Zephix arrived at HEF-1772 far earlier than the appointed time in fear of potentially arriving late after getting lost inside the fortress. Surprisingly, he found the meeting room without much difficulty and was the second to ever enter. Not even the host of the HEF had arrived yet, but there was a man sitting in the corner of the room with a computer and a steaming cup in front of him. His ears perked up immediately upon Zephix’s arrival, and he stood up and bowed.
“Welcome, sir. You may select any of the available seats except for the one reserved for Monkey,” the man stated, pointing at a chair visibly larger and more elaborate than the others about the circumference of a large, oval table. “Is there anything you would like me to fetch for you? A beverage or snack, perhaps?”
“As you wish.” The man sat back down and began to peer once again into the computer screen while typing at an incredible speed. As he waited for the arrival of the other guests, Zephix inspected the room. As were most HEF, HEF-1772 was merely a repurposed Exo stronghold acquired after a raid. As such, the architecture and aesthetic was the typical Exo’s. Everything was the dull gray of Exo machinery with wires and pipes running down the walls. In fact, nothing in the meeting room was Human technology aside from the table, chairs, and remodeled computer. Additionally, the craftsmanship was, as expected, of the finest and most ergonomic quality. Zephix was not much of a sleeper when sat upright; however, he could feel the stress dissipate from his stiff shoulders as he could not help but slouch down the chair slightly. He closed his eyes and relaxed for the first time in a while.
“Gentlemen!” he heard a voice shout. Zephix opened his eyes in an instant but remained still. There were men seated at nearly all the chairs already, and Monkey had stood up straight and tall to address the room. When Zephix saw that the man had stood up from his chair behind the computer, Zephix decided to stand up as well expecting everyone else to do the same. “At ease. Please, remain seated if you so wish.” Zephix sat down, blushing red with embarrassment. That had been the first time since being on Texel that he had fallen asleep on a chair. Not even a minute had transpired, but already his lower back had begun aching. Monkey continued.
“Gentlemen, please accept my gratitude for agreeing to convene this evening and being punctual. I do hope the scheduled time and location were of no great inconvenience to any of you sirs, for to orchestrate them so was not my intention in the slightest. I am aware that most of you are busy men in charge of your own HEF’s, so I shall attempt to limit the longitude of this meeting knowing fully how stressful abandoning your HEF for prolonged periods of time can be without sufficient trust on a surrogate. I would like to commence this discussion by providing the option of either introducing yourselves traditionally or via the contacts I assume you have all donned. Are there any objections to the traditional method?” Zephix had not personally attended many such meetings before, but in the few he had participated, everyone had surprisingly decreed tradition superior to efficiency. The meeting at HEF-1772 had been no different. “Assuming there are none after this short period of silence, allow me to progress by introducing myself and having my amanuensis do so afterward. I am, as most of you know, addressed as Monkey, the sovereign of this HEF.”
“Elise is my appellation. As aforementioned, I am the head amanuensis of this fortress and shall record every word uttered here today. There are, of course, microphones that shall aid me in this task by transcribing most information; therefore, I serve to merely monitor the system’s accuracy and append any additional notes I deem important. I implore you all to simply ignore my presence and rest assured I have no intentions of intervening in the discussion in any way.”
Monkey extended his hand toward the man to his left. “Let us continue with you, sir, and have you introduce yourselves in a clockwise fashion.” Everyone, upon that revelation, became more attentive than ever. Zephix believed that everyone always agreed upon the traditional method of introduction despite seeming inefficient superficially due to the advantage of allowing one to assess another’s character by how one introduces oneself. Having heard from the fortress’ host and his amanuensis, everyone was ready to assess the men with whom they had not yet been acquainted.
“Greetings,” began the first guest. His posture was one of the most hunched -– a sign of experience and diligence. He was dressed formally and exuded an aura of wisdom. “You may address me as Lemon. I am, of course, the head of HEF-1, the first established Human stronghold. As such, I believe I serve as a valuable asset to any discussion.”
The second speaker, a man dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, glared at everyone on the table before introducing himself without once uncrossing his dirty arms. “I am Wolfjunk. Though I may not look like much -– because I am really not -– I did encounter a rather interesting defender weeks ago that I have been beckoned to discuss today at this meeting alongside two other fellows.” Wolfjunk made eye contact with Zephix for an awkward second. He did not care one bit about hiding his disgruntlement, making apparent to all that he would rather have been doing anything but attending the meeting.
The third rose from his seat, unlike the others who had remained seated, and bowed. “I am humbled by you fine gentlemen and am appreciative of Monkey’s confidence in my knowledge. I, Lambo, shall contribute to this discussion to the best of my abilities.” Somebody murmured “crafter” underneath his breath, and Lambo’s jaw visibly tightened. Everyone began whispering among themselves until Monkey knocked on the table twice rapidly.
“Desist immediately,” he commanded. Everyone stopped their bickering instantly. “Submit that occupation and political affiliation is unimportant for the remainder of the meeting unless specified differently by myself and myself only. I will not tolerate commotion due to such petty affairs.” He looked at Lambo. “Also submit that Lambo is my esteemed guest, and as such, anything he says shall be taken into consideration in an unbiased manner regardless of who he is outside of this fortress. You may take a seat, Lambo.” Lambo bowed a final time and sat down.
“Greetings,” Zephix stated, having remained seated as was the norm. “I am a high-ranking officer but have arrived here today as a representative of the head of HEF-6198. Café would like to extend his apology for being rendered unable to attend in person, and I ask for you all to accept me as a suitable candidate for his temporary replacement. I was chosen as his stand-in due to my credibility, competence, and my involvement in the case Wolfjunk aforementioned. We both, alongside a third fellow that has not arrived yet, will discuss matters dealing with Testers.” Upon the mention of Testers, everyone began to murmur. Monkey raised his hand to quiet everyone down and motioned for the next speaker to introduce himself.
“Greetings, everyone. I am but an officer, much like Zephix; however, I am not serving as a substitute of any sort. You may address me as Blob, and I am here to discuss with you all the future that awaits two of my former comrades who have decided to challenge Humanity.” Everyone raised their eyebrows at his last remark before the next speaker introduced himself.
“Good evening, gentlemen. I am Pheenix, head of HEF-23.” As if he and Lemon had entered a contest to ascertain which of the two would dress more formally and have a more hunched back, he wore an elegant yet professional suit with a dark-orange tie that only the sharp-eyed individuals could distinguish as such at certain angles. Additionally, having nearly the same experience as Lemon, for he was the head of the second HEF ever founded, his posture stooped slightly lower. As if he deemed anyone worthy of knowing him as already having heard of him or having surmised his authority from his posture, attire, and comportment, he elaborated his introduction no further.
“Having finalized these introductions, let us open the doors for our belated guest,” Monkey commanded, ordering Elise to open the doors for the final guest. He wore a cheap suit, but a suit nonetheless. Unlike Wolfjunk, who had not attempted in the slightest to appear groomed and civilized, everyone commended the chap for his preparation and seemed to forgive his tardiness with their eyes, though his introduction would be the deciding factor in his sentence.
“My apologies, gentlemen,” he said, bowing his head without sitting down. “In an attempt to find a more appropriate wardrobe and rid myself of the sludge bespattered about me from my escapades as an officer, I arrived at an inopportune time and decided to stand outside the room as to not impede upon the introductions. I wholly wish for you all to forgive my transgressions and accept my future contributions to the discussion. You may all call me Nightmare.”
“I acknowledge,” Monkey stated, everyone else slightly nodding their heads in agreement. “You may sit down.” And so Nightmare did. “Now that we are all present, we shall commence with any minor discussions before continuing to the central topic. For this meeting, we only have three such discussions. The first will be introduced and lead by Nightmare, the second will be introduced and lead by Zephix but expounded on by Wolfjunk and Nightmare, and the third will be introduced and lead by Blob.” Monkey nodded his head toward Nightmare, and so finally began the appetizer of the evening.
“Gentlemen, I have come to beseech you to remove defenders Yunmy and NXT from the bounty list.” Everyone in the room fidgeted in their place.
“What for?” asked Pheenix, tapping his right index finger on the table.
“Though we are grateful for your having informed us of those two delinquents eventually, we require sufficient reason not to place a bounty on their heads,” Lemon added.
The table had built-in computer screens in front of each seat, and Pheenix had activated his for the sake of investigating Yunmy and NXT’s transgressions. “As reported by none other than yourself, Yunmy and NXT are charged for harboring Undesirables at Cackling. Moreover, in an attempt to enact revenge on all the Undesirables cleansed prior to confronting the two, Yunmy and NXT collaborated in the extermination of Officer Spinax. Those two crimes are excessive justification for their immediate extermination, and we currently do not have more effective means whereby to aid other officers in their quest to hunt down criminals than to open the case as a bounty for all defenders. I figure you understand that much, correct? Therefore, justify to everyone in this room why we should delay their extermination despite such egregious treason.” Everyone began to murmur to themselves, and Zephix already knew everyone was prepared to dismiss anything Nightmare had orchestrated as his defense.
“I acknowledge that their crimes are far too severe to warrant not adding them to the bounty list; however, I wholly wish for their lives to be snuffed by none other than my own hands. My soul boils from head to toe whenever I remember Spinax as he was shot in front of my very eyes by those two insufferable-”
“Enough, Nightmare,” interrupted Blob. “Are you aware that an appeal to pathos is ineffective in such decisions? We care not for your personal grudges. My suggestion to you is to animate and encourage yourself beyond your limits by considering the presence of both of them in the bounty list as a sign of urgency. If you truly wish to snuff their lives, incentivize yourself to locate and exterminate them before anyone else has a chance to do so.” Everyone nodded their heads in agreement.
Knowing that he was fighting a severely uphill battle all on his own, Nightmare decided to lower his head. “I desist. I have been foolish in believing the two of them deserve any less than immediate extermination regardless of whose hands claim the bounty.”
Monkey knocked on the table once. “The matter has been settled. Yunmy and NXT will remain in the bounty list.” Zephix recalled that the death of Spinax had transpired seven weeks prior to the meeting, yet they had only been on the bounty list approximately a week by then. If he was not mistaken, Nightmare had been actively hunting them down ever since Spinax’s death to no avail and finally convinced himself to report Spinax’s extermination only recently. No one had seen him nor Spinax during those weeks, and when Nightmare finally decided to reveal himself and the news, he had been castigated severely and mere inches from his life. Everyone in the room who knew of what had happened to Nightmare upon his return probably saw straight through his introduction’s lies. He had not arrived late due to cleaning himself up; he had most likely been crippled with far too much fear. Sludge had merely been his euphemism for the countless gashes “bespattered” everywhere, even his face. He had almost lost his left eye during his punishment. The only reason Zephix could possibly think of for Monkey to have entertained Nightmare’s blithering was respect toward a man who had not only survived such severe castigation, but also a man who had remained standing after the flagellation dazed out of his mind but driven by raw and primitive determination to massacre the two who had burnt Spinax to a crisp with his own weapon. False testimonies were also a severe violation, even more so in the presence of so many HEF leaders and during an official HEF convocation. Perhaps his lies had been forgiven just that once due to the irrelevance of admitting he had been scared out of his boots.
“How ironic of you, Monkey,” Lemon complained. “You began this meeting by stating you had no wish to prolong it, yet you allow this cretin to waste all our times with such a disgraceful request. I do hope none of the other two topics are as dismissible.”
“I assure you, they are not,” Monkey defended himself.
“You are far too soft, Monkey. Never give the light of day to such mongrels and their petty requests. However, I desist. Let us continue this train wreck.” Monkey cleared his throat and signaled to Zephix to continue with the next topic. Zephix sighed nervously and began.
“As I am sure all of you know, HEF-17 was raided nearly five months ago. That HEF had been designated the task of documenting demographic information as well as attempting to track down the so-called Testers, those who have been mentioned by the iris’ prophets as having been teleported to Texel years prior to the commencement of the war as to gauge the usefulness and dangers of mass-teleporting Humans to aid in the conflict. Once the destruction of the HEF had been reported to Lemon, he designated HEF-6198 with those tasks upon its founding. Ever since then, those under Café have been investigating diligently for any information on the Testers since those good-for-nothing prophets refuse to speak any further on the topic. Their investigation led them to believe that a Tester had been teleported to Wounding and had traveled to Allodiael, where he trained under the Mage king until Louran was invaded by Exos in the initial weeks of the war during the Theri coup d’etat alongside Exos. The war’s history aside, I was tasked with traveling to Allodiael in hopes of interviewing the late Mage king for any new information. Unfortunately, the poor king was so sick by then that his memories were beyond foggy. I did, however, interview Texeli who I believed had been involved in the Tester’s training and have acquired rather interesting information on the defender in question. All my information is included in my report, one that I believe Café forwarded to you for this discussion.” Everyone who had not done so already activated their computer screens and accessed their messages for the report. After several seconds had transpired, everyone turned their heads to Nightmare, who began to sweat profusely and smiled nervously.
“I arrived at Allodiael after Zephix requested me to aid him in the investigation,” stated Wolfjunk. “When I arrived, Yunmy confronted me under the guise of an officer. She seemed adamant in locating and interrogating whoever had been in the king’s presence prior to his falling fatally ill. She was not with NXT that day, however. I had been stalking her for some time, but not once did I ever see NXT. They must have separated at some point.”
“I encountered the two of them after their scuffle. Yunmy is decent at hand-to-hand combat from what I managed to see,” Zephix chimed in.
“Hey! I let myself be beat, okay? I could have-” Monkey knocked twice on the table, and Wolfjunk shut up.
Lemon grit his teeth. “And I suspect that she still breathes?” he asked, glaring at Zephix.
“Were you aware of her treason?”
“Not to the extent that I am now. On my travels to Louran, I had fancied a short detour to Cackling. There, I perceived a very concerning atmosphere, as if the Texeli were hiding something, and I only pried for information slightly. The only information that I acquired was that NXT and Yunmy had gotten into a quarrel with two other defenders, now confirmed to be Nightmare and Spinax, but had left shortly thereafter. I did not attempt to contact Spinax and Nightmare because I deemed the awkwardness as far more peculiar than important. That had been over a week prior to meeting Yunmy, and at that time I had completely forgotten about her and instead been submerged in all the new information I had been gathering about NXT. I only remembered her name from my stay in Cackling after reading Nightmare’s report, and I regret ever letting her live. My apologies.”
Wolfjunk, the entire time, had been nervously sweating, since he had been foolish enough to have sat beside Lemon. Lemon turned to stare into his soul.
“Were you aware of her treason?”
“Unfortunately, I was not. Though I am close to Nightmare, he did not disclose his experiences with Yunmy and NXT to me until much later.” Lemon continued to stare at him.
“I desist. Continue with the report.”
Zephix swallowed nervously, breathed in to relax, stared at Nightmare’s gashes from the corner of his eyes, and continued. “As my report indicates, NXT was one of the Testers and trained as a Warlock under the king’s supervision. He was, after all, Human, so he could not invoke any spells. Despite his shortcomings, he was regarded as a proficient Warlock whose intelligence and strength were great enough for even an Epic-tier Texeli. His preferred weapons were gauntlets wherewith he would smash his enemies. His proficiency as a warrior was not limited to wisdom and attack, however. His agility was also a statistic of which to be wary. Alas, none in Louran or Allodiael have seen him as of late; that being said, I discussed NXT with some defenders’ bands, and those Texeli who were built recently recalled seeing him while they were members of other defenders’ bands. Their accounts paint him as a warrior terribly fallen from grace, though none were able to even guess what had befallen him. He is missing an arm and no longer possesses the same intellect and strength. He has completely changed. He should no longer be of any threat. I encourage those interested to read the full report, for any questions you may have at this moment are probably answered in it. I wish to now yield my time to Wolfjunk and Nightmare, who will discuss NXT and Yunmy in more detail.”
“Acknowledged,” Monkey stated.
“As hinted at earlier, Yunmy is a formidable foe in combat. Though she seems more apt than NXT from my experience in Cackling, she can easily be overpowered with raw strength. However, she is cunning and slippery. My belief is that locating and apprehending her will be the challenge in her extermination, not the combat itself,” Nightmare stated. “As for NXT, I only conversed with him briefly before our quarrel exploded loose. In that short discussion, he mentioned how he had amnesia and could barely recall his life past being stuffed inside a capsule of some sort, the same ones used by Exos to extract dots from fighters. He also stated that his connection to the iris has been severed and no longer can he understand everyone. He mentioned something about not having speech automatically translated to him. I attempted to test his claims by switching between Spanish and English, and he successfully pin-pointed when I had switched tongues. I believe none of you can say the same, correct?” The information had left everyone completely baffled, and no one spoke forth about discerning when Nightmare had altered languages.
“You must report your findings in more detail so I may append this to my report!” Zephix exclaimed, and Nightmare nodded.
“For whatever it’s worth, Yunmy does not seem to be that great at espionage,” Wolfjunk awkwardly interjected. “I was successfully able to stalk her without her knowing for a long time. She seems to have a strong attachment to a pendant or locket she wears around her neck. I saw her caressing it as she drank at a pub. Unfortunately, I do not know much else about her past. As Nightmare stated, she should not be that much of a threat in combat.”
After a short pause, Monkey looked at Zephix, Nightmare, and Wolfjunk before concluding the session. “If that is all, we shall move on from discussing NXT and Yunmy. The final verdict is as follows: Yunmy shall be hunted down and exterminated post-haste and NXT shall be captured alive. Nightmare, I repeat this, NXT shall be captured alive. As a Tester, he may be able to enlighten us on the topic and his experiences, and may his memories be jogged successfully during his interrogations. Submit to not exterminating him without our acknowledgment.”
“I submit,” Nightmare desisted through gritted teeth.
“You are dismissed, Nightmare. May you have a splendid evening, and I bid you good hunting.” Elise rose from his seat and directed Nightmare toward the door. Before leaving, Nightmare bowed to everyone. “As for you Zephix, you are also dismissed.”
“Pardon?” Zephix asked in awe and confusion. “But I am here to represent-”
“Desist,” Lemon interrupted. “You are henceforth no longer a high-ranking officer. We revoke your status as anything other than a common defender. You introduced yourself to the room as a credible and competent asset to Café’s HEF but proved yourself to be anything but. However, your honesty today has spoken leagues of your loyalty and integrity despite your grievous mishap. As a common defender, you are no longer welcome to participate any further in the discussion, and your privilege to step foot inside another HEF has been revoked until further notice.” Zephix was heart-stricken, and he looked at Monkey with apologetic eyes.
“Negotiation is futile,” Monkey confirmed. “I respect you, Zephix, and bid you farewell. Perhaps one day you shall regain the trust you have lost today by not successfully apprehending Yunmy as you would have had you been more competent as an officer.” Zephix stood from his seat and bowed deeply.
“Of course, sirs. I shall excuse myself now. I insist on apologizing one final time for my transgressions, and I wish to profess my deepest of gratitude for the mercy you have shown me today.”
“Not so fast,” Pheenix interrupted. Everyone, including Monkey, looked at him with varying degrees of surprise. “I propose that Zephix be the one to enact punishment on Wolfjunk.”
“Me?” Wolfjunk jumped from his chair in surprise and indignation. Zephix closed his eyes knowing very well what would soon follow.
“I acknowledge,” Lemon stated. Blob and Lambo both nodded their heads.
“I acknowledge,” Monkey stated.
“The hell is going on here?” Wolfjunk demanded, but before he knew it, Lemon whipped around from his seat and pinned him against the wall. “Let go of me!” Lemon twisted Wolfjunk’s arm to the point of rendering him petrified in agony and retrieved the weapon hidden in one of his pockets. He extended the weapon toward Monkey, who in turn transferred it to Elise for safekeeping. Lemon released Wolfjunk and sat back down. As Wolfjunk caught his breath, Zephix approached him. “Stay the fuck away from me!” Wolfjunk squealed.
“I am sorry, comrade,” Zephix stated before running after Wolfjunk. Wolfjunk had been too confused and horrified to react on time, and Zephix quickly rammed his left hand against Wolfjunk’s Adam’s apple and gripped his throat tightly. Wolfjunk squirmed violently before being slammed against the wall. In quick, successive punches, Zephix bashed Wolfjunk’s face, the clanging of a skull against the metal pipes resonating across the entire fortress. Blood splattered all over Zephix and the wall, but Zephix did not cease until he was sure Wolfjunk was no longer breathing.
“Before you dismiss yourself, Zephix, dispose of the body and leave the walls and floor immaculate. Not one drop of that liar’s blood shall be discernible when we return, understood?”
“Gentlemen, thus concludes the first session. Treat yourselves to a short recess. Upon our reassembly, we shall continue with Blob’s report and conclude with the topic we have all come to discuss.”