshanks galloped at top speed toward the door and rammed it open. A puff of dust enveloped them all. Everyone began to tear up and cough, but soon enough the dust settled and they were all confronted by a perplexing image.

         There were two capsules. One of them had no liquid in it and was labeled Amalgam. The inside was full of dust and did not seem to have been used in a very long time. The other capsule did have the glowing, yellow liquid, but inside was…

         “A Human!” Defender shouted. No words could describe just how utterly shell-shocked Defender seemed. He ran up to the capsule and leaned against it. The man inside the capsule must have been in there for a very long time. His body had degenerated. He looked like a man who was no younger than centuries and his frail figure was almost sickening to look at. His hair was gray and covered most of his face. The completely nude man may have degraded but still resembled a Human… except for his left arm. His left arm was tremendously disfigured. It had shriveled up to half the length of his other arm and seemed to lack infrastructure. It floated on the water as if it were the unoccupied sleeve of a sweater. The capsule was labeled Amalgam as well.

         “Defender, there’s something that resembles your tablet over here,” Iudith reported. Defender broke his gaze from the Human and hurried over to the tablet. He whispered to himself, perhaps praying that the tablet would work, but it did not. It had run out of batteries.

         “There is also an Exo over here, but I am sure it is dead,” Jinxan reported. The Exo was short and far from intimidating. Zar could not possibly imagine the Exo being a member of the infantry. He must have been one of the workers that remained in the base and for some reason did not flee when all the others did. He had one weapon -- a laser gun -- but Zar doubted it worked anymore.

         “What happened here, little guy?” Defender asked, squatting down and staring at the Exo. “We have a Human in a capsule, an Exo on the ground, an abandoned base that has no electricity yet the capsule is still running, and if this base is truly abandoned, how long has this Human been floating in there for?”

         “Actually, the capsule is not on,” observed Slateshanks, pointing at the tube on top of the capsule. In all the other bases, whenever they saw a capsule, they would always see the yellow liquid being extracted from the capsule and replaced with new liquid. Defender had concluded that the liquid carried a liquified form of the dots and that’s how the Exos had been harnessing the latent potential of the dots. This one’s tube, however, was not extracting anything, nor was the capsule shooting new liquid. The Human had been floating in the same liquid the entire time.

         “Could it be? Look at this Exo. His head is severely damaged. It would not surprise me if its brain had been malfunctioning to the point of not having been able to distinguish a Human from a Xana. After all, Exos’ only mission is to harvest dots, is it not? The Exo could have been unconscious for all we know while it subconsciously sought for Texeli. That would explain why it failed to turn on the capsule. Stuff the Human in, flood him in the liquid, and then…” Defender snapped his neck to the side as to indicate falling unconscious or dead. “We may never know what happened, but the Human is still alive. Let us save him.” Per Defender’s orders, Iudith slammed her staff against the capsule and shattered it. The pungent smell of urine, decaying flesh, and fecal matter wafted and propagated about the room, causing everyone to bend over in agony. Some even vomited. The Human landed outside the capsule and lay there for a long time, long enough to make Zar doubt if he was even alive. Defender bent down and attempted to check his pulse.

         Then, his hoarse voice began to scream. Somehow, his wrinkly body managed to convulse violently. He repeatedly shouted “IT HURTS, MAMA, IT HURTS!” as he grabbed the laser gun, snapped to a standing position, and began waving it around. Despite Defender trying to calm him down, the glassy-eyed madman laughed hysterically and pulled the trigger.