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To Become a Defender

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          “Why the holy hell is this damned Exo so violent!” The airborne Master discerned Eveline’s voice amid the commotion. He crash-landed on his back and rolled multiple times before coming to a halt. The Exo had failed to grab but had succeeded in smacking Master after Master had dodged the initial attack. The Texeli were blasting the Exo with everything they had, but the Exo ignored them all as would a rhinoceros some pesky ants. It swiftly dashed to where Master had been attempting to recapture his breath and punched down into the ground, creating a crater and causing one of the trees that had been severely damaged during earlier altercations to topple over and nearly crush the ever-sidestepping Master. Master acknowledged his powerlessness and sprinted as fast as he could away from the bloodthirsty Exo. The Exo yanked its fist from deep within the ground and swung its other fist at Master, shattering many trees in the process but missing Master all the same.

          “Clearly, the Exo aims only for the child,” Feyk announced. “Let us depart.” Feyk recovered the dots of his fallen band members and fled the scene. Taurus, who had also collected all the dots of her fallen warriors, did not follow Feyk but instead sat on a large stone with her legs and arms crossed. She was observing the Exo intently. Neither Kohai nor Jibb were anywhere to be seen, leaving only Slangerr and Eveline as the two Humans left who were potentially willing to battle the Exo, as futile as it may have been.

          “Mother of God…” Eveline muttered as the Exo grabbed a fallen tree and slammed it down in an attempt to splatter Master against the ground. To the Exo, Master was nothing more than a fly and the tree the flyswatter. “Never have I observed such a volatile and, dare I say, Human Exo.” Slangerr nodded in agreement, and so did Taurus. Master, had he been provided the time, would have pondered Eveline’s curious choice of adjectives, but the Exo had no intentions of allowing Master his due rest. Master yearned for the Exo’s eyes to turn blue, but whatever glitch had been causing the malfunction must have been eradicated during the reboot. Once again, the Exo slammed the tree down, but that time Master sprained his ankle during his roll. He whimpered in pain and accepted defeat. There was no way for him to run anymore, not like he ever had hope of escaping in the first place. The Exo, noticing Master’s predicament, dropped the tree and reached out to snatch him.

          Master squeezed his eyes shut and visions manifested themselves before him in the darkness. Among the many visions, the excruciatingly vivid image of H’s corpse, with its gaping crevasse, overhanging bowels, and gray eyes, plastered itself onto the center of Master’s mind. All other visions seemed blurry and unfocused when compared to the detailed and almost real hallucination. “I will be joining you soon, master,” he heard a voice within himself whisper. As his mind drifted deeper and deeper into hopelessness, the straw hat he had seen Qavl wearing ambushed his thoughts and an overwhelming sense of longing sieged Master’s heart. The only thought in his mind after having visualized the hat had been survival. He must survive. He needed to survive long enough to grasp the hat with his hand. He did not understand why, but in that vexing moment, he had not pondered the technicalities. He opened his eyes as to search for the hat, but the moment he opened them, he felt something hook his neck and begin dragging him across the ground before lifting him up in the air and sending him flopping on top of a horse’s back.

          Iudith had borrowed another Iudith’s steed and had hooked him with her staff in order to swing him on top of the horse. Master wrapped his arm tightly about the stallion as he heard the Exo growl in frustration behind him. Iudith and Master locked eyes, and Iudith, with pain in her eyes, opened her mouth but did not say a word, not like Master would have understood. She closed her mouth and eyes, breathed in deep, and turned her horse around. The horse Master had landed on did not turn around, however. As Master galloped away from the bloodbath, he turned his head and witnessed one of the most scarring events to ever occur during the war. No event would come anywhere close to such level of grotesqueness and heart wrench for many, many moons to come, and Master had witnessed it all with wide eyes drenched in blood.

          Iudith pointed her staff at the Exo and bellowed her most fervid battle cry. The magic accumulating at the tip of her staff was of such a grand magnitude that Master, who had long abandoned the battlefield, was enveloped in a harrowing cold reminiscent of Gloom Lake. Her magic created frost about the length of her staff and even her hand. Despite the piercing sting she must have experienced across her entire body as a result of her magic, she refused to surrender and blasted the Exo with the culmination of all her mana. She had stressed her body and mind to the point of falling ill. Her malaise was far too great, and she tipped over her horse and rolled limply on the ground, breathing slowly. Master, who had witnessed the flood of water wallop the Exo’s face and send it nearly toppling backward, reined the horse to turn him around and rode as fast as he could to save Iudith. He kicked the steed as to urge him, but Master had already traveled too far to save her.

          The Exo clutched Iudith by the head and pierced her with its needles. She moaned loudly, too fatigued to bellow but conscious enough to experience the excruciating pain. Master roared at the Exo supplications with all his remaining strength, beseeching the Exo to terminate his onslaught, imploring the Exo to kill him and to liberate the crippled Iudith, but the Exo disregarded all of Master’s vehement exhortations. Master observed in fright and dismay as the fire-orange poison coursed through the Exo’s veins and injected itself into Iudith. Her moans exploded into blood-curdling screeching that terrified the horse. Master was catapulted backward as the horse launched itself onto his hind legs. The horse that had been transporting the apprehended Iudith neighed just as loudly as his master screeched while Master attempted to hoist himself onto his feet. When he next opened his eyes, he immediately sprinted toward the Exo. He was almost directly under Iudith and could have reached out to her, but such an action was no longer necessary. The acid had begun to melt her. Instead of crumbling into dots, Iudith’s head deformed into goo. Chunks of her flesh, bone, and hair slid off her and plopped on the ground near Master’s feet. Her spine detached itself from her skull, causing her entire body below the neck to crash down and splatter Master’s legs. Iudith’s horse suffered a similar fate. As if their souls had been linked somehow, the horse’s head had melted and left nothing but a puddle on the bleeding grass.

          Master’s legs felt like gelatin and could no longer withstand his weight. He knelt on the ground and clasped Iudith’s hand. As he stared at the defiled body, magma began to form inside his heart. He whipped his head toward the three Humans who had spectated the atrocity without lifting a single finger and reprimanded them all. “You imbeciles! You monsters! You incorrigible scum!” He tightened his grip on Iudith’s hand, which squished like clay under the pressure. “What have you to say for yourselves! How could you possibly have stood there and done nothing as Iudith threw her life away for me? What is wrong with you all!”

          “Do not dare shout at us, you babbling moron! You are the one desecrating her name. Get the hell out of there! Are you just going to stand there letting her efforts and death be all in vain? And to think this is all just for a Texeli with countless of other copies!”  Eveline shouted back. Master’s heart shut down momentarily upon hearing Eveline’s retort. Just for a Texeli… The Exo whipped its hand to the side to cleanse it of the Texeli goop and grabbed Master’s head. As the Exo pressed down on his head, Master crashed onto his back and felt his head flatten against the ground painfully. In fear of his head exploding under the pressure, he tapped the Exo’s finger, but his skinny, feeble arm could not support the weight of the bloody gauntlet anymore and fell limply beside him. He groaned as his head was crushed farther and farther into the ground. He noticed Eveline begin to rush forward in his peripheral, but his loathing overpowered all of his logic and emotions, even his agony. “Do not dare approach me, heathen! I care not for your insufferable aid! You dare act now because I am Human? Why did you not do so when Iudith found herself staring into Death’s eyes too!” He felt the needles penetrate his head. The sensation was indescribable. He was about to die, but he would much rather die than continue living in a world where the supposed heroes could observe Texeli being massacred with no remorse. All the months of war, the months of watching Texeli crumble and be revived with GLU, had converted the Humans into hollow, apathetic husks that would much rather spectate a Texeli melt before them than join the fray. If being a defender meant being a monster, Master would much rather forfeit his life right then and there at the hands of a being that ironically had exhibited more emotion than all the lethargic defenders ever did by merely growling in pain as its eyes flashed red and blue.

          “Let us end this once and for all, Exo,” Master groaned, staring at the Exo’s eyes. He felt a faint sense of déjà-vu, but none of that mattered anymore. His only regret was not dying wearing the straw hat, a feeling he was not able to explain nor care to decipher. As he stared into the Exo’s eyes, he felt as though he were staring into a familiar face. The Exo brought its face closer to him, and as a result, Master saw his reflection on the Exo’s eyes. He was repulsive with bruises, scars, and dark blood littered everywhere. He squinted his eyes, activating the bloody contacts he had forgotten he had stolen from H’s corpse. The Exo, as expected, had no reference in the database, so its name was listed as “???” Master attempted to force himself to chuckle, but he was unable to do so. Even though the liquid was yet to enter his brain, he knew he was about to die from his head caving in. He reached out to touch the Exo’s sangria eyes, but the Exo whimpered softly before retracting its needles and screeching at an unprecedented magical onslaught that detonated on the Exo’s back. The Exo whipped around and abandoned Master sprawled on the ground and unwilling to budge in the slightest. Instead, Master wondered why the Exo had spared him, or at the very least had hesitated to inject him with the liquid. He tried moving his head, but the slightest nudge would manifest a burning inferno.

          “Damn you, Master. Damn you,” Master heard Eveline utter as he fed him a Bitter. Master felt himself slowly rejuvenate and his pain dwindle, yet he remained extremely still in fear of the impending inferno. All the while, the sounds of countless Texeli and defenders propagated across the wet, bloody air. “Reinforcements finally arrived. Tons of Tier A who had been eliminating Exos deeper in the forest received a communication from Taurus. They are trying to apprehend-” Master, who had regained enough strength to move, interrupted Eveline by grabbing his forearm and squeezing it as tightly as he could, which was not much.

          “Leave me be,” Master demanded. Eveline frowned the same way H had frowned a month prior, stood up, and walked away. Master lay there, basked in the sounds of war, and continued to lay there hoping that a stray magical blast or chunk of metal would travel all the way across the battlefield to greet him and terminate his miserable existence once and for all, but the gods heeded his supplications as they had his earlier beckoning for the Exo to malfunction. At some point, Master decided he had sulked for long enough and painstakingly rose to his feet. He quickly adverted his eyes from the explosions bulldozing into the poor Exo and spotted the hat slightly poking from a mound of similarly-colored dirt. As the clamor of agony and adrenaline continued to resonate about the forest, Master limped toward the mound. His vision was mantled by a thick sheet of red as a result of not having cleaned H’s contacts before donning them. The trees were dark-red pikes protruding from the bloody sea on which he was treading. The flora was nothing more than blood clots pulsating in the wind. The sky and clouds were a mere reflection of the reddened deathscape beneath his feet, one whose ankle was severely deformed, twisted, and squirting blood after he mildly strained it during one of his desperate evasions. He calmly knelt down and disinterred the hat, swatted off the blood clots, and placed it on top of his head. A magnificent feeling of self-actualization, of completeness, emerged from deep within him and dispelled him of all his disquietude. He forgot about the war, about his injuries, about his missing arm, about his missing memories, about the blood clouding his vision; he lived in the moment and existed only in the present. It was bliss.

          Yet, despite the bliss, his vision slowly but surely drifted to the corpse rotting beside him. H’s corpse. Beside the corpse, a dark-purple hand leaned against the arm. Master had enough of the veil of death and removed the contacts. He stared at H’s face and cried. He cried until his tears had washed away every drop of blood and cried some more. Even after his eyes could no longer physically procure more tears, he knelt by the corpse and whimpered alongside the hand. He heaved a heavy sigh and removed the straw hat from his head, pressing it against his chest and bowing his head.

          “The damn Exo got away,” Eveline stated but did not stay. He left as quickly as he had come, not wanting to remain in Master’s presence any more than he needed to. Slangerr knelt by the corpse, stared at H’s face for a short moment, leered at Master’s hat as if debating whether or not to snatch it, and retrieved H’s tablet for Taurus hurriedly. Taurus, on the other hand, had remained seated on the stone and had left the moment Slangerr handed over the tablet. She had placed it inside her pouch, bowed very, very slightly in gratitude, and departed in search for Feyk. Slangerr, having lost his rival and best friend, decided to leave the Yakoun Forest and stay inside his tent until the raid mobs were reassigned. All the while, H’s band, even those who had perished but were resurrected by the desperate defenders who had been spraying GLU indiscriminately, had gathered around and was solemnly gazing down at the corpse. Master stood up and was about to leave when the blue hand gripped his ankle. He said not a word, knowing fully that Master would have been unable to understand, but did not let go even after Master slightly shook his leg.

          “What is it, Zar?” Master asked, looking down at him. “There is nothing more I can do. H is gone.” Zar lifted all five of his fingers and tried to balance on his severed wrist. Master sighed and squatted down. “You do not want to come with me, do you?” Zar quickly curled his fingers and extended them, and somehow Master knew that the gesture was meant to express disagreement. “I am going somewhere wherefrom I shall never return. It is a place only we mortals have the privilege of witnessing. You understand, do you not? Do not follow me.” Zar wagged his index finger. Master smiled, placed his straw hat on his head, and was about to stand up when the hand launched itself onto his arm and climbed up to his shoulder. “Zar, come on, let me go.” Zar tightened his grip on Master’s shoulder. “Fine, fine, but no one else!” His last statement was addressed to all the other Texeli that had arrived. Master found H’s pouch, retrieved the Pavilion, and painstakingly expanded it. He let out all the Texeli that had remained inside and spoke to them all.

          “Your master has perished a noble and brave man…” Master trailed off before continuing, realizing the implications of what he was about to proclaim next. “He… His life was exchanged for my own, and I shall not let his sacrifice go in vain.” He turned his head toward Iudith’s corpse. Most of it was mush, but her head had completely turned to liquid and seeped into the earth. “I want you all to know that you are free! There is no defender to whom any of you must adhere. Do as your heart desires! Travel far, far from this senseless destruction or even join another defender’s band; I care not. Just do not follow me, for I am not a defender, nor will I ever be.” He looked at Zar, but Zar did not show any signs of leaving his shoulder. “Since you are staying with me, and I will have all the time in the world to do nothing, mind helping me learn the Texeli language?” Zar tapped his finger excitedly on Master’s shoulder. “Well that settles it.” He then looked at the contacts still on his hand and placed the cleanest one on his right eye. He stared at H’s face and read his name: Poging. After removing the contact from his eye and forcing himself to tear up so he could wash off the pink tint -– an extremely easy feat, he stuffed the contacts inside his pocket to keep as momentos. Master may not have known what language Poging used to speak, but he knew very well what it meant.

          “Farewell, Poging. May you be the most dazzling man in the afterlife and get all the female angels you could ever wish for.”