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To Become a Defender

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          He did not even realize he had died. He had been reading books -– that is all. How he managed to die by simply reading books did not make any sense to him. Regardless, he knew he was dead from the vast darkness that stretched to infinity before him, the bottomless void in which he was floating, the ever-expanding silence… He had no body. He was merely nowhere yet everywhere. A sentient… point… in space. Just as is the case with a Geometrical point, a zero-dimensional construction, he had no length, no width, no height, no time… nothing. He might as well be nonexistent! Dead! With no eyes to see, no nose to smell, no ears to hear, no mouth to taste, and no flesh to feel, he was nothing but a remnant of the once avid reader cooped up in a library day and night… Had the library even been life? He was not sure anymore. His only memories were of that library. Books upon books but nothing else. Who had he been… if he had been anything at all!

          A muffled ringing began to creep its way to his Tympanic Membrane, but wherefrom? He was nothing and was surrounded by nothing, yet the muffled ringing persisted. He attempted to look around -– a silly propensity that endured past his death –- but saw nothing; he was doubtful of his head having budged at all. With no frame of reference nor sense of proprioception, how could he think any more of himself than nothing, than emptiness? Despite all this, the sudden testament to his inhabiting a three-dimensional space raped his mind in the form of the doppler effect. He felt surprised yet could not feel his eyes widen, his mouth drop aghast, his fist’s grip tighten… but he felt surprised. The low rumbling devoid of genesis began to circle around him. To his left, behind him, to his right, directly in from of him… How could this be so? Was he not a point in space? Was he not nowhere? The low rumbling had manifested itself into indistinct whispers… He felt himself become excited. Whispering… words… words other than his own… He may be blind, but not deaf. He may be mute, but not dead. There was another being in this realm.

          The mumbling, although indistinct still, was high-pitched. A female. Must be a female! Either a female or a young man… he cared not. Soon, the mumbling would become comprehensible, and maybe then he’ll be enlightened as to what his current condition held in store for him. He’ll learn who he is, who he was, who he will be, who he always was and who he will always be, who he had been and who he had ought to be… but waited and waited he did with the mumbling not having become any more comprehensible than the senseless dribble of the wind caressing the windows of the library… Suddenly, the mumbling became very loud to his left and stopped abruptly. He was thrust back into the hopeless void and there he remained with his mischievous nothingness that was indubitably harassing his precarious sanity.

          Stripped from time perception, he could not gauge when he was. When… where… Gradually his mind reverted back to his initial assumption. He resided in a zero-dimensional realm in which neither space nor time existed. Nothing existed. He did not tire either, or at least he did not think he did. He could feel emotions such as fear, excitement, depression, yet he could feel neither fatigue, nor hunger, nor thirst… Had he slept? If so, he had not dreamt. To his conscious delight, the feminine mumbling started. He begged for the mumbling to manifest itself, to not forsake him as it had done so before, and slowly his wishes came to fruition.

          “Dead… murdered… lucky… happy… Exo…” Exo. His mind began racing. Exo? Where and when had he heard that term before? A deep, oozing rift fractured his mind as he struggled to recall. Exo… “It’s been… not very far… I told them…” Them! There are more than just her. Fascinating. “Apparently, the War Games finished… survived, obviously… you… Tier C, right?” War Games? Tier C? Were they amidst a battle? And Tier C, a term from his distant past. A past he did not remember but somehow could feel was a time before the library. Who was he? “To be honest, I was certain I would die… my friends… Human protected by Texeli –- ironic, is it not?” The term Texeli was one he was familiar with from the books he remembered reading, but nothing else. Human?

          “I myself am a Human, as you are, but even then… I believe we are both just as surprised by the turn of events. Imagine! All the poor Tier C who had no say in the matter. No fault of theirs was it that the iris teleported them hither, amidst the burning dots and screaming children! Yet they had to reap that which they did not sow. A tale that brings tears to my eyes and one that is so fresh in my mind. I never killed anyone, believe it or not. Whether they be Tier C or Tier A, I cared not. I hid. Surely my lackluster band could have beaten a good majority of them -– they are not that smart, after all -– but I did not want to confront anyone. Plus, I do not want anything to kill anything regardless of whether they are able to regenerate or not. I wonder how you reacted when you first saw a Texeli build itself up from its remnants. I was horrified. I was mourning their deaths when all of a sudden, their what I once thought as corpses began to shake violently with a blinding glow. I thought I was about to die!”

          There was silence for a while, and he was afraid that his ears had gone dormant again, but if he paid close attention, he could hear the rustling of leaves, the shifting of steps on loose rocks, and… “You know, I am glad I met you. Not only was I able to save someone from death, but I now have… well… enough about that. Just know I am happy. Even if you cannot speak, I can at least pretend you are listening to me, right? As long as you do not start, well, you know… decaying and whatnot… everything will be fine! I feed you, groom you, nurture you… like my own… my own…” Silence again, but he found refuge in the sounds of the forest. He was no longer in the realm of nothingness. He was in… Texel.

          “Pssst, Human, are you awake?” a voice asked. He no longer heard the noises of the forest. Had his consciousness blinked? How long has it been? He was distraught but content, content in the idea that he was asking when without the doubt that time even existed. The voice sighed. The voice sounded masculine. “There are two friends of mine that have been… nauseated… ever since they laid eyes on you. Do not fret! They are not nauseated because they hate you or anything; quite the contrary. They care too much about you. Your condition has really riled them up to the point of not wanting to approach you. They begin balling their eyes out the moment they get too close to you. Anyway, I brought them by force here tonight. They have something to say to you and I will make sure they say it regardless of whether or not you are even listening.”

          There were whimpering noises. “How pitiful, right?” another unfamiliar voice said. “I bet you never would have thought that we were this weak… such crybabies… yet here stand two whimpering old men at the sight of their… mangled…” the voice devolved into sobbing.

          “Your last memory of us was that of two heroic, fearless warriors battling an uphill battle, sacrificing themselves so their alien friend could escape, becoming traitors and pariah amongst traitors and pariah in the name of comradery! And you… our last memory of you was that of a youngling, but a very strong and determined one. One that would bring greatness to Texel! A coward who, with the right training, would become the greatest warrior the world had ever seen! Now, look at you… so decrepit and…” More sobbing ensued.

          “What happened to you, NXT?” NXT’s heart stopped, or so he thought. He was still floating in nothingness, but he felt as though his heart had stopped –- a feeling he could not articulate well even in his thoughts. NXT, NXT, NXT! He was NXT! That was him! His name, his identity, his Self! He remembered! NXT. He wanted to open his mouth, to console them, to tell them that he was still there, to tell them that he was fine and well, that his vision of them had not changed and that he still thought of them the same, but… but… nothing. He then remembered what he had heard. At the sight of their mangled… Mangled. He was mangled. His body was… He wanted to puke. What had happened to him after the library! Why did they say he was mangled! How did he look like? Was the reason why he could feel nothing that his entire body had vanished leaving nothing but a bodyless head and its spinal cord? Pull yourself together, NXT. Be more rational. His heart was racing; he knew it despite not feeling a heartbeat. He could still not feel anything.

          “There, there. It’s all better now. No need to cry,” the female voice said. His consciousness must have blinked again. Her voice became dreamy as she began to sing a lullaby. By the way the pitch of her voice was changing, NXT could deduce that either she was walking back and forth or, most likely, he was being rocked back and forth… like a baby. He pictured himself, the grown man he visualized reading books in the library, naked and cradled by a mysterious woman. The woman had long, brunette hair waving down to her hips and skinny arms that he could not comprehend how were sustaining his weight. Her face was long with bags under her eyes and sunken cheeks, yet her smile radiated warmth and love. She was beautiful. Then the word mangled raced across his mind and the man who was being rocked back and forth began to shrivel. His left arm twisted uncontrollably and made awful cracking noises. Each crack echoed loud enough to drown the lullaby as the man’s muscles slowly deflated, leaving nothing but bones. His ribs began to jut out, his face nothing more than a skull with blood-shot eyeballs, his legs nothing more than sticks. Random gashes slashed across the man’s chest, neck, face, and legs, bathing the woman, who did not stop rocking the man nor singing for a second, in bright-crimson blood. The man’s jaw unhinged and…

          “Did you enjoy the lullaby? My mom taught it to me and I would always sing it to my… There is something I have been meaning to take off my chest but for which I have failed to gather enough courage until now.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “I had a son. A sweet boy. A very gifted child, mind you. So, so gifted. He was merely three years old when my husband and I realized that he was a mutation. He had broken from the curse bestowed upon us by the governments of the world. You are Human; you should know of what I am speaking… Well, my husband and I were both Tier B, yet our son was showing signs of being Tier A. Could you believe that? Probably not, since such a mutation is extremely rare. Even in a planet with so many billions of people, such a mutation was deemed so rare it could not possibly happen more than a couple times every three generations! Government people are smart, after all, and they would not have mass-produced the IQ-altering weapon if they had not been certain that the weapon would have proved to be both efficient and flawless. Yet my lovely son was one in who knows how many hundreds of billion! That is why… One day, my husband and I were seating on the sofa watching our little miracle play with his Rubik’s cubes when we heard a knock on the door. They were policemen. One was very muscular and had a deep, intimidating voice but the other was a mere child no older than thirteen! Could you believe that? The police force hiring a pre-pubescent child? Well believe me, I saw it with my own eyes! And don’t you underestimate the ruthlessness of policemen regardless of their age, no siree. The two of them stormed into my house and stared at my little angel. The tall, muscular men stared stoically while the other had one of the most horrendous faces I had ever seen! His eyes were wide, his grin was maniacal, and his hands were groping the air. He seemed like he was mere seconds from foaming at the mouth. My husband tried to stop them, he truly did, but the muscular man trapped him in a hold wherefrom no amount of violent shaking could free him. I am but a weak Human, you know. Not once did I think of lifting the weights wherewith my husband worked out daily, so I could only stare as… as that young policeman… I have been using you as a substitute for several days now, you know. Over half a week. You are my angel, my little Walt.”

          “Oh, my iris! Mike, look!” a strange voice shouted. Mike… Moments later, NXT heard Mike scream something about saving another defender. NXT did not understand what she meant by defender, but soon her voice trailed off as he heard countless of footsteps frantically running left and right. A flood of distinct voices overwhelmed his senses. They were all shouting about an Exo stronger than any they had seen before, about the other defender that would surely die if Mike did not save him, but then their screams rose to blood-curdling, ear-splitting levels as they began bellowing about how Mike’s head had been slapped clean off her shoulders. NXT’s blood was drained from his body, he just knew it had. A terrible, foreboding sensation flooded the vast, empty landscape before him. Mike had been decapitated trying to save someone, and she died shortly after holding what she had been deceiving herself into thinking was her lost child. But what of him? What of NXT? What would happen to the man that had served as Walt’s substitute? What would happen to the man who had remained asleep for days on end with no concrete recollections of who he was? What would happen to the man entirely vulnerable to everything? He tried in vain to shake his body, the body that must exist yet he could not see, could not feel. He tried to scream, he tried to do anything, but nothing would happen. Absolutely nothing. Any second now, the Exo, whatever it was, would rush at his impuissant corpse and tear it to shreds, would mangle it even more than it was already. Was that why he was mangled? Was that why he was floating in an empty void? Was that why he had partial amnesia? Had he been attacked by an Exo? Was that the same Exo? Had he been tracked down? Was the monster there to finish the job?

          “We will not abandon you, NXT” one of the voices whispered in his ear.

          “Damn right, NXT. We will not abandon you at a time like this. We will protect you once again, like we did back in Oldtown.”

Chapter Text

          A fragment of NXT wished he were still deaf; at least then he would not be able to listen to the screams of the two Texeli whose names he could not recall but whom he could visualize in his head as they rushed toward the horde of blood-thirsty Hemi in Traverse. Their screams reverberated throughout the entirety of the void, mocking him, torturing him, laughing at him. Those two were the only ones who could have helped him gain his memories, but now their last moments were bouncing around his head for all eternity getting louder and louder and louder, loud enough for the void to feel as though it could explode at any second. The sheer anguish those two must have been feeling was powerful enough to shatter the abyss into fragments –- to destroy the nothingness. Of course, the void remained intact, but so did the screams. NXT could only imagine what the Exo must have been doing to them. He imagined a cloaked man with long, bony fingers grabbing them and puncturing their bodies with all five of his needle-like digits. Why such an image managed to infiltrate his thoughts eluded him, but the screams finally stopped.

          There was silence. He felt himself stop breathing. He was holding his breath. Perhaps Exos were similar to dinosaurs in the sense that they could only see those that moved… or perhaps they saw only infrared and would not be able to detect his corpse… The cognitive dissonance boiling inside of him coupled with the anticipation of his death brought him mere seconds from a mental breakdown but nothing seemed to have happened after the screams stopped, as if the Exo, Texeli, and the world all vanished instantaneously. His hearing must have stopped. It had not left him for a long time, so he had assumed his hearing would never falter again, but the high levels of stress must have made it malfunction. Now to wait, to wait for whether or not the Exo would kill him, to wait for whether or not his two friends were still alive… although unlikely, to wait until either his hearing returned heroically to reveal good news or returned as the devil’s messenger to condemn him to Hell.

          He floated in the familiar, zero-dimensional realm for an unknown amount of time. He relished those moments of silence for as long as he could knowing that at any second the Exo could murder him. What would happen then? Would he be stuck in the abyss for all eternity? For all he knew, the loss of hearing was an effect of his death. Oblivion. NXT found himself cursing humanity’s tendency for Catastrophic Thinking. He wanted to dream of prairies, of butterflies, of rainbows, but instead all he could think of was the abyss, Hell, dismemberment, mutilation, torture…

          His hearing came back. “… and he exploded into dots! Can you believe that?”  a strange voice told him. A new voice. “Why do I even bother telling you. We are all done with this war, and clearly you are too. We have lost our defender, all our most powerful comrades, and now we are lost. We are leaving you behind, but not like you care. You aren’t even listening.”

          “Let us go, Scorylo; you are sounding more pathetic by the second,” another strange voice urged.

          “Heartwood is correct. This is a fresh start for us. We do not need a defender! Did you not witness the great power we have within us? We destroyed that Exo without breaking a sweat!” a third strange voice encouraged, panting.

          “Fine, we shall start our new lives. Us three sole survivors of this massacre must not waste our lives taking care of this Human. We are free to do our bidding, and we shall destroy everything in our path without the aid of those pesky, useless, authoritative aliens.” All three voices boomed a most fearsome battle cry before leaving NXT discarded, as was apparent from the receding footsteps. Although NXT could no longer hear any other sentient being, he could hear the whistling of the wind and the rustling of leaves. Had the three of them, before abandoning him, carried him to the middle of a forest somewhere? He heard someone shouting off into the distance. It was very faint but extremely packed with emotion -– he could almost feel the flaming inferno that was the screamer’s wrath. Then back to the peaceful whistling of the wind. NXT attempted a final time to move any part of his body, but just as before, he could not feel anything. His nerves were complete mush. A term began to rise from the sea of words floating around in his mind: Locked-In Syndrome.

          There he lay, at the mercy of the world. He was grateful for what the three had done for him despite their abandoning him. He cared not if he had been abandoned. By hiding him in the forest, they had given him hope that no Exo would stumble upon him and kill him off. He still had hope, hope that another Mike would someday arrive and save him.  Or perhaps not a Mike but Texeli of his past. Sure, those two from Traverse were the only ones he remembered, but there ought to be many more out there… right? The case could not possibly be that he had made no more than two friends… right? Even though his only memories were of the library and seeing his two friends rush a horde of Hemi did not mean that he had done nothing else, right? Eventually, in due time, someone will come and bring him to safety. All he had to do was wait, and wait he did. Lying there, motionless, his eyelids too heavy to open, his body too numb to feel, and his brain too damaged to sense time. All he could do was listen. Listen and wait.

          A low rumbling broke the constant whistling of the wind. The rumbling at first seemed to be approaching, but it began to recede before stopping. It stopped not because it had left his hearing range, but because whatever had been causing the noise had stopped moving. It was to his left, or so he assumed from what he had heard. Did it stop because it saw him? The rumbling began once more, this time approaching him. It stopped for a split second, and in that split second, NXT could hear another noise. A sizzling noise. The noise of violent sparks. The image of a hooded figure glitching and sending sparks flying every which way popped in his mind, but it only remained for a split second before it dissipated with the continuation of the rumbling. The rumbling was no longer receding nor approaching. It had a constant frequency. That could mean two things: either the source was not moving, or both the source and himself were moving at the same velocity -– he was being carried away.

          He felt himself panic and wanted to scream, but he had no mouth to do so. He could only let himself be carried away by whatever was causing the rumbling. He focused on the sound. It was not the sound of footsteps; it sounded like… like a rover, like multiple tiny wheels rolling on the ground, whirring incessantly and menacingly. He did not recall ever reading of Texeli with wheels as a mode of transportation, so he could only deduce, from the very limited memory he had at his disposal, that he was being escorted from his hiding place by an Exo. He would rather not admit to such a horrendous fate, so he began to reason another possibility: a defender. He had heard the term defender before from the three that had abandoned him. He had also heard the term when Mike abandoned him to fight an Exo. She had been called a defender, and she had also been called a Human. If he remembered correctly, she had also called him a Human. Were defenders and Humans interchangeable? Or perhaps defenders were a subset of Humans. Whatever the case, the whirring of the wheels could have something to do with a defender, with a Human. He only remembered Texeli not having any wheels, but that did not rule out the possibility of Humans having wheels. He would rather be abducted by something he had been associated with than by something that had decapitated a Human any day.

          The whirring stopped making the same sound. NXT had also stopped hearing the wind. The sounds now had more echo to them. They must have entered a building of some sort. A very vast and abandoned building devoid of any sound except the whirring noises. The acoustics of the building were very unsettling. NXT heard more and more whirring until finally, it stopped. Then the most unsettling sounds he had ever heard began to penetrate his sanity. It sounded like a voice, but a very… he could not describe it. The pitch and frequency kept fluctuating erratically. One second the voice would sound like a small girl’s, the next it would sound like a grown man’s, the next it would sound like a young boy’s speaking hundreds of words per minute, and the next a woman’s speaking a mere three words a minute. It kept glitching and saying incomprehensible poppycock, flapdoodle, codswallop, and yackety-yak! His own thoughts were beginning to sound incomprehensible even to himself! Was he so frightened?

          His final moments before entering a deep slumber were spent listening to the steady stream of liquid being poured around him and crawling up his legs after the voice had finally stopped pestering him. I will drown.

Chapter Text

          “Are you awake, my son?” a woman with long, brunette hair waving down to her hips, skinny arms, large bags under her eyes, and sunken cheeks smiled at him from above. He groped the air, trying the hardest he could to reach such a heavenly visage, for a chance to come in contact with the divine. The woman giggled and leaned her head closer to his hands. His hand cupped around the tip of her nose, and a warmth like no other blanketed him. He could not contain himself any longer and began to giggle, kicking his stubby feet and trying the best he could to roll around and press his other hand against her nose. Such a blissful moment for the both of them in trying times. They were all in the midst of a prevailing drought, and the water used to aid in the miraculous conception worried many in the village. Some had even urged the woman to give birth without being cleaned thereafter, to be stained by blood and urine for who knows how long until they were all liberated from the drought. Of course, the baby did not care for such problems. All that rested in his mind was the splendent face of his mother smiling down on him, reassuring him that everything would be fine and that soon he was to be fed with any scraps his family could find. He was born a healthy, perfect boy, and nothing could have made his mother happier, not even rain. The woman gently lifted her head, allowing the baby’s hand to slide off her nose, and tucked a tiny, cute iris flower behind his ear. The baby tried to follow the flower with his eyes, but his eyes were unable to roll far enough and soon the flower left his vision. The iris disappeared.

          “Your dad was good! Your dad was good,” his uncle insisted, lightly poking the toddler in the chest. The toddler looked up at his uncle sternly.

          “Why leave?” His uncle frowned. He did not know how to explain to him what had happened to his father. He did not understand himself. No one completely understood. And the little he did know, the little he did comprehend… how could such a convoluted occurrence be explained to a mere toddler who had not shed all his baby teeth yet?

          “Enough. Just know, just believe, that your dad was good.” The toddler pouted at his uncle and ran to his mother, who had been casually conversing with a friend of hers while rocking in her worn-down, ancient, precarious chair, to hug her tight. She smelled of iris flowers –- a very peculiar smell, a smell that only lasted a few moments before vanishing.

          “No, it’s not rain. Sorry to have upped your hopes, but it’s my tears,” the child’s uncle proclaimed after confusing him. The child had thought it had started to rain, but he was disappointed to learn that the “rain” had been nothing but his uncle’s tears dripping onto his back. Then the child asked himself why his uncle, the strong, brave man whom he had never seen cry before no matter how dire the situation, was suddenly bawling his eyes out and hugging him for dear life, as if terrified of relinquishing him to the elements, as if afraid to lose him. To the child’s utmost horror, his auntie rushed out of one of the dilapidated shacks and shouted the worst news the child was to ever hear in his life, the news of his mother’s death. She had been sick with a fever, a mild fever, a fever that could easily be cured given time, or so he had been told, or so he had been lied to, but then the dreadful truth crashed upon him with the force of a million sand storms, a truth he would have to live with for the rest of his miserable life. His mother, his only parent, his life, had abandoned him, abandoned him the same way his father had before he had even been conceived. He was petrified in the middle of the barren world around him riddled with menacing dust clouds.

          “Mama…” the child muttered, his voice hoarse from having shouted her name multiple times beforehand as he scampered around the village. He had not found her in their home. They had transferred her to the clinic without warning him, without letting him know. His mother died, and he had not been there by her side, had not been there to tell her everything was going to be fine, to see her smile one last time, to feel her warmth, to tell her that he was a strong, brave boy and that she had not the need to worry about his well-being… The entire town viewed him as a child in need of protection from the truth, as if the truth could somehow kill him… He was tired of being seen as some frail, dependent kid. He bit his lip till it bled and cursed all of them for having deprived him from his final moments by his mother’s side. He would no longer be able to imbibe her iris-scented presence ever again.

          He had secluded himself from everyone ever since his mother died by cooping himself inside what his uncle had dubbed his father’s library. There were miscellaneous books regarding random topics. Slowly he worked himself up in difficulty to the point of being able to comprehend books not even the adults in his village were able to read. The more he read, the more intelligent he became. He would read about botany, mathematics, psychology, history, government, philosophy, anything. But the more he read, the more he distanced himself from his family. What once used to be idols and inspiration soon degraded to mere peers and then as far down as vermin. He could not stand their intelligence, or lack thereof. How could he, a prepubescent boy, manage to self-teach himself enough material to surpass everyone in his vicinity? Where they even trying? He had yet to learn of what the government had done, he had yet to learn about the Tiers and population growth, he had yet to learn how to control his unstable arrogance. But once he had, once he had finally opened the book harboring all the information he could have ever hoped for and the information he had not even been aware he had been craving, he realized the fundamental significance of his existence.

          He was a mutation. His intelligence, despite living in a community of Tier C, was due to his father, a Tier A, having broken the law by mingling with the pariah of the world. He had abandoned his peaceful, privileged life within the confines of his city in order to attempt the impossible: breed with the Tier C, to spread his seed, to somehow crack the impeccable scheme realized by the world’s superpowers in hopes of containing the rampant population growth. His father had not died, as his family had so adamantly insisted he believe, but he had quite literally abandoned him. He never loved him, he never cared, he never starved himself to death as the romanticized and melodramatic bedtime lies his uncles had so blatantly and audaciously spewed mislead. His father had been raping women, one village at a time, hoping that eventually, after who knows how many failed births, a child prodigy would be born. But what then? What was he supposed to accomplish? What could such a failed and paradoxical existence such as himself ever hope to achieve? Was he to stroll into a city and break down the government? HA! Do not make him laugh! His father was an asinine buffoon thinking that he could make a difference in the world by trying to give birth to such an abomination.

          He stared at the book in which he had discovered all the knowledge he needed and the pages began to rapidly turn yellow. No, not just the pages, but the entire world around him. The red books, the white pages, the blue sky, the brown chair, the black ink, everything became jaundiced. A bubble rose from somewhere underneath him, startling him. The room in which he had been reading swiftly transitioned into a completely unfamiliar, dark room. He was submerged in a strange, yellow substance that stung lightly. He was inside some sort of capsule unable to move. Oddly enough, although he was under the liquid’s surface, he could still breathe. He then remembered a certain type of fluid mentioned in one of the books he read: fluorocarbons. He tried to break the glass but was unable to move. He tried to assess his situation by observing his surroundings, but the only notable peculiarity was the damaged robot lying on the ground beside the capsule. Unfortunately, there were no lights to shine on the darkness beyond the capsule, so if there were any more robots lying on the ground, he could not tell.

          His eyelids began to droop, but before he was able to fully close his eyes, he noticed a faint, violet glow somewhere deep in the darkness for a split second. Had that been an iris flower?

Chapter Text

          “I fear,” auntie told his uncle while he eavesdropped from outside the shack. “I fear.”

          “Yes, but he is just a kid. Nothing to worry.” Still just a kid…

          “His emotions are…” What? Too retarded to conjure up an adequate adjective? “Random.”

          “Yes, he does not control them. But he won’t hurt us, right? We are still family. Nothing to worry.” Unbelievable. He knew exactly what had riled them up. Not only had he gone on a month-long temper tantrum after his mother had died, but he had recently gone haywire during one of the raids. He had vented out his emotions and massacred everyone with his bare hands. But what of it? Were they not enemies? Were they not the bad guys? He was capable of empathy, but of course, such retards could not possibly hope to comprehend such a concept. He sighed, staring at his hands. He had killed so, so many, their blood staining his entire body, but everything had been in self-defense!

          He knew that he did not have much control over his emotions. His exceptional genetics blessed him with high intellect, but they also cursed him with a volatile emotional state. If he ever felt sad, he would easily plummet into a bottomless ravine of utter depression; if he ever felt angry, he would lose his sanity to the vehement roars of wrath incarnate; if he ever felt happy, he would enter an untamable state of mania. He did not blame anyone for fearing him and his sporadic nature. After all, as Humans, it was expected of them to fear that which they did not fully comprehend nor control. He feared himself in that regard. Not because he did not understand, but because he could not control. He knew that eventually he had to learn how to tame the curse, how to utilize it to his advantage, and there was nothing he could not learn.

          The fear his fellow community members felt toward him grew. He was already more than half way through his teenage years, had absorbed nearly all the knowledge in his father’s library, and had proven time and time again to not have found a way to repress his emotions. He knew he did not have much time before being cast away. His uncle and auntie would never abandon him or agree with such treatment, but he knew everyone else had no problem with it. After all, they were the ones who had urged his mother to remain tainted by blood and urine after conceiving him just so they could drink more than necessary for their survival. He began to feel anger boil up inside of him the more he thought about his own incompetence. How could he, a genius, a master of all knowledge, not be able to learn something as rudimentary as controlling one’s emotions? He was planning on leaving the community once he had finished reading everything in the library. He was to wander off into the vast desert devoid of anyone and force himself to his extremes. He was to bring himself mere moments away from completely losing his sanity and then rein himself back in. Of course, he could not do so while still residing in the community. Doing so would be to jeopardize everyone’s lives! He could imagine himself tearing everyone limb by limb as he had done to the raiders.

          “This is goodbye,” he told his prized possessions. Not only the books, but also the straw objects his uncle had handcrafted. There was a doll whose left arm had been lost a long time back, back when he was a mere toddler biting everything he could get inside his mouth, and a tall, lanky demon, the antagonist whenever he used to recreate action scenes from the few fiction books in his father’s arsenal. He stared at the two of them and felt a tinge of déjà vu, as if the two of them side-by-side reminded him of something, something from a distant life; it was the same feeling he used to feel whenever he smelled his mother or remembered the time she tucked an iris flower behind his ear, the feeling that something was not exactly correct, that nothing was real and that his true existence was lurking somewhere; the weirdest emotion known to man.

          He was to leave everything behind -- water, food, books, clothes, and toys. Nothing was to accompany him in his arduous journey, in his suicide mission, except one thing: a straw hat gifted to him by his uncle. Unlike all of his other straw objects, the straw hat held insurmountable intrinsic value for its history. The straw hat had been handed down through generations for so long that its original owner was said to be a man who lived during the days before the intelligence-altering drug was force-fed to everyone. The straw hat had survived countless of trials and was smudged, bent, and tattered; its black band was ripped in several places, but he cared not. He had earned the respect of his uncle enough to be entrusted with such a relic, and he was not about to give it up any time soon. It was his, all his, and nothing, absolutely nothing, not even God himself, could separate him from the hat. He wondered if his strong attachment to the hat, an attachment unrivaled by any emotions he felt toward even his auntie or uncle, was a byproduct of his extreme emotions and should be dealt with, and he had contemplated the idea of leaving behind the hat as a first step in overcoming and taming his emotions, but he could not. Something told him the attachment would be the last emotion he would be able to overcome. First, he was to work on his anger management.

          And work on his anger management he did. After having left the community without a goodbye other than a heartfelt and straight-to-the-point note in the simplest vocabulary he could muster -- speaking Tier C language almost felt like a completely other language when compared to all the books he had been accustomed to reading whose authors were Tier A –- he sat on the vast, deserted landscape and began to meditate. Closing his eyes, he breathed in slowly and let his mind wander far and wide. Every so often, an iris flower would surface from the shadows, but he was yet to decrypt the symbol that had been following him ever since his birth. There were not even any flowers being grown. They were in a desert after all. No, not they or them anymore, just him. Just him. He meditated and meditated, allowing his mind to eventually float upon pet peeves or arousing points of his. He reflected on all of them, asking himself why he was so angered and what he should do to quench the boiling inferno about to wreak havoc. He did so for days until he could not stand being without water nor food any longer. It was raiding time, the second phase of his training.

          He made his way to a village he knew the location of because one of its members had been dumb enough to forfeit the information after mere seconds of his interrogation, his team of raiders having been dealt with mere moments prior. He honed his anger, controlling it so his anger could be used as a weapon. No longer did his tantrums consist of throwing objects around the house, punching the sand maniacally, and shouting obscenities at the sky; his wrath had purpose now. His agility, stamina, and strength multiplied, allowing him to maneuver around the spears and clubs and axes and plows and scythes… His bruises and cuts would not faze him, allowing him to relentlessly knock anyone out regardless of how badly they damaged him. Part of his training, of his anger management, was also preventing the slaughter he had caused, the massacre that had unsettled everyone in his village, the bloodshed that resulted from his unreined indignation, by vowing to himself not to kill a single soul, if possible. All he had to do was knock them out, to incapacitate them momentarily, long enough for him to freely raid a small portion of their food and water supply, just enough for a decent meal, a meal no larger than what he was used to but one that he would have to find a way to keep him alive until he found another village and meditated further.

          Thus was his routine for a long, long time: a single man pillaging unsuspecting peoples, peoples that would not sustain any more than two casualties or five major injuries. His irascibility had been refined, and he was satisfied. In a similar fashion, through meditation and forcing himself into dire situations, he was able to harness his melancholia, perturbation, egomania, and much more. Despite all his days that dragged on to weeks that dragged on to months, despite all his suffering and conditioning, he could not for the life of him cast aside his straw hat. It remained glued to his head, and whenever a gust of wind would send it flying, he would scamper for it without thinking twice, as if by instinct, as if the straw hat were his lifeline, his soul, his raison d’être. Unfortunately, he was reaching the end of his rope.

          He had not been able to find another village in more than just a few days. He could have easily retraced his steps to the village he had last raided, his Spatial Contextual Awareness was rather competent, but he had been satisfied with the way he had been able to improve himself, to rectify the retched seed his father had spawned, and wished no longer to continue. He had accomplished all his goals. As he gripped his hat tightly against his chest and fell to his knees, his stomach and entire body ached tremendously. He lay on the scorching sand and sighed. Alas, he could never, with his vast knowledge, understand what his father had hoped his offspring would deliver, but he cared not anymore. He closed his eyes, fully prepared to never open them again, but suddenly he heard a soft sizzling. Somehow, he knew from that sound what to expect if he were to raise his head and snap open his eyes. As he had somehow expected, the eerie figure of a cloaked robot had materialized before him. It levitated, its blaring, red eyes glowing straight into his. It growled, floating half a meter above the ground, the cloak dangling loosely. It raised its hands slightly, its right hand missing a finger.

          Its eyes turned blue. It began to whimper like a dog being reprimanded by its owner as iris flowers began to bloom all round it. The irises were somehow just as menacing as the cloaked robot and its long, long fingers, but they did not remain for long. As quickly as the robot’s eyes had turned blue, its blue eyes snapped back to red, its whimpers morphed into growls once more, and the irises withered into dust. The robot rushed straight at him and was mere seconds from penetrating his skull with its index finger when everything around him turned black.

          Utterly dazed by what had just transpired, he could not stabilize his breathing as quickly as he had expected from his training. He quickly darted his eyes everywhere, but everything was dark. All he could feel was a low rumbling. He redundantly closed his eyes as to focus on the rumbling, and sadness began to unravel. The rumbling was emitting sadness, as if communicating with him via emotions and emotions alone. No words were communicated between him and the rumbling, but he understood everything. The rumbling was apologizing, apologizing for its incompetence, apologizing for the torment that he had gone through. At first, he thought the rumbling was his father -– after all, who else had caused him to suffer? But then a faint glow oozed through his closed eyelids, and a beautiful, mesmerizing iris flower, the same one his mother had tucked behind his ear, glowed in front of him. It had dew on it, and a water droplet slid down the flower’s violet pedals. His romantic side could not help but conclude that the flower was weeping, weeping for its incompetence. He truly felt as though he had to apologize, to console, but he could not bring himself to do so. He was still too shocked and baffled by the recent bizarre events to do much of anything. Suddenly, the iris began to wither, and with the withering came a deluge of sorrow so extreme it shadowed the sorrow he had once deemed insuperable -– the sorrow of losing his mother. The iris was crying out without making a single sound apologies he could not convey he was accepting with open arms. The iris was moments away from completely withering, its violet pedals having turned dark and dilapidated, its stem having hunched over in agony, and the last emotion he felt right before waking up in a cold laboratory room with no recollection of anything that had transpired inside the broken capsule from which he had been saved by a complete stranger nor any of his adventures in Texel from the moment he woke up in a beautiful field to the moment he was attacked by a cloaked Exo was abandonment. He had been abandoned. He had lost something deep inside of him that he had not realized he had had but then was nothing but a gaping void inside his heart and mind.

          He snapped his eyes open and a tremendous agony sieged his soul, his very core. He sprung to his feet instinctively, bellowing “IT HURTS, MAMA, IT HURTS!” as loud as his parched throat allowed him to. He did not even have time to register his surroundings. He flailed his arms and stepped back, distancing himself from the shadow in front of him, the shadow that had been mere moments away from touching him. A searing pain had overtaken his left arm, and there was nothing in his mind but the yearning for deliverance from the anguish. Exasperatedly, he reached for the closest object by his feet and began to flail it around to keep the countless shadows before him at bay. Still screaming, he realized that he was holding the perfect weapon for extinguishing his pain -– a gun. He gripped the gun tightly and moved his finger to where he suspected the trigger was and ignored any and all supplications being dribbled by the closest shadow. He shouted “IT HURTS, MAMA, IT HURTS!” once more, grit his teeth, and pulled the trigger, blasting his left arm into nothing but bloody bits and a cauterized stump. The pain and bewilderment were too much for his mind to handle any longer and he dropped the weapon, fell down to his knees, faceplanted onto the cold, wet floor, and passed out.

Chapter Text

         His eyes snapped open, but he did not move. He was greeted by a woman with pale-blue skin wearing purple armor and blue garments. Her red eyes looked down upon him with mild surprise, and she quickly turned her head to address someone by shouting… he did not understand. To him, she had shouted gibberish. Whatever she had said, he knew that there was no way the utterance could have been in a familiar tongue. Whomever she had addressed came rushing to his side nonetheless, but he did not turn his head to look at the new entity. He did not feel the need to. Sure, he was curious as to who the stranger could be, but to go the extra mile and turn his head? Unthinkable. He would rather stare passionately at the beautiful woman before him. He felt a small trickle of slobber run down his right cheek. His head had been positioned sideways by those taking care of him, so he knew it was not his fault that a pool of drool would soon be formed, but he could not help but feel slightly embarrassed, especially with such a marvelous specimen in his vicinity. The one who had been beckoned began to spout nonsense as well, but this time the accent and phonetics were slightly off. At first, he was reminded of the Spanish language but soon realized he had been terribly wrong. The language sounded too foreign, and soon any resemblance to Spanish vanished. An Asiatic tongue, perhaps?

         The new voice sounded as though it were frantically demanding him to do something, but how was he supposed to follow the commands if he could not understand them? Perhaps the voice did not realize that he did not comprehend a single word. Tired of the constant bickering and having been groped by the shoulders and shaken repeatedly, he lifted his hand to silence and calm the voice down and turned around to address it.

         “Please, stop shaking me already!” he shouted, irritated. He analyzed the man who had started shaking him. Unlike the blue-skinned vixen, the man’s pigment was a few shades of brown lighter than his own. The man was slightly taller too with a muscular build and a worried face. The man began to speak in his foreign tongue once more but he cut him off before he finished the question. “Look, I’m not sure if you can understand me, but I can’t understand you, ok? Leave me alone!” The man was astounded. The man looked at the woman and then at the others behind her and frowned. The man spoke again, but this time he completely ignored him. If the man wasn’t going to put any effort into speaking English, then there was no point in him trying to guess what the man was saying. He rolled back to his original position and stared at the blue-skinned woman again. What a lovely view.

         He did not need to look at the man to know what was going on; all he had to do was listen. The man had stood up and was muttering angrily at himself, pacing back and forth in the process. Perhaps the man was attempting to rationalize why the stranger he had so altruistically welcomed into his home could not understand him. A peculiarly-shaped mass of sentient flames approached the three of them, basking him in a warmth unlike any he had experienced before. It felt different from other fires somehow, but he could not explain it. As the three strangers bickered amongst themselves, he noticed that the flames were making sounds reminiscent of a bird. It suddenly clicked that the flames were moving so peculiarly because they were attached to a bird. There was a bird on fire right before everyone and no one was trying to save the poor creature!

         He quickly tried to rise to his feet, but he faceplanted onto the floor. He looked down and shouted in horror. His arm was gone! He had no arm! He screamed and screamed but slapped his face. There was no time for being concerned about himself when there was a defenseless bird in dire need of salvation. He struggled to his feet and looked about him for anything that could help extinguish the fire. After a few seconds, he spotted bottles of green water at the other extreme of the room and ran toward them, picked a couple of them up, and rushed toward the bird. “Don’t worry, birdy! I’m here to save you!” he shouted as he poured all the contents of the bottles over the bird, but instead of thanking him, the bird began to screech and flopped against the ground. Before he knew it, a muscular man grabbed him from behind, swung him onto the floor, and pinned him down. He heard the frantic galloping of a horse, the roars of beasts, wings fluttering, and the man’s shouting. So many things were going on at once! Where was he?

         “Ow! That hurts! Let go!” he complained, but the man began to shout even louder. Suddenly, everyone shut up. There was not a single sound except for the bird’s whimpering in pain. He stopped struggling, closed his eyes, and tried to find out what was happening. He heard what sounded like tape being rolled out, which was very strange. What could possibly need taping? Had he accidentally broken something? The man who had him pinned loosened his hold and allowed the man, the one who resembled him the most and the one who was clearly the leader of the bunch, to grab him by the throat and lift him up. The man’s strength! It was amazing!

         “What have you done to my arm?” he shouted, lifting the stub protruding from his left shoulder. He punched the man in the face with his right fist, but the man was so strong that his face did not budge in the slightest. The man was superhuman! He kicked and flailed, but nothing would faze the beast in human clothing. When the beast had had enough, it threw him across the room and out a small opening on the wall. He found himself lying on his back. The sky was clear and the grass was soft. He tried to stand up but once again failed to do so. He had tried using his left arm. The beast stomped down on his back, crashing him down on the ground once he had finally accomplished to get on his knees. The beast shouted at him, scolding and lecturing him, and he grew increasingly agitated by the beast’s inability to understand that he could not comprehend anything it was saying. Deep within him, a growing inferno was clouding his judgement more and more in a dark, thick curtain of smoke, but despite the violent instinct, he caught a glimpse of a feeling other than anger blasting forth from the beast’s mouth. It wasn’t just angry; the screaming and shouting had another emotion attached to them –- sadness. Disappointment. But not disappointment toward him, disappointment toward itself and the world around it. His boiling anger subsided slightly as the flames were extinguished by the more-rapidly mushrooming curiosity.

         What could the beast possibly be thinking? Why was it disappointed? The more he analyzed the inflection in its voice, its facial expressions, and the deepest recesses of its eyes, the more he was able to complete the puzzle. The beast was disappointed in his actions, not him as a person. His actions had utterly shattered its expectations of what he could have been.

         “It isn’t my fault, do you understand!” he shouted at the beast still foaming at the mouth. “It isn’t my fault your expectations were too high! I don’t care who you thought I was or why you even had expectations to begin with, but there is no reason why you should vent your frustrations on me for being the way I am! Let go of me this instant!” The beast was taken aback and frowned. They stared at each other for a while before it lifted its foot and backed away. He stood up and dusted himself off. The beast began to talk but stopped himself half-way through the first word. “That’s correct, there is no point in speaking to me if I can’t understand what you’re saying.”

         That’s when it happened. A beautiful butterfly caught his attention. He could not help himself and ran toward it to try and catch it with his bare hands. After multiple attempts, he was about to trap it between his hands when… it flew away. It had somehow flown through his left hand. He stared at his left hand for a very long time, and the more he stared at it, the more transparent it became until it completely vanished. He fell down on his knees in defeat, and the monster crouched beside him. The monster looked at him as it wrapped its right arm around him and opened its mouth to say something before closing it shortly after. It stood up and stared into the distance pensively, and a wide smile crawled across its face.

         The smile was very odd and one he could not help but fear. There was evil intent written all over it and oozing like thick tar. He whimpered as he tried to stand up but fell on his face after trying to use his left arm again. The monster grabbed him by the neck and dragged him inside the tent. He tried to slap the monster’s arm as hard as he could to make it let go but ultimately failed. He was shoved into the side of the tent and held prisoner by the appointed guards: a knight with a dragon and a centaur. He was no closer to understanding anything than he had been when he woke up to the wonderful sight of a blue-skinned angel.

Chapter Text

          He had been kept as a slave for a week. The only time he had ever caught a glimpse of the outside world had been the time he had been thrown outside of the tent in his master’s fit of rage when he had first woken up. In that week, he had learned a few things about his situation and the world around him. He had been limited by two guards who would make sure he never left his designated corner. Sometimes, whenever his master left for whatever reason, the two guards would accompany his master and leave him alone inside the tent with the many others who also remained inside. He had noticed that his master would always take nine with him, although the nine could be different. The more he had learned and deduced, the more confused and amazed he had become. The most confusing of all was the idea that the entire tent would shrink down and fit inside of a small pouch. He had overheard some of the others utter to a newcomer the way the tent would shrink and fit inside a pouch, but the only thing he had been able to understand had come in the form of charades as the creatures tried to illustrate the process through hand gestures.

          They all spoke different languages yet could understand each other. The birds would chirp, the Humans would speak a language unlike any he had ever heard, the frogs would croak, and so on and so forth. There were so many interesting creatures that it had taken him that entire week to memorize all of the different ones he had seen in person, and who knows how many other species were out there outside of the tent. He had wished that he could have understood them, and he had begun to doubt whether any of the creatures whom he had thought were Human were actually Human. For all he had known, his own master could have been an inhuman entity, which would have explained his extraordinary strength and his ability to understand all the creatures regardless of the language.

          There had also been an electronic device that would be left inside the tent, but the creatures that had remained inside the tent had been ordered to keep it away from him. He had not understood what about the device was so important that his master would keep it away from him, but he had not made much of a fuss. He had been a parasite after all, yet had been given shelter, had been given food, and had been kept safe from the outside world.

          He had deduced that the outside world was dangerous from the many times that his master and his companions would return inside the tent covered in lacerations or burns. They had been fighting a formidable foe every day, and he would surely have died if left outside, all defenseless and missing an arm. He had yet to remember how he had lost his arm, but he cared not anymore.

          As the days had dragged on and on, he had become more and more comfortable in his new role as a dummy, as a vessel for his master’s frustrations. He had rationalized and justified his repeated abuse at the hands of his master’s frenzy by considering his pain as payment for the shelter, food, and protection. Payment for his home. Stockholm Syndrome? Perhaps. He had not always been as complacent with the nightly beatings, but what could a frail, one-armed child possibly do against a muscular beast such as his master? Helplessness could be learned by even the strongest of minds, after all. He looked and sounded the most Human, but how could a Human be so strong as to lift him up by the neck as if he weighed nothing?

          At the beginning, the creatures would try to protest against the abuse, but either his master had explained to them something he had not understood or they, too, had learned helplessness regarding the prevention of unmitigated pummeling because after a few times, not a single soul would protest anymore. His master had been free to do anything, and he had been completely fine with his position at the very bottom of the hierarchy, as if deep within him he had always known that he was destined to be used as a punching bag. In fact, he would have gone as far as to say that he had felt glad that he had been treated as the trash he had seen himself as, as the scum, as the leech. After a few times, his master would only need to look into his eyes and he would be ready, both physically and mentally, to receive his rightful punishment for merely existing. He had not understood why, but he knew that he was a monster, a creature that should not have ever existed, but he had not been able to rationalize nor explain his feelings.

          As the week had progressed, he had observed more and more creatures being introduced to the community, but most of them were only introduced for a while until being led outside of the tent never to be seen again. There had also been copies all about. For instance, there had never been only one of the blue-skinned goddess, there had been three, and there were many more creatures that had up to twenty copies! The most abundant were the small, silver or golden critters that would wobble around the tent at a complete loss of what to do as they waited for their master to enter once more.

          Toward the end of the week, a crazy event had taken place. His master had not only refrained from castigating him but had summoned a strange, yellow structure from seemingly nowhere. From within the structure, more and more creatures had materialized. He had assumed that all creatures came from the structure and had not refrained himself from wrapping his frail arm around it as would a child about his mother, to his master’s great repulsion. His master had grabbed him by the neck once more, had flung him back to his corner, and had told him to remain there with a fierce pointing of his finger.

          There had also been an armory of some sort cluttered with blades, staffs, and other trinkets. The most interesting of the bunch had been the gloves and gauntlets. Something deep within him had felt attracted to the gauntlets, as though out of all the weapons out there, his own fists were his preferred ones, but the feeling had been as unexplainable as his instinct to be abused. He had understood above all else that the creatures and the world around him were mysteries not much harder to unravel than his own Self. Who was he? Why had he felt so adamant about being abused? Why had he yearned to wear the gauntlets even though he only had one fist and a lanky, frail physique?

          Despite all the questions invading his mind, he had felt as though that perpetual state of mystification had been destiny too, as though constantly worrying about such mundane and existential matters were somehow an aspect of his soul. He would not have been himself if he had not constantly wondered about the unanswerable.

          Yet everything that had happened during that week was soon to be completely turned around. A week after he had woken up, his master would stop abusing him and instead open up to him the best way his master could, as if whatever had been driving his master to mistreat him had vanished instantly, as if his master had merely been possessed by a demon for a week before it was exorcised out of his master spontaneously and without warning or indication, as if the creatures had all finally convinced his master to halt his senseless dominance. Instead of painting his body purple, his master began to teach him about the world around them by walking him outside of the tent and pointing out peculiar things, places, and creatures.

          He had been very reluctant to leave the only place he had known for an entire week, had been reluctant to enter the outside world, the world he had convinced himself was full of blood-thirsty monsters that would harm his master and his master’s crew every day, but he was pleasantly surprised to learn that the outside world was nothing short of wonderful, of happy. His master stopped treating him as a slave, relieved the guards of their duty, and lifted the prohibition preventing the creatures from directly talking to him. He began to communicate with the creatures more and more, always just guessing what they were trying to say but feeling happy to be able to communicate nonetheless. They could all understand his English, but for some reason he could not understand them.

          He stared at his master, the master who smiled warmly at him, and wondered what had happened during that initial week, why that week had been the only week during which his master had acted so wrathful, so frustrated. He came to know the side of his master that was far less dominant, far more amiable, far less angry, and far more open-minded and patient. He began to wonder how his master ever found him, and why he could not for the life of him remember anything that had happened in his life prior to having woken up beside the blue-skinned miracle. He convinced himself that whatever the reason had been for his master’s frustration must have had something to do with something he had done prior to waking up.

          Since his master had stopped abusing him, he felt confident enough one day to walk up to his master and point toward the tent's opening. His master had just finished reading something that, from the way he had read, must have been rather interesting. He wanted to be part of whatever awaited outside of the tent even if it meant returning to the tent covered in blood like his master had done so many times already, and to his surprise, his master agreed to his proposal. As he stepped foot outside of the tent, he felt as though his entire soul had been sucked out of him. He had entered Hell.

Chapter Text

          The ground below him was gray, was lifeless, was cold. That, of course, was not the first thing he observed. The first, striking oddity that captivated his short attention span was the specters floating about. They were translucent, blue skulls whizzing erratically left and right, and one nearly traversed his head. As they floated, the skulls would make a sound similar to strong winds through a small crevice, the sounds of ghosts. He felt as though his own soul had escaped his physical form and had joined the many souls before him. The temperature was a harrowing cold unlike any he remembered experiencing, creating the perfect atmosphere for him to cower in fear and run toward his master just so he could hide behind his master’s back, grasping his master’s shirt as tightly as his weak fist could. His master chuckled and shoved him to the side.

          The band began its journey to a remote place he did not know, but on their way to that location, he found a massive body of water that emitted an ominous, purple glow. He was utterly captivated by its apparent calmness. Despite the chaotic paths the specters were following, the still waters appeased him in a very peculiar way. As he got closer, the ground beneath his bare feet grew colder and colder. He squatted down to take a closer look at his reflection on the water. His face was just as ghastly as the specters, even more so due to the purple hue. The sunken cheeks and bags under his eyes adorned by the many bruises from his master’s fists created an image far from Human. Anyone would have cried out in fear at such a sight, but not him. He only stared at his face with pity, pity that his face was not as deformed as he had expected. He slowly lifted his fist as the face below the water began to furrow its eyebrows in anger and was about to punch it when suddenly the blue hand that always rested on his master’s shoulders landed on his shoulder and spouted incomprehensible dribble from a mouth he could not make out. The hand’s fingers waved frantically, but he did not understand what the hand meant until his master arrived and forced his fist down. His master shook his own head as the hand crawled its way up his master’s arm and then nodded toward the path in a reprimanding manner. He then noticed the glowing, unbudging purple spots floating on the water. If he squinted hard enough, he could make out yellow cubes as the source of the purple glow. He wondered what those cubes were but did not have the time to gawk at them any longer. He did not want to enrage his master any more than he had already. He looked back at the water one final time and whispered “I will be back” under his breath.

          The band traveled farther along the path before they were confronted by the minor robotic creatures he had already encountered on previous escapades in far more colorful and friendly places, but something very interesting occurred. Many, many more Humans were awaiting their arrival. They had all congregated and lacked any formation, as if there were no general to order the army. Everyone seemed to be seeking something, or at the very least waiting for an enemy to reveal itself. He was utterly confused and frightened by the crowd and begged of his master to place him back inside the pouch, inside the tent, but his master just laughed and shook his own head. He tapped his own wrist a couple times, but he did not understand what his master meant by the gesture.

          All the other Humans had their own band of nine fighters, but only his master was accompanied by a second Human with no band of his own. As he and the band made their way across the sea of Humans and creatures, he noticed that not a single soul could help itself from turning a disgusted eye toward him. Some even approached his master to question his master in more weird languages he did not quite understand. He did distinguish some Russian, Italian, and French, neither which he could speak nor comprehend, just distinguish. The pressure around his master was growing as more and more people would confront his master about him, pointing at him and shouting God-knows-what.

          He was beginning to worry about how aggressive the confrontations had become when suddenly robotic creatures far more intimidating and powerful than all the others combined began to materialize at seemingly random spots. They were massive, golden women surrounded by flames. He cowered behind his master, and this time his master was too busy ordering his minions around to bother pushing him away. Everyone who once so aggressively invaded his master’s personal space completely forgot about him and instead focused on helping each other deal with the new vermin. The fighting was intense, and he caught himself slamming his eyes shut as to avoid witnessing the outrageous displays of gore and explosions into golden cubes. Interestingly, his master had brought blue containers of what he assumed was glue and rolls of duct tape that his master used to mend the crumbled or injured band members. His master would also feed the band the red cubes that he had been living off of for the past week.

          He could not comprehend how no matter what the creatures were made of, whether they be made of the red or blue flames that covered the two types of birds his master had or flesh and blood like what the knight or centaur that served as guardians back inside the tent were made of, whenever they died, they’d just become yellow blocks that could easily be glued back together in a resurrection ritual. He looked at the blue hand on his master’s shoulder and at his missing arm and wondered why neither one of them had mended. Maybe there was a time limit, and once the time passed, whatever had been pieced together remained so and whatever had not been glued on time forever remained yellow blocks.

          The process of destroying robotic creatures, who would also crumble into yellow blocks but whose blocks would disintegrate instead of mend, gluing back the crumbled, and feeding the band red cubes repeated all day long until finally his master had had enough and ordered for everyone to depart from the battlefield and set up camp outside of the danger zone. He was more than elated to finally return inside the comfort of the tent and was told by his master, through hand gestures, that he was to remain in the tent from then on instead of leaving the tent because of how the many other Humans had reacted to his presence. He agreed, understanding very well that he was a burden, and remained inside the tent for the remainder of the battles. His only wish was to go to the water once more, to stare down at the eerie face he had found underneath the still surface, but that wish was never granted.

          Instead, he was introduced to a very interesting group of fighters. These fighters were very, very special, or so everyone seemed to believe by the way everyone either gawked at them or feared them. Most people feared them, and of the very few who instead admired them, none admired them more than the blue goddesses. There were three of them, three horse-riders, three skeletons, three beings surrounded by specters of different colors: blue, purple, and a weird in-between. His arm hairs would stand erect whenever either one of them would approach him, as if they oozed fear from their every pore, forcing anyone in their vicinity to quiver.

          Once again, the strange yellow structure was summoned and forth crawled out even more copies of the three skeletons. Many fighters left the tent to never be seen again while some of the skeletons remained permanent members of the band. After the event had ended and there were not many Humans walking around to bother his master if they were to see him, he was able to witness their special ability. He had seen many different kinds of abilities, but their abilities were rather peculiar. Instead of summoning tornadoes or pouring water over their enemies, these three would commit suicide in an explosion of great magnitude. They would willingly crumble into dots to deal devastating damage to their target.

          If only he had understood what anyone had said… if only he could have learned their languages… then maybe… just maybe… he may have been able to piece the puzzle of their origins together… and may have understood the dangers of Gloom Lake… and may have never returned… but that had not been the case.

Chapter Text

          He was not let out of the tent, but he was not treated like a punching bag either. His master had actually apologized to him for having used him as such the first week after he woke up, but he did not understand why his master had apologized. As far as he knew, he had no greater purpose. Alas, he now had a ton of free time and freedom to investigate the entirety of the tent without being worried about guards keeping him trapped in his little corner. He waved casually at all the Texeli that were loitering inside and made his way to a shelf full of books. Deep in his hazy memories, he could almost remember a library, one much, much bigger than the one before him, but the memory was too hazy to fully establish. The memory was more of a distant, faint nagging than an actual memory.

          He grabbed a random book and flipped to a random page. Unfortunately, the book was written in a foreign language he could not even begin to decipher. If he had to compare the language to any earthly ones, he would best describe the language as a Frankenstein’s monster birthed from Sanskrit and Kanji. He rummaged through all the books on the shelf until he found one with images. The images, of course, had labels, headings, and footnotes all in the awkward language, but the illustrations almost spoke for themselves. They were anatomical drawings. Every time he found a diagram, he would look about him to see if the creature on the page just so happened to be inside the tent. Most were not, unfortunately, but some, such as the white knight with the dragon or the bird made of blue flames, were near-perfect replicas of the illustrations. He was transfixed by the artist’s competence. The illustrations could almost pass for photos!

          After having done so for every illustration on the book, he attempted to scavenge for another book with illustrations; to his utter dismay, there were none. He sat, bored, for a long time. A full day, in fact. Eventually, he remembered that his master always carried with him a device with a screen on it -- a tablet of sorts. Although his master occasionally took the device with him outside the tent, his master would always leave the device resting on one of the shelves during the night. Curiosity ate away at his soul; in order to alleviate the anguish, he decided to remain awake way past his curfew and slowly creep his way toward the tablet. Unlike all the other books, the tablet was not made of paper. With a child’s mischievous smile, he began to look for anything he could understand.

          There was not much he could understand, sadly. The only languages he was fluent in were English and Spanish. Aside from that, he could only catch a few French, Russian, German, and Japanese words. Even so, he distinguished many more languages in the tablet. Cyrillic, Latin, Sanskrit, Chinese, Runic, and so many other alphabets, each one with their own entries. He could not grasp why there were so many languages, but he understood less how his master could comprehend all of them. His master would need to know about twenty to comprehend every entry!

          He spent nearly the entire night searching for a Spanish or English entry until finally he stumbled upon an English one. Gleefully, he began to whisper the entry out loud:

          “Agents Taurus and Feyk have placed a one million (1.000.000) Texi bounty on a Human by the name of Qavl. He escaped custody after having his title as a Defender unofficially revoked following an incident in which he incited a violent confrontation between himself and another Defender, thereby violating the law. If anyone encounters Qavl, described as a short, weak Tier C with curly, light-brown hair and heavily-damaged eyes, attempt to capture at your own peril and report to authorities immediately. Do not underestimate him for being Tier C.”

          Someone in the tent groaned, and he decided to turn off the tablet, place it where he found it, and sleep for good before his out-loud reading woke anybody up. Many thoughts running inside his head kept him awake, however. He did not know how much one could buy with a million Texi, but he understood that Qavl, whoever he was, would prove challenging to capture. The message said “at your own peril,” after all. He reminded himself that he had to scroll a long time until he found the message, meaning that if the messages were sorted chronologically, the message must have been sent a long time prior. For all he knew, whoever that Qavl guy was had already been captured and the bounty rewarded.

          For the entirety of the following day, he could not shake off the feeling he had experienced when he found the English message, the feeling of having become whole, the feeling of having discovered a long-lost fragment of his being. He had gone so long without being able to understand what anybody had been stating and only understanding his own inner thoughts that he had been moments away from growing insane. He craved to read more English entries, so he stayed awake every night since then scrolling through the seemingly endless sea in hopes of unearthing another English one. He found two more messages before the week ended.

          One of the additional messages was short and sweet. The entry had only been a reminder for all Defenders to collect the gifts from “The Almighty Lemon,” which made him chuckle to himself as he let his imagination run wild over what the message could have possibly been referring to. He was aware that the most likely answer was the yellow structure he had seen his master summon and the one that fabricated Texeli from within itself, but where was the fun in admitting such a boring reality?

          The second message was significantly longer and one of the very first to ever be sent. In fact, so old was the message that he would not be surprised if the message had been used to test whether or not the device functioned as planned. The test message read as such:

          Hello, Defenders. Welcome to Texel. Welcome to Paradise. Unfortunately, we were not brought here to enjoy such luxury, we were brought here to preserve, protect, defend. As much as it pains us to admit it, welcome to war. Fight with everything you have to the sweet, sweet end, for Humanity has just received a do-over, a reset button, a second chance, but we must fight for that rebirth. Once we are done here, once we exterminate all these metal pests, we can indulge ourselves in this new world. Imagine the possibilities! Forget Earth, Texel is the future. Ironic, how we aimlessly sought out the stars, but the stars found us. Do not let this opportunity go to waste, do not grow idle, stagnant, passive. Remain steadfast in the ultimate goal: the continuation of the Human race.

          He sighed. Even with such a long passage, he was not any closer to understanding his situation than before. He had woken up a long, long time prior, yet he had remained stagnant in his knowledge of the world. Why could he alone not understand anyone? All that talk about Earth and Humanity and starting anew… he could not understand. To him, it sounded as though everyone had been fighting the massive, golden women in order to take over the world. Were they really the defenders? Had he just read completely corrupt propaganda to make Humanity look like the heroes when they were all actually the antagonists? He was beginning to realize that maybe, just maybe, those golden women had been the residents of the planet all along and were being eradicated to make room for Humanity.  That thought sent a shiver down his back, and he decided to stop thinking for the time being. He needed to find more information, more evidence, more perspectives, but he could not do so while only knowing English.

          Having exhausted all the English material he could find took a toll on him. He remained sitting all day and night bored out of his mind. Nothing to do, nothing at all. He missed the first week after having woken up. He missed being used as a punching bag, as a slave, because back then he had a purpose, back then he had something to look forward to at the end of every day. He had become… attached… to that lifestyle, the lifestyle that had been stripped away abruptly after his master suddenly decided to change his attitude completely from an arrogant, frustrated jerk to a sympathetic, jolly man whose only wish was to make friends with him. He had believed that maybe, just maybe, a day would come when that man would become his master again, but that day never came. His “master” had changed.

          He shook his head and decided to stop pondering his situation any longer. There was no point. He needed to find some way to break away from the cycle. Everything was so boring, so boring, so unbearably boring. There was war going on but he would have had no idea if he had not read about it. Painfully boring. Where was the action? Where was the bloodbath? Where were the heroes? Unbelievably boring. The same thing day in and day out. So, so boring.

          He became more and more impatient, more and more whiny, more and more intolerable. He began to groan out loud in hopes of his master growing frustrated and resuming his beatings but to no avail. His master would try the hardest possible to ignore him. What had he done to deserve respect? He wanted to be punished, not treated as a peer!

          Alas, time dragged on and on and on. He remembered the message on the tablet, the one that warned not to grow “idle, stagnant, passive.” He wanted something extraordinary to happen, yet had taken no steps toward making that extraordinary something happen. Had he enough courage to escape the tent? Had he enough courage to abandon his master, his shelter, his home and explore the unknown? What would happen if he encountered the golden women? What would happen when he grew hungry or thirsty? What would happen if…

          He decided to take a break from puzzling over absolutely everything. He was beginning to bore himself with all his thoughts, thoughts that were mostly wishful thinking, thoughts that only dragged on and on, achieving nothing but keeping him idle, stagnant, passive. He needed to act, not think. He needed to make something happen, not imagine it happening. He needed to forsake everything about the couple weeks following his awakening and start anew, like the message had said Humans were trying to do, except he was not going to wait until the stars found him; he was going to find the stars.

Chapter Text

           He began to pick at his nails with his teeth absent-mindedly as he stared at a group of knights conversing about who-knows-what in yet another boring, boring day inside the tent with nothing to do, nothing to see, and nothing to experience. Just boredom. By that point, he had begun to question how he had survived so long without any excitement, without any dopamine, without anything. He had even purposefully acted up and bothered his master so he could receive a beating, but his master resisted time and time again. His finger began to bleed, but even that was boring. He stared as the drop of blood left a trail down his finger ever so slowly, traversing through the barren landscape and coloring a red line much like a slug would. Once the drop waned to the point of not moving any farther, he sighed loudly and leaned against the side of the tent. He wanted anything, ANYTHING, to happen. He would even be satisfied with one of the golden women, whom he still had not decisively ruled out as the good guys all along, raiding the tent and killing every single soul, ripping everyone to shreds and decorating the interior with the beautiful, crimson red that had colored the side of his hand not so long prior to his wishful thinking.

          His wish for excitement was soon granted, to his utter surprise. His master barged into the tent shouting orders at everyone in a low voice, as if yelling in a whisper. He did not understand why anyone would shout softly when one could simply just speak normally, but he noticed that everyone inside the tent began scattering wildly regardless. He saw one of the knights point at him and beckon him over, but he ignored the knight. Why should he move? Not like anything his master had screamed had been directed specifically at him. He deemed the knight an annoying pest and was about to turn his head when one of the blue angels extended her arms out and smiled at him seductively. He was confused. Was she trying to flirt with him despite never having done so before and when everyone was running amok in fear of whatever his master had said? She smiled even more sweetly, and he questioned the peculiar scenario no longer. He stood up and ran with his own arms extended. He cared not for what was happening about him; his mind was solely focused on making a beeline for the heavenly hug.

          Right before he made contact with the damsel, however, one of her copies ambushed him from behind and trapped him in a full nelson. He chuckled nervously and asked “so… what do you ladies have in store for me?” before a third copy swung her staff against his solar plexus at full force. The copy holding him from behind let him go, and he dropped to his knees ready to puke. As he was attempting to regain his breath, the first copy grabbed him by the neck and slammed him inside a dark, dark box. She shut the box and left him wheezing in the dark. He pounded on the lid but one of the copies made the universally understood “shh” sound to get him to shut up, and he did. Lost as to what could possibly be going on, he remained sitting in a very awkward position inside the tiny box waiting for any auditory cues.

          “Nice place you got here, H,” a stranger stated. His heart skipped a beat. Someone just showed up who could speak English! An English speaker! At last, at long last, someone whom he could understand, someone who could help him finally understand everything, the key to his salvation! And his master was hiding the key from him! How despicable, how utterly despicable. He banged on the lid of the box, but it would not budge. “Did I just here something?” the stranger asked. His master angrily answered the stranger, and the stranger responded to his master’s spiel with a calm “well excuse me for not wanting to say your full name, Handsome, but it’s your fault for making your name so narcissistic and awkward for me to say. Also, do not pretend like you did not hear my question.”

          He wanted to see the stranger so badly that he resumed punching the lid of the box despite the detrimental unintended consequences that were about to unravel. He heard the stranger laugh. “Alright, H, that is quite enough. Move over and order your minions to do the same. You do not want to be on my bad side.” After his master’s babbling on for a short while, he heard a loud thud as if a body had been slammed against the ground and the collective gasps of everyone in the tent. The stranger began to approach him as he heard a bunch of shuffling -- everyone must have been paving way for the stranger.

          “So, H, time to see what you have been hiding inside this utterly innocuous and unsuspicious armory.” The stranger swung the lid of the box wide open and could not help but gasp. The stranger’s bewildered expression soon turned into a wide smile. “H, H, H!” the stranger shouted. “You have outdone yourself! I expected a beautiful Hemi locked away as your sex slave, but what am I greeted with instead? A damn Human. A Human!” The stranger slapped his own knee and bent down to take a closer look at the Human. “Wait a second. You are not registered in the database. Just who are you?”

          He could not help it; he could not resist it. Deep within him, the urge to strangle the stranger with the strongest of hugs exploded out of him. Before he knew it, he had jumped forth and embraced the stranger as snuggly as he could. As if possessed by a child, he also shouted “Mama!” as tears began to form and trickle down his cheeks. The stranger quickly broke away from the hold and kicked him inside the armory. The stranger’s face contorted in utter disgust and abhorrence.

          “Lord almighty!” the stranger shouted, slowly regaining his composure. After having done so, the stranger let out a deep breath and grabbed him by the neck, yanking him from the box. “Listen here, you insufferable vermin, I do not care if this utter buffoon protected you all this time, I am not going to tolerate a god-forsaken Tier C polluting this planet and freeloading off a defender!” The stranger tightened his grip, and he realized that the stranger was not choking him to punish him but rather to permanently kill. He began to struggle, flailing his legs and arm, but the stranger stared at him entirely repulsed by the idea that such a creature had managed to survive on the planet for so long. Thankfully, his master grabbed the stranger’s wrist and shouted at the stranger. The stranger loosened his grip but did not let go. Instead, the stranger used him as a weapon with which to slap his master across the face. How could the stranger swing him about so effortlessly? As much as he was in pain, he could not help but admire the strength the stranger seemed to possess.

          “Goodbye, little pipsqueak,” the stranger told him, tightening his grip once again. He slapped the stranger’s arm several times, but the stranger only tightened his hold even more. At least he got what he wanted, at least something interesting happened, for he would much rather die like he was about to, with excitement and adrenaline, than die bored with nothing going on. His master had not given up, however, and punched the stranger in the stomach. The stranger bent over and let go of his throat, allowing him to catch his breath and scurry away. He had almost died!

          “Thank you, master!” he shouted.

          “Master?” the stranger repeated before breaking out in a fit of laughter. “So, he really is a slave. Color me surprised, H. I did not think you identified that way.” His master had had enough of the constant teasing and charged at the stranger. His master went for a kick to the head, but the stranger blocked and grabbed his master’s leg. “Tsk, tsk. Any other B1 may have been stopped by physical altercation, but I have been trained in man-on-man combat for occasions exactly such as this. I never expected you, H, to have harbored such a sin. You think you know someone. Granted, I have only known you for a couple weeks.”

          The stranger stared at his master’s knee and smiled. The stranger raised an arm, and he knew what the stranger was planning on doing. The stranger was about to hyperextend his master’s leg. Before the stranger was able to do so, the blue hand scuttled into position and intercepted the swing of the stranger’s fist. The hand began to diplomatically negotiate terms with the stranger, or so he thought, and the stranger let go of his master’s leg.

          “Alright, Zar. I will take your word for it. At least you know how to speak, unlike this cretin who only knows how to fight. Not like I expected any more from a lousy B4. All B4 are basically Tier C. When cornered all they know how to do is resort to punches. I could have your title as defender revoked, you know. Having attacked me, another defender in the process of eliminating a non-defender Tier C for whom you had been providing shelter without permission, breaks quite a few rules. Obstruction of justice is a serious offense, but I will let it slide if you explain yourself cordially. No punches, just you and me, sitting comfortably, perhaps drinking some Bitter. That would be nice, would it not?” His master stared daggers at the stranger but fetched a couple bottles of the green liquid anyway. He had no idea what he should be doing, so as the two of them spoke, he sat cross-legged on the ground beside them. Occasionally, the stranger would stare down at him as if he were a shit stain on a brand-new, multi-million-dollar rug.

          “I noticed your pet has quite a few bruises and lacerations decorating his basically nude body. Care to explain what you have been doing? … I see … Well, at least you are honest. I mean, B4 have to let out their frustrations one way or another, and since the law states you cannot attack another defender, the only logical solution would be to either abuse Texeli or somehow be lucky enough to find a random, non-defender Human. There have been many cases that I have come across in my policing of defenders abusing Texeli, but this is the first time I find a defender abusing a Human … I do not care one bit if you have not abused him in weeks, the fact of the matter is that you decided to keep an obviously-dysfunctional Tier C as your pet rather than kill him off as you should have done … I must kill your stress ball. You understand, do you not? … Oh please, enough with your whining. Why do you even want to keep that thing? As you said, you have not even used your stress ball in weeks … I think we are done here. You refuse to listen to reason, and I feel as though I am arguing with a wall. I will kill him, and there is nothing you can do about it. Keep in mind that I have the power to revoke your protection under the law by stripping you of your defender status. Do you seriously want to die alongside him? … Yeah, that is what I thought. That is the problem with all you B4 and Tier C. Why do you think the higher-ups decided to hold the first ever War Game? They knew that Tier C were not capable of controlling themselves, they knew that the only use for Tier C in combat is back on Earth where you could send them all on suicide missions without remorse. In my opinion, the higher-ups should have also given us permission to kill B4, since you all are so close to the same level of uncontrollable aggression and frustration. They had mercy on you, H. Lots of it. Do not take their mercy for granted.”

          The stranger turned to stare at him. “Ready to sleep, little guy?” A shiver ran down his back. The stranger, the only other being capable of speaking English, wanted nothing more than to kill him.

          “Please, I beg of you! Do not kill me! I have finally found someone else who can speak English! You do not comprehend how utterly devastated I have been for the past several weeks since I woke up without anyone to talk to or anything to read!” The stranger’s fake smile slowly became a frown.

          “What did you just say?”

          “A few weeks ago, I woke up with no memories and my master was kind enough to take me in, but I could not understand anyone, not even him. I tried reading some of the books I could find, but even the books were written in a weird language I had never seen before. Hell, the only things I was able to read were three entries in my master’s tablet thing, none of them which revealed to me much of anything other than a war of sorts.” The stranger sprawled across the ground and rubbed his eyes in disbelief. The stranger lay there, unmoving, staring upward for a long time as both his master and himself sat patiently awaiting the stranger’s belated response.

          “What the hell is going on today!” the stranger shouted at the top of his lungs. He slammed a fist against the ground and rose to a sitting position. “You expect me to believe that you have amnesia and cannot understand anything anyone says despite their speaking English too?” His master interjected with his own comment, to which the stranger replied “what do you mean you hear Filipino? I clearly hear and read English.”

          He could not help but burst out laughing. He laughed and laughed for what seemed like weeks. He laughed until his chest felt as though it would explode. “Are you telling me you have been on this planet for months and have been taking your ability to not only understand every Human you have come across but also this entirely undocumented alien species for granted the entirety of that time? You never asked yourselves once why that was the case? You just assumed the entire universe spoke your specific language?” His master and the stranger both stared at each other for some time before the stranger cleared his throat obnoxiously.

          “O-Of course not, you imbecile!” his shock seemed to be rapidly morphing into anger. “How dare you insinuate that I, a B1, could possibly lack critical thinking! I will let you know that unlike your useless master over here, I, basically a Tier A, am much, much brighter, much, much more sophisticated, much, much more civilized, and much, much more perceptive. Of course I thought about such an obvious peculiarity!”

          “If that is the case, then care to explain why you can hear and see English everywhere and I can’t? You’ve had months to ponder this ‘peculiarity,’ after all.”

          “The answer is obviously because you are a Tier C!” the stranger retorted, as if insulting him. “Just look at you! Frail, beaten, and amputated. Scars everywhere! You are the most hideous Tier C I have ever had the displeasure of seeing!” Everything the stranger had said about him was probably true, except for the answer to his question. He may not know anything about his past nor the present, but he could tell, from the stranger’s tone of voice, that the stranger doubted he was Tier C. If he was right, and Tier C meant the bottom of the barrel, the intellectually inferior, then no wonder the stranger doubted his own claim. He did not perceive himself as intellectually inferior. In the contrary, to have had such an oversight for months begged him to wonder whether he may be even more critically-thinking than the two of them. A smile involuntarily formed on his smug visage. “How dare you smile smugly, imbecile!” The stranger rose to his feet and was about to stomp on him when his master interrupted the stranger. The stranger calmed down and agreed with whatever his master had stated. “You are right, you are right. I am basically a Tier A, after all. I cannot be worked up over something as miniscule and insignificant as a Tier C pretending to be smart. A bitch in Human clothing is still nothing more than a groveling canine, after all.”

          There was silence for a while inside the tent. Even the aliens were silent. He looked behind him and noticed the blue triplets staring at him in awe, and he couldn’t stop himself from blushing. Had he impressed them? His master stated something, and the stranger continued the conversation, leaving him as a spectator once again. “H, you have made an interesting find … Ha, right … Oh no, no hard feelings. Except, I have a condition … Yes, a condition, a condition that will be very convenient to you, although it may not seem as such at first … Hey, at least let me tell you it before you start your lengthy monologue bashing it into smithereens … Ok, listen, we both know you are not entirely a saint, right? Let us revisit your sins, shall we? Obstruction of Justice, Harboring a Criminal, Antisocial Behavior … The hell do you mean? Are you trying to argue that keeping a Human as a pet to relentlessly abuse for days on end is not antisocial behavior? I was being nice by calling you antisocial, but clearly you do not want anything sugar-coated, psychopath … Well who are they going to believe, some random, narcissistic B4 who suspiciously changed his name in the records –- granted the previous name was utterly redundant and unoriginal and worthy of being changed as soon as possible –- or a trusted member of the police? … Will you let me continue? Thanks. As I was saying, the list of sins just expands evermore, so here is my deal. I shall pardon you of all the aforesaid sins and more if and only if you give me your pet.” The room remained silent once more as his master pondered the options.

          To him, the logical option was to hand him over to the stranger. The stranger seemed to hold a lot of power in whatever society had formed on the alien planet, and the stranger could easily overpower his master in a fight. If his master denied the stranger’s offer, not only would his master most certainly be prosecuted and deemed guilty, but the stranger would still take custody of him. His master looked down at him and he looked back at his master with a determined look, as if to tell his master that he was ready to be forfeited to the stranger’s whims.

          The blue hand told his master something, and the two of them had a short discussion before his master looked at the stranger and reluctantly nodded. “Amazing,” the stranger stated, “B4 are capable of deducing the correct answer! Good choice, H. Good choice.” Then the stranger turned to look at him with an uncharacteristically warm and welcoming gaze. He returned the smile, but unlike the stranger’s, his smile was genuine. Finally, the boredom was over.

Chapter Text

          His master did not say an elaborate departure; in fact, the only signs of his master having told him goodbye before he left for good were a nod and a half-smile. He understood, however, that his master’s sorrow was not due to his departure but rather what the stranger had told him. His master had abused him the first week, sure, but his master did not deserve to have been scolded so harshly, especially after his master had tried so hard not to do so again. But what did he know about morals? He barely knew anything about the world, let alone what the leaders deemed justice.

          “Alright, I will set up my Pavilion here. Time to meet my band, little one,” the stranger said. “Oh, before I do so, my name is Eveline.” Eveline extended a hand for a handshake, which he gladly shook. “I almost forgot you did not have contacts with which to read my bio. Now it is your turn, Mr. Not-A-Defender-Therefore-Not-In-The-Goddamn-Database-Like-Everyone-Else.” His eyes widened and smiled. The irony had finally sunk in. “What is so funny, kid?”

          “Remember how I laughed at you for never asking yourself why everyone spoke your language? Well, seems I am just as absent-minded. In the weeks since I woke up, I have never tried to remember my own name, and now such a thing has become nearly impossible. I never thought about needing it.”

          “Are you seriously telling me you do not have a name?”

          “Sure am.”

          “Well… how about Master?”

          “Why so?”

          “Well, you kept calling H your master, but it is about time you gain some autonomy, do you not think so? After I am done with you, I will let you wander around this planet as a defender like any Human should. You shall one day become a master over your own life.” Master looked at Eveline with a puzzled expression and sighed. Not only had H changed in personality drastically by going from a dominant, strong individual to a passive, scared boy, but Eveline changed from an aggressive jerk to an understanding and, dare Master say, helpful friend. Master wondered if every Human changed personalities that often and if he was an outlier for remaining static.

          Master watched intently as Eveline pulled out a small pouch from his back pocket and dug his entire hand inside. After some rummaging, Eveline pulled out a somewhat flattened piece of cloth. He set the cloth on the ground and pressed a button on his tablet, expanding the cloth into a tent.

          “See, that’s something I never fully understood. You’re telling me H has been shrinking down his Pavilion to the point of allowing him to stuff the entire thing inside his pouch, a pouch of that size, yet I have stayed inside that Pavilion and never felt claustrophobic. Care to explain how the hell I don’t get crushed every time he does so?” Master inquired.

          Eveline looked at him and chuckled. “Sometimes, I ask myself whether or not you are a Tier C because you sure look and act like it at times, but moments like this, moments when you ask complicated questions no Tier C would ever even fathom, let alone articulate, reassure me that I was correct in taking you under my wing. I always knew you had potential.” Always, he says. “Anyway, the technology involved in creating something such as a seemingly bottomless pouch and a pavilion that can be crushed from the outside without crushing the inside is a very… cumbersome… topic. How can I word it…” Before Eveline continued, Master had already deduced that Eveline would try his best to answer honestly but also not seem ignorant to the technicalities he obviously did not comprehend. Master did not blame him. Eveline was still a Tier B no matter how much he stated he was basically a Tier A, and such science was probably left to the Elites, the Tier A, the ones who probably sent all those messages in the tablet and the ones in positions of power.

          “Explaining this to someone whose current knowledge you do not know is difficult to say the least, so do you mind if I ask you some questions as to gauge your current understanding?”

          “Why not?”

          Eveline shook his head in disbelief, as if he were having a hard time grasping the situation. Master tried being on Eveline’s shoes. Eveline thought of Master as a Tier C, so of course Eveline would shake his head in disbelief. Master could not even begin to guess how it would feel to teach someone whom he had always grown up to believe was no smarter than a sea sponge complicated science even he had trouble grasping. “Great. Are you familiar with one of the greatest scientists of this generation: Doctor Oolongty? I would be surprised, since his discoveries were rather recent.”

          “In what world is that a Human name?”

          “You would be surprised as to what Tier A call themselves. Anyway, I will take that as a no and ask this in turn: are you familiar with non-Euclidean geometry?”

          “Now that I do know, though not a whole lot, just the little I remember. If I can’t even remember my name, hopefully you can forgive me for not remembering anything about such a thing other than how it’s basically geometry in a non-flat plane.”

          “Correct. That’s how you get a triangle with all three angles being right angles and whatnot, but I will not go into the details. What you need to know is that many centuries ago, a guy named Einstein decided it would be a bright idea to start meddling with his theory of Space-Time and the bending of the universe. It was amazing, for his time.”

          “I am also aware of the Einstein fellow. Mass bends the universe, which just lends itself into using non-Euclidean geometry.”

          “Correct. The point I am trying to get at is that no one really understood how to harness non-Euclidean space to its fullest potential except in computer simulations that would cut corners and make it visually feasible but not physically until Einstein’s theories of relativity began to crumble under the pressure of other, better theories. It has been a long journey of constant debunking and refining until we finally got to the likes of Dr. Oolongty. Him and many other scientists proposed crazy ideas, some which were discarded but some which were accepted. Amongst these ideas were breakthroughs in non-Euclidean constructs that paved way to technology such as the Pavilion.”

          “Constructing an object that is small on the outside but huge on the inside sounds like a dream. You could have an entire country the size of a town!”

          “Yes, that was probably also played around with, although I doubt the research went far considering Oolongty had made advancements in the field not even a lustrum ago. Thing is, even if we could have theoretically crammed the entire planet’s population into less than half of it, no good would have come out of such an action because space was never as much of a problem with overpopulation as was the lack of resources to sustain life. And no, I am not only talking about food, because if that were the case, perhaps creating massive plantations and then shrinking them inside one of these ‘Pavilions’ for lack of a better metaphor or hell, converting the unoccupied half of the planet that would have been cleared up thanks to these non-Euclidean countries into country-sized farms, would have probably alleviated the overpopulation crisis. No, the major problem with overpopulation was the ever-mushrooming ideologies that would relentlessly rip Humanity at the seams! Wars left and right killing tens of millions of people like it were nothing. Hard to believe overpopulation was still a crisis with so many deaths. If anything, non-Euclidean technology was better-suited for shrinking down the heaps of corpses salvaged from the battlegrounds.”

          “I don’t know… Non-Euclidean technology seems kind of broken. Wouldn’t you theoretically be able to stuff a Pavilion inside a Pavilion inside a Pavilion and create infinite space?”

          “Quite the perceptive one, are you not? Thing is, you cannot do that. Non-Euclidean technology breaks apart if you try doing so, kind of like if you tried to make a projectile launch faster than the speed of light by launching it from a rocket that was already going at near the speed of light, if that makes any sense to you.”

          “Hm, I guess that’s good enough. We both are out of our league and half of what you said is probably speculation and not fact.” Eveline was about to argue but stopped himself. Instead, Eveline nodded his head slowly in shame.

          “Correct. I tried feigning knowledge on the matter but more than half of what I said is more opinion than fact. Let us end this pointless discussion on that note and enter the Pavilion, shall we?”  Master nodded with an understanding smile and walked inside to greet the many patient aliens that had been quietly eavesdropping on their conversation. Master was pleasantly surprised by how different Eveline’s roster was than H’s. He did not see a single one of the blue-skinned ladies anywhere, but he did see the fire-bird he had nearly killed a long time back.

          “Alright, gang, I introduce to you my new pal, Master. He will be living with you all while I try to teach him how to be a strong and independent defender. He cannot understand any of you, however, so do not expect to have any meaningful conversations outside of mere gestures,” Eveline announced. A very old-looking, yellow-haired woman wearing a violet dress walked forth carrying a tall, yellow staff with a skull on top. She stared at Master for a long time and spoke to Eveline. “I do not really know why, but Master here does not have everything automatically-translated to a language he can understand. He hears your native language.” Eveline continued by explaining to them all how each one of them apparently had a distinct language that he was somehow able to hear as English, a Human language. The old lady that had walked forth responded with a single word. “Wait, you think the iris has something to do with this?” Eveline remained silent for a while in deep thought before reaching a eureka moment.

          “That must be it!” he shouted. “The iris is some sort of deity, Master. I am not sure if you are familiar with the concept. To these Texeli, the iris is a goddess of some sort that brought us Humans here to Texel in order to fight back an invasion from robotic beasts known as Exos. The iris, as a god, could theoretically allow us to understand each other through divine magic. Reminds me of that old religion with the one guy that forced people to speak different languages so they could not understand each other. If our ancient ancestors came up with the idea of a god that could create a bunch of languages, what is there to stop this god from unifying everyone, right?” Master was not quite sure if he followed, but at that moment he had no better theory to even entertain so he nodded his head hesitantly. The old lady stared at Master for a while longer, and he noticed that others were staring at him in the same manner, mostly wizard-looking folk. Their stares were not the same stares of curiosity as everyone else’s but rather a stare of déjà-vu. Could they have known him from way back, back before he lost his memory? He prayed to the iris to grant him the ability to understand the Texeli language, but his prayers went unheeded for a long time.

          Aside from the awkward introduction, the evening was full to the brim with commotion and laughter as Eveline decided to throw a seemingly never-ending welcome party. Bitter after Bitter, Nux after Nux, and even a few Human dishes like salad and sandwiches, albeit made from Texeli ingredients, were stuffed down his throat by his uncontrollable arm. As the party finally began to die down, Master was left wondering what the future held for him, hoping that maybe, just maybe, a day would come when the iris granted him the ability to understand all languages. Maybe that was just a defender’s privilege and he would need to first learn how to be one before having any hope of earning it.

Chapter Text

          “Alright, Master, here’s the deal,” Eveline began very early in the morning following the night of over-indulgence that most likely destroyed him economically. He had also told Master to wait outside while he said goodbye to fellow Texeli before strengthening his band. “This war is composed of waves of Exos. For basically an entire week, these Exos bombard us relentlessly with everything they currently have. After we defenders annihilate all their warriors, the Exos usually give up and no major waves show up for another two weeks as they try to innovate their weaponry. During those two weeks, we also attempt to improve ourselves by either raiding dungeons to loot as much gear as we possibly can or we hold a somewhat friendly competition against each other to establish who is more worthy of recruiting the Texeli that have crawled out of the woodworks and have decided to join the war. Rather systematic, if you ask me, which is quite ironic. There is so much order in the chaos of this war that sometimes I lay awake, unsettled, wondering when the routine we have so strongly held dear will shatter. I always dread a surprise attack during one of the weeks we are trying to recuperate.”

          “So, what will this week hold for us?” Master asked.

          “If everything goes as planned, sometime today, everyone’s tablets will ring the moment the next War Game begins. War Games are the friendly competitions I mentioned earlier. The moment the tablet rings, we shall travel together so I can guide you through the process, hence why I woke you up early to discuss all of this.” Before their discussion could continue, a Texeli approached them. He was one of the Humanoid ones, but Master was still not able to tell if the Texeli happened to be Hemi or Xana. The Texeli wore red armor and carried around a pair of chains Master assumed were used as whips of some sort. He circled around Master, analyzing him intensely.

          “What’s your problem, Thesanthei?” Eveline asked. The Texeli stopped circling Master and answered. “Are you sure?” Thesanthei nodded. “So, what about it? …  This better be good, or else you would be wasting both my and Master’s time, understood? … You better not be lying either.” After the discussion, Eveline turned to Master and explained that “Thesanthei would like to talk to you, so I shall serve as his translator. Supposedly, he has something he has been dying to figure out, and only you are able to answer him, somehow.” Master was just as puzzled as Eveline but agreed. “Alright, what do you want me to tell him?”

          “Master, do you remember anything that happened inside the laboratory?” Eveline translated.

          “Which laboratory? I do not remember any,” Master replied.

          “None? None at all? Does a capsule with yellow liquid ring a bell? What about an Exo gun?”

          “No, sorry.”

          “Whenever he is built by the divine totem, his newest Self retains all the memories from all his previous Selves. He remembers H. H was the one who built him when he was overcome by an irrational rage, as if the iris herself had urged the demon within him to erupt and beckoned him to travel all the way to his birthplace. What he is trying to say is that the iris wanted H to find you and take you under his wing, at least long enough for me to find you.” Eveline stopped translating and turned to Thesanthei. “Wait, but why would the iris pick H of all people if he does not even speak English. Would it not have been better for me to go? … Cut that crap about ‘the iris works in mysterious ways’; that is probably the weak argument that propelled Earth into secularism. What could be so advantageous about having H find Master? Or perhaps the iris did not know that Master would wake up so braindead … So, you are telling me you had to travel far to get to the base, huh… that clears up some things. If you had to travel far, then clearly not any defender closer to the base would have sufficed. It must have been H and H alone. But what about H… what about him caught the iris’ attention…”

          “I may not remember the lab, but my memories start with my waking up inside his Pavilion. He had been mad at me for not living up to his expectations, as if my inability to understand his language somehow disappointed him. After that, he became enraged and used me as a punching bag for a week before he stopped and never laid a single hand on me again. Maybe the iris wanted me to be abused for that initial week.”

          “I do not know, Master. Why would a god want to make you suffer for an entire week? Was stripping you of your memories not enough? Hell, was stripping away your ability to communicate with Texeli not enough? Thesanthei, do you remember anything that happened in the laboratory?” Eveline once again began to translate for him.

          “All he remembers before having been built is reuniting with H after having gone inspecting the laboratory by himself. When they reunited, H had salvaged you from deep underground. That is when H told him that he had found your body inside a capsule with yellow liquid, the capsules used to extract dots from Texeli. The capsule was not working, however, so you had been floating in the unrecycled liquid for who knows how long. You also shot your arm with a weapon you found on the floor because you said, quote on quote, ‘it hurts, Mama,’ or something to that effect. Do you really not remember anything?”

          “I wish I could say I do, but nothing rings a bell. If what Thesanthei is saying is true, however, then now I know what happened to my arm. I blew it up. I am to blame. Everything is on me. I am the monster.”

          “Calm down, drama queen,” Eveline interrupted. “Listen, I have no idea what truly happened, but how did you even get inside the capsule in the first place? I am beginning to think that you may not even be Human. Found in an Exo laboratory with no memories of a past life but somehow enough knowledge to have known about Einstein and Non-Euclidean Geometry? Not to mention your lexicon and critical thinking? As far as I know, you were created by Exos purposefully to look like a Human but in reality, you are nothing more than one of their pawns. You are a spy!”

          “Don’t be ridiculous! How would Exos know about Einstein? That is solely engrained in Human history. Why would they know something exclusively Human?”

          “Oh, you are right. It seems that I jumped the gun there.”

          “Surely. You said the capsule drained the dots from Texeli, right? Well I am still here, so clearly, I am not made of dots. However, the liquid was still corrosive, toxic, or otherwise detrimental in nature, correct? We cannot rule out the possibility that whatever is able to extract dots from Texeli can somehow deteriorate a Human’s brain in such a way that it can lose all its memory.”

          “However, you did not lose all your-” Suddenly, a Texeli walked out of the Pavilion carrying Eveline’s tablet. Eveline thanked the Texeli and began to read the new message. “Thank you, Thesanthei, for enlightening us, even if just slightly, on Master’s condition. As a thank you, how would you like joining the band and using those whips of yours for some nice destruction?”

          After a while of walking, Eveline was confronted by another defender. She approached them without prying her eyes off Master. Even as she spoke, her eyes seemed anchored to Master’s face. “Who may this fellow be, Eveline,” she asked, showing her anger not through body language -– not even facial expressions -– but her tone. Her posture was the straightest amongst them all. Her face was stoic and frozen, only ever moving slightly to speak before assuming position once more. She sported an astonishing black business suit. Her dress shirt was pearly white with a dark-green tie tight around her neck. Her suit was obsidian black; same for her dress pants. Her shoes were so polished that despite their being even darker than the suit, the glare almost blinded Master. Her short, blonde hair was perfectly straight and extended just low enough to completely cover her nape. Because of her intense glare, Master was able to admire her beautiful, dark-green eyes. In fact, Master noticed that her tie was the same color.

          “Calm down, Taurus. He is with me.”

          “Missing identification. Explain yourself immediately.”

          “I know how suspicious it is for me to be accompanied by a Human who is not officially a defender and therefore not logged in the database; however, there is a good reason for such a jarring discrepancy in the otherwise perfect world.” Eveline chuckled for an almost negligible instant before continuing. “He is of an unknown Tier. I say this because he shows signs of having at least B2 knowledge despite his Tier C appearance and mannerisms. He has no recollection of his past, however intel from Thesanthei has revealed that another defender, current name Handsome, salvaged him from inside an abandoned Exo laboratory.”

          “How come he has no recollection of his past but retains B2 knowledge?” Once again, Master noticed that her expression and body had remained the exact same during the entire conversation, yet her tone had grown more contemptuous.

          “I wish I had an answer for that, Taurus. I am currently trying to teach him some of the basics of what we defenders do to better prepare him for what lies ahead.”

          “What lies ahead? As far as I am concerned, this fool deserves no future.” She calmly pulled her sleeve back and stretched her wrist. What was she planning?

          “What lies ahead is a new soldier to support the war effort, Taurus. Do you not trust me? Have I not earned your trust? Have I not killed enough to warrant the benefit of the doubt?”

          “I acknowledge your fealty and efficiency thus far; however, I do not comprehend why you have chosen him as a pupil. Not once have any officers reported such an incident. Why shall I grant you permission to be the first defender to instruct an unregistered Human?”

          “Because…” Eveline fell silent as he brainstormed possible logical reasons. As Eveline brainstormed, Taurus remained staring at Master with disdain.

          In order to break the silence, Master stated “you speak English too” with a tone of awe. For the first time since they met, her lips seemed to have flashed the slightest and quickest of smiles. She then spoke in another language, which Master assumed was directed at him. Unfortunately, he did not understand what she said, but he could formulate his best guess for what language she spoke. Before he could say “German,” however, Eveline quickly interjected by spouting “because with enough training, Master here will not only be able to command Texeli to victory no problem, but perhaps even succeed me.”

          “Your reason is extremely inadequate and unrealistic. I shall make an exception, however, and grant you permission to train him under the condition that he be officially registered as a defender and added into the database. I shall add him myself, but first I shall test his abilities as I would have done in the original War Game. Conveniently, we are currently participating in one. Prepare yourself, unregistered Human.” She stepped back to join her band of nine Texeli. Very intimidating Texeli at that.

          “Oh boy,” Eveline sighed. “Your training is not going as planned at all. What were the chances of stumbling upon Taurus of all people? Regardless, Master, listen to me. You will have to fight her one on one using my band. You will command them to victory. Beat her band to the ground, understood?”

          “But I have no idea how to command!”

          “No buts. If you do not prove yourself right here, right now, she will eliminate you.” Master gulped. “Here, have my contacts.” Eveline looked at the sky, opened his left eye wide with his fingers, and was about to scoop out his eye before Master shouted at him “what the hell are you doing!” Master shut his eyes and looked the other way. “Calm down, Master. They are just my contacts. Here, put them on.” Master slowly opened his eyes and noticed that Eveline was holding out two small cups in his hand.

          “These go on your eye?” Master asked.

          “You do not know what contacts are?”

          “No…”

          “Just… allow me to put them on you, then.” Eveline tilted back Master’s head and placed the contacts on Master’s erratically shaking eyes. After a lot of struggling and squirming, Master finally had the contacts on.

          “Woah!” Master gasped as he began to see words flash in front of him. He looked at Eveline, and beside his head read:

Nombre: Eveline

Edad: 18

Nivel: B1

Pts: 0

Rango: Pre

          Out of curiosity, he turned his head to read the woman’s “bio”:

Nombre: Taurus

Edad: 28

Nivel: A4

Pts: 1843

Rango: IX

          As interesting as finding out what their information was, he was more interested in how everything was in Spanish. Of course, to Eveline, everything was most likely in English. He was not sure whether Taurus read everything in German or English, but he was too scared to ask. Not that Taurus intimidated him or anything, but Master remembered how Eveline purposefully interrupted him before he was able to admit that he knew she was speaking German. Perhaps Eveline did not want Taurus to know his ability.

          “Please, begin posthaste. I must advance to the Brackets,” Taurus insisted sternly. Master began to sweat profusely and looked at Eveline. Eveline looked back and nodded.

          “Believe in yourself, Master.”

Chapter Text

          The severity of his situation began to scuttle its devious path, scaling his spine and nape to eventually penetrate his vulnerable cranium. As fear commenced its despicable curse upon his composure, Master narrowed his eyes and analyzed his enemies. Most notable were the three golden angels on the front row, smirking at him as if they had already triumphed. Their confidence left a sour taste in Master’s mouth as he realized their abilities were all Preempt All. He swiftly read the ability’s elucidation, yet as incredible as it may be, Master believed that his mind, his heart, had finished assessing the description prior to his own eyes, for not even half-way through the description had his eyes traversed when a dreadful blanket of despair was forced upon him, suffocating him, asphyxiating him.

          “Dear child, we do not have all day,” Taurus insisted in her characteristically fierce voice betraying her otherwise calm and collected person. Master glared back at her with an irritated expression, and ever so slightly did her eyes widen as if in surprise. Master bothered not with said peculiarity and instead focused on Eveline’s band. To his exasperation, all of Eveline’s three Preempt All fighters, composed of the phoenixes Ataneedusu and Dilgan, were not “maxed out” but instead either 2/5 or 3/5. He was able to observe their statistics, yet the captivating Audelinea triplets condescendingly fluttering before him were censored so Master could not learn whether they were maxed nor what their levels were. To make matters worse, Master felt devastated by the sight of Taurus’ own Ataneedusu. Instead of having multiple Ataneedusu, she only sported that one, instilling on Master the dread of the Ataneedusu possibly being completely maxed out. Master rebuked the contacts for not revealing the enemy’s data but reminded himself that such a dire time could not accommodate reprimands.

          “Hey, Master, are you alright?” asked Eveline, momentarily distracting Master from his pondering. Master swiftly and firmly nodded his head, heaved the deepest of breaths, and analyzed the battlefield for an instant longer as he exhaled. Taurus taunted him with Audelinea triplets and Ataneedusu –- a total of four Texeli with the Preempt All skill. Three of her remaining warriors were yet another group of triplets. According to the nugatory contacts so graciously lent to him by none other than Eveline himself, those three warriors were dubbed Wigo. As his exhale neared completion, Master brainstormed possible strategies wherewith to counter her Ataneedusu. Perhaps Eveline’s Zalmoxis and two Iaazipaa, three individuals who possessed extraordinary defensive capabilities, could withstand the undoubtedly formidable storm that would inevitably befall his comrades promptly. Even if the three could, there was no guarantee as to whom Taurus was planning on mobilizing first. Should he risk sacrificing Zalmoxis and the two Iaazipaa or should he risk sending forth the Ataneedusu and Dilgan trio in hopes of striking her forces first? No answer revealed itself by the time his exhale depleted.

          “No more stalling. Commence.” Taurus had no need of consulting her band for strategizing -- a sign that many victories had the band, with a predetermined formation, relished. However intimidated, Master rapidly muttered his commands to Eveline’s warriors, and the confrontation began.

          Zalmoxis and the Iaazipaa all charged the battlefield with a hopeless effort to withstand the enemy wave of three Wigo. One by one, the three valiant warriors were reduced to smithereens as blasts of magic-infused water gushed into their bodies and exploded them. Master had incorrectly assumed that Taurus would send her Ataneedusu first, but as he saw the three of them fulminate so instantaneously, Master’s bowels began to churn and convulse. Master knew very well what was at stake: his life. If he did not prove himself worthy, he would be discarded like all the other plebeians before him, like the Neanderthal everyone, including himself, believed he was. Yet, with three of nine allies vanquished without even ten seconds having expired, Eveline’s entire force would be eradicated in a substantially shorter amount of time than the time that had taken him to exhale. Master had begun dreading the worst.

          The second standoff was comprised of Eveline’s Thesanthei and two Esmellion, an awkward trio Eveline had insisted on levying simply because Thesanthei had proven useful in shining a light on Master’s past, against Taurus’ Ataneedusu and two Zalmoxis. To Master’s delight, one of the Esmellion propelled at lightning speed and pierced Ataneedusu in the heart while the other launched her trident across the battlefield, decapitating one of the Zalmoxis. Thesanthei attempted to flagellate the remaining Zalmoxis to death; however, his attempts were futile. The bleeding Zalmoxis, neglecting the pints of blood cascading from the lacerations on his back, stumbled forth and confronted the Esmellion that had launched her trident across the field. The Esmellion, not quite prepared to die just yet, attempted to dart to her trident so she could defend herself, confident in her ability to out-speed the Zalmoxis that seemed closer to exsanguination than triumph. In an unprecedented turn of events, Zalmoxis, as he stumbled back after momentarily losing his balance, used his incredible, raw upper-body strength to swing his sword and send it spinning toward Esmellion who in her hubris had completely let her guard down, foolishly forfeiting her life and exploding into cubes after the sword sliced her head open.

          Master had ordered Eveline’s Zalmoxis, Esmellion, and Dilgan to attack next, but since Zalmoxis and Esmellion were scattered all over the sparkling ground, only Dilgan, whose ability was still not ready, confronted the angel triplets. Needless to say, Dilgan was murdered in cold blood before flapping his wings more than thrice.

          Eveline’s band of nine had been reduced to a measly four on the first turn whilst Taurus’ composure remained unfazed. The three angels were still taunting him with their sly smirks. Master tightened his fist until a trickle of blood dripped onto the grass. He looked at the three Wigo and knew that only a Preempt All would be able to eradicate them with ease, yet the problem lay in knowing when Taurus would send them. Her face as stoic as ever did not betray nor reveal her intentions in the slightest. As Master began to envision all the different probabilities, a part of his brain cerebrated the battlefield. In none of his time with H had he ever wondered about nor contemplated the fallen Texeli as he was then. Their immortality but miserable vulnerability became as apparent as ever. Master recognized that Texeli’s only purpose was to be reduced to dots for the amusement of Humans during a downtime in the war, as if Humans could not go a week without senseless destruction, as if Humans cared not for the feelings of Texeli and only desired to see death even if the death meant the loss of their own team members. Yet therein lay the main incentive for senselessly destroying Texeli: Texeli never truly died. They could be brought back to life at a Human’s whim. There was no remorse in subjecting Texeli to such eternal torment for they could be resurrected with GLU effortlessly. Were Texeli just pets? Had Humans exploited Texeli fear and vulnerability just to conquer them? Perhaps defenders were not the saviors propaganda sought to dictate.

          “Master, you are trembling like crazy!” Eveline interrupted, mockingly. Master closed his eyes and opened them slowly to gain his composure. Despite having been engrossed in his own theories about the Texeli’s social disposition, another part of him had relentlessly strategized a countermeasure against having caused over half of Eveline’s team to crumble. He made eye contact with Taurus, who had been patiently waiting for him to make the first move, but not even her eyes harbored a clue as to her strategy. He elucidated his plan of action to Eveline’s band, and the second turn commenced.

          As Master had assumed, Taurus had not been foolish enough to risk sending all three of her Wigo at once on the same wave as an active Ataneedusu, thus she played her cards safely by sending a mixture of a Wigo and an Audelinea. Thankfully, Audelinea was a rather slow fighter who was unable to defend herself before Ataneedusu basked the two of them in flames. Also as Master had predicted, Taurus capitalized on the death of her Audelinea to send another Wigo who would have been accompanied by an Audelinea if that Audelinea had not crumbled on the previous attack, minimizing her fatalities by only killing a single Wigo instead of two. Such a strategy assumed that Master would send a multi-target onslaught, however, but because Master had predicted the strategy, he had purposefully refrained from sending Eveline’s active Ataneedusu and instead had ordered for an Esmellion-Thesanthei joint attack, thus eliminating the Wigo without breaking a sweat and retaining an active Ataneedusu. Even though the first two confrontations had been a significant success for Master, the second turn’s final one would prove to be severely detrimental.

          Since Taurus had assumed that Master would attack with a multi-target skill faster than that of Audelinea, and the only one on the band capable of such an ability was Ataneedusu, then the only logical follow-up to such a gamble would have been to send both Audelinea at once since if everything had gone according to plan, no one on the band with an active skill would have been able to kill both Audelinea before one of them could Preempt All. Master had gambled on Taurus having come to the same conclusion, yet Taurus threw Master a curveball by instead sending the critically-injured Zalmoxis as the third strike. In consternation, Master gawked as the Ataneedusu whom he had ordered to strike with his ability alongside Thesanthei wasted the ability on the dead man. In retrospect, Master cursed himself for not having ordered Ataneedusu to strike alongside Esmellion, for if he had done so, Esmellion would have had a chance to strike first, killing Zalmoxis and allowing Ataneedusu to retain his skill for the next attack.

          When the dust settled and the newly-sprinkled dots finished rolling to a stop, Master assessed his situation through jarred breaths and disbelief. He had cornered himself in a disadvantageous trap with both Ataneedusu’s skills inactive; in so doing, he had stripped himself from the ability to destroy both Audelinea at once. He had no method of preventing at least one Audelinea’s skill, hence two of his fighters were sure to meet their demise, and the only way of killing an Audelinea was to send Esmellion. However, sending Esmellion would mean killing Esmellion that same offensive at the hands of the other Audelinea. If so, then he would have no more Preempts with which to strike the last remaining Audelinea before she systematically hacked and slashed all remaining band members with that god-awful smirk on her face. He was done for. There was no hope. He had lost, he had lost being so close to victory, and all because of that curveball Taurus had pitched, all because of his blunder in sending Thesanthei instead of Esmellion. He apologized to the remaining members of Eveline’s band, and the third turn began just as quickly as it ended. Esmellion pierced one Audelinea just for the other one to bask the entire field in a blinding, searing light that destroyed Esmellion and Thesanthei, the same light that on the following offensive crumbled the two remaining Ataneedusu, the only two remaining members of the band.

          Master, after having witnessed the downfall of all the Texeli who had once so passionately welcomed him to the pavilion with a night of festivities, could not bear his grief, could not bear the blood that stained his hand, arm, and body, could not bear having lost to Taurus, and could not bear the thought of having failed to prove himself worthy. He had utterly, utterly failed, and now he had to pay the ultimate price. He allowed his disgruntled corpse to land on its knees and his head to slump forward against his heaving chest awaiting Taurus’ punishment, awaiting his death. Yet, his death never came. Instead, he heard Taurus approach him and state, in a very casual and relaxed tone, “stand, boy, for you have earned my respect.”

          “How so, dear Taurus?” Master groaned, refusing to stand nor lift his chin. In that same position of surrender, he extended his arm and waved it, showcasing the littered battleground. “See you not the remains of my fellow comrades? See you not my incompetence? I have failed you, Eveline, and myself with such a pitiful display of impuissance. May my abhorrent head be dissevered from my undeserving shoulders, may it limply roll onto the floor and shed its rotting flesh, revealing the repugnant skull of an impotent child with no memories to call his own, with no identity, with no purpose!” Master’s chest began to boil. He pressed his hand against it and allowed his body to lean forward and his forehead to pummel onto the hardened ground. He elevated his voice to the point of bellowing, tears pouring forth from his blood-stained eyes. “Stranded have I been for the past weeks in this foreign world! Benighted have I suffered in solitude! Why, God, do I suffer!” His anger, his grief, his pain, they did not cease their astounding ascent. His emotions had forsaken him and cared not for anything but flying toward the sun. Master was apprehensive of what would happen if their wax wings melted. “Cease this torment, Taurus! I have no need of this incomplete life of mine! Neither past nor future does this bellowing child possess! Countless of nights trapped within the walls of a Pavilion contemplating my purpose have led to no revelation, no satisfaction. What am I to do! My only hope was to become a defender, to pretend as though I could still have a purpose, but I have witnessed with my own two eyes just how much of a pipedream such a naïve ambition had been! Would you really entrust the title of defender to such a repugnant, mewling excrement of Humanity?” Master had not realized, but foam and slobber had been oozing from his mouth and forming a puddle, some drops even running up his cheeks before eventually realizing their ineptitude and ending their own lives with a final leap head-first into the graveyard, into the mountain of their brothers’ corpses. Even so, Master failed to experience even the slightest ebbs in his fuming, as if his production of serotonin had been spontaneously terminated and his anger was free to ravage Master’s sanity as it pleased. “Someone help me!” Master blurted out with the last ounces of his sanity before everything became black.

Chapter Text

          A cold splash of water jerked Master into consciousness. He began to cough violently and was dazed for a long time. He wiped his face with his hand and tried to focus his eyes on anything. He saw Eveline looking at him in reprisal. Master squeezed his eyes shut and tried to remember what had happened. His heart sank as he remembered his defeat.

          “I’m not dead?” Master asked. The reply he received was a sucker punch that sent his head spinning to the side and his entire body slamming against the ground. Master spat blood, wiped his mouth, and struggled to sit up after accidentally trying to use his non-existent left arm. “This pain can only mean one thing, huh?”

          “What the hell was that back then!” Eveline shouted. “You have no idea how much I had to argue with Taurus to let you live after she saw that… whatever that was. She had already said you had gained her trust! Why did you have a mental breakdown?”

          “Mental breakdown?” Master asked. He only remembered losing. He realized that he did not recall anything after that.

          “You do not remember? You began shouting gibberish, crying, and having a seizure. I ended up kicking you in the back of the head to knock you out before you hurt yourself or one of us.”

          “I… I don’t…” Master’s head began to pulsate. “How long have I been out?”

          “About fifty hours.”

          “Hours!” Master shouted in disbelief. How could that be possible? “Your kicks are lethal!”

          “Far more likely that your brain is just too weak. You have yet to answer my question.”

          “I do not know. How am I supposed to know if I cannot even remember?”

          “Listen, you have extremely serious mental issues. Not only do you have a major case of selective amnesia, but your emotions are out of control. At this rate, I cannot make you a defender, nor should you be. Defenders are supposed to be competent Humans, not mentally unstable Tier C.”

          “But… why did you not kill me?”

          “Because I see potential in you. You have some major flaws, so I am more than prepared to smother your life if you dare pull something like that off again, but everyone deserves a second chance.” Eveline, who had been squatting in order to speak with the sitting Master, slowly rose up, stretched his back, and walked away.

          “Wait, why had she said I earned any respect even after clearly losing?”

          “Because the goal was never to win, you absolute moron. There was no way you could win against a Tier A. She was testing your strategy. You were able to survive for a long time despite the uphill battle. You proved to be worthy of wielding a band. You may not be overpowered by any stretch of the imagination, but with my half-assed band, you would be able to eliminate a lot of Exos no problem during raids.” Eveline grabbed a Bitter and offered it to the grateful Master. “Cheers.”

          “What has happened in the past fifty hours?” Master asked after gulping down half of the bottle.

          “Nothing interesting, just the usual. Every War Game is basically the same: travel aimlessly until you encounter someone and then beat their behind. Oh, wait, there is this Texeli that has lost his marbles and is destroying everyone. He reminds me of you and your temper tantrums. Apparently, an Exo ambushed his beloved and killed her right in front of his eyes. The poor lad…”

          “Why did you wake me up?”

          “Fifty hours is a long time to be asleep, you know. I was not going to baby feed you or anything while you were passed out, so I kept splashing you with water every several hours for the past twenty or so.”

          “Oh.” Master finished the Bitter and stumbled over to the trash can.

          “You also reek more than usual, so let us go to the showers. I purposefully decided to try to wake you up because we happen to be camping in the vicinity of a tiny town.” The two of them made their way to a settlement in the middle of a meadow. The village seemed to be full of welcoming Theri. As usual, they paid for the showers that were created for any traveling defenders. Master wondered what Texeli thought about their showers being their most profitable tourist traps.

          “Now what?” Master asked once the two of them had left the showers and were casually sightseeing the town.

          “Well, the War Game is still going on, so I want you to observe quietly whenever I encounter someone. You may learn a thing or two, though you proved to be competent enough back then. My main concern is working on your emotions. I wonder what else may trigger another one of your wild sides. Clearly, being physically abused does not do squat since you were abused for an entire week yet H is still alive.”

          “Maybe the whole thing with the capsule Thesanthei mentioned has something to do with my emotional state. I cannot imagine that being trapped in a capsule for a prolonged period of time yields any positive results.”

          “Perhaps. I have been meaning to go there, actually, but I am not interested enough to get there as fast as possible.”

          “Understandable.” The two of them were quiet for a while, and Eveline did not encounter anyone during that time. As if bored of the silence, Eveline began discussing his philosophy.

          “Have you ever wondered if you are the main character in your life?” he began.

          “I do not think I follow,” the confused Master replied.

          “We live our entire lives seeing the world through only a single lens: ours. Sure, we may be able to read history books or watch videos, but any and all narratives we come across are automatically framed within our lenses. How many fiction books have you read?”

          “I do not remember. I remember reading a lot, but I have no idea what exactly I read. Something needs to happen for my memories to trigger. Take a rainbow for instance. When I saw one a while ago, I remembered reading about chromatic dispersion but also about the small, green men that are rumored to live at the ends. I take it the leprechauns are fiction.”

          “Hm, well, I used to read tons of fiction when I was younger.” Eveline chuckled reminiscently. “You see, I was almost killed by the police for not acting like a B1. I had extremely abysmal parents. They committed treason by raising me the way they did. Both of them were B1, so naturally I would be born B1. However, as you probably already noticed, my way of speaking and acting are nowhere close to reflecting a proper B1. That is because my parents did not act like parents. Instead of scolding me for not acting my tier, they would let me choose my own path. If I wanted to read about mages instead of kinematics, then they would let me. If I wanted to be friends with B4 instead of A4, they would let me. Of course, being young, I did not know any better, and I resent ever associating myself with such scum. Not a day goes by that I do not curse my parents for what they did, but I also acknowledge that there is nothing I can do to erase who I am. My parents only had one rule: never, EVER, let anyone find out I am a B1 when I am not acting as such.” Eveline slapped his forehead, shook his head, snapped it back, and began bellowing in laughter. “What am I doing! I wanted to talk to you about why I think you are not ready to be a defender just yet, not recite my autobiography!

          “Listen, I read lots of fiction books when I was young and began to question my purpose in the world. This type of speculating is something that should never happen among Tier B, but because of my parents’ poor parenting, I ended up being tainted by such existential thoughts. In my quest to answer these evil questions, I developed what I call the Protagonist philosophy. I know, very original. It will be hard to explain to someone that does not recall reading many fictional books, though.”

          Master was at a loss for words, mostly because he did not understand how any of that could possibly be related to his incompetence as a defender. Regardless, Master decided to play along. “I can still try to understand.”

          “Okay. So, in fictional books, you always have a protagonist and an antagonist. The protagonist is always this strong, brave man who vanquishes the enemies of the state while the antagonist is always this corrupt, cowardly man who gets killed by the protagonist for disrespecting the government. The point I am trying to get at is that if we ever want to succeed in life, we need to be the protagonists, not the antagonists. If we are the antagonists, we will eventually be killed off. Thus is the fate of all antagonists. I have studied many stories and have developed a checklist for what a good protagonist is. You, my friend, are nowhere close to a protagonist, but you are not an antagonist either. You are what I call a side-character, someone dispensable and utterly irrelevant to the grand scheme of things. You are just as likely to die now than centuries from now. You are a nobody. That is not what a defender should be.

          “We defenders have been brought here to Texel to save Texeli. We cannot be antagonists or side-characters if we hope to be those heroes. We must be protagonists. You are someone with no past, no way of understanding Texeli and many defenders, and, most damaging of all, you are passive. Way too passive! Imagine reading a story from the perspective of a character who does absolutely nothing the entire time but sit on someone’s shoulder and speak a couple words at a time! That is what you are, a passive observer of the world with no weight on the events that unfold. You must be like me, someone with lots of experience, intelligence, and confidence. Everything you have done since as far back as you remember can be paraphrased into being abused for a week, staying inside a pavilion for another week, and being ordered around by me for a few days. Do you understand the problem here? How could you possibly be of any use the way you are? Could you imagine reading a story from your perspective? No one, and I mean no one, would be able to get past the first couple pages! There is nothing interesting!” Master only understood about a quarter of what he had said but still pretended to care and comprehend by nodding his head in fake acknowledgement.

          “So, how do I become a protagonist?” Master asked.

          “That is why I am here. Trust me. Together, we can make you into the best defender -- the best protagonist -- there ever has been. You are welcome in advance.”

          Master tried to understand what Eveline had stated, but Master could not care less. He could not understand how being a protagonist or an antagonist could be so indicative of one’s competence. Such labels were too subjective anyway. And so, Master soon forgot the entire speech. So what if he was passive? So what if his biography would be read by no one? He cared not. He did, however, care about watching Eveline battle against other defenders. For the following few days, Master keenly observed every battle, every strategy, every defeat. Preempts, Champions, Guru, Rogues, Theri, Xana, timing, authority, everything. He may not care about becoming a protagonist, but he did care about one day being as competent of a leader as Eveline. Eveline blasted away basically every enemy except during the last two days of the event. Eveline had said that there was no reason why he should attempt to promote on the last few days because his band was nowhere close to standing up against all the Tier A that infiltrated the top Echelons. He would rather farm points on lower Echelons. Before long, Master and Eveline stood before “the Lemon” and summoned forth Eveline’s prizes and new allies. During the days after the event, Eveline guided Master through the process of haggling in the market. Texeli trafficking, as Master called it.

          As Eveline had predicted, after the War Game, a dungeon event was held in which all defenders would barge into select locations to loot treasure and gain new allies. There was not as much strategy during the raids as there had been during the War Game, but Master still felt as though he had learned new strategies and information. Amazingly, two weeks had passed in the blink of an eye when the same two weeks had felt like an eternity back when he was under H’s authority. Even so, Master could not shake a longing for being reunited with H again. H had been the one who had saved him from the capsule, the man who had taken care of him for two weeks, the man who had made sure he did not die. When the dungeon missions were over, Eveline pulled Master to the side and stared at him with wide eyes and an exhilarated smile so wide that it sent goosebumps down Master’s spine.

          “Master, do you know what is soon to befall Texel in only a day or so?”

          “I… I am not sure.”

          “Exos are coming, Master. Exos are coming, and we will be ready. We will destroy every single one of them. I want you to go out there and prove to me that these past two weeks have taught you all the strategy you need to wipe them all out. If you do so, if you prove to be a valuable asset to the war, then surely you will be officially labeled as a defender. It is time for you to finally become the protagonist.” Master winced for a tiny moment. Eveline’s grip on his shoulders had significantly tightened when he uttered the last words.

Chapter Text

          “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.

Chapter Text

          “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.”

Chapter Text

         The two of them remained dead silent, each inundated by their own depressing thoughts. With each precarious step Master managed, the more did his ruminating chew on his soul and the more ferocious did his suicidal thoughts become; yet, when all hope seemed to evanesce, the faces of Poging and Iudith would resurface and his will to live would be rejuvenated. The cyclic nature of his mood, with a frighteningly increasing frequency and tremendous amplitude, vexed his sanity beyond repair. Before he knew it, he was slumped on the same exact spot whereon Eveline’s Pavilion had been set before their expedition into Hell. Zar had crawled off Master’s shoulder and gone who-knows-where, leaving Master alone surrounded by silence with his obnoxious thoughts. He dug his hand into the pockets of his shorts, the shorts Poging had bought for him, and fiddled with the contacts whilst staring at the sky. The clear sky, no longer covered in ghastly red, was riddled with stormy clouds that never rained. The still air, no longer embedded in crimson, violently rustled the green canopies no longer sprouting from pillars of blood. A headache began to torture him as he tossed and turned inside his head attempting the hardest his crippled will could to avoid ruminating and reliving the chaos and bloodshed that had erupted within the confines of Yakoun Forest, the forest of death and despair. In order to distract himself from his lethal thoughts, he jammed his fingers into the wet stump of his arm and squealed in pain as he foraged deeper and deeper. Pain surged throughout his body yet stopped short of his head, as if even pain itself was too afraid to approach the terrifying, spiraling abyss that had manifested within, causing Master to suffer an assault from two fronts -- his arm and his mind -- alleviating not an ounce of his torment. Master disinterred his fingers from his muscles and lay there, once again staring at the sky, listening to the blood oozing from his injuries. Master had run out of ideas and was soon once again about to forfeit himself to his detrimental thoughts. The trough in his cyclic anguish had transgressed an event horizon, and even the images of Poging and Iudith failed to save him. His arm and legs were no longer appendages but weapons; the trees were no longer flora but cliffs; the ground was no longer solid but a fluid gateway to a life far beyond Human comprehension with ripples welcoming him -- urging him -- as the wind picked up speed in the direction of one of the tallest and easily-scalable cliffs.

         Master had had enough. He truly would have met his end right then and there, with no soul to call his own, with no purpose, with no memories. He was powerless, insignificant, and broken. He pressed the palm of his bloody weapon on the trunk of the cliff and thought to himself how to best climb it with only one arm. There must have been an easier way. He was too frail to climb high enough to get the job done. He looked at his left arm stump and remembered what Thesanthei had said. He had shot his own arm clean off, but how he wished he had aimed farther to his right. His headache felt as though it were nearing a climax. The pain was akin to thousands upon thousands of knives carving into his skull. He pulled his head back and smashed it with all his strength into the cliff, causing his forehead to burst against the rough surface. His vision went dark momentarily before slowly returning to normal. He saw two cliffs in front of him, he saw two hands, he saw two patches of blood. He pulled his head back once more but lost balance, nearly falling back before he was able to grip the side of the cliff to regain it. His pitiful state reminded him of Zalmoxis and how he had never given up, never allowed himself to fall to the ground, never acknowledged his many wounds decorating his body, allowing himself to prevent Esmellion from reaching her trident. He was inspired by Zalmoxis’ unwavering perseverance, grit his teeth, and smashed his forehead against the cliff a second time. He collapsed onto the ground immediately. The sky ruptured into two distinct realities spinning ever so softly as if the skies were floating on mud and slowly being stirred with a heavenly spoon made of clouds. Master giggled as he felt the Earth’s rotation beneath him. He felt as though he were spinning alongside the Earth, spiraling aimlessly in the vast cosmos. He felt drowsy all of a sudden but refused to rest, refused to close his eyes.

         There were two blue clouds materializing above him. He did not recall ever seeing such blue clouds before. The anomaly intrigued him. The clouds were in the shape of deformed spiders. The clouds were also humongous compared to all the other clouds. In fact, the clouds were so huge that they were covering all the other clouds. They seemed so close, and Master felt as though the clouds were touching his face. The clouds slowly began to merge into a single cloud, and the new shape seemed to resemble a hand more than a spider. The Earth stopped spinning, and the sky seemed to slow its swirling to a halt. The cloud slapped his face, surprising Master into a more sober mental state. He remembered about Zar and moaned his name. The sound he heard when he moaned was nothing like what he had remembered his voice as sounding. The voice was much deeper. The hand proceeded to slap him a couple more times, but Master felt too drowsy to care. He allowed himself to be slapped repeatedly, sinking deeper and deeper into unconsciousness with every blow.

         The hand crawled off his face and disappeared from view. Master closed his eyes and felt a liquid rush from deep within himself into his mouth. He spewed the rancid liquid everywhere as he tried to roll to his side, creating a mess all over his chest. The moment he had closed his eyes, his brain had remembered an endless pit. The memory was cold. The memory was depressing. The memory was of true nothingness. No time, no space, no love. Had he remembered oblivion? The hand jumped on his back and began to pat him. The patting accomplished nothing, but Master was grateful nonetheless. The vomiting had wakened him up slightly, but his drowsiness returned shortly thereafter. He tried standing up but slipped on the vomit and splashed his face on the ground. He was covered in vomit and blood, the blood flowing from his arm, chest, and forehead.

         “I bet you are regretting ever having decided to come with me, right Zar?” Master said, or so he thought. He thought he had said so out loud, but it was just as likely that his thought had remained entrapped inside his head without escaping. Zar never responded. Then again, Zar was only a hand. Could he even speak? He had no mouth. Master realized that he was debating whether a hand could speak and decided to close his eyes as his cheek sunk deeper into the puddle of vomit. His sanity had deteriorated so far that he thought there had been a talking blue hand accompanying him. He felt someone poke his back repeatedly and groaned, hoping whoever was poking him would stop at once, but the poking did not stop. “Stop…” Master moaned. He was even more tired than before, but the smell of the vomit reminded him of what had happened the last time he tried to sleep and stayed as alert as he could.

         Zar slapped Master across the face, startling him. “What was that for!” Master shouted. “You were the one who decided to follow me! If you are not going to leave me alone, then get the hell out of here!” Master noticed a lingering headache lurking in the back of his mind awaiting an opportunity to affect him. He tried to ignore the sneaking headache and stared at the blue hand in front of him. The stench of vomit and blood next ambushed Master’s senses. He quickly crawled away from the puddle of vomit and swallowed the vomit that had erupted into his mouth from the shock. “I am a mess! The hell happened here?” The blue hand made a gesture that Master assumed was supposed to be his method of shrugging his shoulders. “Great, now I reek and feel sticky everywhere, especially my forehead.” He next noticed a tree with dry blood on the side and concluded he must have bashed his head open against it. “Hey, Zar, do you know where we could go to take a shower? I have no idea where we are.” Zar hopped gleefully, or so Master interpreted, and pointed his index finger in the same direction toward which he soon thereafter began crawling. Master shook his head as if the shaking would have somehow cured him of the headache, grabbed his straw hat that had somehow fallen from his head, and began to follow Zar. Instead of the showers, however, Zar led him to someone’s corpse, its face plastered against the ground and its neck bruised severely, possibly by two technologically-enhanced hands.

         “Is this a joke?” Master asked, staring at the corpse. It did not strike Master as familiar in the slightest. Out of curiosity, Master decided to once again take out one of the contacts and place it on his right eye. Her name had been Jin. She had had hair that then lay scattered all around the corpse’s head and a rather petite form. Master saw Zar pause for a while out of respect before attempting to roll the corpse over. Master took pity on Zar and decided to grip its shoulder and roll it around. Had Master never done so, he would have never realized that the corpse was actually the remnants of a man. Just to be sure, Master had turned on his contacts and assured himself by reading the rest of the corpse’s bio. Jin had indeed been a rather feminine male.

         Zar struggled but eventually retrieved the corpse’s pouch from its unsettlingly tattered pants and pushed it toward Master’s foot. “Why are we here, Zar?” Master groaned as he knelt down and opened the pouch. He rummaged around and found the Pavilion. “Want me to free the folk?” Master remembered the agonizing struggle he had experienced attempting to unfold Poging’s Pavilion and tossed the tightly-folded Pavilion to the side. “I am far too tired, Zar. Sorry.” He continued to rummage around as Zar attempted to unfold the Pavilion himself and found the tablet among all the drinks, foods, and Texi… the provisions. Master did not know if Zar had thought ahead and had led him to the provisions or if Zar had only wanted him to help with freeing the entrapped Texeli, but Master was delighted to have found the treasure nonetheless. After placing the tablet beside him, Master shoved the pouch inside his pocket and remembered that there was a way to open the Pavilion from the tablet. He attempted to navigate the tablet despite its being in a foreign language and finally found an option with the crude image of a bivouac. Upon fiddling with the settings, the Pavilion sprung open, catapulting Zar onto the grass a meter away. Master apologized as he opened and urged everyone to leave the Pavilion. Master refused to stay for their grieving and walked away. However, Zar remained and spoke with some of the Texeli. Master debated whether to abandon Zar or wait for Zar to finish. On one hand, Master did not want to be present for more mourning -- his precarious stability may not have been able to withstand the suffering of others. But on the other, Master could not abandon Zar, for abandoning Zar would be abandoning his guide -- he really needed that shower. And so, after long seconds of cognitive dissonance, Master finally laid himself on the ground, covered his exposed ear with his hand, and closed his eyes until Zar finally crawled over to alert him that the mourning was over with a light tap on the nose.

         “Can we finally go to the showers now?” Master asked. He sure hoped that the gesture with which Zar answered was finally a yes.

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          Master pressed his scarred forehead against the counter and machine-gunned the confused shop owner with countless apologies for the mildly inconvenient exchange the two had just concluded. She muttered something, probably too baffled to speak up, and Zar rapidly tapped Master on the shoulder as to reprimand him for being overdramatic. Master slowly raised his head, stared at the shop owner’s vexed eyes in vehement requital, and once again was reminded of the utterly embarrassing and cumbersome “conversation” the two had experienced as he gazed at her name in self-reproach. Her name was something in what Master assumed was Arabic script and whose pronunciation he could not even begin to decipher. He hastily fumbled inside the pouch he had stolen from Jin’s corpse as Zar held it still for Texi with which to pay for his purchase and tip in penance for degrading the unsuspecting shop owner’s afternoon to a convoluted quandary, snatched the bag in which the young entrepreneur had so benevolently packaged his items, apologized repeatedly again for he had almost forgotten to retrieve his pouch before departing, and evacuated the tense situation to commence his extensive journey into the unknown with exaggerated strides as to remove himself from the glare most certainly consisting of a hodgepodge of confusion, agitation, and pity as soon as possible.

          Master found a pub and sat down on an empty table without ordering anything. After Zar had finished whatever business he had had with Jin’s Texeli, he had led Master to a village far, far away from Yakoun Forest. There, they had traversed through a sea of repulsed glares at a small town of Mages in a beeline for the nearest shower. It had taken Master an agonizing and embarrassing eternity to finally scrub his blood-and-vomit-encrusted chest, forehead, and arm clean, or at least as clean as he could have made them. As he sat in silence, Master continued to ruminate everything that had happened since the moment he stepped foot inside the forest to when he left the shower and followed Zar to a Texi shop whereat he had met the shop owner. Unlike most Texi shop owners, she had been Human. Neither defender nor coward but entrepreneur. Master wondered if such an occupation were legal since Master had assumed all Humans were encouraged to be or train to become defenders. If her status as a merchant were legal, that would spell hope for Master who refused to become a defender. Unfortunately, Master had not been able to understand a single word she had muttered, causing Zar to do most of the talking and haggling as Master remained quiet and awkwardly staring. Not only had she been taken aback by a talking, severed Texeli hand but had also been suspicious of Master’s silence and appearance. Master remembered having gazed at himself in a mirror at the showers. His forehead, chest, and left arm were all utterly mangled and revolting. Even he had felt an impulsive urge to punch his reflection, so he could only be baffled by how none of the Mages had blasted him away with their magic or had chucked him out of the pub by then. Despite his appearance, the shop owner had benevolently heard his requests and had packaged his items in a bag without any questions asked and a professional smile. Master had been overwhelmed by her inhuman kindness and had begun to apologize impulsively.

          Zar began tapping his fingers on the table impatiently, urging Master to snap out of his ruminating, and pushed the bag of purchases toward him. The bag, made of dots, would eventually disintegrate and become one with the earth, but Master still had hours until then. Nay, he needed to distract himself from his ruminating, so despite having time, he decided to begin transferring the items to his pouch.

          He first retrieved all the water bottles and a basic Human first-aid kit, began to clean the contacts, and administered eye drops as to prevent a potential eye infection from having never cleaned the contacts properly. He placed the contacts on his eyes and reminded himself that he should probably refrain from donning and doffing them so frequently. He then began transferring all the Nux and Bitters he had bought. Jin had not been a wealthy man by any stretch of the imagination, but hopefully Master would find a way to ration whatever he had. After having done so, he removed the most intriguing item from the bag: Mazit Uii. The book would serve as a way to gauge his progress in understanding the many Texeli languages. He also retrieved notepads and pencils for notes.

          “Um… Zar… now that I think about it and my mind is not so cluttered with embarrassment, how are you planning on teaching me the language when you cannot make any sounds?” The blue hand stopped moving and remained still. Was he in shock? “Zar, I know other people can hear you -– I just witnessed you speaking to the shop owner after all –- but never during the entirety of that encounter did I hear anything from you, as if the iris allows you to communicate with others telepathically. Since I am somehow devoid of the iris’ gifts, I cannot hear what you are saying. I can only understand you through your body… hand… language.” Zar slapped his hand against the table, or was it his version of a facepalm? Zar began to tap his fingers pensively until he pointed an index finger up at the roof. Master could almost see the lightbulb flash on. Zar crawled to the edge of the table, jumped to the ground, and crawled away. Master chuckled and turned his attention to the notepads and pencils. One of the notepads was much thicker and larger than the others, and for good reason. That particular notepad was going to server as his journal, not as a notebook for his lessons.

          Not a moment goes by that he does not long for the memories he lost and does not fear losing any of the memories he has. As such, he decided on keeping a journal, a diary, a dump for all his thoughts, experiences, and emotions. He could not bear the thought of forgetting Poging or what Iudith and Zar had done for him or his experiences since he woke up, but he also refused to forget the pain and suffering he felt in Yakoun Forest. He wanted to record all of it, every single second of every single moment. He wanted the journal to be as vivid as possible. Not a single nuance shall be forgotten. Every atom of that notebook would be covered in his writing, and if that ever proved not to be enough space, he would spend more Texi for another notebook, and another, and another, and another! As many as it would take.

          He bit one of the pencils as he pondered what name he could give what eventually was to become a very extensive autobiography. The almost episodic nature of how he was planning on transforming his experiences into writing led to the idea of naming his journal “The Master Chronicles.” Yet, when he wrote the name down at the top of the first page, he did not feel as though the title were accurate. Something was missing. Before he was able to reflect on what could make the title more adequate, Zar jumped on a seat and then on the table and pointed at someone behind Master. Master slowly turned around and before him stood the most beautiful and brave woman he had ever seen. A blue-skinned guardian angel. He stood up and could not hold himself back from giving her a tight hug, soaking her shoulder in his overzealous tears. He knew deep, deep inside his heart that the Iudith before him was not the same Iudith that had saved him, that that Iudith would forever remain a molten puddle, but his heart was skipping a beat every other second and could not rationalize anything. He was so incredibly inundated by euphoria, especially after Iudith reciprocated the precipitous hug, that Zar had allowed the stranger from whose market he had traded for Iudith to ransack Master’s pouch and take a large chunk of Master’s provisions without his knowing.

          “Do… do you remember…” Master asked sheepishly after freeing Iudith from his clutch. She nodded slowly, her eyes drooping to the ground and her shoulders having begun shivering slightly. Master had no idea what to do in such a situation and assumed that hugging her another time would not make the situation any better, so he just stood there, awkwardly staring at Iudith and biting his tongue as hard as he could to stop himself from saying “sorry” a million times. Luckily, Zar was there to talk to Iudith and alleviate the situation.

          The three of them sat at or -- in Zar’s case -- on the table and began to discuss plans for the future. The three of them would become nomadic creatures traveling all over Texel and sightseeing all the lands not yet destroyed by the Exos as detached from the war as possible while Zar and Iudith together attempted to instruct Master in the most standard Xana dialect.

          At some point, Zar and Iudith began to discuss plans in more detail and Master began to drift to his own world. He stared down at what he had scribbled on the journal and glared at his name. Nay, Master was not his name. That was the problem. He never remembered his name, and Master had been a name that Eveline of all people had given him. He rebuked Eveline for all he had and had not done and wanted to abandon such a tainted name. As he wondered what to possibly call himself, he recalled the three letters that had devastated him, the letters muttered by the Exo: N, X, T. Just for the hell of it, he erased “Master” and replaced it with the three letters. Suddenly, his pencil jumped from his fingers and rolled to the floor. The same nostalgia, the same shock, the same petrifying yet fulfilling perturbation that had ambushed him when he had put on the hat, when he had heard the three letters for the first time, when he had looked into the Exo’s eyes, suddenly ambushed him a fourth time as he gazed at the title. “The NXT Chronicles.” The déjà-vu was once again upon him. He felt, he truly felt, as though that moment was not the first time he had laid eyes on such a title. Somehow, that time was not the first time he had written those three words. He shook his head, sprayed his face with water, and sighed profoundly. He looked at Zar and Iudith with a smile and thus began his journey not as a defender -- but a scholar. A scholar who considered Texeli not his subordinates -- but his masters.