Actions

Work Header

Absence

Chapter Text

          No words could possibly describe how instantaneous the world was thrust into a state of utter pandemonium. Three turns had the iris held back the strengthening evil, but the fair flower’s strength reached its end. For a split second, the entire world stood still. The wind stopped whistling, the waves froze in place, the grass stopped dancing… there was no movement whatsoever. All of Texel, as if suddenly realizing the dreaded time had come at last, was reduced to a petrified world in the brink of destruction, a horror film paused right before a jump scare. If only the iris could have kept the world frozen in this state forever, but Time is a ruthless ferryman who forever drags the universe ever deeper across the river Styx.

          Quite frankly, they came from everywhere. Those vile beasts triumphantly screeching and whirring as loud as they could; those lethal creatures unrelentingly blasting through the irises spread across all of Texel, their stems bulging as those hungry demons forced themselves through; those mechanized nightmares indiscriminately clawing, slashing, and blasting their way through meadows, mountains, forests, deserts, and caves –- all of them, every single one of them, were unstoppable hordes waging war on all of Texel. The poor Texeli, having lived eons without the slightest ability to fathom what an all-out war would be like, stared awestruck at the spinning blades, flamethrowers, axes, and claws invading their relatively peaceful land.

          Texel, having realized the iris failed to protect it, had to resort to defending itself. The Silver Sea was a perfect example of this. The Silver Sea, named after its perilous currents from which not even the strongest of Theri could escape, was successfully able to stall for time by sucking in all of the robotic devils clawing their way out of the irises spread along its coast. As for Texeli, they all began to flee. Nothing much could those powerless creatures do against the ones flowing out of forests, beaches, and caves.

          As Texel caught on fire, the iris began pondering what to do. It had three turns prior planted a seed that was yet to bloom, and drastic times call for drastic measures. The iris decided to risk it all by pulling in Humans, creatures known for waging war on each other constantly. If any creature out in the cosmos knew anything about war, it would be them. One by one they began materializing, not knowing what to do at first but soon enough realizing they were in the middle of a warzone. Every creature has the instinct to survive, but the highly-adaptable and cunning Human mind knew how to survive best. At first, these Humans hid from the robots, but some were able to find Texeli folk and discover their hidden potentials. Not even hours had gone by before the first defender was born -- a Human who assembled a band of Texeli. This defender retaliated with a lackluster band of nine Texeli, setting the standard for all the other Humans. War had begun, and the poor Texeli knew of nothing to do but submit themselves to the commands of a creature they had only minutes prior never even fathomed.

          The initial days of the war were full to the brim with commotion as every Texeli and Human tried their best not to have inevitable mental breakdowns. Amongst all the destruction, however, stood an interesting Texeli. He was a courageous seaman, as all seaman ought to be. Strong both in mind and body, this Texeli had experience in not only taming bodies of water but also in communication. Everywhere he went, he would spread tales of his adventures. Not only had he made a name for himself in doing so but had also gained an incredible amount of knowledge and perspectives… and attire. He once met a young lad who wore blue armor at all times -- peculiar for many reasons other than the unusual fashion statement -- and happened to have had a spare armor and a spare sword to go along with it. Ever since then, the seaman had sailed donning that armor.

          For a Xana, this Texeli was open-minded, amiable, care-free, and always ready to throw out any random quip, pun, or comedic-relief he could muster from his creative mind. His adventures had led him to Sownfield, located at the foot of Dragonmount, an iconic mountain Gallants at Alabast Hold gazed upon in awe. He had only spent a few moments enjoying the beautiful sight before the hordes of demons erupted from every which way. Distraught, the terrified seaman began frantically running away.

          Soon enough, he began seeing something other than mechanical creatures materialize. These creatures resembled people from his own tribe yet had a different aura to them -– clearly, they were from another world. As he ran away, he acknowledged with great fascination and respect how fast these creatures were able to change from being scared little chickens to stern and commanding leaders. As if by instinct, these creatures began assembling groups of Texeli and ordering systematic attacks against the invaders. Seeing how other Texeli were fighting made this particular one stop dead in his tracks and calm down. He reflected on his cowardice with disgust and made up his mind. He was going to fight. He was strong, far stronger than anyone would first imagine by just looking at him. The turns upon turns spent out in the sea navigating through storms and harsh weather had turned him into a formidable foe even against those unknown attackers. No longer will his stories be about seafaring; a new chapter was to unfold -– a chapter of heroism, of valor, of insurmountable strength! He, Captain Zarathustra, shall be renown throughout all of Texel as one of the most influential fighters during the war; that he was sure of. Tightening his blue fists about the hilt of his sword and staring straight at one of the invaders, Zarathustra bent his knees in preparation for a massive offensive, charging up every one of his dots for the strongest skill attack he had ever mustered in his life. Power surged through his entire body; a tingling sensation that he would never forget enveloped him. This was it, the highlight of his life. This was it, the end of his life as a seaman and the beginning of his new life as a hero. Who would have thought that such a nomadic and eccentric individual would ever amount to something as grand as charging toward a sea of unknown monsters in the name of every community, of every animal, of every blade of grass in all of Texel? He was going to save them all!

          Right before he began running, however, he noticed that to his right had materialized an invader far taller than any of the other short, critter-like ones. This invader was far more intimidating, resembling a mutated man made of brown armor with what seemed like massive cups glowing blue from the inside instead of hands. All of the courage and energy he was just about to use against one of the small, relatively-cute invaders disappeared in the blink of an eye, and he stumbled backwards, tripping and landing on his behind. Not fair, these invaders could spawn right next to him! What would have happened if he had materialized in the same exact spot Zarathustra had been on? He quickly stood up and was just about to flee when he noticed one of those Xana-like creatures materialize and crash onto the ground a couple meters away from him. This creature slowly rose to his hands and knees and began breathing hard, all whilst the invader that had scared the dots out of Zarathustra began charging up an attack with his “hands.” Two others just like him had materialized and were standing off to the distance watching intently as if in anticipation for the damage the blue blast was about to do.

          Zarathustra knew exactly what those blue blasts could do. Just a few seconds prior, Zarathustra had witnessed a fellow Texeli blasted into nothing but dots by one of those blasts. If he did not do something, that blast would do the same to the new visitor, the one who may one day lead the largest legion into battle. At that moment, Zarathustra cared not about fame, about the new chapter in his life, about being a hero. He realized at that moment that these new Xana-like creatures were the true heroes and should be the ones protected by all means necessary. These were the Defenders of Texel, the future, the light. Without even thinking twice, he rushed toward the defender and pushed him to the ground, away from the blast that the invader had been charging up. When the dust had cleared, he grabbed hold of the defender’s hand and called for him to make sure he was alright. Then he was blasted into dots.

          He had always wanted to lose some weight, he truly did. Of course, the armor he donned every day added considerable weight to his person, but even without the armor, he acknowledged that he was rather heavy. Thick-boned, he used to describe himself, but heavy nonetheless. Now, as he was held up by the defender, he felt himself rather light, as if his dots had flown right into the air and had left only his hand behind. Wait, that is exactly what happened. “By iris!” exclaimed the hand, “where have I gone off to!” The defender stared at him, holding him tight. “Defender, we just met, yet you make me blush with such an intense stare.” The defender shook his head. There was no time to gawk at a speaking hand; there were machines charging up yet another blast. Hurriedly, the defender, still gripping him tightly, stood up from the ground and began running away. “Defender, you are-are choking me… please, no need to… grip me so.” The defender loosened his grip, allowing the hand to crawl its way up to the defender’s shoulder. Not long after, their path was obstructed by the most intimidating machine yet. Forget those brown-armored, laser-blasting children! The behemoth materializing before them resembled a bipedal horse with two flaming sawblades shredding the air instead of its forehooves. Huffing and whirring, this intricate tree cutter set its glowing, blue eyes on the two of them. “So, defender, now what? Seems the little pony wants some dots for his afternoon snack.” The defender stood still, not out of fear but out of pensiveness. His brows were furrowed, his eyes were staring intently at the abomination, and his fists were tightening more. All of a sudden, the defender snapped and shouted at a silver-armored fellow that ran past them to make a beeline for the horse and slash at it with his mighty sword. Taken aback by the booming, commanding voice, the poor man stopped running and stared, horrified, at him.

          “Go! Show that pile of rusting metal what you are made of, warrior!” The knight nodded his head and rushed at the monster. Three slashes were all it took for the behemoth to crumble into a heap of metal. The unknown hero raised his sword into the air victoriously, shouting “huzzah!” at the top of his lungs as three others rushed to their side. The first to speak was a centaur with flaming red hair and aquamarine armor protecting his body, horns, and scorpion tail. “Well met, defender, and much obliged.” The second was a two-headed hydra. It analyzed the defender from top to bottom before commenting “you are newly arrived? ‘Twas well-fought indeed for a first battle.” The last companion was an exotic fairy with violet wings and magical staff. Contrary to her appearance, however, she was no bearer of good news. With a frightful shout, she announced “no time to chat, Exos incoming!”

Chapter Text

          Many, many thoughts were running through the hand’s mind, if mind was the right term, but there was no time to ponder over any of them! Once again, a metal beast had materialized before them. This time, the… what had she called them? The Exo? The beast was a six-legged freak of nature with fangs and several glowing eyes. On top of his main body was another, more Xana-like body with arms and bulging shoulders. Instead of spinning blades on either arm, however, there were laser guns. The hand nearly fell off of the defender’s shoulder from how utterly terrified he was from seeing such a massive creature begin crawling its way toward them at top speed. The defender took a deep breath and shouted “all of you, I am counting on you to give it your all against this foe, lest we all die here!” Die! All that remained of him was a hand, a feeble hand. Was that what dying was like? Being reduced to nothingness? Floating forever in space as scattered remnants of what once used to be a Texeli? Their new friends also seemed to be as perplexed by the notion of death but understood that now was not the time for a philosophical discussion (not like Hemi were experienced in such matters anyway).

          “Count me in, boss,” the centaur exclaimed, going on his hind legs in excitement.

          “As he said, we are yours to command,” reassured the hydra, licking his four lips.

          “Throw me at ‘em, defender!” shouted the fairy. The defender smiled, pleased with the small band he had been lucky to gather, and once again the hand stared at him in amazement. Defenders, all of them… they were born to command them, as if they were created by the iris for that specific purpose!

          “You, knight, I want your sword to slice through every single cable on that monster. Centaur, punch it till it cannot stand any longer. And you, hydra, bite those legs right off its abdomen,” the defender commanded, receiving a “yessir!” in response. The three of them charged, sword, fist, and jaws proud in the air. After the three had attacked, the angry… Exo… blasted the three of them away with flames. Those were not laser guns -- those were flamethrowers! The next two attacks were the centaur with the fairy followed by the hydra with the fairy again. The Exo sustained attack after attack, each time basking them in flames, until finally, with a final slash of his sword, the knight left a gash running from the Exo’s right shoulder down to his left hip. They had sustained too many burns, but that did not seem to stop them from leaping into the air from joy after seeing the Exo finally shut down and crumble onto the ground.

          “Now that’s what I call a win!” shouted the fairy amidst her panting.

          “We push them back, but the Exos, they always return…” the knight complained, staring into the distance. The defender looked in the direction the knight was glaring at, and from the trees sprung forth a girthy, mighty, winged beast! Each flap of his wings would send some of the nearby people flying every which way. “Look sharp, another foe appears -– and a fearsome one too!” he added, forcing himself on his feet using his sword as a cane.

          “Then break out the skills for fearsome damage!” shouted the fairy. The three of them nodded at each other. Skills take up a lot of energy, so it was not surprising to the hand that they had been reluctant to use them until now. The defender, on the other hand, seemed confused. “Let us show you our true potential, defender,” the fairy reassured the defender after noticing his troubled countenance. The defender nodded and began giving orders as before, this time making sure the knight, who had proven to be the mightiest of the four, had the most chances to strike. All of a sudden, the knight smirked and rushed at the Exo. As he did so, his entire body became a blue beacon getting brighter and brighter until finally, when he was close enough to the Exo, he conjured forth a mighty tornado merciless enough to even rival the gusts of wind resulting from the Exo’s flapping wings. The tornado rattled the Exo left and right, but he remained standing. Taking advantage of that momentary state of weakness, however, the defender commanded the four of them to attack once more in hopes of witnessing the skills the others possessed. Unfortunately, the Exo’s stupor did not last long enough, and in one swift motion, he rose up into the air and flew away from them, letting out an ear-splitting shriek as if in a last attempt at asserting power. Panting, the four of them stared at the defender apologetically, but he only shook his head.

          “Do not fret. A battle well fought, I would say. I am glad none of you died.” Again, that verb -- to die –- left a foul taste on everyone’s mouth. However, a broken Texeli pride (yes, even whatever was left of Hemi pride) left an even fouler taste.

          “Damn it, turned tail and fled! We almost had him…” the knight cursed.

          “Then we must follow,” stated the defender gravely.

          “There he is! Over there!” shouted the knight, pointing his sword at a silver spot descending behind the trees in the horizon.

          “It means to take the village. Not on my watch, no siree!” exclaimed the centaur. The hand tightened his grip on the defender’s clothes in shock. All the thoughts running through his head were beginning to clutter his judgment, and the inability to pause for even a second to ease the cognitive dissonance building up inside of him until that moment had left him dizzy. Until then did he realize why his thoughts had been raging. There had always been something off, and he finally pin-pointed it -– the unlikely allegiance! In front of him were two Hemi, Hemi, and a Theri working together with a Xana! And now, the Hemi wanted to protect a Xana village? The war that was unfolding before them was unlike any war he had ever experienced. Death? Tribes working together? This was a war to alter reality itself!

          All six of them left behind the massacre at the foot of the mountain and entered the deadly forest littered with random minor Exos. Wasp-like and Xana-like metal robots came from all sides, even crashing from above, but every single one of them met the same broken-down end at the hands of the fearsome four. The more they destroyed, the more comfortable the band felt about their rampage; all except the hand, that is. The hand, of course, had not joined the others in their massacre -- what could a hand possibly do? –- so it stared at them in horror. Their once terrified demeanor turned into a metal-hungry force of destruction bent on nothing but ridding the land of the Exos. As horrified as he felt, he knew that to defeat monsters one must become a monster, but for them to have adapted to their new life so easily! As if Texeli had had within them the ability to destroy this entire time! Had the iris been holding the tribes from waging war on each other all these eons? On another disturbing note, some of those Exos must have ransacked some cities because the band kept finding Texi on left-over wreckage. The defender had no idea what Texi were, so they had to explain to him that Texi were made of a valuable material used as currency in nearly all the markets in Texel. The defender’s eyes had lit up at the mention of currency; ever since then, he had been the first to rummage around the Exo carcasses.

          “Time to battle! By the iris, we must destroy him!” shouted the knight. The Exo they had been looking for the entire time was mere meters away, and the band had already warmed up with the minor Exos. Their morale, experience, and hunger for battle had increased tremendously since they last faced the Exo, so there was no doubt in the back of anyone’s mind that the Exo would crumble once and for all, not that allowing the Exo to flee was an option any longer. The Exo had nearly reached the city, and would most certainly do so if they did not stop him right then and there. The defender sent the two Hemi first, followed by the hydra and the knight. The Exo saw them approaching but did not retreat. Instead, he lowered his body to reveal rocket launchers installed on his back. A rocket shot straight at the poor Hemi, obliterating them both into a pile of golden cubes –- dots. Just like that, they were nothing but dots. The hand began quivering, remembering what had happened to his body. Upon seeing what had transpired, the hydra turned around and quickly said “gather our dots def-” before blowing up. The knight stopped running and looked at his dead friends (or what remained of them). He turned toward the Exo who was tauntingly allowing him to strike and, fueled with rage, jumped into the air to slice at the Exo’s head. The sword, however, broke in two when it made contact with the somehow stronger steel. The Exo launched another rocket, which the knight was able to deflect with his shield. Unfortunately, the rocket’s impulse was far too great for him to handle, and he was sent flying backward, exploding from yet another rocket that hit him mid-air, his dots spraying in all directions.

          The defender stared in horror as all of that massacre happened in the span of just a few quick seconds but snapped out of his daze quickly enough to hurriedly scoop up the dots and place them in a bag he created by lifting his shirt up. The Exo stared at the defender as if laughing to himself while charging up his last rockets. The defender began running away, zig-zagging through the trees as the hand held on to his shoulder for dear life and the rockets exploded against the trees behind them. He ran as fast as his legs could manage through explosion after explosion after explosion until the noises finally quieted down and he felt he was far enough to rest. Panting, he let go of his shirt, dropping all the dots he had managed to salvage into a heap on the grass. Sitting on a rock and trying to catch his breath, the defender stared intently at the heap. Why had the hydra told him to pick up their dots? The hand also stared intently at the heap until it began glowing. Each cube began to vibrate and clump together with others until finally four distinct heaps were made. Their luminescence kept on increasing until they reached blinding levels. In a final flash of light, the heaps became their respective Selves. Before them stood the centaur, the fairy, the hydra, and the knight… alive! The process took a very long time, but at last the band had been reunited again by what seemed like a miracle to both the defender and the hand.

          “H-How… What?” The defender was dumbfounded but managed to say two more words than what the hand was able to even think.

Chapter Text

          “We Texeli… are immortal in many ways…” the hydra said with a strained voice, as if the resurrection had taken a toll on them momentarily. “Not many know of this because there has been no reason for any Texeli to crumble into dots. Even the in-fighting that ensues does not grow violent enough to warrant breaking apart, as far as I know.” Zar, the hydra, and the knight looked at the two Hemi when the hydra finished talking. No one can blame them; to them, Hemi were just savages that fought with each other day and night.

          “It almost never happens,” the centaur said softly, knowing very well why they were looking at him but acknowledging that their stereotyping had some semblance of truth.

          “Damn it, we have the numbers, but not the prowess!” interrupted the knight, gritting his teeth.

          “Hm, there’s an easy fix for that, from what I’ve heard,” the fairy said with a smug face.

          “Of what do you speak?”

          “What, nobody had the talk with you?”

          “She jests, but I too know the old way. We must fuse,” the hydra, clearly the oldest of them all, stated. The old way. The hand was amazed at all the new concepts he was being introduced to in such a short amount of time. He thought of himself as wise from all his traveling, but it seemed as though there was an entire world he had no idea even existed waiting to be discovered! Dots coming together all by themselves, as if by some invisible force, and now fusion, whatever that was. All he knew of was leveling, which was whenever people “fused” with the power fodders from the forest, but he had never heard of anyone call leveling “fusion.” The old way. The hydra could not possibly be one of the Old Ones, so this fusion was not one of the ancient techniques lost to time, but then why had he not witnessed such a thing until now? Was it so rare? “The question is where we’re going to find other copies of this knight. No one has built in so long. There has been no need,” the hydra continued.

          “The war has been ongoing for a while. There must be some defenders that have built him. We must find them.”

          “No need,” the defender stated, pointing at five knights standing amidst the trees. “What the hell is this world. Those copies materialized before my eyes!”

          “The iris…” the warriors uttered to themselves. It seemed as though the iris was not only busy teleporting defenders into Texel, but also giving a helping hand no matter how small. The poor iris could probably only manage to do so much for them… thus far.

          “No time to dawdle! We must continue with the ritual,” the hydra commanded.

          “Alright, all of you knights, make a circle and see yourselves not as individuals but as one. It may be disconcerting at first, but deep inside you, in your very core, you must feel that it was fate who brought you all together. You were meant to one day join hand-in-hand and surpass your limitations,” the fairy said, entirely unnecessarily.

          “‘Tis more complicated than ‘bunch of the’-” the knights began to grumble before being interrupted by the fairy.

          “No time for philosophy, let’s do this thing! Watch!” The knights had formed a circle and were standing still, facing each other with closed eyes from anticipation. They began glowing, faint at first but becoming brighter and brighter, and then the knights began to lose form. Their dots began separating from each other and swirling in circles above them as if in a vortex. Soon, all the knights had become nothing but dots clumping together mid-air until finally, after a couple magical seconds, the mighty roar of a dragon resonated across the forest. His wings and head erupted from the bright yellow light, and on his back rode the knight far more powerful than before. The dragon descended and roared a final time, and the knight smirked content with himself.

          “Behold, EVOLUTION!” the centaur shouted.

          “Fancy right? All one has to do is fuse six copies of oneself,” said the fairy pleased with the result.

          “I have not seen this in centuries… He is reborn in name and aspect,” the hydra said in awe.

          “Is that your roundabout way of saying he LOOKS loads better?”

          “A Gallant cares not for his aspect! As for whether I am stronger…” he said pensively, looking at the horizon, “only one way to find out. Charge!”

          A few moments later, the defender kicked over a piece of metal that had flown toward him, almost decapitating him in the process. The band had caught up to the Exo, whose ego had rose to such extreme heights that he had been moseying toward the city at an extremely low speed, basking on the destruction and suffering he was inflicting upon the poor people. Once they had reached him, the knight had slashed at the Exo a couple times in coordination with his newly-found friend’s flaming breath, causing the Exo to explode into countless metal pieces in no time. The encounter had been so short it was not worth elaborating on, and all of them were now rummaging around for any interesting loot the Exo may have confiscated. Among all the gears and wires, only one object of value was found.

          “Look at this, a Texite!” the knight shouted, dismounting from his dragon and picking up a sparkling, blueish crystal. “My great-grandmere used this to build folk!”

          “Texel, Texeli, Texi, Texite! My lord, you all have a very constrained vocabulary, do you not?” the annoyed defender exclaimed. “No matter, I shall get accustomed to these new terms sooner or later. Now, what is this build you speak of?”

          “We can use it to build more fighters!” the fairy stated, taking the Texite and lifting it into the air. The defender, in such a small amount of time, had witnessed a plethora of new things, but nothing could have prepared him for what happened next. The hand snickered as he saw the utterly baffled expression stamped on the defender’s face as he stared at the dots coming from seemingly nowhere and materializing before their very eyes a golden structure resembling a hollow, round tank with the front sliced off -- a shrine just big enough to fit a fighter in. On top of the structure was a figure resembling a large cube with a prominent “T” shape; a simple face, but an intimidating face symbolizing one of the many wonders of Texel nonetheless.

          “Let the defender do the honors, fairy,” commanded the knight. The fairy, surprised at the sudden order, relinquished the Texite to the defender. The defender, at a loss of what to do, decided to toss the Texite into the structure. As the divine totem began to break apart the Texite mid-air and build up energy, the sky darkened and lightning began to strike it more and more frequently until finally, after the overdramatic build up, a flash of light erupted from within it and enveloped the spectators. By the time the light died out, someone was flying out of the structure. He was a blur of purple as he zoomed from place to place before landing on a rock a couple meters away. A small purple dragon was he with fierce red eyes and intimidating fangs.

          “What say you of a short break from destroying Exos in order to introduce ourselves? To be frank, I am growing tired of calling you knight or fairy or hydra,” said the defender, sitting down on a stone. The others followed suit. “Let us begin with the fierce dragon we just built.”

          After extending his wings and letting out a roar, the dragon proudly said “Ekurzakir,” to which the defender responded “Eku it is” with a faint smile. He was a Lightning-signed Guru from the Theri tribe. Next up was the fairy, who began to show off her flying skills by doing loops and dives and spins. Jadewing was her name. “I am a Guru from the Hemi tribe whose sign is Air, and I shall try my best to heal you all every chance I get.” The hydra, a Water-signed Warlock from the Theri tribe, called himself Amata, and the centaur, a Water-signed Champ from the Hemi tribe, called himself Witherclay. The knight’s turn finally came, and he stood up to put a hand on his dragon. “I used to be Khorvash, but thanks to evolution, I have cast aside my old Self. We are known as Gulbahar, a Water-wielding Champ from the Xana tribe.”

          For a second the hand thought the defender was going to forget about him, but the defender picked him up and presented him to everyone. “And you, my very first friend, what is your name?” the defender asked; a simple question under simple circumstances, but ‘twas no simple circumstance. He had not evolved, but he had changed –- and drastically at that. No longer did he see himself as the seaman he used to be, no longer did he have hopes of becoming the hero he had so fleetingly expected himself to become, no longer did he feel the title Captain suited him. After being quiet, he simply stated “well met! Alas, those Exos left me broken, but I shall be your scout. You’d best call me Zar, an abbreviated name for an abbreviated man.” He tried to sound happy and ecstatic, but he was afraid his sadness may have slipped through the cracks of his decimated dots. Everyone remained silent for a while as the defender began to analyze the situation and attempted to memorize everyone’s names. Zar looked at the defender for a while. Someone who had previously complained about how “constrained” Texeli vocabulary was could not possibly expect to memorize so many names and even comprehend what anyone meant when they said their sign, class, and tribe, or perhaps he was underestimating the defender’s intelligence because of his own annoyance at such a rude statement. “Say… defender… what shall we call you?” Everyone else began nodding in agreement. Just as he was not comfortable calling them by what they were, so were they about calling him defender. The defender thought for a while, but shrugged.

          “I used to have a name, but that name has long gone from my memory. I do not wish to be addressed as such anymore. This new world warrants having a new name, but I am unsure of what new name to decide upon. It could be anything I want!” He thought for a long time, and Zar could tell the Hemi were growing impatient from waiting. Before either one of those savages could blurt out their rude nonsense, however, the defender finally decided upon a name. “Just call me Defender.”

Chapter Text

         The band had dawdled for too long. Defender decided that their bonding was plenty of time for them to recover, so they were now hurrying toward Sownfield once again. There, they were to try and save as many people as possible, which should not be much trouble for Gulbahar. Unfortunately, the Exos had already invaded the city and were currently kidnapping people left and right. Zar held on to Defender’s shoulder as he ran around commanding Jadewing and Amata to attack Exos together, same for Eku and Witherclay, while Gulbahar destroyed any that were giving too much trouble. Systematically, the band began to pave their way through the sea of metal, collecting any Texi they could along the way. They had cleansed as much as they could of Sownfield and were about to exit the city and make their way to a village dubbed Stradbelly when they were confronted by an Exo very similar to the first one Defender had faced and one that had challenged them twice already.

         Just like the other one, this Exo resembled a horse, except this horse was not bipedal and the hind hooves were the ones that had been replaced with flaming, spinning blades of destruction. Instead of serving as sawblades, these spinning blades served as wheels, allowing the Exo to rush toward them at exaggeratedly high speeds. Even Gulbahar had a fraction of a second to defend against his attack –- lifting his forehooves and crashing them down on top of all of them. Defender had clarified that the Exo was a replica, a clone, hence why it seemed like they had fought him already, but each replica became harder to destroy. Zar had held on to the hope that they may had had his lost dots since they were the most powerful bosses the band had encountered close to the place he had lost his body, but after Defender strategically guided everyone to victory, nothing was found amidst the rubble except some more Texi, Voxites –- another type of crystal with which to build –- and Texites. “Alas, not the same lot that took my body. Where they took it, I don’t know.” He then pointed out a very obvious but crucial observation, “the Exos have taken folk from all the tribes -– Theri, Hemi, and Xana. Makes the long squabbling among us seem a trite thing, eh? Lead on, Defender.”

         Zar was, of course, referring to the ever-lasting feud between the three tribes. Even as all three tribes were being united as one under the leadership of Defender, Zar could not help but feel disgust whenever he saw Witherclay or dismissiveness whenever Amata started a conversation. Dogmatic shifts, especially from dogmas that had reigned supreme for eons, took a long time; who knows how long it would take until he finally accepted members of other tribes as equals. Zar felt in the wrong, feeling this way but observing the Hemi and Theri fighting to protect Xana villages, so he made it a mission of his to try and speed up the process as much as possible. “Truly is a shame that such a cataclysmic event is what it takes to ever-so-slightly sever the feud between us.”

         Zar attempted to teach Defender as much of Texel’s history as possible. The feud, the culture, the classes and elements, all of it. Between massacring Exos, the band would start spilling everything they knew from either books or personal experiences, and Zar noticed Defender was somehow able to understand most, if not all, of what was being flooded into his mind, perhaps even retaining the information. Humans were truly remarkable. Strong and intelligent leadership was what Texeli needed to combat the hordes.

         Farther and farther did the intrepid band travel, crossing Stradbally and its buildings sparked aflame by the vile Exos that had arrived sooner than them and playing hide and seek with the metallic poltroons hiding behind the many trees of Graveswood –- a forest that had once been home to many wild beasts used by Gallants to practice their hunting but now was naught but an Exo cemetery. The band now found themselves at the edge of Graveswood, having fought their ninth powerful Exo since their bonding. They now had six Voxites and three Texites since each area they visited always had three replicas of the same Exo; the first and weakest two would always have a Voxite and the third a Texite. Defender decided it was about time to build once again, spilling all the ixstones on the ground, rasing his hands, and shouting “show yourself Mighty Lemon!”

         “Defender, did you seriously just shout Mighty Lemon in reference to the sacred totem?” Zar interjected, utterly baffled at the disrespect.

         Defender blushed rightfully embarrassed at himself. It beckoned his call nonetheless, but this time a low but booming voice said in a monotone voice “straight from the Cradle to the battlefield…” to which Defender responded “thank you, now I shall call you Cradle.” ‘Twas much better than Mighty Lemon, Zar supposed. All nine ixstones were used to build. The six Voxites yielded five power fodders, which were explained to Defender to be creatures who live solely to provide power to Texeli, and a Jadewing. The power fodder was used to strengthen Gulbahar even more and Jadewing was self-fused into her respective counterpart. The Texites, on the other hand, yielded three new fighters: Baderic, the Earth-signed Mage from the Xana tribe with a long, shaggy, red beard, yellow cloak and hat, and wooden cane; Manu, the Fire-signed Champ from the Xana tribe with his black and yellow getup and massive ax whose head was the size of Manu's entire upper body; and Gula, the Fire-signed Rogue from the Theri class, a small, fat, and mustard-yellow frog with quite the attitude. When confronted about it, all he said was “let’s get this war over with, so I can go back to my books.”

         Defender stood back and looked at his growing band. He was pleased with himself -- Zar could tell that much. His band was currently composed of eight fighters; one more and he would have the nine that was standard among defenders.

         “Before us lies Castledown, a city of swashbucklers and coiners. We must cross it to get to Alabast Hold,” Zar noted. “This war will not be won by a single tribe regardless of how much we Xana would like to believe we are strong enough to destroy them all ourselves. We shall converse with the suzerain and persuade him to prepare a legion of Gallants. We must retake Sownfield and the entirety of Dragonmount for that matter, but for that we will need forces from Alabast Hold, Oldtown, Allodiael, the Moorlands, and as many of those Barbarians as we can find along the way.”

         “We’re going to Oldtown? That decrepit cesspool?” asked Manu. “What can those Hemi possibly-”

         “Watch your tongue, boy,” interrupted Jadewing, pointing her staff at him. “Do not think for a second that all I can do to you is heal.”

         “How dare you raise a weapon to a Xana, mongrel!” shouted Baderic.

         “ENOUGH!” Defender bellowed, stomping his foot on the ground. “If any of you even dare open your mouths, I shall fuse you into a random power fodder, do you understand?” They nodded and stayed quiet for the remainder of their Exo extermination in Castledown and Alabast Hold.

         After having exterminated the last Exo at Alabast Hold, and before having successfully coerced the suzerain into mobilizing his army, Defender was confronted by another defender who did not have a band following him around. He approached them with a smile and said “welcome to Texel, defender.”

         “And who are you?” asked Defender.

         “Why, but I am a fellow defender like yourself! Do you not recognize a fellow Human?”

         “Stop the banter and get to the point.”

         “Jeez. Not even a day in the battlefield and already this grumpy? Here, I was instructed by our higher powers to give you this. Inside the bag, you shall find everything you need to become a defender: your contacts, tablet, armory, pavilion, and much, much more.” The bag was the size of his hand, so Zar had difficulty understanding how all of that could possibly fit inside.

         “Thank you, but I shall ask again. Who are you?”

         “If you must know, I am-” Before he could answer, however, the sounds of an engine boomed to Zar’s left. The mysterious defender smirked and extended his right arm straight out as another Human riding on a two-wheeled contraption zoomed past them and grabbed it. Just like that, the two Humans had left nothing behind but a dust cloud.

         “Where the hell did they find a motorcycle?” Defender asked, but soon turned his attention to the bag. He opened it and somehow went elbow-deep into the tiny bag.

         “How is that possible?” asked Zar, staring at the physics-breaking bag.

         “Human technology, dear Zar. You have seen nothing yet.” He began to pull all the items out of the small sack as Zar kept asking more questions.

         “You heard what they said, right? He mentioned a higher power. Know you of anything like that?”

         “I do not; however, I do know Humans, and Humans love feeling like they have all the power, that they are above everyone else, that just because they have more money and more opportunities than anyone else, they are automatically granted the privilege to flaunt their power every way they can. I would not be surprised if there was already some sort of oligarchical defender society starting to form. It matters not, to me at least, but I have a gnawing feeling this will not be the last time we encounter those two and their motorcycle.” Once he finished pulling everything out and making sure he had not forgotten anything, he began doing his best to both analyze the contents and elucidate their purpose.

         “This is a pavilion, the item that most directly impacts you all,” he started, pointing at what looked like a piece of cream-colored cloth, “it looks like there is a fifty-Texeli capacity, so whenever we get an army greater than fifty, I may need to buy some more.”

         “Wait, are you telling me your technology can fit all of this in that hand-sized bag but cannot accommodate more than fifty people in that humongous bivouac?”

         “Business. There is still a lot more you need to learn about how Humans function. The rich get richer, Zar; that is the truth of life in Human society. Whoever is manufacturing these pavilions wants defenders to buy from him more, so he has capped it off at fifty. Talking about buying, this tablet is my most useful asset. Human-run markets are beginning to spring forth, and one of the countless functions of this tablet is providing me with all of their locations. The armory here allows me to fit one-hundred gear items. These, however, are the most intriguing items in the bag,” he said, holding up a black case. He opened it and took out what looked like very thin and tiny plastic cups. He then opened his eyes wide and placed a cup in each one of them. “These are high-tech contacts, which serve almost as many purposes as that tablet from earlier. One of them is looking at Texeli such as yourselves and analyzing your strength based on Human-constructed statistics, such as LV, SEF, HP, ATK, DEF, WIS, and AGI. How the hell it’s only been several days and they already constructed such elaborate devices beats me. There are some Humans out there far too intelligent for their own good.” Before anyone could answer, however, the tablet began to vibrate. Defender walked up to it and saw that there was a message flashing on the screen.

Hello there, Defender. It has taken Defenders almost two weeks to make me, and I am nowhere close to being complete, but I hope I am of use to you in the upcoming days, weeks, months… God forbid years!

Chapter Text

         “That went quite well,” said Zar with a sigh of relief. “The suzerain was rather amiable for a Gallant being told he should mobilize an army to work with, not fight against, the other tribes.”

         “If that is what you call amiable, then I am afraid of what you would call hostile,” commented Defender, who had had front row seats to the intense back-and-forth that broke out between Zar and the suzerain.

         “Our mission is done regardless. Now we shall head for Oldtown to see if we can recruit Hemi without having our arms ripped off. In my case fingers.” Zar wiggled his fingers as he said the last sentence. He noticed that Manu and Baderic had once again begun glaring at Witherclay and Jadewing as if it were their fault they had to suffer the humiliation of even glancing at a single one of those bedraggled abominations, so Zar felt the need to add “and if you have a problem with this plan, by all means say so now or forever remain biting your dots.” They remained biting their dots. The band had not traveled far from Alabast Hold when Defender stopped everyone. His device –- a tablet, he called it –- had vibrated with a new message, the second message that day.

Good Afternoon, Defenders. Intelligence has found a gathering of powerful Exos. These Exos are far stronger than those previously observed, so we implore you all to help us defend against these hordes. Further instructions shall be disseminated via the tablet, but in short, Defenders will travel to the location indicated on the map attached to this message and will join forces with the others to take down these Exos TOGETHER. Do not think you are the Alpha and try to confront one of these Exos alone. I assure you, it will not end pretty for you.

         “Seems your plan for recruiting armies will have to be placed on hiatus for the time being. As a defender, I cannot simply ignore this plea for help,” stated Defender, opening the map that conveniently knew where they were and had begun generating directions.

         “Suit yourself, Defender. We shall follow you wherever you go,” Zar reassured speaking on behalf of everyone. Once the directions had finished generating, the band began their long journey. Defender commented on how unfair it was for those two defenders from earlier to have a mode of transportation while he had to suffer leg cramps and pulled muscles, but he also commented something about Human society and Law of the Fittest or whatnot. Zar heard but did not listen, and the others did not seem to have listened either. Hard to listen when the storyteller is mumbling underneath his breath as if cursing at a dinner table to which even their grandmother was invited.

         The farther they traveled, the more defenders they were able to witness, but not many of the defenders were conversing. As if gathering for a business meeting, every defender seemed to ignore the others, and Zar asked Defender to clarify why everyone seemed as aloof as Mages, to which Baderic chuckled. His response was a confusing “Humans are both social animals and asocial machines; do not worry about it.” Ironically, as he finished saying so, a defender ran up to him and hooked his arm about Defender's neck, smacking Zar off Defender’s shoulder.

         “Ey, ready kick robot ass?” the defender shouted.

         “You dare sneak up on me and hurt my friend!” Defender retaliated by bending down, grabbing the defender’s hips, hoisting the defender over his head, and letting go, causing the defender to land on his back and have his wind blown right off of his lungs. Defender extended his arm, allowing Zar to crawl his way back up to Defender’s shoulder. “Sorry about that, Zar.”

         “I didn't know had pet,” the defender said, dusting himself off. Defender punched him in the stomach, causing the defender to crumble onto the floor.

         “They are not pets, imbecile.”

         “Right, you calling them friends. Fine, I leave you alone with friends.” The defender looked behind his shoulder at his band composed of five Jadewing and beckoned them to slowly walk past Defender.

         “Let this be a lesson to you all,” Defender said after the defender was far enough away from them, “not all Humans are as nice as myself; in fact, the majority are cretins such as him.” The rest of their journey was relatively calm with the other defenders minding their own business and those defenders that wanted to be jerks imposing themselves on other defenders rather than Defender. Suddenly, Gulbahar told everyone from atop his dragon that there were explosions off to the distance, and Zar noticed faint flashes of light in the horizon.

         “Let us hurry, perhaps we are able to gather some loot from these Exos. The stronger they are, the more precious the drops, right?” Jadewing asked. Defender grinned at the mention of precious items. They rushed head-first into the battlefield where small, brown Exos were popping out of the ground or materializing. These small Exos had crooked legs like that of a satyr’s and saw blades for hands. Some where incredibly easy to destroy whilst others were giving even Gulbahar a run for his Texi.

         There was nothing to worry about the first day, and the sun was beginning to settle behind the horizon. Zar discerned, for a split second, a smirk on the sun’s face as if telling him “you just wait until the battlefield really gets heated” but dismissed it as his own concerns being manifested in the form of delusions. Zar’s most nagging concern was the rate at which Defender was expending all his Nux bits to fight as many Exo bosses –- the Exos that were significantly stronger than the others –- as possible. Not only would they become tired of traveling through the raid area looking for said bosses and drinking some Bitters for extra oomph, but they would also get extremely hungry after fighting a boss and would either have to wait to catch their breath or have Defender provide them some Nux bits for the necessary boost in energy.

         “Alright, I set up the pavilion so we can sleep,” Defender announced, pointing at the bivouac. They had left the battlefield and all the nocturnal defenders behind and set up camp far away enough not to worry about being destroyed in their sleep by a stray Exo. “Those were a bunch of Exos, but they were not strong enough to warrant much help. Perhaps the last few, but Gulbahar was able to prove himself superior yet again.”

         “I did wonders too, you know,” Jadewing claimed, pouting at Defender.

         “Yes, yes you did. We all did wonders, whether big or small. We collected lots of loot as well.” He pointed at the bag wherein a bunch of ixstones and Texi were stored. “Alas, I am but a mere Human and need my beauty sleep.”

         The next day went by far more painstakingly. So much, in fact, that Gulbahar admitted to giving up. Defender held a meeting with everyone inside the pavilion that night and it was decided that “Cradle” was to be summoned once again. The hope was to build any of the three powerful Texeli they had seen some defenders levying. One was Jamshad, the other Neversaw, and the other Ahati-waqrat. Jamshad and his “pieces,” the term Defender had used to call Jamshad’s past Selves, were rather pessimistic Texeli who would ask very cumbersome questions such as “do we know truly if this is the right way?” or “who are you to command us, when you are without power or home?” Defender was asked the latter question by Ihsan shortly after having been built, and such a question had rendered poor Defender speechless for a while. Neversaw was a bipedal creature donning all green and brown sporting three long claws on each hand and a hood over his head. His nose was a pointed, yellow proboscis that failed to complement the otherwise green and brown appearance of a hunter. Ahati-waqrat, simply nicknamed Ahati by Defender, was a small, green dragon, but a peculiar dragon because his other pieces were not dragons at all! A Golem, Ahati was; a Golem who changed from a cyclops to the dragon his ultimate form took. No longer were formalities needed for Defender could simply look through his contacts and tell the name and “rarity” of each Texeli built -– a new update not previously present when he first donned the contacts. Zar missed the bonding time they had had, but it seemed as though this “asocial machine” would rather use the new feature of the contacts to learn everything about the new recruits than let them introduce themselves.

         Defender had built a few “uncommons” of all three but nothing to brag about. The most valuable builds had been “XP” fodder for Gulbahar. Now that he had more than nine companions, Defender was left with no choice but to start using his pavilion for its intended purpose: as a home for those that were not taken into the battlefield. The process of raiding bosses and building in hopes of acquiring Ahati, Defender’s preferred warrior, repeated itself throughout the week, but Defender kept building uncommons and rares instead of their epic forms. Gulbahar kept being buffed, and once he had “reached his max LV,” Defender decided to start leveling Jadewing who begged him to level her up next. Zar and many others were baffled at this forced evolution. Evolution was supposed to be natural, but now they were witnessing war that had made a long and beautiful wonder into a daily necessity, a daily chore.

         After about a week of continuously going to the battlefield and destroying the seemingly endless sea of Exos, Defender and his band began struggling to do anything against them. Aside from the round, brown, satyr-legged Exos, giant, six-legged, Gatling-gun-wielding Exos had begun materializing, and these Exos were obliterating everyone. Six, seven, even eight defenders had to band together to defend against these new, formidable foes, and Defender’s band in particular was being left behind. Zar could tell from Defender’s eyes that he was lusting for Ahati, but in the week of fighting he had only been able to build two rares. At this point he had more Jamshad and Neversaw rares than Ahati rares, but something was better than nothing because he had begun leveling up those rares and swapping Jadewing, Amata, and Humusi for them.

          The last day came and went having exterminated every ounce of spirit from the defenders. The Exos had stopped materializing, and the defenders had begun destroying the remaining Exos. No defender had truly believed it was the end, however. Once the last Exo had been exterminated, the defenders had remained on edge for what seemed like hours of agonizing anticipation under the scorching sun at the site that had been reduced to nothing but an Exo junkyard. Defender had gone back to his pavilion to tell everyone the good news and to summon Cradle; however, a very peculiar event took place after doing so.

          "Thank you, defender, for eliminating Exos,” Cradle boomed in his low voice and built free of charge an Artachsharta (a knight on top of a mighty steed), 1500 Texi, and a silver crown. Zar stared at Artachsharta for a while before shedding tears of joy from his non-existent eyes and saying “we finally meet again, old friend.”

Chapter Text

         The days shortly after the end of the raid were eventful for both Defender and Zar. Artachsharta, the knight who had been built by the divine totem, was none other than one of Zar’s best friends. At first the knight seemed baffled at the blue hand soaring through the air fueled by nothing but excitement but was slowly able to recognize the hand’s voice as that of the valiant seaman he had once met turns ago by a beach and whom he had gifted his spare set of armor. “By iris! Is that you, Capt’n?” he had exclaimed not knowing if he would rather know what had happened to the rest of the once proud and whole Captain or be spared the undoubtedly gruesome details.

         “I am no longer Captain Zarathustra, dear Arta. I go as Zar now.” Zar had then proceeded to explain to Arta everything he had experienced starting from the initial wave of Exos at the foot of Dragonmount. Arta had glared at Defender the moment Zar mentioned the reason for his decimation as if shouting “are you so incompetent as a defender that you were not able to protect even a single Texeli!” Despite all the tensions at the beginning, Zar reaped the benefits of having learned any Texeli built retained the memories of all its previous copies by spending hours and hours sinking deeper and deeper into the sea of nostalgia the two shared while Defender sought his first experience in the market.

         The defender-ran markets sold all sorts of Texeli cosmetics, such as Nux bits and Aja leaves, but also sold imports from Earth. Satin steel, called Tape by the defenders, was a miraculous innovation that served as a way to excite the dots within people and mold them back together –- a way to heal. GLU, however, were even more amazing. Instead of having to wait until the dots of fallen warriors finally reassembled, GLU served as a catalyst for the reformation of dots, making resurrection a virtually instantaneous process. Tape, Nux bits, and Aja leaves were sold for Texi while GLU, Nux, and Bitters could be obtained by trading either Texi or Texeli.

         Zar felt disgusted as he witnessed Defender trade all the Jamshad and Neversaw pieces for Ahati pieces without even a hint of hesitation. Oh, how the war had belittled their value! They were once indispensable warriors but now mere pawns for a Human to obtain his dream band. “I hope you are content obtaining all the six Ahati you wanted,” Zar had confronted Defender, “await patiently I shall for the day you decide to discard me like all the others.”

         Arta and the market aside, the days went by smoothly and without much struggle. Even so, they were still in a battlefield and could not simply sit on their derrières the entire day. As the band traveled toward Oldtown to resume Zar’s plan, they obliterated all the Exos that dared obscure their path. Fortunately, there were none that were exaggeratedly powerful. Gulbahar was without a doubt the strongest among them in terms of raw strength, and his skill was an intimidating tornado that sent any Exos in its way flying to their gruesome end as a pile of metal scraps, but Ahati was not to be underestimated. Even without having been fused with power fodder, Ahati’s damage output was incredible. No Exo could possibly stand a chance against Ahati’s merciless, concentrated magical attacks. Before reaching Oldtown, however, Defender’s tablet once again displayed a message from the powers that be.

Greetings once again, Defenders. The raid on the Exo spawn area was a massive success, and it seems as though the Lemon was graceful enough to gift everyone who participated a present as thank you for their troubles. The more Exos were killed, the better the presents, so next time let us all try our best for better prizes! In fact, we have another assignment, but this time we will be going against Texeli rather than Exos! If you are up for the challenge, go to the location on the map. Further instructions and details are attached.

         “What do they mean by fighting against Texeli rather than Exos?” Witherclay blurted out, staring at Defender after Defender had finished reading the message out loud. “I know you Humans have your own customs, but since when is beating up those you are meant to defend not absolutely asinine!” The animal bared its teeth and pointed its scorpion tail at the defender, losing his self-control to anger like all Hemi seem to do.

         “I shall read the attached instructions and details; perhaps they will shed the light we need right now,” Defender responded nonchalantly. There was silence for a while as he read to himself until he looked up and told everyone to begin packing up for a long trip. “This will be fun.”

         The mission was a rather interesting one this time around. Three areas there were: Flashvault, the lightning dungeon guarded by Ambarender –- a scorpion-Xana hybrid with a gargantuan lance; Blazegate, the fire dungeon guarded by Attii’kusu –- a wise dragon covered head-to-claw by purple armor; and Riverfort, the water dungeon guarded by Iudith –- a formidable dark Mage with a hooked staff and terrifying steed. Each dungeon had a magical atmosphere that excited the dots of any who shared the same sign, increasing their strength multiplicatively. The purpose of the mission was for defenders to prove their might to the three guards in hopes of being able to recruit them. The initial message had made everyone assume the defenders were to attack with malicious intent; however, the guards were the ones who had wanted to host the dungeon event. The three were skeptical of Humans, wondering whether they were heroes or curses in disguise. In fact, Alittum, the rare piece of Attii’kusu, confronted Defender by asking him a crucial question that embedded itself at the back of every Texeli mind: You are defending us from Exos, sure. But who will defend us from your ambitions?

         Defender had trouble advancing deep into Flashvault. Each dungeon had three areas each increasing in difficulty the farther one went, and Defender had not been able to advance into the third area due to a lack of lightning fighters. Same went for Blazegate, although Manu had tried his best to push them farther into the second stage than they were able to at Flashvault. Riverfort was a completely different story.

         Since only one dungeon was open each day aside from the last, seventh day, Defender had to suffer humiliation after humiliation against lightning and fire signed warriors until the third day, the first day Riverfort was opened. Gulbahar and Witherclay, the strongest and third strongest fighters on Defender’s band, had roared at the top of their lungs as each one of their dots surpassed everyone’s expectations, even their own. Amata had also begun to shake with hunger for violence as his strength was multiplied so far Defender decided to levy him for the first time in many, many moons. The first day Riverfort was opened, Defender had his band guzzle down Bitter after Bitter as they stormed the first area of the dungeon. By the end of the sixth day, the second day that Riverfort was opened, Defender had begun his raid into the third area. On the seventh day, the day all three dungeons were opened, Defender and his band had not thought twice about storming into the third area of Riverfort until they were overpowered by the guardian herself. Her Flodd technique had begun to destroy the buffed Gulbahar in only one shot, and there had sometimes been three of her showing up at once! Her AGI and WIS were incredible, far beyond anything Defender had faced before. “If only I had bought more Gulbahar instead of Ahati,” Defender had complained, but then turned to Ahati to shout “but you shall prove yourself useful in the next raid -- for your own sake.”

         At the end of every day, the guardians of each dungeon would provide pieces of themselves to the defenders they deemed most worthy. It goes without saying, then, that Defender had not acquired nearly as many Abarender and Attii’kusu as Iudith, but with the Iudith that he had acquired, he had been able to push even farther than half-way through Riverfort. The dungeons had items called Doxites and Similiths. Doxites were just like the other ixstones -- all Defender had to do was summon the divine totem and sacrifice his Doxites for stronger fighters, which he would shamelessly sacrifice to Iudith to make her stronger. Iudith, being a dark Mage, cared not for the lives of those she was consuming; Zar even dared say she enjoyed it. Similiths, however, had the very interesting property of being able to build with certainity the Texeli that dropped it. With both those items, Defender had been able to level and fuse Iudith to the point of her becoming even stronger than Gulbahar. Unfortunately, even with Iudith, Defender was not able to complete the entirety of the third area because of a lack of GLU and Tapes. Zar could tell, however, that Defender was more than ecstatic, even euphoric, after the event had ended. He had exerted everything he had on that event but was confident his sacrifices were all worth it.

         Their raiding of the dungeons was eventful, but not eventful enough to warrant any further elaboration. One must acknowledge, however, that Texeli against Texeli during the war was unheard of up to that point and Defender’s band had been very uncomfortable the first few days because of it -- aside from the Hemi who had always known a life full of beastial infighting -- but they all finished the event having adapted to this new way of life. War does wonders to the life of soldiers -- something Zar had not learned until then. However, there was one and only one moment worth elaborating, a moment Zar and Defender were to remember for a long time from how unexpected and bizarre the altercation was with him.

Chapter Text

         Defender was pacing back-and-forth, counting the minutes before the entrance to Riverfort opened; Gulbahar, the ace of the team, was fighting the air with his sword as his dragon slept; and Witherclay was chatting with Amata and Aldwi -- Iudith's rare piece -- most likely pumping each other up for battle. Zar was staring at the three of them converse quizzically, contemplating the idea of a Xana, Theri, and Hemi having a friendly discussion. They had not bothered with Blazegate the day prior and instead had slept the majority of the day in preparation for their second and third raids into Riverfort, which were to be one day after the next.

         “Someone look happy today,” a taunting voice sliced its way to Zar’s metaphorical ears, snapping him back to reality. Defender perked up not having expected another defender to show up. The defender was none other than the one who had ambushed Defender and had knocked Zar off Defender's shoulder shortly before the raid had started. The defender's eyes flinched, a sure sign that he was reading information about Defender using his contacts that had been updated to not only reveal information about Texeli but also about defenders. His laughter boomed as he exaggeratedly hunched over, clutched his stomach, and bawled his eyes out. “A lame name! Are you dumb and not creative?”

         Defender frowned, and Zar noticed that the band had ceased all chatter and movement and was staring intently at the two defenders. Defender twitched his own pupils and read the defender’s name. “Yours is no better. The name is naught but gibberish with no meaning!” he retorted. Defender shifted his focus to the defender’s band composed of nine purple gorgons. “Last time I saw you, you also had a band full of-”

         “Slaves,” the defender interrupted, smirking widely. “And you not comprehend the meaning of my name because it only for smart people.”

         “Big talk for some low-level pervert.”

         “I been aching for a fight with a Human with my bare hands. Seeing Texeli go up against Exos and even themselves turned me on.” The defender told his band to get out of his way and got into his fighting stance.

         “Street brawls are for Tier C scum. Then again, I expected no less from trash like you, having been overcome by sexual frustration because all you have are those horrendous witches as potential mates.” The defender stopped smiling and rushed toward Defender at lightning speed, sweeping Defender off of his feet and, in the split second that Defender was hovering parallel to the ground, slamming down on Defender’s stomach with both his fists. Defender quickly jumped to his feet and shifted backward to increase the distance between himself and the wild animal before him. Zar and the others had risen to their feet but were reprimanded by Defender for doing so. “This is a fight between Humans. Texeli need not interfere, understood?”

         “I know you fight, Defender. You body slammed me and got me heated for fight. Don't try acting high and mighty just because you a Tier B. Fight me!”

         “Fine, you got me. I am a B4 -- the lowest of all Tier B. As such, I may or may not have been secretly training for combat recreationally.” Smirking, Defender got into his own fighting stance.

         “Your turn strike first, piece of shit.” Zar saw Defender flinch upon hearing the curse -– a moment of weakness the defender took advantage of by once again launching at him. The two of them exchanged punches, but for every punch Defender was able to land the defender would land three. “What going on, bitch? Where all your arrogance?” Even Zar flinched at the obscenity. To think that some Humans were capable of such lows, lows to rival even those of Hemi! The defender punched Defender right in the center of his chest, knocking him back far enough for the defender to jump up in the air and spin 360 degrees, landing a round-house kick on Defender’s temple. Defender immediately faceplanted on the ground utterly exhausted. “Up, Mr. B4, or I shove entire arm up your-” 

         The Humans had been too busy to notice, but Zar stared at another couple of Humans riding on the two-wheeled contraption he had seen back at Alabast Hold. The one riding at the rear extended her arm and heel-palmed the defender straight in the forehead with all the momentum from the contraption behind it. The defender was sent flying –- literally soaring through the air an appalling distance –- before bouncing on the ground a few times and rolling to a stop. Zar could not possibly expect the Human to have survived such a strong and direct hit to the forehead, but when the one who had pummeled him got off the contraption and stepped on both his arms to pin him down, the defender began to jerk around in futile attempts to shake her off. Zar stared in horror as she forcefully removed the contacts from the defender's eyes, his wails seemingly vibrating even the ground -– and who could blame him when she had long nails and blood dripping from them by the time she finished? She rose to her feet and shackled his right arm to the back of the contraption, his wails having lessened to whimpers. She confiscated his tablet and smashed it against her knee.

         “We shall not, under any circumstances, tolerate defenders fighting each other during a war,” she bellowed loud enough for Defender to hear. “Defender, consider this your first warning. A second warning is all that is needed for your status as a defender to be revoked. We cannot have soldiers killing each other instead of doing their jobs. DO YOU UNDERSTAND!” Defender painstakingly rose to his feet and shouted a feeble yes before dropping down to his knees.

         “Are we done here?” the second defender asked over his shoulder.

         “Yes. Qavl, having initiated the fight, has been revoked of his status as a defender without any warning. He shall be punished accordingly.” She got on the contraption and the two of them rode away, dragging the defenseless Qavl behind them. Qavl’s band dispersed every which way, excited about finally being free.

         “Need a hand?” Zar asked Defender, giving him a Bitter. “We only have a couple minutes left before the dungeon opens; we should start preparing ourselves mentally.”

         Defender stayed quiet as he chugged down the Bitter and stared at the spot on the horizon where the three had disappeared. “I think that this settles it, Zar,” said Defender as he rose to his feet with a tone that reminded Zar of a man accepting a gruesome fate, “there most definitely is some sort of defender society watching our every move.”

Chapter Text

         Zar, being the inquisitive hand he was, had asked Defender to elaborate on what Tier C and Tier B referred to. Despite all the discussions between him and Defender, Zar felt as though he only knew half of the tip of the iceberg that was Human culture. Defender had discussed the topic in depth, but from what Zar had been able to gather, the Tiers referred to categories in the hierarchy of Human society back on their home planet: Earth. The population of Earth had grown exponentially to the point of most of Earth’s resources having vanished in the blink of an eye. The first solution to the cataclysm was to eradicate over half of the Earth’s Human population, but such a mass homicide of a scale never even fathomed before despite all the countless deadly wars that surfaced throughout Human history was so gruesome and unethical that nations worldwide attempted their best to figure out a humane way to deal with the excess of residents. After many years of debate, all the countries decided to use an old but never-officially-tested-on-Humans technique that specifically targeted the part of the brain in charge of intelligence. They were able to create three distinct classes, or tiers. Essentially, Tier A was composed of all the smartest, Tier B was composed of all the working class, and Tier C was composed of all the ones that were thrust aside with an insufficient amount of intelligence to survive for long. They were not willing to kill over half of the Earth, but they were willing to incapacitate them to the point of having little to no chance to live.

         Now, Zar sat inside the pavilion trying to figure out how the Human psyche functioned and beginning to understand why those dungeon masters had been so skeptical of Humans. There was no telling what those cunning aliens were up to. Intelligence did not seem as much of a blessing as it had before. On another note, the band had been rushing toward Oldtown ever since Defender promised not to take part in any mission, or “Event,” as he liked to call them, until Zar had finished talking to the Hemi leader, if there even was a leader. Zar was grateful for Defender’s support of his plan to assemble the largest legion in all of Texel. Without it, they would just keep fighting Exos at spawn areas or fellow men in dungeons.

         Defender’s tablet rung, startling Zar. Defender rushed over to figure out what was going on. “Remember what you said, Defender,” Zar teased.

         “I know, I know,” Defender grumbled with a smile. He quickly read over the message he received, set down his tablet, and reposed against the side of the tent that was directly in front of a tree.

         “Anything interesting?” asked Zar, crawling closer to Defender.

         “It seems that the powers that be are a little angry at us. Go see for yourself; the message is still on the screen.”

         Zar noticed one of Iudith’s ears twitch slightly, so he decided to read the message out loud. “Greetings, Defenders. We are aware that the iris, in its distraught state, had not taken the time to strategize its selecting of Humans. Although the blunder is understandable, there is now a major problem. As you all know, over half of the Earth is infested with Tier C, and if the iris has been randomly selecting Humans, then it would be reasonable to expect over half of the Defenders here to be Tier C. I hope I do not need to elucidate why that is such a problem, so I shall cut to the chase. We have captured and eliminated many Tier C already, but there are still plenty left. I would like all of you B4’s and above to test your fellow men. Just as the Texeli in the dungeons tested you, it is time for you to test the others. Go out, challenge your brothers and sisters, and if you are not satisfied with their performance, we will be there to cleanse the warzone. We cannot afford having such dead weight dragging everyone down, understand? Let the War Games begin.”

         “You have to be kidding me!” Gulbahar shouted as he rose from the ground. He, too, had heard Defender’s description of the Human world; in fact, nearly everyone had. “Are you telling me you are all planning on ‘eliminating’ half of defenders in Texel just because they are mentally retarded? And whose fault is that!”

         “Calm down, sweetie,” commanded Iudith in a condescending voice. She was enjoying the news far too much.

         “That is what Humans had always wanted,” stated Ahati, “but war is their device -- their excuse -- for committing the atrocity they were not willing to carry out back in their home.”

         “It is not just because they are retarded,” asserted Eku. “Recall how Qavl charged at Defender for seemingly no reason. They are a threat to the competent defenders out there.”

         “What does eliminating even mean?” asked Witherclay, looking at Defender, who had remained leaning against the tree with his eyes closed, daring not open his mouth as if in an attempt to phase out of existence. He slowly opened his eyes and made eye contact with everyone.

         “I will be participating,” he concluded, “and you all will be helping.” His eyes darted between the three strongest in the band: Iudith, Ahati, and Gulbahar.

         “Do we not have a say in the matter?”

         “Feel free to leave, Witherclay, but do not come back.” Witherclay was more baffled than angry, and so was everyone else. The entire pavilion seemed to have cooled down by at least twenty degrees, Defender’s heart being the source of the chill spell. Witherclay was, of course, never going to abandon the band –- the family –- that he was part of, but what parent, what guardian, what friend would say such a thing? Defender got on his knees and pressed his forehead against the ground. “I beg of you, help me in this crusade. The massacre of all these Tier C is crucial to the well-being of not only defenders but Texel itself! They cannot be trusted.”

         “No Human can be trusted,” Jadewing announced, “but I shall support you. Not like we have another choice.” Everyone else seemed to echo the same sentiment.

         Iudith twirled her staff like a cheerleader’s baton and asked “so, when shall we start?”

         Since this event did not specify a location, Defender was able to participate while also heading toward Oldtown, so it was a win-win situation. The band finally reached Fall Down, a desert in which no one dwelled. No one except Exos, of course. One by one the band decided to destroy the Exos lurking there, slowly making their way toward the city of Wounding. On their way, Witherclay and Jadewing commented time and time again how Fall Down had not always been a desert, that it had once been a magnificent field green as far as the eye could have seen, that the wind would whistle, bringing forth a cool breeze that would send pleasant goosebumps down anyone’s spine, that the sun would shower down its rays upon the grass, bringing about warmth so cozy even the most irritated of men would lie on the vast carpet and sleep their troubles away –- an oasis. No one believed them.

         They met several defenders along the way who were also on the prowl for any pesky Tier C or otherwise unworthy defenders, but Defender proved to be competent every time. Others had similar bands composed of Eku, Jadewing, and Iudith pieces. There were some, however, who had far more Attii’kusu or Ambarender pieces than Iudith pieces. Then there were some who had decided not to fuse their pieces together and would have a band of six Aldwi or six Jadewing. Zar was yet to become proficient in the art of distinguishing Tier C from B, but Defender seemed to have the skill down well enough. He had mentioned at some point that speech patterns were the first dead giveaway but that he would spare them if the defender proved to have a solid strategy and band despite having some speech problems. Zar was not too anxious about finding out what would happen if Defender decided not to show mercy. When they entered Wounding, a decrepit little town with a pub whose entire roof had been blown off and was missing a side, they met a peculiar defender whose band was-

         “Nine Ia?” Defender asked, raising an eyebrow at the scrawny defender in front of them.

         “Quite so,” the defender responded. He twitched his pupils and began to snicker. “Nice to meet you, Defender.”

         “Likewise,” Defender responded. His tone said it all. He was asking himself if this was going to be the first defender he would have to apprehend. “Let us commence.” The fight ended rather quickly with each Ia crumbling instantly against the icy blasts from Iudith’s staff or quick slashes from Gulbahar’s sword. As the defender began picking up his companions’ dots, Defender slowly approached him.

         “I liked our first kinda major sorta battle. Did you?” the defender said, looking up at Defender.

         “This is no time to be joking around with a purposefully weak band, do you understand? You have to prove to others you are worthy. Do you want to be terminated?” Defender replied.

         The defender rose to his feet to look at Defender in the eyes, though he still had to look up slightly. “This is war in a world far removed from our own, and this is my band. I shall do whatever I want however I want, understood?”

         Defender smirked. “Understood.”

         Their journey continued through the run-down village destroying Exos until they reached the side of a mountain with a long flight of stairs leading all the way up. The stairs were chipped, cracked, and crumbling. “Oldtown is up these precarious steps, Defender. You are not too scared, are you?” Zar asked.

         “You tease me far too much, friend. Climb we shall” was his response. About halfway up the steps, a defender who had been scaling the side of the mountain instead of the steps rushed at them, punching Defender on the side of his head. Iudith, who had been riding her horse behind everyone else, hooked Defender’s neck with her staff and smacked him back unto the steps, saving him from a painful death. Defender rose to his feet, massaged his back, nodded at Iudith as a sign of gratitude, and ran up the steps to attack the defender whose eyes were that of a madman desperate to survive.

         “You not kill me, shit!” the defender shouted, and if it had not been apparent that this new defender was a Tier C, it definitely was then. Defender got hit several times in the stomach, back, and neck before grabbing the defender around his waist, suplexing him, and causing the both of them to start tumbling down the mountain like a couple sacks of Nux. The defender struggled the best he could, but his scrawny build could not do much against Defender’s weight, which continuously broke the defender's brittle bones after every bounce and covered them both in the blood that sprayed everywhere leaving a red trail down, down, down. Zar looked away, and he bet all his Nux that if he had still had his stomach, it would have been emptied right then and there.

Chapter Text

         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.

Chapter Text

         “We should go now, Defender,” Zar advised after he saw that the band was beginning to pant rather heavily. “We should take a rest and let the other defenders clean up the rubble.” The band, after having convinced the stubborn and sobbing King that an Alliance would be the best course of action, had rushed to the city and begun destroying the Exos that had broken through the fortified barrier. The Exos had barged alongside Theri, ridding Zar of his doubts but with the conclusion he had been dreading the entire time. “By the iris, we got our answers. I almost wish we’d stayed in the dark. These Theri must have been collaborating with the Exos all along…” he had said, surprised at first but growing more infuriated by the second. In a burst of anger, Zar had bellowed “you’d betray fellow Texeli to these tinpots? Have you no honor? Traitors!” Zar had truly been the most talkative he had been yet, stating his thoughts out loud instead of containing them inside his metaphorical head. “I have a powerful anger in every dot of this reduced body… Most of these Theri are allied with the Exos, but a few fight against them. Odd business, this. The Theri aren’t what you’d call sociable folk, you know… Texel shifts like sand these days, after an eternity of the same…”

         “Fine. Let us retreat. I would much rather continue the War Games anyway,” Defender ordered, leading his band through Thyrsa Way, a territory that, like the sands of the desert, was riddled with the spells of Mages. There were Theri lurking about being ignored by the Exos that would charge directly at Defender’s band.

         “What is it that the Moorland Theri bought their safety with –- and sold us for?” wondered Zar, his questions going unanswered and ignored by the world. Defender, however, was having fun. His wishes of continuing the War Games had been heard. More and more ixstones were poured into his bottomless pouch as he defeated Tier B. As for Tier C, he would simply get hit a couple times before landing a stunning blow to the solar plexus and tossing them into the lethal quicksand from which no one can escape. Unfortunately, they did not get far. Defender refused to keep spending his Bitters -– he had already spent far too many getting to Oldtown and crossing the desert -– and set up his pavilion hidden from sight. By then, nearly a week had passed since the beginning of the War Games, and the band was truly exhausted. That night, the tablet rung.

Amazing, you all! The number of corpses we had to scrape off the concrete, dig out of the ground, fish out of the water, and take down from the trees was truly unfathomable! Thank you all for your continued support, but it is time to get back to the mission at hand: taking down the Exo forces. The rule of Defender-infighting shall start to be enforced as of the moment this message is sent to everyone, so use any excess stamina and adrenaline you may have on Exos, NOT Defenders. We have attached to this message images of some corpses we deemed either oddly dismembered or creatively discarded for those who care for such things. Oh, and make sure you collect your thank you prizes from the Lemon.

         “Have all the Tier C been dealt with, then?” Iudith asked over Defender’s shoulder, startling him -– the first time he had ever been noticeably startled. Iudith smirked.

         “This probably means that all the Tier A running this show are satisfied with our housekeeping and have deemed any remaining Tier C competent enough at surviving to be valuable assets toward the war effort. If there are any Tier C remaining, I highly doubt they are anything other than C1,” he replied.

         “Do you think any of the defenders that attacked us were Tier A?” Witherclay asked.

         “Not at all. Just as how there is a noticeable difference between the speech patterns of Tier C and B, there is a noticeable difference between the speech patterns of Tier B and A. Not even those pesky, motorcycle-riding defenders are Tier A material. My best bet is that all Tier A, which are definitely the minority, have set up headquarters somewhere and have hired Tier B to take care of anything related to Public Relations, such as the patrolling and message-sending.”

         Zar was content with the progress that was made toward the Alliance and was okay with Defender continuing the journey at his own pace. No Bitters, no Nux, and lots of market-haggling. Zar usually spent his days with Arta updating him on how the war was going since he did not have the opportunity to witness it himself; Defender had deemed him unworthy of being levied and kept him stored inside his bottomless bag, which Arta said was not nearly as uncomfortable as it sounded. Human technology was fascinating, allowing anything and anyone inside the pavilion to remain there despite it shrinking down and fitting inside the pouch. Unsurprisingly, before the band arrived at the Moorlands, the tablet sang its ominous chant once again.

Defenders! It is time to beat up some Texeli again! That is right, we have been challenged by yet another three Texeli. Come one, come all, to the dungeons located on the attached map!

         “Such a horrendous manner in which to announce a challenge,” Evenglory responded, the newest addition to the team.

         “Uh… consider it Human’s crude humor, so do not take it so harshly,” Defender retorted.

         “You all may be more conceited than Mages,” bantered Jadewing smugly.

         “Very funny, bug,” responded Iudith.

         “Alright, that’s enough; none of you can handle a joke very well, so we should stop escalating this needless squabble,” interjected Gulbahar.

         “Well look at you, Gallant, taking charge,” mocked Ahati.

         “Leave the fighting between Texeli for the dungeons, bunch of brats,” Witherclay spouted. Defender let the squabble continue until it reached dangerous levels of hostility, the final push being Gulbahar’s dragon letting out a roar at Iudith, who had charged a spell that hit Jadewing square in the face after Gulbahar dodged it by jumping to the side and crashing into Witherclay, whose scorpion tail shot out instinctively and stung Ahati’s own tail.

         The dungeons this time around were at the Theri, Hemi, and Xana Strongholds. As before, each dungeon, in this case stronghold, had a dot-exciting atmosphere that would make Theri stronger when invading the Theri Stronghold, Hemi stronger when invading the Hemi Stronghold, and Xana stronger when invading the Xana Stronghold. Only one stronghold was open a day except for the last day when all three were open, just as before. Also just as before, the Texeli in the strongholds dropped Doxites and Similiths, which Defender used to get the three new warriors.

         The new Theri was a blue-armored and reserved scorpion; then again, being introverted seemed to be a staple of all Theri except those from the Moorlands. She was said to be more willing to fuse than become friends with others. Needless to say, she was a formidable foe in the stronghold. Ahati, however, was a Theri, and a scary one at that. Although Defender was not able to travel as far as he did in Riverfort, he sure gave those Theri a run for their Texi.

         The new Hemi was a succubus. A very dazzling succubus. Zar dared say one to challenge even Jadewing. Esmellion was her name, but just as Jadewing, she had one nasty, smug attitude. She even dared say “a few more journeys and I may be commanding you, Defender,” leaving Defender speechless but at the same time swooning. She was the one Defender fought for the most, paving his way through all the Hemi. She was a preempt, just like Evenglory, so there was a point in which no one, not even Witherclay, could stand up against her. Defender had to resort to haggling in the market just to acquire some more Evenglory, whose price had inevitably rose.

         The new Xana was a Mage cloaked in black and gold and riding a black steed. He, just like Iudith, would send concentrated magic hurling at his enemies. Although Esmellion was the one whom Defender had lusted for the most, this Xana, Theodi, was one Defender was able to acquire a lot of pieces for because of Iudith and Gulbahar destroying everything in their wake. That is, until the thunder-signed enemies became too powerful for those two poor, water-signed Xana to do much of anything against. Theodi liked to speak in riddles and poems, one of his famous ones being:

The Exos have an eye in the sky

Defenders say ‘Do or die

The epic grows common as time goes by

         Defender must not have been a fan of poetry because he promptly sold Theodi for Esmellion. Perhaps Esmellion was correct in claiming that she would be commanding Defender after only a few missions together. Instead of her prowess, however, it would be her looks that would eventually bring Defender to his knees. After the event and after Defender’s last summoning of the divine totem, Defender sat very comfortably as he drank a Bitter.

         “Need company?” Esmellion asked as she glided her way toward Defender, Jadewing looking in disgust from afar.

         “I–um... I do not see why not,” responded Defender awkwardly. She sat beside him and coiled her tail around Defender’s left arm.

         “Well aren’t you quite the daring one,” Zar teased. “Have mercy on this poor fool! His heart may explode any second.”

         “Yours would be too if you had one!” Defender barked.

         “Whoa, no need to become so defensive, Defender. At ease, for I would not dream of stealing her away from you.”

         “No one may steal me away from anyone. If anything, I am the one to do the stealing,” Esmellion hissed with a soothing voice.

         “Defender, whenever you are done playing with your new lady-friend over there, you may want to check out what your tablet has in store for you this time,” Gulbahar announced as he cleaned his sword.

         “Ah, your tablet can wait. Stay with me a little longer,” the very devious and manipulating monster whispered into Defender’s ears.

         “Yeah, I–No! I shall check my tablet right now,” the flustered Defender shouted a little too loudly as he rose to his feet and hurried over to his tablet. He read the message quickly, but his expression, in the blink of an eye, changed to that of a Gallant turned to stone by the sands of the desert right as he found out a Hemi stole his Nux.

         “Defender?” Esmellion asked, her tone significantly changing from her usual mocking one to that of genuine concern. Defender remained silent.

         “Alright, Defender, you’re spooking even my fearless dots,” Zar stated in a shaky voice. He crawled his way up Defender’s leg and rested on his shoulder to read the message, which seemed to be just as frozen on the screen as Defender was in the middle of the pavilion. Zar let out an embarrassingly high-pitched whimper as he read the message, but before he was able to announce what he had just read, an extremely loud, booming noise was heard outside.

         “What is going on, Zar?” Iudith asked, for the first time allowing her countenance to reflect her fear.

         “Exos, they are… they are raining down on Texel.”

Chapter Text

         “WAKE UP!” Zar bellowed as he slapped Defender across the face with his entire body. “You have never frozen up like this before, and now is definitely not the time!” Defender slowly lifted his hand to massage his face as he stared out the pavilion. There was a massive aircraft floating above Texel, and the booming noise they had heard earlier had been an Exo that had jumped from it and had landed only a few meters away. Fortunately, a defender was trying to destroy him, keeping him away from Defender’s distraught band.

         “I apologize,” Defender said with a monotone voice. “I must calm myself before continuing.”

         “And how long shall that take, Defender? How many Texeli shall crumble? Oh, wait, you probably don’t care,” a frustrated Witherclay barked. Defender gripped his fists and stared at Witherclay, making him cower slightly.

         “Do not dare say that again.” He selected the nine warriors, grabbed his pouch, and stuffed the pavilion inside it. Defender ran toward the Exo in hopes of helping the defender finish him off. Her band had been reduced to only two fighters -- Iudith and Evenglory -- desperately struggling to avoid being hit. Evenglory was missing his iconic spear while Iudith was grieving the loss of her horse. The defender heard footsteps behind her and turned around, her face lighting up but her eyes twitching wildly.

         “Defender, I implore you, aid me in this fierce combat!” she shouted. The Exo, a far bulkier version of the bipedal horse Defender had faced back at Dragonmount, turned his head toward Defender and neighed loudly. He began to sprint toward them, completely ignoring Iudith and Evenglory. Exos had never done that before! Not only had he been made stronger, but smarter as well. The horse swung his arm at the defender, who was still looking behind her at Defender, right on the side of her head, decapitating her and sending her head shooting to the side, exploding the moment it made contact with a nearby tree and causing the tree to slowly tumble to its side. The Iudith who had been mourning for her horse stared at her defender’s corpse and began gripping the sides of her head, and Defender’s own Iudith could not bear to witness her copy go through such mental turmoil as if she was able to feel her sorrow second-hand. Zar could not even begin to imagine how surreal such an experience must be -- seeing your own self crumble into a whimpering mess on the ground.

         “Alright!” Defender shouted, pointing his finger at the Exo, “Iudith, avenge your doppelganger! Ahati and Esmellion, do not show mercy! We must kill this rabid monster before it’s too late!” Iudith shook her head and pointed her staff at the horse, her own steed running even faster than it had been. Ahati and Esmellion struggled to keep up but also began to power up their skills. All three of them began bombarding the Exo, but the Exo seemed to ignore them too. This new type of Exo was aiming straight at Defender and ignoring the warriors! They know, they know that defenders are the true brains behind everything, that without defenders there would be no opposition.

         “Gulbahar, Iudith, Evenglory!” Defender shouted, beginning to sweat from how close the Exo was from reaching and decapitating him. Gulbahar slashed at the Exo's legs while Evenglory aimed at his face, but the Exo dismissed them with a simple slash of his arm that inflamed all of them. The Exo lifted his arms to bring them down on top of Defender while Defender stared directly into the Exo’s eyes with his back straight, his hands in his pocket, and his brows furrowed. “Save yourself, Zar,” he whispered in a melancholic tone.

         Zar smirked. “Without a chance, Defender. I would not be able to survive a second either way, so I’d rather attempt to face destruction as proudly as you.” Defender turned his head to look at Zar.

         “You are one strong Texeli, do you know that?”

         “The most renown in all of Texel, I am.”

         “NEVER!” Shouted Jadewing as she blasted the Exo back. The Exo was nearing the end of his rope.

         “Well done, Jadewing! I shall take it from here,” Gulbahar reassured as his skill was finally ready. Gulbahar’s tornado ripped the Exo’s arms from its sockets, disarming the Exo of his blades for good. Right after, Iudith and Ahati destroyed a leg each, leaving only the Exo’s torso behind. The Exo neighed a final time before his entire body crumbled into… into DOTS!

         “Defender, what is going on?” Zar asked, dumbfounded. “They are stronger, smarter, more blood-thirsty, and now made of dots! There are no longer metal remains, only dots, dots that look just like ours…”

         “No, they are not like yours,” Defender noted.

         “How so?”

         “Take a look; they are disappearing.” Sure enough, the Exo’s dots, instead of bonding together like the dots of Texeli, began to disintegrate, turning into dust that assimilated into the ground, air, and trees. Zar glanced over to where the other defender had been murdered, but he did not see anything there, just the defender’s blood. Her corpse, the dots of her destroyed warriors, and the two that had survived until the end had all disappeared. He crawled his way over to investigate and discerned the most vexing footprints he had ever seen in his life.

         “Those are called tire marks,” Defender explained when he arrived. “A motorcycle’s footprints.”

         “How come the Exo crumbled into pseudo-dots?” inquired Ahati.

         “Perhaps that answers your question, dear Ahati,” Iudith responded, pointing her staff at the flying fortress. There were tentacles sprouting from it and worming their way down. The tentacles’ claws were grabbing and pulling in Texeli.

         “By iris! The Exo army has been abducting our people!” Gulbahar wailed.

         “They must have found a way to harness the power of our dots, creating beasts from them,” Ahati elaborated.

         “Let us pray that they do not perfect such a vile practice,” stated Iudith.

         “There is a second one,” noted Jadewing. The second one was farther west. It also had tentacles worming themselves down, but instead of abducting Texeli, they were bringing down more Exos.

         “Two tentacled ships, out in the hills. While one reaps, the other sows,” recited Defender from the message in the tablet. “We must hurry and join a mob. It has become apparent that the message was correct. No mere raid will suffice against these upgraded abominations.” After some Tapes and lots of Bitters, the band finally joined forces with a mob. The mobs were organized teams that would attack Exos together. There would always be another mob, however, that would try to steal the Exos from them. The powers that be wanted to foster competition, and thus more killing, by promising the mob with the most damage inflicted on Exos prizes ranging from Aja leaves to fighters.

         The new Texeli joining the war effort were of all shapes and sizes. There were significantly more Texeli coming out of the shadows than in any other event as if they all knew these Exos were going to require all the help possible to detain. Satyrs, Warriors on steeds, Mages, Gallants, Barbarians, Theri, Hemi, you name it. There were too many to keep track of. After every day, the mob would disband and all the defenders would go join another in hopes of teaming up alongside the strongest. Zar was annoyed at first that defenders were making a game out of the war, but he quickly realized that he should not have expected any less from the species that had called killing their own brothers and sisters because they were mentally incompetent righteous cleansing and a competition.

         Just as in the previous one, this raid had started off relatively mild -- as mild as being targeted by relentless Exos could be -- before becoming absolute anguish the second half. As the message from the tablet had said, these Exos were so powerful that Tier A defenders had finally revealed themselves and had begun battling against them with unbelievably powerful bands. They had somehow built the new fighters right off the Bitter, and since the new fighters were extremely powerful, whoever was in the mob with the most Tier A could rest assured that their mob would be victorious. The Tier A, however, were sneaky. If their mob began to slack off because they felt too confident in their victory and did not feel like destroying all the Exo bosses they could, then the Tier A would let the Tier A of the other mob catch up to them. There was constant competition, constant violence, constant extermination, and constant expenditure of Nux, Nux bits, Aja leaves, and Bitters. This “mob raid” was by far the deadliest and most hectic moment of the war thus far.

         “Curses!” Defender shouted as he leaped to the side after an Exo had tried to punch him. A week had gone by since the beginning of the raid, yet the flying fortresses were still floating menacingly above them, dropping off more enemies while also abducting more Texeli. Defender had been rather unlucky with the mobs he had chosen to join. Out of the five mobs he had been part of, only one had been victorious and had received the superior prices. Regardless, he had been destroying a significant amount of Exos and had been leeching from Tier A by clambering for the loot that fell from their destruction. Iudith dealt the finishing blow on the Exo and apologized to Defender for not having done so sooner with a smile. Defender smirked in return. “These new-age Exos are one massive pain,” he stated as he blocked the sun with his hand to look at the flying ships. “But more annoying are those bastards.”

         “We will just have to destroy all the Exos they toss at us until they run out,” concluded Witherclay.

         “Or perhaps there is a way for us to enter the ships and destroy them from the inside.”

         “Are you mad?” shouted Jinxan; Defender had finally been able to evolve Jadewing.

         “I would rather think I am not, yet I am aware of how absurd such an idea is. I am certain that if it were possible, Tier A would have done so by now.”

         “Then let us focus on the task before us, Defender, and halt our fruitless pondering,” stated Thiamarkos, a newly-joined, fire-signed Xana Champion Defender was nearly able to evolve to Zyraxes.

         “Oh my, it seems the sky is falling,” said Iudith, looking up. Defender turned around and saw that one of the ships’ sides had exploded, causing the entire ship to veer into the adjacent ship. Both of them began to slowly spiral their way down to the ground and cause an extraordinary explosion. The ground shook violently for a bit shortly after, and the Exos that had not been destroyed yet were finished off by the Tier A who had not bothered to look at all. “Is that what you wanted?”

         Defender stared transfixed by what had just happened. He slowly held up his pouch. “I have no idea what just happened, but I guess this means it is time to collect our last ixstones and call it a day.” There was disappointment in his eyes, as if resenting his incompetence. As if thinking why do I even try when I am but a mere B4.

Chapter Text

         “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.”

Chapter Text

         Defender kept flinching his eyes in futile attempts at reading Slangerr’s band. He may have been smiling and boasting about his chances of being victorious, but Zar knew he was sweating profusely from fear. Zar was most concerned about the three Esmellion. With no way of knowing what LV they were and if they had their skills ready, Defender could not risk destroying all his Guru by accidentally sending them against those vile demons. Even his own line of preempts would crumble in the blink of an eye because they were low-LV, especially Atan.

         “You know Defender, if you lose, you forfeit your spot in Echelon I, but what do I forfeit if I lose? I am so confident that I will render your entire band to a mere sea of dots that I shall forfeit the straw hat the iris gifted me,” declared Slangerr while walking away from his band as to avoid being collateral damage.

         “The iris gifted you the hat?” asked Defender as he did the same.

         “While visiting the fire-ridden city of Louran, I stumbled upon this singed straw hat. It had blood on it and part of it was on fire, but all I had to do was clean it up a little bit with some water and bada bing bada boom, I got myself quite the classy headwear. Do you want to know something interesting about this hat?”

         “Please, continue.”

         “I know you are desperate to start the battle, so I shall skip all the particulars. This hat is neither made of dots nor is it made of straw. It is a weird hybrid! As if a Human teleported here with a straw hat and somehow turned it into a Texeli object.” He took off the hat and began to rotate it, showcasing every angle. “Considering that I found this hat in Louran, it would not surprise me to learn that a Mage used his magic on this hat. The hat is very valuable, I’d assume, but I shall not lose. Prepare yourself, Defender.” He put the hat back on his unruly hair and cracked his knuckles.

         “Let us commence!” shouted Defender, pointing toward Slangerr’s band and shouting commands. Slangerr, too, began to shout commands. Evenglory, being used to attacking before anyone else, rushed straight at Slangerr’s Ahati while Defender’s Ahati struggled to catch up to him. Meanwhile, Gulbahar stared at the two Esmellion before him. One of the Esmellion blasted forth, raising her trident in the air and ready to gouge his eyes out. He was too focused on the first Esmellion to notice that the second Esmellion had swooped below his line of vision. The second Esmellion dug her trident so far into his dragon’s side that the blood-covered blades erupted from the other, causing the dragon to lose control and distract him. The first Esmellion smirked as she took advantage of his distraction to pierce his chest with her own trident. She rose her trident in the air and began shaking it up and down, Gulbahar wailing at the top of his lungs as he gradually crumbled into dots. The second Esmellion kicked the dragon off her trident and the two of them retreated to their own side of the battlefield.

         Evenglory, after having taken care of Slangerr’s Ahati with the help of Defender’s Ahati, rushed alongside Defender’s other preempts toward Slangerr’s third Esmellion. She saw them coming and quickly decided to throw her trident at Atan, piercing and extinguishing the poor bird in the blink of an eye. Without his fire scorching everything around him, another one of Slangerr’s Ahati casually floated toward him, taunted him for his inability to hurt a mere Earth-signed Guru, and blasted him to dots. As retaliation, Defender’s Esmellion swooped down on the Esmellion that had attacked Atan and pinned her against the ground. “Ready to feel the pain that you have inflicted upon my ally?” she asked condescendingly.

         “Do your worst,” she retorted, spitting on her copy’s face. Defender’s Esmellion smirked, wiped her face, lifted her trident, and began to puncture the pinned-down succubus’ abdomen repeatedly. Evenglory decided to ignore Esmellion’s manic stabbing and made a beeline for yet another one of Slangerr’s Ahati before he could attack them. With his spear, Evenglory impaled the dragon that almost instantaneously exploded into dots. Surprised at how quickly the Ahati had crumbled, Evenglory struggled to stop his momentum and ended up stumbling on the ground before retreating from the battlefield alongside the Esmellion who had finally stopped making a bloody pulp out of her copy.

         To Defender’s horror, his line of STG’s were left to fend themselves against Slangerr’s line of two Atan. Defender prayed for none of the Atan to have their skills ready, his wishes becoming true when he saw that Iudith had started to build up magic at the tip of her staff before any of the Atan had even started to defend themselves.

         “Take this you overcooked chicken!” Iudith shouted, blasting ice-cold water at the bird. Instead of destroying Atan, however, Ia, a mere frog, jumped and intercepted the blast, sacrificing himself so Atan could have enough time to fly away. Zar was completely baffled at the tactic, a tactic he had not yet seen, and gawked in even more horror as the two Atan began flying in circles around both Ahati and Wigo. They began flying faster and faster, causing a fire vortex a few meters high to form, and all Zar could do was watch in horror while listening to their cries. Ahati and Wigo were being burned alive, and the heat from the Atan's attack had made everyone retreat and cover their eyes. After five long seconds, the two birds flew back to their respective positions in Slangerr’s band, leaving behind nothing but dots.

         “Do you understand now, Defender, why I am the strongest defender on Texel?” Slangerr taunted. The first wave had passed. At this time, both sides were to stop battling and allow the defenders to pick up the dots of their fallen Texeli. This was also the time for defenders to whisper commands into the ears of their remaining forces. “Are you trembling yet?”

         “Me, tremble? Unheard of, Slangerr. If anything, you should be trembling!” retorted the sweating Defender. His eyes were wide open and his hands were shaking. His band was now cut in half with only five fighters remaining –- Iudith, Esmellion and Evenglory, Jinxan, and Witherclay –- while Slangerr’s band also had five fighters remaining -– two Esmellion, two Atan, and yet another pesky Ahati. Usually, Defender’s band would still have seven or so remaining, not five! He did not have the upper hand he was used to after the first wave, the first turn.

         “You ready, Defender?”

         “I have always been ready.”

         “Ready to lose!” Slangerr shouted, pointing his hand and sending Esmellion, Atan, and Ahati to face against Witherclay and Evenglory. Esmellion was first to strike, propelling her trident straight at Witherclay. Witherclay, in an attempt at preventing the trident from impaling his body, whipped his armored scorpion tail to deflect it. Unfortunately, Esmellion's speed was too great, and his tail only managed to deviate its trajectory ever so slightly, the end result being that his tail was now pinned to the ground by the left-most prong while the right-most prong managed to pin down his right arm -- a very awkward position for a centaur to be in. As Witherclay struggled to free himself as fast as possible, Evenglory aimed straight at Ahati.

         “Yes!” shouted the lunacy-ridden Hemi, “three out of three Ahati destroyed by my spear!” He once again thrust his spear into the stone dragon, exploding him into dots, except this time Evenglory was able to prevent himself from stumbling onto the ground. Atan decided to attack Witherclay, propably expecting him to crumble easily since he was already hurt, but Atan failed to completely destroy him. Instead, Atan scorched Witherclay's aquamarine armor as he began pecking at Witherclay's bare chest and face. Each peck would send chunks of his skin flying to the side. It seemed to Zar that Witherclay was going to crumble any second, but Atan stopped his rampage a mere couple pecks away from doing so. As that Atan flew toward his initial position on Slangerr's side of the battlefield, Slangerr's second Atan began to fly toward the perforated Witherclay to finish the job.

         “Quick, allow me to heal you!” Jinxan shouted, flying toward him and using her magic to recover his stamina.

         “No matter what you do, fairy, you both are doomed!” Atan screeched, lifting his wings and blasting forth an inferno that enveloped both of them. Jinxan’s wings were the first to catch fire, rendering her unable to fly. She crumbled resembling a caterpillar writhing on the ground in pain. Witherclay, on the other hand, survived slightly longer. He withstood the inferno and even took a couple steps toward Atan, but he, too, crumbled before landing a single blow.

         “You never answered me, Defender,” Slangerr shouted as his two remaining Esmellion prepared themselves for their onslaught. “Perhaps this next attack will finally open your eyes to the fact that I, Slangerr, am leagues above you!”

         “Leave them to me, Iudith,” said Defender’s Esmellion before blasting ahead of her.

         “You won’t get any closer than that, dear,” shouted one of the enemy Esmellion, giggling as she flew backward to avoid her attack.

         “Stop flying away you hag!” she shouted, flying faster and faster. As she did so, so did the other demon.

         “Hag?” Esmellion stopped giggling. “HAG! Do not dare call me a hag!” She stopped flying backward and launched herself upward, revealing the second Esmellion who had been waiting the entire time with her trident pointed forward. Defender’s Esmellion tried to move out of the way, but her momentum was too great. Her throat flew straight into the middle prong, causing the second Esmellion to burst out in laughter and dig the other end of the trident into the earth. The pierced Esmellion was left leaning against it and creating an equilateral triangle composed of her body, the trident, and the blood-stained grass. She kept struggling to lift herself out of the trident by pushing against it, but her blood-soaked hands were slipping every time she tried to do so. She began to cough up blood when the Esmellion that had been flying backward walked toward her. “What was it that you called me earlier?” she asked, leaning close to hear the gurgling noises. “I recall you calling me a hag. Now, you, too, are Esmellion, so you should know just how much I love that term. I shall repay you by ending your suffering, dear.” Instead of stabbing, however, this Esmellion decided to twirl the trident as to simulate a saw and began to dig into her back, slicing her in half about her length.

         “Control yourself, Hemi scum!” Iudith bellowed, riding her horse toward the Esmellion that had just sawed the other in half and hooking her by the neck with her curved staff. She lifted Esmellion up and began to spin the staff at an incredible speed, the centrifugal force alone crushing Esmellion's neck and keeping her trapped inside the centrifuge of destruction. After Iudith’s arms got tired, she slammed Esmellion against the ground so hard that Esmellion’s left arm bursted out of her socket and disintegrated into dots immediately thereafter.

         “Any last words, dear,” Iudith asked, pointing her staff and building up a magical blast.

         “You shall crumble at the hands of my copy anyway, Xana,” the Hemi spouted. Iudith destroyed her with a stoic expression on her face and casually rode back to her position on Defender’s side of the battlefield. Defender was sweating more than ever now. This was the first battle that he had ever been part of that lasted until the third turn.

         “Iudith and Evenglory are the only ones left, and they are going against his Atan and Esmellion. Iudith will die against Esmellion, that damned preempt. My only hope against Esmellion is Evenglory, but his AGI may not be enough. Either way, I must guess his plan of action correctly so I send Iudith against Atan and not Esmellion. If he sends Esmellion first…” Defender’s voice trailed off. Zar was surprised. This was the first time Defender had ever been cornered enough to start speaking his thoughts out loud. He began picking up the scattered dots and whispered into Evenglory’s ear “you better not disappoint me, preempt” before leaving the danger zone.

         “You know, I have always found it fascinating that no matter how far a weapon is thrown, no matter how far blood is spilt, when a Texeli dies, everything is turned to dots instantly. Their weapons, their blood, their bones… everything to dots for us to haul to safety. Sort of like Quantum Entanglement, wouldn’t you say?” Slangerr rambled, but Defender remained silent. Defender's silence gave Zar enough time to ask himself the question he had already asked himself a million times: why had he not disintegrated yet? “What are you pondering so earnestly, Defender? Just accept the fact that I have won, that I shall keep my hat, and that you shall lose your place in Echelon I.”

         “Coordinated attacks,” Defender responded.

         “Ah, yes, coordinated attacks. So you have learned, Defender; you have learned why it never mattered if your fighters were of a higher LV and SEF than mine. Copies of a fighter are able to read each other’s minds, sort of. They are able to communicate in ways that we Humans are not able to. All you need to do is have them work with each other for a couple weeks and presto! You have an unstoppable band.” Slangerr looked at his tablet. “Ah, I still have three full minutes to take care of you. It was fun, Defender, but our encounter shall end soon enough.” Slangerr smiled widely and lifted his arm. To Defender’s pleasure, Iudith effortlessly defeated Atan, but that left Evenglory to face Esmellion. Defender crossed his fingers, but Esmellion was able to dodge Evenglory’s spear and decapitate him in one fluid motion. Iudith and Esmellion stared at each other for some time.

        “That was a very brutal way for a Mage to destroy someone. Are Mages not supposed to be more classy and professional than that?” Esmellion teased as she slowly glided around Iudith. Iudith only stared, unmoving. “What? Cat’s got your tongue? Or have you accepted defeat? Perhaps you are smart enough to know that by the time you even twitch a single muscle, I would already be there, right in front of your face, my weapon piercing all the way through you.” Iudith closed her eyes and extended her arms out. Her horse bowed his head. Esmellion growled. “You are no fun.”

Chapter Text

         “Are you sure that you want to take it easy today, Defender? You fought so hard to get to this Echelon,” Zar asked as the band made their way toward the Moorlands. Zar then realized what he had said. When did I start thinking of defenders as the ones working hard? When did I stop considering Texeli as the ones exerting themselves despite having to crumble repeatedly, being bathed in the blood and dots of so many of their brethren?

         “As I said, I have lost all interest after such a humiliating defeat. I could not care less. While I am in this state, we might as well deal with the Moorland Theri,” he responded. They were destroying any Exos that they happened to see as they traveled across the moors. To Zar’s annoyance and sorrow, Theri were still working with the Exos despite the weeks that had gone by. The worst part of it all was the countless random dots sprawled across the path.

         “We must gather these dots. To leave broken folk like so much litter… What evil times,” Zar murmured. His mind could not -- or rather refused to -- comprehend how Theri could have sunken to such lows. “Theri with no regard for the cycle of life. The dots of broken folk must be gathered up, or they never mend.”

         “Watch out!” Iudith shouted as she rammed into an incoming Theri with her horse. A flood of them began to charge at the band, so they began to run the opposite way. Little did they know that those pesky hellions were leading them straight to a trap wherein both Exos and Theri were waiting and lusting for blood.

         “Dammit, I have about had it with these miscreants!” shouted Defender as Ahati was blown to bits -– the third in his band to crumble.

         “We are far too outnumbered to do much, Defender. All we can do is flee,” Jinxan stated.

         “Strategic withdrawal sounds far better,” corrected Witherclay.

         “Shut up and run,” Evenglory bellowed, skewering an Exo with his spear. The band struggled but eventually broke out of the circle of Exos and Theri and rushed out of the dotbath. The tattered band found themselves in Sad Cypress but still a long way from the Brackens.

         “Where are the Theri who helped us in Louran? Gone from these lands?” inquired Zar of the stars that were becoming brighter the more dots were shed. “I was so sure they would be here, resisting the collaboration. I hope to iris that those dots we found weren’t… Hurry, the day grows dark.” Before they knew it, the band was once again surrounded by more Exos and Theri.

         “This may have been a mistake,” Defender admitted with a scowl on his face. “So frustrating! I may have lost against another defender, but I shall not lose against these-” he cut himself short.

         “Insult these pests all you want, Defender. I no longer consider them Texeli. They are no more than mere Exo pawns now.” Zar heard a scream to his right. Iudith’s horse tumbled to the floor, his legs having been destroyed. Iudith landed on her back and was soon turned into a bloody mess before crumbling.

         “These bastards do not even leave me a chance to use GLU. Cover me, Atan!” Defender rushed at the Theri who had destroyed Iudith as Atan showered them all in fire. Defender began to pick up the dots as fast as he could and ran out of the inferno covered in flames. He began to roll on the floor trying to put out the fire until Gulbahar used his skill to blow the flames out. “Thank you.”

         “You are insane, Defender,” Gulbahar stated. If their situation had not been so dire, everyone would have smiled with the warmness that they all had once had. Zar’s nonexistent ears began to ring.

         “Do you all hear that?” asked Zar, unable to cover that which did not exist.

         “Look!” Esmellion pointed out. “The Theri Resistance!” Sure enough, a sea of Theri was approaching them -– a sea of hope. Defender sighed in relief but soon turned around to address his band.

         “What are you all standing around for! War has not ended yet!” The band, with their revitalized hope, began to destroy everything in their path, allowing Defender to use his GLU. After several minutes of unrelenting destruction, Defender “strategically withdrew” alongside the resistance to their secret headquarters. Zar, being the diplomat of the band, discussed strategy and was made aware of everything that had happened. The Exos had stormed into the Moorlands and razed an entire town. The unprepared Theri were given a choice: join the Exos in their conquest of the Moorlands or crumble into dots with all the others. Zar and the others knew what the Exos were up to. The Exos had an oddly familiar modus operandi: hire half the population to kill the other half. Zar looked behind him through a window at Defender, who was being accosted by Esmellion.

         A day went by as the band tried to recuperate. Zar went out for some fresh air when he noticed a beautiful woman out in the distance. A Human. “Hold up!” Zar shouted frantically, Defender rushing to see what had gotten him so worked up, “I’ve discovered another defender in these moors! Let’s join up and see if we can’t bring these metal thralls to their senses!” Defender nodded and assembled his band once again. They did not travel far, however, before an Ahati blocked their path. Defender’s own Ahati began to growl at him, and the two of them had a growling contest. The enemy had enough and blasted Defender’s Ahati into dots. Iudith casually looked at the pile of dots, shook her head disparagingly, and tapped her staff at Ahati’s direction, instantly blasting him into dots. “Phew, I’d say the enemy’s trying to keep us away from the other band. An honor, really. If they are shooting at you, you must be… Gah!” Zar shook his metaphorical head violently, raising some of his fingers in the air. “On a second thought, if they are shooting at you, get out of there!”

         Exo after Theri after Exo after Theri after… the enemies just never stopped coming. Slowly but surely did the band approach the defender whose band had been reduced to only three Esmellion. Defender ordered his band to cover her long enough for her to bow with gratitude and escape. “She took her band east. They’ve met up with reinforcements –- the Exos are being smashed!” Sure enough, Zar’s keen observations became apparent when in the horizon sprouted countless of heads. The reinforcements were none other than the combined forces of Alabast Hold, Allodiael, and Oldtown obliterating nearly all the Exos. Their joy at such a beautiful scene was cut short when the growl of all the Exos pierced their ears. The Exos had stopped playing games. In an act of desperation, the Exos began to destroy anyone in their path, even the Theri that had once worked so loyally for them. In fact, they were the first to be wiped out.

         “Those poor deluded Theri…” Zar lamented, “at least we can save their moors! The Brackens are some of the oldest life in Texel. They are a mystery, a wonder. Their spore dents roofs yet heals hurts… The Exos must not destroy them -– let alone use the power for their fell purpose!” Gallants, Mages, Hemi, Theri, and the occasional Barbarians all joined forces against the Exos who had powered up. Despite Defender and the other defender’s attempts, the Moorlands were engulfed in fire. Everything was being destroyed around them. Those foul, metallic beasts! They cared not about victory anymore! As if they knew they were done for, the Exos had begun to aim at the moors instead of Texeli. By the time the Exos had been dealt with, the Moorlands were naught but ash. “Given enough folk, a city can be rebuilt in a day. But places such as these… Did we save the moors? Such devastation, as far as the eye can see. So I must trust the heart: despite this, something precious was won here today.” Zar did not ask what that something was. It was better not to.

         “This was far more hectic than the fight with Slangerr,” Defender noted, wiping off the sweat from his forehead. “Look, Zar, this is your doing.” Defender was pointing at the alliance. Zar could feel his metaphorical eyes begin to tear up. His plan to assemble the tribes had worked, even if momentarily. Now, the Moorland Theri would surely join them. Nothing will stand in their way. When the time was ripe, the Gallants of Alabast Hold, the Mages of Louran, the Hemi of Oldtown, and the Moorland Theri would all join forces with countless of defenders to reclaim Dragonmount. The end of the war was fast approaching. Zar could feel it in his bones. Texeli victory was right around the corner.

*                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *

         “Yet another one of those dungeon events?” Caile asked, looking at the beautiful view before him. The Empyrions had one of the most beautiful views in all of Texel, but such heights were not for just any Texeli. They were exclusive to Dracomis.

         “This one is slightly different, however. Instead of three areas, there are two. One for the geniuses and one for the speedsters,” Rasce stated. “Not like it will be lasting much longer anyway. It has been going on for a week. Perhaps if you had been paying more attention to the war, you would have known.”

         “There are far more crucial responsibilities to oversee than a mere game between Texeli and Humans.”

         “Mark my words, war shall one day blast through our front door when we least expect it. Have you forgotten the destruction of the Moorlands only a week ago? And whose fault would it be that none of us are ready? All of us! All of us for being too concerned about what happens here to observe the world below.”

         Caile roared one of its cute yet fierce roars on top of Caile’s right shoulder. “He brings up a good point, Rasce. Why would the Exos ever bother to invade us? The land below is far more accessible than the Empyrions.”

         Rasce looked at the dragon, Caile, on top of Caile’s shoulder. They made eye contact, and Caile let a whisp of smoke escape his nostrils. “I hope you are right, Caile. But we Dracomis are a very formidable and powerful race. Perhaps the Exos eventually find this out and seek our overpowered dots for their infernal harvest.”

         “You just stated why such an event is barely worth our concern! We are overpowered, formidable! Even if Exos decided to strike, do you think we, the most extraordinary race of Xana for our symbiotic relations with Theri dragons, would fall? The Empyrions shall never fall!”

Chapter Text

         As a Dracomis, Caile had seen his fair share of flames. From a young age, Caile had been burned time and time again by the fires of his companion -- accidentally or jokingly, of course, never to hostile intent. Caile would always smile at himself whenever he thought of his childhood with Caile, the small but fierce dragon with whom he had established symbiosis almost immediately. ‘Twas love at first sight, some would argue. Caile thought of it as fate, however. They were both meant for each other, perfect for each other.

         An explosion caused Caile’s left ear to start ringing even louder than it had been for the past few minutes. Despite having closed his eyes and having started to replay his favorite memories in his head on repeat, Caile could not manage to smile. His smile was gone and would probably never return. It had crumbled to dots alongside all his brethren.

         Caile wiped his tears and opened his eyes. He made sure that Caile was still on his right shoulder and stared at the dots scattered in front of him. His face contorted itself into a scowl. He did not want to admit that Rasce had been correct, that the Exos had orchestrated and successfully carried out a mass attack on the Empyrions in order to harvest their “overpowered dots,” that the race of Dracomis had not been prepared for their inability to detach their attention from themselves. In all the countless of turns, of centuries, Dracomis had not once had to mind what those lowly ruffians were doing. Why do so? Caile had always found it odd that the Dracomis were not considered a fourth tribe all for themselves. Always the Xana, the Theri, the Hemi, but never the Dracomis. Oh, but the Dracomis are merely Xana with Theri pets. NONSENSE!

         Caile began to gather the dots of what once used to be Rasce and began to run. Where? Did not matter. There was no place left for them. The Empyrions had fallen, fallen! Could you believe that? Could you believe that such a phrase could ever be uttered outside of horror stories told to mere dragonets? Of course not. Such a phrase should never have been uttered. Such a phrase was proof that Texel was currently thrust in a state in which it should have never been thrust. A paradox!

         Damn it Rasce, when are you going to wake up? Do not dare leave me here fending for myself. You know very well you are the strongest. Do you expect me to somehow grow stronger than ever before in just a few hours? Caile zoomed past fallen pillars, enflamed furniture, shattered remnants of what once used to be one of the most luxurious and successful communities in all of Texel. We were far better than even those Amberling peasants! We were gods!

         Caile let out a small screech, and he stopped running. “What’s wrong?” he asked. He then heard that awful stuff of nightmares. That fear-inducing whirring noise, noise that would always be followed by screams and fire and destruction. The sound that had always been resonating at the back of his head but now had burst forth with vindictive thirst for blood! His destruction was eminent. There was no escape. I am sorry, Rasce, but I was not able to survive long enough for you to revive… like iris I would give up now! I shan’t stop running! Not until you come back to tell me ‘I told you so!’ Not until I hear your voice again mocking me for having been foolish and conceited enough not to train with you, not to warn the others… I shan’t… I shan’t be reduced to nothing but cubes…

         Tears were flowing down his face again, but he at least had enough hope in his survival not to have stood there any longer. Run he must and run he shall. The whirring grew closer, and the rubble around him was too scattered to serve as cover. He was wide open, an unmissable, blaring signal alerting everyone and everything that there he was, running like a dragonet after being startled by a loud noise. Fire singed his back and caused him to fall on his face, involuntarily letting go of all of Rasce’s dots. He could discern through his tears how the gray, oblong shape began to retrieve the yellow sparkles.

         “Stop, you infernal beast!” Caile managed to blurt out, “do not dare touch him! DO NOT TOUCH HIM!” Caile struggled to stand, but he knew that he was done for. No amount of luck and hope was able to save him now. His clothes were in flames and he could hear his life-long and soon-to-be-nothing-but-dots friend screeching in pain on the ground beneath him. Warm. So warm. Fire has never burned me this horridly before. “I shall not let you bring Rasce to one of your labs! Let him go! This fire feels like NOTHING! Not even a scratch! Even a hatchling has made me feel more pain than your lousy sparks!” Make it stop. Make the pain stop.

         The Exo leaned his head back and gulped down all of Rasce’s dots. Caile had stopped screeching. Suddenly, the pain he felt spreading across his body vanished. Numbness took over. He closed his eyes. Destruction. The feeling of crumbling into dots. The knowledge of having been deprived of the privilege to open one’s eyes. The unknown. What would become of my dots? Will my dots one day be part of Exo armor? He chuckled. I’d make one damn powerful armor. Nothing would be able to penetrate me.

         Something to his left fell down on the ground. His arm. Without having to open his eyes, he somehow knew that the object that had fallen on the ground had been his arm. He landed on his knees. Blind, numb, and helpless. Hopeless. Destruction. For all he knew, his dots had already been gobbled down by the invader. For all he knew, no more Dracomis existed. For all he knew, he was the only one… the only one… the only… one…

         Wrath. So much wrath. The passion of thousands of Dracomis, the amalgamation of all their hopes, and the coalescence of Dracomis spirit centuries of evolving above all other Texeli in the making all inundated his being. Who cares if I have been reduced to nothing but dots by the fire that has eaten away at me? Who cares if I have already been eaten and am now nothing but Exo feces? Who cares? I am the last remaining Dracomis! I shall not be remembered by the posterity of all those lower races as the one who gave up and resulted in the extinction of all Dracomis! As the one who allowed the fall of the Empyrions to come to fruition! I shall be remembered as the sole survivor that single-handedly destroyed every single living tin can in the entire face of Texel!

         Whatever was happening to him, Caile did not care. Not one bit. All Caile knew was that deep inside of him, something had awakened. Something that was famished. Something that lusted for the destruction of everything in its path. Something that exploded in a fit of rage and enveloped everything in a million-meter radius in flames far stronger than anything those petty Exos had experienced. The Exo that had just recently gulped down Rasce was instantaneously vaporized after being blown away by Caile’s force at point-blank range.

         He had accomplished a task only achieved a handful of times in the eons of Texel’s existence. He had been able to force his evolution. He skipped several turns in his natural life cycle and rushed head-first into his next evolution without the need of a defender to fuse six of his copies. He regained his senses. With his new eyes, he could see the destruction he had caused. With his new ears, he could hear the squeals of countless of Exos running away from him. He found himself on top of his friend, but no longer was he a small dragonet. He was a formidable force of nature even he was intimidated by!

         “You have grown, Vulca,” he stated, patting his companion warm-heartedly. The dragon snarled in return at the ten Exos that had come rolling in. “I know, but with this newly-found power, do you truly expect us to last longer than ten seconds to wipe out this pitiful team of Exos?”

         One after the other, all the Exos fell to Vulca’s unimaginable power. He fended off the hordes long enough for Rasce to heal and gawk in awe at what the once weak Caile had become. Not long thereafter, Vulca and Rasce discerned Humans storming into the Empyrions in search of battle unbeknownst to the incredible fact that Vulca had already eliminated all the major Exos and had left only the minor ones behind. With Humans, however, came the introduction of his copies. His copies were manufactured by some sort of yellow altar. A very peculiar and surreal contraption yet one he did not feel repulsed by, almost as if his subconscious knew that this Texeli-fabricating cradle was a natural phenomenon, one created by the iris itself.

         “Vulca, are you aware that you have done nothing in the past four days?” Rasce asked four days after Vulca’s birth.

         “What is there to do, Rasce?” he responded.

         “What do you mean? There are all sorts of tasks you must help defenders with! Look at all those Exos. We have no idea where they are coming from, but they keep getting stronger and more violent. You have the potential of wiping all of them out. The iris awakened your latent potential for a reason.”

         “And what reason is that? Look at the battlefield, Rasce. I am not needed. How many Caile and Vulca do you see out there, battling and being turned into dots just to be glued back together by whatever alien magic those Humans use? I do not even know if I am the original Vulca! Have you ever talked to one of your copies? They share the same memories you do and more, almost as if whatever that yellow factory is can somehow create your copies with all the current knowledge of all your previous copies. In a way, new copies are more original than you could ever be.”

         “Who cares if you are the original one? They are still you. Asking yourself if you are the original is like asking if the Dracomis or the dragon is the owner.”

         “OWNER! You take that back!” Vulca growled.

         “I am just saying, there is no reason to bother with such convoluted, philosophical questions when you could be destroying monsters.”

         “But Rasce, you said it yourself, all those copies are me, so I have probably destroyed more invaders than you have.” There was silence as Rasce began to give up trying to convince Vulca to help the cause. “I know what you are thinking, Rasce. Just as I was hesitant to observe the world below us, I am hesitant to help defend now. But tell me this, Rasce. What is there to defend? The Fall of the Empyrions is upon us. All our friends, all our eggs, all our future, they are all gone. Their dots are now being extracted and used as armor for the same vile beasts that destroyed them. There is not even any point in seeking vengeance. We are done for. All up to those Humans now.” Rasce left only to return two days after he left Vulca sulking on top of the broken-down columns.

         “VULCA!” Rasce shouted on top of his own mighty dragon.

         “So you found yourself a dragon!” Vulca shouted back, glad to see his friend all grown up. He then noticed a Human observing them from afar with a pitiful blue hand on his shoulder. His smile soon faded. “Rasce, so you have kept to your word and aided the aliens in battle.”

         Rasce dismounted from his dragon, swung his sword in front of Vulca’s face -- its green flames nearly burning off Vulca’s nose -- and demanded for Vulca to address him as “Velthur.” Vulca smiled, but before he was able to speak, Velthur began his nagging. “You must come with us. No longer shall I stare at you sulking like a pitiful Hemi from afar. You have become nothing more than the low ruffians you have condemned so many times. Defender and his band shall raid the Exo base. That is correct, dear Vulca, we have found their hiding place. Destroy it, and the Exos shall stop invading.” Vulca noticed that the Human did not have any Caile or Vulca in his band. “So you noticed. I told Defender not to keep any of them, that you were the only one he would ever need. Come with us. You do not even need to join his band, but you must finally dig yourself from the hole you have created and have been hiding yourself in for almost a week.”

         “As you wish, Ra- Velthur.” Vulca slowly mounted his dragon and rode to where the Human was. The Human waved with a smile, but Vulca was not there to make friends. He ignored everyone and stayed silent the entire way to the base and even during the battles that ensued there. The Exos were humongous and carried rows of lethal rockets on their shoulders that would shoot at them so swiftly Vulca had a hard time following their movements, but the Exos were easy to defeat. His sedentary attitude the past several days had not dwindled his newly-acquired prowess in the slightest.

         Lined on either side of the path were capsules with yellow liquid. Inside the capsules were Dracomis and dragons with missing wings, limbs, or entire torsos. Some capsules only had heads floating forebodingly. Vulca went over to one of the capsules and placed his hand and paw against the glass. “Can we save them?” he asked the Human. The Human shook his head.

         “We have tried, but that yellow liquid prevented even our GLU to heal them. This is because they are missing entire limbs and the dots that made up those body parts have long been lost,” the blue hand elaborated. Vulca punched the glass and shattered it, causing the soggy sack of dots to plop on the ground.

         “You were once a great Dracomis but now are nothing. May you rest in peace, warrior.” The band continued deeper and deeper, destroying more and more Exos. Suddenly, they all heard screams of joy coming from deeper in the base. All around them the capsules began to explode, drenching them all in the liquid. The liquid burned, as if just a few seconds were enough for it to begin eating at his flesh. The Human did not seem to mind, however. The liquid only affected dots, or so it seemed. The entire compound began to shake.

         “Everyone, this entire place is about to blow, let us evacuate!” the Human shouted, urging them all to run. Explosions were heard behind them, and Vulca wondered what was left of those who had shouted not too long ago. Fortunately, they were all able to escape the base before it collapsed on itself.

         Velthur lifted his sword and shouted at the top of his lungs “My sword is truth. Justice is on my side; I cannot but prevail!” Vulca was brought back to the days when they were both very young. Cuinte was Velthur’s name back then, back when Velthur's sword was not covered in emerald fire and Vulca's name was Arte. Vulca looked down at his dragon and saw nothing but the egg as large as his own body that Arte had nursed and carried on his back everywhere. A tear flowed down his face and a smile ambushed him.

         “So you can smile,” observed the blue hand. Vulca stared at the blue hand and for the first time acknowledged that the blue hand had once been a Texeli, one that had lost his body to the war, yet the persistent bastard was still kicking with no legs to kick.

         “What are you going to do now?” the Human asked.

         Vulca smiled even wider and, before turning around and flying away to unknown lands, said “your right hand tells us that he too lost much –- but what is lost may be regained.”

Chapter Text

         “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.”

         “Excuse me?”

         “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…

         “Commence transformation.”

         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.

Chapter Text

         Consciousness slowly began to sip into his mind once more but he did not open his eyes yet he could feel the ground beneath him and he could feel the grass as he grasped at it with his hands but everything hurt every movement hurt but the grass when was the last time he had felt anything other than the warm yellow concoction or the cold metal bed? He could not open his eyes for whatever reason but he could feel the fire as if he were covered in fire from head to toe as if he himself were made of fire as if he were engulfed in fire to his very dots and he could imagine those yellow cubes floating about each one carrying within them their own flame as he tried to raise himself to a sitting position but his frail arms did not allow for such a physically-intensive task and he felt as though he had taken a million-turn nap but he knew that was not true could not possibly be true refused to acknowledge such an asinine assumption as fact as feasible but then again he believed that he had died about ten times but how could that be? Death is a one-time thing or so he recalled everyone telling him telling him that death awaited all but far into the future so far that death might as well not exist and if that were true if his life-long dogma were true then how and why did he know he had died so many times? Once again he tried to raise himself but to no avail to naught and was stuck perpetually face-planted on the grass but at least it was grass and not that freezing metallic examination room the room that had haunted him every waking day every waking moment all those lives ago all those deaths ago but his hearing came back it sure did because he could hear everything now the crying the exploding the whistling the screaming the slaughtering the crumbling the blowing the shuffling the crackling the running the beeping the whirring the puffing the stomping the clanking. The clanking. There were two whips. One on either side of him. They were made of chains. They were not made of fire. Yet he himself was. Scratch that. There really was fire on the chain. Just not everywhere. Not like how he was fire. Fire everywhere. He tried opening his eyes. No luck. He tried sitting up. Success. Success at last. He tried opening his eyes. No luck. He gripped the handles of his whips. He floated there. Motionless. Unbudgingly. Listening. Intently listening. The sounds about him were getting louder. His ears were clearing up. He tried opening his eyes. Success. Success at last. In front of him was a monster. A beast. Metal beast. Only metal thing he knew of was an Exo. Yet this Exo was unlike the ones in the lab. Not at all. Not like the ones in the lab. Not like the short ones in the lab. Not like the red-eyed ones in the lab. No. This one was huge. It scared him. He did not know what to do. He had whips. Did not know how to use them. Yet his breathing was calm. His mind was no longer racing. A wave of calm overtook him. Calm. Very calm. The fire cooled down. The water was soothing. He closed his eyes again. Tranquility.

         “Uhnnngggnnnh!” the monster grunted, blasting fire everywhere. The grass around him withered and caught fire. The monster’s wings erupted from his back. He stared at the Exo and lurched forward, grabbing the Exo and purging so much fire that the Exo crumbled to dots and melted. It was an impulsive action, but he was now calming down. He began to analyze his appearance in detail for the very first time. He had enormous, yellow claws on both hands, a tail, and two humongous wings with yellow horns on them. He grasped his head and discerned three intimidating horns there as well. He felt his heart start swimming.

         “Aaaauuuuurgggghh!” The demon bellowed clawing at his face. He launched himself upward and flapped his wings to reach even higher. He did not want to stop. He kept soaring higher and higher, faster and faster, still clawing at his face to the point of ripping off whole chunks of his face. He could not stop himself. He was a monster. What had he become! Whose chunks were those raining down on the unsuspecting Texeli below him! Why had he magically gained the ability to fly! He was a Xana, a Xana! Yet he was a Theri, a fell harbinger of death! To iris with those Dracomis! He had a Theri companion residing within him. He literally was his own companion! No, he was no companion. He was an enemy, an enemy eating at his flesh! So preoccupied was he with clawing at his face that he did not even notice when his wings stopped flapping, when his height began to sink, when the ground beneath him began to sprint straight at him as he plunged to his death.

         An Exo who had been silently observing everything from afar beeped and booped in defeat. “Amalgam-13 proved to be a failure. Commencing retrieval of dots –- if possible. Certainty of dots being recoupable: Low. Prepare Amalgam-14.”

*                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *

         His consciousness had been… faulty. Imperfect. He could not describe it. He looked down at his red-plated arms, his fire-ridden physique. He did not remember from where he had obtained such things, especially the whips. He no longer knew who he was. A strong sensation of something terrible residing within him resurfaced but sunk as quickly as it had ambushed him. So quick, in fact, that he began to doubt he ever felt it in the first place. He could not remember anything from the past ten minutes. There was a clock. He knew it had been ten minutes. But where did those ten minutes go? It was as if his consciousness had decided to dive ahead in time. Granted, he never truly understood how time functioned -– he doubted anybody did -– but to dive ahead in time? Unheard of!

         All around him fire ate away at the furniture, at the walls, at the… There was a pile of yellow liquid. Could it be? No, it couldn’t. He had not ever heard of anything as baffling as melted… he refused to think about it. He was the only one in the room, and to acknowledge the possibility of… was to insinuate that he…

         Twenty minutes this time. Why… why could he not remember? The room was flooded in even more fire, but there were claw marks flowing down the walls and across the ceiling this time. More frightening however were the additional two piles of yellow sludge. There was a single mirror in the room completely intact. Everything in the room was reduced to ashes or tatters, yet the mirror had not even the tiniest of cracks. He walked over to it, to its impeccable and pristine condition, and gazed upon his reflection. He was the same man he vaguely remembered he had been except for the flames that inhabited his every pore, the red armor that encapsulated him, the whips that coiled themselves around his neck, and the three horns on top of his head. He began to panic once more, but that was all. The next time-skip would skip him to the end of time itself. He skipped to the end of the world.

         “Amalgam-22: failure.”

*                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *                  *

         “Amalgam-29. Do you remember?”

         “Yes.” The fire, the claws, the deaths, all of it. The more he tried to remember, the more he felt himself sink deeper into the sea inside of his mind. Remembering was like -– swimming, seeing the same thing both above and under water.

         “Current emotions?”

         “Confusion.” Who was he? Was he Xana? Was he Theri? What were all these memories?

         “Mentally unstable. Memories quasi-intact. Control?”

         “Pardon?” Control? Did he mean over him?

         “To what degree of certainty for transforming at will?”

         “Low.” Or perhaps not. He could tell from his memories that the monster would surface whenever his emotions became too extreme. As long as he remained calm…

         “Contacting Unit #1356 and Unit #0032. Prepare concentrate.”

         “No.” He knew what was to be done to him. He was to be submerged. Not again. He did not want to go back to sleep again. To go back to sleep was to become vulnerable, to be doomed to wake up for another examination, another test, another death. He needed to escape. He needed to summon forth the demon inside his flesh. He remembered the pain -- the suffering -- that the Exos had put him through for so long. He could feel the spark within him ignite. His consciousness began to sink as the monster took hold.

         “Cease!” the Exo shouted as many others began to pour into the interrogation room. A sea of Exos approached him, but they were all feeble and miniature tin cans.

         “AAAAAUUUUUGH!” he roared, amused by how much they had underestimated his power. They had assumed that a mere thirty scrawny scientists would suffice to quench his thirst, but they could not have been any further from the truth. All thirty were melted to mush, and he blasted the door open to escape once again. This time, however, he was prepared. No longer would he let his guard down and allow the scientists to ambush him. Burn is what they wanted him to do -- what they had created him to do -- and burn is what he shall do, but not Texeli. He was going to burn all of them, ALL OF THE EXOS!

         “Damn it all!” He shouted after finally regaining his consciousness. He found himself outside the Exo base, on top of grass, below the shining sun, amidst the cool wind, but he had slept once again. “I need you to stop stripping me of my consciousness, you fool!”

         You’d only get in my way.

         “I cannot possibly trust you to-”

         We are one. You die, I die. You are safe.

         “I am not talking about myself here! I am talking about everyone else. There is no guarantee that you would melt Exos exclusively. I cannot allow you to… to…”

         Texeli do not melt. Only Exos. Texeli are safe.

         “No. I refuse to give you full control. You are conscious while I have control over my body, yet you do not allow me to remain so when you are in control. Do you not see the problem?”

         No. You’d get in my way. It is necessary.

         “Listen to me, you…” Just then, he heard three people approach him. One was a dwarf in white armor, another an ogre with golden shoulder pads, and the other a stereotypical Barbarian.

         “Well look at what we have here!” the dwarf shouted. “We got ourselves one frail little boy.”

         “We sure do, Scorylo,” the ogre responded.

         “Where is your defender, little guy?” the Barbarian asked.

         “You overestimate him, Heartwood; as if any Human would ever want to be associated with him.”

         “Come on, at least entertain him before we destroy him, Makepeace.”

         “Stay away from me,” he said. A warning from the depths of his heart. He was scared of the monster he would become.

         “Did you hear that, boys?” Makepeace taunted. “This fella thinks he can one-up us.”

         “What a fool,” Scorylo noted, spinning his axe. All three of them began to spin their axes in hopes of intimidating him. He gripped his whips harder. The fire that surrounded him began to burn brighter.

         “Do you think we are making him a little too scared? Just took at his trembling!” Heartwood mused.

         “Alright, well, let us just finish him off. ‘Tis what he gets for thinking he could be like us -- Texeli who adhere to no defender’s every whim.”

         “Charge!” Makepeace shouted, running toward him. Before he knew it, all three of them had surrounded and were cutting down on him. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine… One cut after the other. Without his armor, he would have been done for, laying on the ground as nothing more than liver pâté. Each blow drained his energy, however, and after so many blows, his body quit on him and rendered him unable to move. He lay on the ground, his armor far too heavy for him to move in.

         “AWAKE!”

         I know this voice… It was the voice of one of the scientists.

         “Remember, you are no ordinary Xana…”

         I am a divided being.

         “Two selves that rage as one.”

         Two selves that suffer as one… He realized then the key to ultimate power. As much as I do not want to admit it, demon, we are one and the same. There is no need to fight for control over this vessel for we are one. We are neither Xana nor Theri. We are something new… Xana made fast to Theri, Theri unbound by Xana.

         The fire around him became even more chaotic. A red aura formed about him, and the three others stumbled backward unable to withstand the heat. He could feel the wings sprouting violently from his back, he could feel his face deforming into that of a demon, he could see his hands morph into exaggeratedly long, sharp claws, yet he remained conscious… and so did his other voice. And together they shouted…

         “WE ARE THESANTHEI!”

Chapter Text

         “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.

Chapter Text

         “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.

         “Classified.”

         “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.