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To Become a Defender

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          “Ready?” Eveline checked with a twinkle not once observed before dancing in his wide eyes as he barely contained himself from skipping in glee as would a school girl when approached by her love. Master’s first full immersion in an Exo raid was soon to commence, and Master had been mentally preparing himself for the unknown. Would the golden women resurface? Would the enemy be a completely different breed? Eveline had elaborated earlier on how the two weeks of downtime between Exo raids were due to the Exos innovating their weaponry. Would the golden women be even more bloodthirsty? famished? As Eveline frantically jammed the Pavilion inside his pouch, Master familiarized himself with the band alongside whom they would be defending. The band was in a different formation than any Eveline had levied thus far for the strategy against Exo bosses was starkly unique, or so Eveline argued. Instead of the one with phoenixes, Eveline had levied three Esmellion, a Zalmoxis, two Iazipaa, and three Ahati-Waqrat. Their destination was Yakoun Forest, which, according to Eveline, had been described by a message he received on the tablet as the home of a hierophant who goes by “Nergal,” a formidable beast whose reputation and creed have granted him the nickname of Practitioner of Righteous Wrath, a byzantium, horned, winged demon whose dogma, Wroth Way, implores all to harness within themselves, from the deepest recesses of their souls, their most ardent flames for unmitigated destruction. Upon having recited Wroth Way’s discipline, Eveline had stared at Master for a fraction of a second, a fraction long enough for Master to have read perfectly. If Master were somehow able to harness the wrath that had ambushed and crippled him upon being defeated by Taurus, how more efficient as a defender would he be? The mere fantasy of encountering Nergal at Yakoun Forest and becoming his disciple in order to better understand and tame his own inner demons made Master as, if not even more, fevered with giddiness as Eveline.

          “Ready,” Master assured with a certainty by which even he had been confounded. Admittedly, Master had been meditating ever since Eveline had so confidently dictated that the next Exo invasion would occur soon and in so doing had elevated his mental state from his usual carefree indifference to a far more sophisticated confidence with which he aimed to more efficiently eliminate his foes. There would be no more anxiety attacks, no more involuntary tantrums, no more losing consciousness; there would only be meticulously refined carnage reducing every Exo that foolishly dared to obstruct his unrelenting procession of death into nothing but those fleeting, sparkling, golden bits that would no sooner disintegrate than the next Exo would violently explode by Master’s bloodthirst, or so had he ambitiously envisioned during his meditation far into the darkening night. Master considered the entire week that would follow as a test specifically imposed upon him by the gods who before anything else desired to witness the extent of Master’s competence. Either he solidified his name among all the other defenders or he perished a dishonorable, decrepit fool whose legacy would be more instantaneously forgotten than an Exo’s dots.

          From afar, the two of them discerned a battle cry that shook them to their very bones. A swarm of crows shot forth toward the sky, escaping the pandemonium within the Yakoun Forest. The battle cry indisputably belonged to the most powerful hierophant to have ever tread on Texel as he chastised the Exos for trespassing upon his domain. As the two approached the forest, Master’s curiosity inundated his chest and mind. At that moment, he yearned above all else to witness the new Exos. Alas, the Exos were not the first entities the two encountered but old companions who had been discarded from Master’s working memory. Before them approached H accompanied by a man who Master had never before laid eyes upon. Zar, the blue hand always nestled on H’s shoulder, greeted Eveline cordially proceeded by H and the stranger. The stranger, as introduced by Eveline, was named Slangerr, a warrior who had challenged Tier A in combat during multiple War Games and miraculously survived to chronicle his swift debacles.

          Not long thereafter, one of the most indominable duos, as dubbed by Eveline, approached the assembly: Taurus, the stunningly gorgeous harbinger of bitter-sweet demise whom Master had unintentionally obligated to despise him in deep-seeded abhorrence with his shameless display of immaturity and inferior composure, and the stone-cold Feyk, whose condemnatory eyes bore chasms into even the most fearless of warriors. Feyk extended his hand toward Master, offering a silent handshake that Master hesitantly grasped and shook stiffly. “A most welcoming pleasure is encountering you this charming morning. Much have I been briefed on you, and keenly have I awaited the opportunity to confirm such incredible elucidations with my own two eyes.” His grip tightened as his eyes darkened ever so slightly.

          “The pleasure is all mine, dear Feyk,” Master replied as he tried to refrain from flinching at Feyk’s passive-aggressive triturating of his hand.

          “Three twosomes has the iris convened this morning,” Taurus stated, and Feyk at once unshackled Master’s bruised hand. Slangerr seemingly inquired about something, eyeing Master in disgust.

          Eveline, before reciting his scrupulously articulated reply, gazed upon Taurus and Feyk in apprehension. “He is a non-defender whom I have diligently observed and mentored for the past two weeks in order for him to prove his worth before you all this raid.” Slangerr scoffed, but whatever condemnations may have brewed within him remained intensely imprisoned. H mentioned something, and Slangerr nodded in agreement. Taurus spoke a few phrases in German as Feyk surreptitiously examined Master for any indications of having acknowledged Taurus’ altered tongue. Seeing that Master had not reacted in the slightest, Feyk attempted to probe Master by talking to him in German, but before Master could formulate a response, Eveline clapped his hands thunderously and urged everyone to invade the battlefield as to hopefully join a competent Mob. Feyk allowed a minuscule smile to disfigure his face and agreed with Eveline in German, shooting a final sidelong glance in Master’s direction before following Eveline closely behind Taurus.

          Excitement ambushed the sextet mere moments after having traversed through the ecotone between the Yakoun Forest and tranquility in the form of two men, one young and short and the other more robust and towering above all. Master noticed Eveline’s fists and jaw tighten, terribly perturbed. As the two frantically approached them, Eveline whispered to Master a rather foreboding prognostication: “everyone is gathered in the same place, which only means that something bad is going to happen.” The shortest of the two locked eyes with Master for an instant, and in that instant, Master was thrust into a fleeting mania that left his stomach churning. He had not been provided the time to act upon it, but for that millisecond, Master had felt as though he had witnessed the deaths of all his friends and had felt sorrow as he had never felt it before. The churning in his stomach was fear, something Master had only been able to realize by the time the young stranger had begun dashing through the trees in a beeline for him and had slashed the distance between them in half. Before the two of them clashed, H tackled the boy and screamed commands to everyone. The tall stranger approached them and spoke calmly to Taurus and Feyk.

          “My most sincere apologies, Officers. Kohai and I have been rather preoccupied chasing down a most concerning runaway: Qavl.” Uttering the name had stolen H’s attention, which Kohai capitalized by elbowing H in the neck and liberating himself from his hold. Kohai dusted himself off and stared at Master without saying a word or moving a muscle with eyes that diffused a cold spell all throughout Master’s body; their bloodthirst was alarming, and Kohai’s jarring demeanor was amplified by the anguished coughing of the valiant H.

          “Qavl?” Taurus repeated, and for the first time, Master noticed her body language express the slightest hints of emotion: chagrin. Who was Qavl? Master desperately attempted to disinter any random memories he may have harbored but could not discover anything until… the bounty! Of course! He had read about the bounty of one million Texi back in H’s tablet. Qavl… he had been missing for such a long time. Why would he of all people resurface, during an Exo raid no less! Everyone’s attention shifted to the rustling of leaves. A shadow was darting from canopy to canopy.

          “Face your consequences, Qavl!” Kohai shouted with a lingering and faint amusement. As fast as he could, which was inhumanly so, Kohai retrieved his armory from his pouch, snatched a spear, and launched the spear like a javelin in hopes of detaining the shadow. There was a clunk of metal against metal and a thump as the shadow divebombed from one of the canopies onto the then-bloodstained ground. Kohai and the tall stranger rushed over to where the prey had landed followed by the composed Taurus and Feyk. Meanwhile, Slangerr teased H as he helped H stand up and Eveline remained petrified in thought and apprehension. Could Eveline’s premonition truly come to pass? Master’s fickle attention next shifted toward the open and unguarded armory abandoned by Kohai. Master approached it and witnessed a vast assortment of weapons. As had always been the case, Master’s eyes remained transfixed by a pair of glittering gauntlets that seemed to beckon his name. Master turned around to where Kohai had run but noticed that he was nowhere in sight. Quickly, Master stole the right gauntlet and struggled to fit his hand inside, which proved to be difficult with only one arm. His attempts were abruptly interrupted by screaming he heard from behind him.

          “In iris’ name! Taurus, do not fail a second time!” Kohai shouted in anger followed by a gentler “Jibb, Jibb, stay with me! ‘Tis naught but a flesh wound! Do not be a wimp!” The rustling of leaves and swift steps echoed about Master, and Master let go of the gauntlet. He was about to reach for a weapon when the shadow erupted from a nearby bush with the head of the spear in his metallic hands. Master was unable to observe the shadow for very long; everything was happening far too swiftly, as if Time had decided to row twice as fast down the river without any warning. For the second time that very hour, he was saved from impending doom. That time, his savior was Eveline, whose acute reflexes did not falter in bulldozing Qavl against the armory door, sealing the armory shut and tipping it over. Taurus sprinted forth from the shadows with her hand drawn back to her ribs and leaped onto the armory. Fortunately, Eveline had rolled away just in time before Taurus pummeled Qavl straight in the jaw with her palm. A maniacal laughter resonated throughout the forest. Master was not able to react in time, but he observed Qavl’s whirring, technologically-enhanced arm spin its wrist 180 degrees as to point the tip of the spear directly at the unsuspecting Taurus. Had it not been for Slangerr, who clasped Qavl’s arm as tightly as he could and refused to release it, Taurus’ life may have waned a couple years prematurely. Qavl smacked Taurus from on top of him with his other metallic arm, and Master was able to capture a view of Qavl’s body.

          Qavl, at some point, must have been Human, but the only Human aspects that remained were patches of Human flesh surrounded by Exo enhancements. His eyes were that of an Exo’s: bright red and shuddering erratically like a chameleon’s. Both his arms were Exo prosthetics, reminding Master of his own stump protruding wretchedly from his left shoulder. His head was bald underneath a dirty, old straw hat, and Master wondered if he had become so from the stress of all the surgeries. He was shorter than even Kohai, yet his legs were most certainly enhanced for speeds no true Human would be able to achieve no matter how many years he spent training. All his whirring, clanking, and steaming prosthetics were intimidating, no doubt about it, but he was still mortal, the cascade of red oozing from a gaping wound to the left of his stomach being testament of that.

          The arm with which Qavl had catapulted Taurus against a tree attempted to grasp Slangerr’s neck; however, Slangerr, knowing how utterly powerless he would have been against the metallic grip, liberated Qavl’s arm and just barely dodged the trajectory of the grab. Unfortunately, in a motion so fluid that Master was compelled to believe it had been planned in advance, Qavl allowed his own momentum to spin him around and stabbed Slangerr with his other hand that still clenched the broken spear as would a mountain climber the icy stones while free soloing Mount Everest. The spear lodged itself into Slangerr’s right eye, squirting blood onto Qavl’s smiling visage. Slangerr had not had the time to dodge the second strike but had been able to use his right hand to mitigate the force with which the spear point would have penetrated Slangerr’s brain. As Slangerr lay on his back bellowing in torment, he pressed his left hand against the back of his right hand and heaved with all his strength as to prevent Qavl from digging the spearhead any deeper. Although he would have been unable to do so for long, his frantic and desperate attempt at survival had delayed his death long enough for Feyk to have administered aid to Taurus and for H to have driven his foot onto Qavl’s ribs, sending Qavl flying off Slangerr. H knelt down and cared for Slangerr as Eveline approached Qavl and would have stomped on his head had Qavl not rolled out of the foot’s way. Qavl eyed Eveline, Slangerr, and Taurus for a split second and decided on confronting Master.

          Master, who had been passively observing the carnage, had not been prepared neither physically nor mentally for Qavl to approach him. With a slash of his spear, Qavl tattooed onto Master’s chest a deep laceration that stretched diagonally from the bottom of his right to the top of his left. The force of the blade granted Master no choice but to stumble backward, but Qavl had no intentions of suspending his onslaught. Seamlessly, Qavl altered his arm’s movement and was about to deal Master a lethal incision about his neck when H rammed into Qavl, increasing the tally on the times Master had escaped death to three. Qavl, growing more and more frustrated at the lack of deaths since his supposed-to-be slaughter, stopped laughing, hooked H’s neck with his left arm, and stabbed the spear into the bottom of H’s stomach. In one swift motion, the spear shredded across H’s abdomen and chest. Qavl disinterred the spear from H’s soon-to-be corpse and leaped away from everyone to regain some composure.

          In blind rage, the Texeli, who had been conditioned to never attack Humans -- to never harm defenders -- under any and all circumstances, ignored their superego and allowed their id to ravage Qavl. All Iudith, all Esmellion, Gulbahar, Slateshanks, and Jinxan, warriors whose names Master miraculously recalled from the days inside H’s Pavilion, stormed Qavl with the intention to kill. Master, however, completely ignored the battle between the Texeli and the monster who shouted “you Texeli dare confront a creature whose weapons of war were forged from the countless dots of your fallen brothers” in a mocking manner. All of Master’s fickle attention solely attached itself to the dying H.

          “No, no, no…” Master whimpered as he knelt beside H. He stared into H’s dead eyes and pressed his hand against the gaping aperture that was nearly wide enough to swallow his hand whole. “Please stay, please stay! I know how to make you better! I learned it from Eveline. It’ll fix you right up!” Without any further delay, Master dug inside H’s pocket and found H’s pouch. He hurriedly searched for GLU inside the pouch and, once he found it, squeezed the contents all over H. The overflowing red liquid concealing everything soon transmuted into strawberry milk as Master began rubbing the GLU everywhere, creating a mess all over himself, H, and the ground. “You’re all better, right? Right?” Tears were falling from Master’s eyes as he realized H had not made a sound during the entire healing process. “Answer me, please…” He began to rub more fervently as his tears continued to cascade. He stared at H’s dead eyes once more, their glossy complexion fueling Master’s sorrow tremendously.

          “You idiot, help us over here!” Eveline shouted. Master looked behind him at a group of Texeli, Eveline, Taurus, and Feyk trying to apprehend the slippery Qavl. Qavl resembled a dancer, weaving between tridents, magic blasts, swords, fire, and punches with a delighted smile stamped on his face. He spun so gracefully, so peacefully, and Master was overwhelmed with even more despondency. He looked back at H and hugged him, drowning his face in the strawberry milk and wishing for H to be brought back like all the other Texeli who had also perished. Why couldn’t Humans heal? “Master!” Eveline shouted a second time. “This is your time to prove yourself!” Master hugged H’s corpse even harder, not daring to let go, as if letting go would allow H’s soul to leave the corpse for all eternity. He was shedding so many tears that he had no idea if he was drowning from the milk or the tears. “Do you not want to be a defender?”

          “To hell with being a defender!” Master shouted to the heavens, his voice cracking under his tears. One by one, the Texeli were being shattered into dots by the eloquent Qavl and his spearhead. The hole on Qavl’s side seemed to have no effect on him as he pirouetted his way to safety. Master’s sorrow deepened more and more. “How could I possibly be a defender if I could not even defend a single one of my dearest friends!” Qavl began to laugh harder than he had ever done since he first revealed himself. His mockery resonated within Master, crumbling all his defenses. Qavl, the perfect killing machine, an assassin so skilled that even after being attacked by so many enemies all at once, his maneuvers were smooth and beautiful, so much so that the straw hat he had been wearing was still snugly decorating his head.

          “This is not the time for one of your mental breakdowns!” Eveline screeched, barely blocking Qavl’s kick to his groin. There were no more Texeli left, meaning the next to perish was going to be a Human. “Harness your anger, harness your sorrow, do it!” Master closed his eyes tightly but not for long; he would have drowned his eyes in tears if he had not let them loose.

          “You animal!” Kohai shrieked having abandoned the injured Jibb. Qavl tried to dodge Kohai’s attack by jumping over him, but Kohai’s reflexes were enhanced by his detestation of Qavl. Kohai seized Qavl’s ankle and swung him against the ground. There was commotion as everyone clamored to be the first to stomp on his head or injury. Qavl, in a bind, decided to use his legs to blast away. Before anyone was able to injure him further, he was already in a tree’s canopy giggling incessantly.

          “What a workout that was!” Qavl shouted, breathing hard. “Let me catch my breath for crying out loud. I hardly consider you all ganging up on me a fair fight.” He sat down on a branch and began to swing his legs, twirling the broken spear with one hand.

          Eveline grabbed Master by the neck and spit on his face. “Wake the hell up! You either help us now or perish!”

          “What if I want to perish?” Master responded in a low voice.

          “Are you giving up? Are you abandoning your dream of becoming a defender? a proper protagonist?”

          “Such a dream was never mine; it is yours. You seek purpose like I do, the difference being that you search for purpose in me. You want to be my mentor because that has been the only purpose you have found! You pretended to be a member of the police to fill that gap eating you from the inside out! Let go of me this instant! I no longer want to play your silly games!” Qavl began to clap from atop his throne. Eveline grit his teeth and hurled Master onto H’s corpse.

          “To hell with you, then! Go play with your doll all you want!”

          “Do not call him a doll! He was more of a protagonist than you could ever hope to be!”

          “Come again?”

          “Did you not see his band? Where did that white knight on the dragon come from? No one on Texel that I remember seeing ever had that Texeli levied in his band. Not a single one. Did you see that blue hand on his shoulder? Again, not a single other defender had that companion. You know what truly happened today? The hero, the protagonist, the main character in this twisted story, just died! He died in front of your eyes and you dare dismiss his death as nothing?” Taurus and Feyk had opened the armory and were trying to injure Qavl, but Qavl effortlessly dodged all their attacks, clapping once again like a circus monkey swinging by his tail while smashing his two cymbals together.

          Before Eveline was able to retort, a searing pain erupted from Master’s arm stump. He clutched it tightly and bellowed at the top of his lungs. Even Qavl had been taken aback by the seemingly random episode and had stopped clapping or laughing. Master kept shouting and shouting without any explanation for what could possibly have been causing the pain. The stump, which had not bled since he woke up, began to ooze blood. Master felt as though his arm were still there being pulverized under an unfathomably massive weight. He could hear his invisible bones cracking and twisting; he could feel them grinding against each other and protruding from his invisible arm; he could see a field of red and white poppies…

          Suddenly, everyone became petrified by the hooded creature emerging from the shadows flashing everyone with its two large, red eyes. It was one of the largest Exos anyone had ever seen. Feyk whispered something into Taurus’ ear, and she nodded in agreement. It was hovering over the ground and staring at Qavl intently. Qavl stood up and tried to jump to another tree, but the Exo had different plans for him. The Exo grabbed Qavl mid-air by the head, knocking his straw hat off, and in a very hoarse, robotic voice growled three letters. Those three letters echoed inside Master’s head, deafening him. He could no longer hear Qavl’s screaming or the Exo’s growls; he could no longer hear his own heartbeat or frantic breathing; he could only hear those three letters circling around in his head: N, X, T.

          “Heavens! It hurts! It hurts!” Qavl yelled as syringes shot forth from the Exo’s arm and embedded themselves into Qavl’s head. A yellow liquid slowly crawled inside multiple tubes that funneled into the syringes and into Qavl’s brain. Qavl’s wild movements began to slow down, his speech became mumbled, and soon Qavl was nothing more than a limp sack of flesh dangling from the Exo’s hand. The Exo let go of Qavl and roared. The canopies of the trees all around them began to rustle, and soon there were Exos all around them. They were all almost identical to the first Exo except much smaller and less bulky. Without any Texeli alive to fend off the hoard, the helpless Humans all slowly backed away and convened at the center back-to-back; all except Master. Master was still clutching his arm and hearing the three letters being growled over and over and over again. He also heard other voices repeating those same three letters. Women, men, children, elders… so many distinct voices uttering the same three letters, but what could they possibly mean?

          The biggest of all the Exos discontinued his roar and looked down at the ground. The straw hat Qavl had been wearing had landed about a meter away from Master, and when the Exo saw Master and his missing arm, the Exo clutched its head with one hand while the other smacked a tree down. The red eyes blinked blue for only a miniscule second before turning red again. It growled “NXT” once more, and in that moment, Master stopped shouting. Everything went quiet. The clamor inside Master’s head ceased immediately. The pain in Master’s stump vanished. He felt possessed by something as he spun around, excessively squeezed H’s contacts from his ruptured eyes, put them on despite their being covered in blood, and pinned H’s pouch between his knees as he knelt down on the ground. From the pouch he grabbed as many GLU as he could and began tossing them behind him in hopes that the others would be able to reach them and use them to revive all the Texeli littered about. He then reached out for the gauntlet he had not been able to put on, bit down on it, and in one swift motion rammed his hand into it. After a few seconds of trying to adjust the gauntlet as best and fast as he could, he finally stood up in time to dodge an attack from one of the closest Exos. The larger Exo tried to grab Master, but Master was prepared to roll away. All his senses had been heightened and his reflexes refined. He noticed that there were already multiple Texeli being revived and that those who had not been squeezing GLU everywhere had decided to take out their own Pavilions and beckon forth their own bands. When the next Exo tried to smack its hand on top of Master, Master parried to the side, jumped on top of the hand, stomped down on the Exo’s forearm as to force the Exo to bend over, and bulldozed the eight-foot-tall behemoth straight in the face with all his strength. His irascibility, his melancholia, his perturbation, his egomania, and so much more all molded together into a single bludgeon that shattered the Exo’s skeleton and sent countless of red dots spraying everywhere. In a similar level of passion, all the defenders began commanding their Texeli to attack. Bombardment after bombardment after bombardment. Trees were incinerated, drowned, blasted, and electrified in such a grand scale that a bird’s eye view of the forest would have revealed a cadaver-shaped plume of dark-red smoke crawling its way up as if to escape the Hell that had erupted. Despite all the smaller Exos being reduced to bits, the ten-foot goliath towered above everyone staring at Master with its sangria eyes flickering to a brighter red. It seemed petrified and unable to move, yet whenever a Texeli tried to strike it down, their magic seemed to have no effect on it. Its armor was impenetrable.

          When the final normal Exo collapsed, Master quickly counted how many Humans were still standing. Eveline, Slangerr, Kohai, Taurus, and Feyk were all there bruised, slashed, and scorched but still breathing. Kohai took the opportunity to run toward where Master could only assume Jibb had been left alone. The five of them stared up at the large Exo, the only remaining enemy, and wondered when it was planning on retaliating. It remained motionless for an agonizingly long time, and then its flickering eyes shut off. It slumped over and a slow, low creaking sound emanated from somewhere within it.

          “Rebooting,” Taurus whispered in realization. As soon as she had said so, the Exo’s eyes flashed red, its body sprung erect, and its hands reached out to grab Master and finish its mission once and for all.