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War Stories

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Ambitious be the man who righteously seeks the impossible, and audacious be the man who repudiates his colleagues’ most fervent and well-intentioned deterrents to such perilous commitment; but derisible be he who, as days transmute into years and grass forever wilts and stars forever shift and youth forever parts, in such hubristic obduracy and woeful monomania, insists on perpetuating the asinine aspirations that irreparably blight his health; yet he who conquers, he who triumphs, he who in innocuous and jocular bumptiousness boasts of his victory over all the elements, shall be proclaimed a hero and exalted by posterity for millennia.


The aforesaid quote was meticulously written to me one depressing night below the dull stars in beautiful, immaculate, and magicked parchment by the proudest vehicle owner on Texel. Fret not, for my extensive compendium of historical battles and events that transpired during the Wars will not in any way be recorded in such speak, and I have always believed in the dissemination of knowledge to all, not just a few. If you happen to be an individual who takes personal offense at such watered-down language, I thank you for your interest but advise you to abandon my encyclopedia for the more sophisticated and equally-as-extensive series by Monkey, for with all due respect to such a knowledgeable and fascinating man, he does not believe in the same values as do I and refused to take part in my endeavors to translate all the historical accounts to a more palatable form. On that note, let us depart from such matters and analyze the wonderful message from a wonderful man.

I do strongly believe that his intentions in writing such a letter to me were not at all to prognosticate my many months to come, but that is exactly what he did. I was truly ambitious and audacious in seeking knowledge of the past despite all my companions advising me against such foolishness. Consequently, before I knew it, what had started as a hobby had soon become an addiction that has lasted for months with no end in sight, an obsession from which I can not part despite my hair wilting, my eyes glazing over, and my jolly nature conceding to a more dilapidated and monotonous solemnity. I do not blame anyone who ridicules and lambasts me for never knowing when to quit, but I sincerely wish upon the great iris that she grant me in a distant future the chance to say “I told you so” to all those who underestimated me. Unfortunately, Lambo, the wise author of that prophetic quote, is no longer living among us, so I shall have to shout loud enough for even the heavens to hear. If you have read this far into my preface, I thank you, for my wish is to immortalize his name in as many of my readers as I can. He did not deserve to perish in such an unsightly manner.

My apologies for opening this first volume on such a dark note, but, as survivors of the War, you all should be aware by now that the entirety of Humanity’s existence on this wonderful planet has been far from pleasant, and that by reading this series, you all are voluntarily submitting yourselves to a long and arduous journey through bloody political strife among Humans and social upheavals among Texeli, countless of deaths at the hands of our own, and an epistemological typhoon of a scale never in the history of the universe before experienced that shattered the very fabric of reality for both species and that nearly brought forth the end of Humanity as a whole. Unbelievably, such catastrophic events are all tightly bound in a roughly thirty-month timespan! Yet the repercussions reverberate far beyond the timespan on both directions, leaving me no choice but to analyze the many, many years before and the many, many months after the War up to the present day if I am to ever accurately and completely analyze all the social, economic, psychological, and political aspects, hence why the first volume of my series has nothing to do with the Wars themselves but Earth, the planet wherefrom all Humans were extracted by the iris.

You may be asking yourselves why in iris’ divine name is this first volume, and the possibly hundred of volumes proceeding it, so awfully immense. Or, perhaps, you may be wondering to yourselves who in his right mind would spend well over a century of his life pouring over so many journals, diaries, reports, videos, images, voice recordings, and much, much more to recount and analyze the history of the Wars and their immediate effects. As for the latter question, not even I know, and I would never wish such a task on my worst enemy, but in a world where we are all immortal, perhaps someone out there is crazy enough to attempt to read what will surely amount to half-a-billion words I will have so foolishly typed, not that this extensive encyclopedia is meant to be read in its entirety anyway.

As for the former question, the answer is rather simple. Texel is a planet whose size is significantly larger than Earth’s –- incredibly so. The Wars were not contained in a single point on this planet’s surface; the destruction spread like a plague and covered the entirety of the Girdle. Even with one hundred volumes, I will probably be unable to analyze every battle, every development, every discovery. To believe that every battle can be analyzed is to believe in fairytales! Even after a century and one hundred volumes, such a task will probably be no closer to being realized, much like subtracting any value from infinity. Hopefully, I have properly conveyed the severity and complexity of my work and have incited some appreciation for how vast the research has been and will be. Although I have been referring solely to myself on this preface thus far, I would like to wholeheartedly thank the many people who have made this research possible.

First and foremost, I would like to thank Jeffrey, who after unbelievable trials ascended to presidency within the Defender’s Wikia Foundation. Without his leadership, I would not have been able to acquire permission to translate all the historical texts to a more accessible language. Moreover, I would like to thank all those in the DWF who have ventured forth to contribute anything, if even a single, tattered sheet of paper, to the ever-expanding library of historical records. May the iris bless the Foundation, and may it never finish discovering more and more information of the War’s intriguing history, even if that means forever extending my encyclopedia. Without question, I would like to extend my gratitude to all those who recorded down such enlightening information on journals, clothes, walls, tablets, gears, ixstones, and much more. From Lore of Lytening to Mazit Uii, from Project Ark to Strategos, from the scattered journals of The NXT Chronicles to the many writings by Ishpah and Abbott-Abbott, there are so many wonderful sources of information that it would take me an entire volume just to praise them all! Last but not least, I would like to thank all of the Texeli who have welcomed us into their homes. Even after our use expired and the terrible truth was revealed, you all welcomed us and did not discard us, did not forsake us, did not destroy us, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Without further ado, enjoy the first volume of this maddingly long encyclopedia. Of course, there is nothing to enjoy about the Human predisposition, about the origins of such a corrupt species. In behalf of all Humans, despite my no longer being one, I apologize.

I apologize.

Chapter Text

          06 May 0113

          Not a second after having typed the date, a chuckle abandoned Khief as he slouched on his cumbersome office chair. Despite over a century having trudged along, Khief, nearing a century himself, had perused countless of historical accounts and political statements concerning the collapse of human society to the extent of having developed the queer notion that he, a man born decades after the fact, had lived and experienced first-hand the atrocities that had mushroomed Earth-wide as a direct consequence of unregulated population growth. As men of his age and status often do, rather than delegate his every inkling of attention to the project at hand like all young, prancing lads, Khief forfeited his mind to its whims. He should have continued typing his demographics report for the month, a report a week overdue, but instead, as he had done for the past seven days, perhaps due to the human predisposition to slack as humans decay or perhaps due to the lackluster nature of his commanders who have yet to wholeheartedly enforce castigation for such lamentable work ethic, he ploddingly rotated his chair away from the computer screen and began to ponder his crystallized knowledge.

         Roughly half a century before the Post Common Era, Humanity reached the final peak in its cultural evolution. Centuries of tolerance and freedom had inevitably led to a state of utter chaos as the human population exploded. Unfortunately, technological evolution, for Humanity had completely abandoned biological evolution, enabled Humankind to prosper despite the finite resources necessary for life. Consequently, more and more fringe and radical ideologies, whose fanatic base once only housed a couple individuals, burgeoned evermore, and with no end to the madness that is unmitigated population increase, these ideologies consumed other, weaker ideologies. In a world in which the amount of competing ideologies increases substantially every waking second, only one logical conclusion exists: pandemonium.

         The collapse of international organizations such as the European Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the United Nations had only been the beginning. Some people wanted more influence for their growing ideologies; some people blamed the governments who allowed the poisonous ideologies to surface, citing nations such as China and North Korea for being the least affected by civil wars; nations such as the United States of America, Canada, and Sweden, who preached freedom and progressivism, served as melancholic foreshadowing for what every country was to experience sooner or later. Riots, mass homicides, militias against trained armies, the slaughter of millions upon millions of civilians, and the fostering of children as killing machines for their parents’ ideologies among many other examples of civil unrest coerced all nations to abandon foreign matters to address the domestic pandemonium spiraling out of control, ending the era of globalization, international treaties, and allies –- every nation for itself.

         Soon enough, the governments mirrored the massacre observable in every street of every nation. The United States of America, for instance, a country that had remained a two-party system for the majority of its short lifespan but had grown to a five-party system in the blink of an eye, collapsed as official government meetings became increasingly volatile and government shutdowns became the norm; before long, the White House was nothing but a vandalized, dilapidated building tattooed by the various symbols of each ideology belligerently roughhousing for a spot on the crumbling, bloodstained walls, one on top of the other on top of another.

         At some point, the nations had had enough, and the prevailing ideologies soon triumphantly shot forth from the seas of blood, the piles of bones, and the mountains of burning flesh. Most expectedly, almost every nation’s victorious ideology proved to be authoritative in nature, and even if a country survived the pandemonium as more libertarian than the others, those countries were soon absorbed by neighboring countries. In fact, a country did not need to be libertarian to be absorbed. As if the nations had not had enough of the constant gauntlet within their own borders, the violence burst into other nations. Eventually, the amount of independent countries had been reduced to less than a tenth. Moreover, as if the gluttonous nations had been impatiently lusting for the opportunity, each leader triumphantly proclaimed to be an Empire on which the Sun never set.

         There were limits to the madness, however. If there had not been, then Khief would not have been there, slouching on his chair, pondering the chaos he wished he had witnessed with his own, increasingly-blind eyes. There had not been a nuclear holocaust despite the world having approached a perpetual state of tension akin to the Cuban Missile Crisis that lasted decades; however, weapons of mass destruction as effective as nuclear bombs but with negligible radioactive fallout had already been widely manufactured, and those were indeed used when tensions skyrocketed to such an extent that only mass destruction could quench the bloodthirst and temptation to thrust the world into a nuclear winter.

         Khief completed a full 360-degree rotation on his chair and was once again staring at his computer screen, yet he caught a glimpse of the date and once again began to spin the chair, this time with a loud groan. The perpetual state of chaos internationally eventually died down as nations began to partition the globe among the few of them. By the time the constant wars had ended and the only wars remaining were concentrated at the borders, most of the Earth had become nothing but barren landscape nearly inhabitable by the humans who had forgotten how to evolve. Despite the massacre, the most extreme estimates for the world’s population proposed numbers as staggering as fifteen billion. With so many individuals still frolicking about and brewing more riots, the nations had to devise a plan for the long term, a method with which to undermine all other ideologies but their own and prevent any other ideologies from forming. Disputes over what actions to take were long and tedious. Just keep slaughtering everyone. That would most certainly prevent new ideologies and mend overpopulation, no? Just keep incarcerating them. That would accomplish the same without necessitating “National Snuff Day,” correct? Just keep-

         Nay. No murder. No incarceration. Just the miracle drug. Kudos to the propaganda team who managed to paint the addictive drug in a positive light despite the obviously unethical repercussions… of a previous time. Indeed, the ethical guidelines of society had completely shattered after the Benighting Period, and as the drug was being administered knowingly and not, through prescriptions and fast food, through cosmetics and hygiene products, the ethical board managed to glue the guidelines piece by piece whilst rearranging them as they saw fit, justifying their actions. Everyone was all over the new drug. Of course, not everyone received the same amount. Those in low-income areas who lived off fast food, those who were unable to purchase the most expensive eau de toilette, those who could not afford the more expensive medications, all suffered more than did the upper class, the elites, the ones making the rules. In no time, over fifty percent of the world’s population had been reduced to groveling idiots who lived in the abandoned, barren landscapes no sane, intelligent person would ever want to visit, nor did those ignoramuses ever wish to enter the cities for their damaged frontal cortexes could not formulate a justifiable reason. The drug’s miraculous properties further degraded and ruptured humanity into three “Tiers of Intelligence” by not only affecting the hosts but, with enough exposure, irreversibly mutating the hosts’ genes as to prevent an offspring from developing a higher intelligence than that of its parents.

         All that said and done, the miracle drug only addressed the lower classes but did not dispel the brewing ideologies of the upper ones. They were the most dangerous because they had the intelligence to attempt a counterattack against the atrocities they were able to observe before them, or rather they would have retaliated had they witnessed the atrocities. The governments monitored everything relating to the media. No one was to be aware of the drug’s doing, which was not hard for the lower class already meant very little to the elite. Either way, whenever push would come to shove, the police were there to straighten them out, or rather eliminate. Many, many people were expunged by the police for not complying with the new order, but at least the death toll was many, many, many times less numerous than it would have been had the drug not taken care of over half the planet by then. Not all of the elites who refused to comply were murdered by the police, however. Some were forced into the battlefield at the borders, and once there, they either died from inexperience or from attempted rebellion.

         Khief completed his second revolution about his seat’s vertical axis. He stared at the date a third time but did not start a third revolution -– there was no need. After all his contemplating, he had finally realized why a chuckle had abandoned him upon having typed the numbers. The year, 0113, was very ironic to him. Once the imperfect drug, which was a rushed job by the governments to dissipate the many ideologies as quickly as possible with an experimental substance originally planned to enhance biological warfare and only a decade in the works, hence the many problems later down the road and the many perpetual hours of police enforcement, but that was neither here nor there, was disseminated and the results satisfactory enough, the governments had proclaimed triumphantly in obnoxious and egoistical bumptiousness that a new era -– the Post Common Era -– had begun. The year was 0113 PCE, but Humanity had been abducted from Earth and plopped on Texel, a completely different reality in another dimension. If any instance was to start the Post Common Era, it would be then, it would be the moment Humanity was thrust into the role of a defender of prosperity after centuries of perpetual warfare. Khief let another chuckle abandon him. He was very satisfied, however. He was satisfied in the iris’ decision to wait over a century before mass-transporting Humans, that way Humanity had its much-needed time to settle into the new era.

         His curious and self-reflecting brain abandoned him, so he focused on the blank demographics report before him begging to be completed. That was his sole purpose, after all; he was to report on any new data gathered over the span of a month on the last day of that month no later than 23:59 but no earlier than 23:00. He was grateful for the mismanagement in his Human Enforced Fortress, designated #17, because there would have been blood all over his computer screen, desk, chair, and floor at exactly 00:00 for not having submitted the report if he had still been on Earth under more competent management. Khief rubbed the back of his neck with his skinny, long, and stiff fingers before translating the data into a cohesive report.

         As was made apparent weeks prior by the many Texeli priests who claimed to converse with the iris on a spiritual level higher than most others and whose claims were crosschecked by comparing their assertations with those of other so-called priests, the iris had tested the waters prior to the War’s onset. As if attempting to analyze more closely the ways in which Humans would interact with Texeli, the iris had randomly assigned a sample of an unknown size to be transported to Texel approximately three years prior to the Exo invasion. This would mean that the iris knew of the invasion years beforehand and could have planned better, but that was neither here nor there. Attempts to hunt for the Humans who had been used as testers were still ongoing, but so far there had been no recorded encounters with such folk, so either they were all in hiding, expired, or refusing to reveal themselves as such, or the priests were full of false claims, though the lattermost was rather doubtful.

         Many hundreds of millions of Humans were transported from Earth seemingly at random, for the more statistics were reported, the more it seemed as though the distribution of Tiers tended to the same distribution observed on Earth. Had the iris done more research on Humans during those three years of preparation, perhaps the iris would have only transported Tier B and above, but such a mishap by such a flawed divine being was promptly dealt with by announcing the initial War Game during which most Tier C were removed from the battlefield. Five months after the start of the war, approximately sixty percent of all transported Humans remained, the other forty either having been exterminated by police for being inept or having fallen at the hands of Exos. The percentage is astonishingly high, which serves as justification for the idea that the iris, after its initial, exasperated mass-transportation, had become more strategic regarding whom to transport, though new Tier C continued to be reported.

         The male-to-female ratio was over a hundred thousand to one, a rather staggering ratio but one that could be easily believed. Although the ratio of male to female back on Earth had remained roughly one to one, females, whose roles in society were encouraged to be more domestic than assertive, especially in the lower and more abundant Tiers, were far more likely to be eliminated by Exos. Of the females alive, over ninety-five percent were Tier A and zero percent were Tier C.

         As the war trudged along, the iris seemed to be transporting less and less Humans. Perhaps the reduced rate of influx was attributed to a reduced rate of exterminations, but whatever the cause may have been, the iris had made its decision to not transport every Human on Earth into Texel very clear. Such a decision was very much appreciated because the limited resources scavenged from the initial Exos that had yet to evolve to be composed of dots and the many Exo bases scattered about Texel could only yield so much technology. All the “satchels,” as Fondwell had so incredulously dubbed them, Pavilions, tablets, and armories had depleted nearly all of the salvaged resources. Pavilions and satchels were more easily manufactured, for with the aid of some Mages and Texeli materials, the Oologtian items were crafted without much hassle. The tablets, however, were a completely different story. The pre-industrialized Texel lacked any semblance to modern Human technology; thus, every tablet could only have been created from Exo technology, which, thankfully, was nothing new to Humans. Moto-cycles were also manufactured, but they ran on fuel that was severely lacking and were not functional for very long.

         Khief rubbed his eyes as he finished the report. As any man of his age, status, and knowledge would do, rather than seek more tasks wherewith to be entrusted like all younger folk, he slowly began to spin in his chair once more as he pondered over his many concerns regarding the state of Human affairs. Unbeknownst to the majority of defenders and Texeli as they battled Exos or enjoyed friendly matches during War Games, Tier A elites were in constant bickering over the future of Humanity’s existence and imposition. Despite there having been very similar dominating ideologies on Earth, each empire had their own nuances that separated them from the others; as such, when members of government from each empire convened on Texel, the nuances were highlighted more and more during debates that strived to be as amicable as humanly possible.

         Notable prevailing ideologies were Reinstatementalism, the idea that Humanity should be restored as close to how it had been, thus believing in industrialization, urbanization, establishment of governing bodies, etcetera; Rectificationism, the belief that Humanity should consider the new era on Texel as a second chance to evolve in a different manner, mostly focusing on the Human condition and deep philosophical introspection in an attempt to mend the various human flaws that led to the Post Common Era; Texel-Humanism, the notion that Humanity should be first and foremost in all decision-making, thus treating Texeli as inferior to Humans; Antihuman Nihilism, the insistence of Human life to be as insignificant as possible through the oppression of Human interactivity with Texel outside of defending against Exos, most often than not promoting the idea that Texeli should be instructed on how to defend themselves and then for Humans to commit mass suicide as to rid Texel of all Human life as soon as possible; Neutralism, the belief that Humans should continue to live on Texel past the War but in secluded areas where they cannot affect Texeli life whatsoever; and Unificationism, the idea that Humans and Texeli are free to intermingle as they please, going as far as promoting reproduction between the two species in hopes of creating a single lifeform.

         Such concerns were exclusive to Tier A, however, for even B1 individuals would lack the insight and cognition to ponder over such existential and political matters. Since these discussions were mostly between A2 and A1, they were rather civil, informative, and peaceful, albeit extremely tense. Khief, an A1, had attended various hearings on such matters and believed that-

         Suddenly, sirens began to blare and reverberate across the halls. Khief attempted to heave himself off the chair and balance on his two wrinkly, trembling chicken legs. He had always dreaded emergency situations for he was no longer able to evacuate speedily. He stumbled toward the emergency exit, clasped the door knob, and heard the door creak open before he had even turned it.

         “Tell, whereto are you fleeing?” a voice behind him inquired. Khief was frozen and could not turn the knob on the door. His breathing grew more jarring by the second. “Harken, lest to deafness has your ears fallen.” Khief could distinguish every word being uttered by the stranger as clear as glass despite the blaring alarms, but he was unable to force his shaking hand to turn the door knob. Steps began to echo about his work station, each louder and deadlier than the last. “I vow to your expeditious death, elder,” the voice affirmed, grasping Khief’s shoulder. Khief’s wish was to celebrate his centennial, but his hopes of persevering through a few more years were extinguished in the blink of an eye.

         “Tell, who are you?” he asked, allowing his hand to abandon the door knob and swing limply by his side. The stranger spun Khief around and the two of them met eye-to-eye.

         “Submit that my identity is unimportant.”

         “Tell, then, for whom you operate.”

         “Further submit that my intentions are unimportant.”

         “I plead! How to expire an old man such as myself? Show mercy!” Khief grasped the man’s immaculate business suit with his feeble hands. “Demographics Reporter is my occupation! Submit that I am not an enemy, I am not a soldier, I am just a work-slave, data-analyzer and interpreter, nothing more. I plead!” The stranger smiled and, unbeknownst to the crying Khief, had pointed a tiny weapon fabricated from Exo remnants at the bottom of Khief’s head, facilitated by Khief’s abysmal posture from old age and relentless hours sitting in front of the computer screen. The stranger pulled the trigger, blasting Khief’s brains with a concentrated Exo blast –- a laser. Khief’s corpse collapsed onto the floor, his soul having abandoned him, and Cotton straightened his suit.

Chapter Text

          “So, we meet again, Cotton!” Slangerr bellowed, pointing his finger at Cotton. “I was hoping I would see you here. I have some questions.”

          “Tell, how manage you to consistently obstruct my day nearly once per War Game?” Cotton replied, glaring at Slangerr’s band. Though it had improved over the weeks, it remained inferior in every way, as expected of such a low-Tier’s.

          “Do not mind that and answer me this: where is the straw hat you stole from me?”

          “Incorrect! Desist, for I respectably attained such apparel.”

          “As if! Do not dodge my question.”

          “Who are you to address me thus, vermin?” Cotton tightened his fists and brought his hand closer to his pocket.

          “My apologies, Cotton. I desist. I acknowledge my tone may have crossed a line,” Slangerr grumbled.

          “I acknowledge. I no longer possess the accolade.”

          “How did you lose it?”

          “Submit that its disappearance is unimportant.” Cotton slowly released his fists and regained his composure. “Tell, why inquire such?”

          “Oh, no particular reason. I just believe I saw a similar hat earlier, that is all.” Cotton fought back his urge to twitch involuntarily and remained expressionless, though his inner Self had developed a most horrendous grimace.

          “Shall we…” Cotton’s voice trailed off as a black object materialized in the sky above them all. Slangerr noticed Cotton’s adverted attention and slowly turned around, afraid of what terrifying advancements could possibly be of such importance as to steal a Tier A’s unmatched focus.

          As if the sky had been a glass dome, shards crumbled down while a thin, dark fissure slowly ruptured and expanded linearly. Though the crack had stopped growing length-wise, the midsection began to expand perpendicular to the initial crack. Suddenly, a loud bang resonated across the entirety of Texel as a substantial portion of the sky shattered in the form of a spiderweb surrounding the initial fracture. Cotton, Slangerr, and all the defenders nearby gazed in awe at the rift, and within its obsidian depths, a large eyeball emerged and erratically analyzed the land. Defenders all about began to scream, for most of them assumed a Raid had begun only half-way through their usual week-long War Game. Not only that, but the new Exos seemed to be larger than the planet! The humongous eye locked in place, eerily receded into the depths, and massive shards of the sky broke off and disintegrated into a million tiny, undiscernible fragments on their long journey down. All that remained was a gaping aperture revealing the vast cosmos. The defenders that had not run away like cowards murmured between each other, completely having forgotten about the War Game. Some Texeli stared at the sky confused while others were frantically shouting “the Allhalls are coming! Why now?” Cotton’s tablet began to rattle so erratically and desperately that he assumed it would explode as severely as had the sky. All the Tier A had begun bombarding the exclusive forums with speculations and accusations. Many of the lower Tier A had begun belligerently framing and questioning the nihilists, denouncing them for having brought upon the land a super weapon. They were promptly silenced, for such foolishness was absolutely intolerable and in no circumstance representative of a Tier A.

          “I think I found it,” Slangerr whispered softly to himself, rubbing his eyepatch. Clearly, he had meant to laugh off his disquietude, yet his legs remained trembling slightly beneath his increasingly-heavy body. Cotton grit his teeth and was about to travel to his hideout when someone shouted “observe!” whilst pointing a jagged finger at the void. Multiple red comets were approaching them and traversing the rift. Each time a comet would enter Texel, it would create spatial ripples so intense that they were slightly discernible by a very keen but naked eye in the vicinity of the penetration point.

          “No, they are not Allhalls,” a Texeli whispered beside Cotton. Cotton gazed at the red shower for an instant longer before bidding Slangerr farewell and dashing toward his hideout, making sure no one was following him between every stride.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          “The hell are those?” Konquer asked, pointing at the comets. To Cotton’s aggravation, Konquer had exited the hideout and was standing near the exposed entrance against orders.

          “Silence!” Cotton insisted, grabbing Konquer by the arm and dragging him inside the cave.

          “I heard the massive boom and couldn’t help myself! I had to look!”

          “Were you descried?”

          “Not that I know of.”

          “I distinguished biological entities within the comas.”

          “Wait, you telling me there’s people inside the falling fire?”

          “Invasion.”

          “Are they Exos?”

          “Devoid of Exo appearance.”

          “Then the hell are they?”

          “Silence!” Cotton swung Konquer against the wall once the two of them had arrived at the heart of the cave. The cave had once been the location of a dungeon event but was abandoned promptly thereafter. Cotton could not risk being discovered, however, so he established his hideout deep within the darkness where no casual adventurer would attempt to scurry: through a small, barely-discernible hole on the wall of the cave that led to a small, hollow area and was concealed by a loose stone. Konquer pushed aside the stone and crawled through the hole closely followed by Cotton.

          “Can’t I go see?”

          “How to be so careless!” reprimanded Cotton, addressing a short, pudgy fellow after having rolled the stone back into position in front of the entrance. He was Human but no defender, rather a crafter. Instruments, trinkets, and salvaged Exo remnants were strewn all about. The low light of a candle illuminated most of the small area but did not shine bright enough to seep through the aperture and alert any unwanted adventurers.

          “Apologies, Cotton. I had my hands occupied when the boom occurred, and he was out before I could do anything about it,” Lambo answered.

          “Excuses. Tell, any advancements?”

          “I am almost completed with the arm, Cotton.”

          “Awesome!” Konquer interrupted sarcastically. “I can’t wait to lose mine!”

          “Stock?”

          “We still have plenty. Either way, I must really start journeying back to headquarters. I would not like to stir any suspicion with my prolonged absence. Crafters are still straining to fabricate the first working moto-cycle. A few weeks’ time should be enough, but they have already sent a message beckoning me to join them in the excruciating endeavor. I will only finish this final prosthetic before heading out. I expect that you are understanding of my predicament, correct?”

          “Do as you wish. However, you must finish.”

          “Ay.” Lambo began to tweak the prosthetic arm more speedily as Konquer began to rub his fleshy arm. Konquer had had both his legs and an arm surgically replaced by Cotton himself. In fact, as far as Cotton knew, Cotton was the only defender capable of linking the nervous system with the Exo remnants as to create a functioning prosthetic.

          “Tell, do you yearn for flesh?” Cotton asked the ruminating Konquer.

          “It’s not that I do not appreciate the enhancements both to my brain and my limbs, among other things, but I do often think… am I still Human? or have I become Exo?” Konquer, once a Tier C, also had had surgery administered to him by Cotton to enhance certain aspects of his frontal cortex, corpus collosum, and limbic system. Cotton wished he had done more and was planning on continuing his surgeries, but with the limited technology and conditions, such surgeries were extremely dangerous. Many Tier C, whom Cotton had abducted during the initial War Game as lab rats, had perished by Cotton’s experiments as Cotton attempted to perfect his science. Cotton continuously sought to create a killing machine. He had abducted Konquer from two novice police officers as they bickered among themselves, leaving their defenses nearly non-existent. They had abandoned their motorcycle with Konquer, who used to go as Qavl then, shackled to it. His eyes had been severely injured, and such a frail being had been enticing to Cotton.

          “You are far more Human than the laughing specimen,” Cotton assured.

          “Do not dare talk about him!” Konquer shouted, startling Lambo.

          “Why? Have you resentment at my naming the laughing specimen Qavl?”

          “I don’t care about whatever you decided to name him. I realize that you only changed my name to protect me; the bounty would have made my operations rather impossible if you had not changed it.”

          “Tell, then, why shout at his mention?”

          “Because that malfunctioning bitch terminated my one and only target! That damn BB deserved every bit of pain he received and more! Much more!” Konquer slammed his fist against the cave and kicked a wrench, sending it spinning toward a heap of widgets and bolts. “Perhaps if you had not fucked up your surgery and had done more to prevent BB’s escape than merely changing his name to my own, BB would not have malfunctioned and scampered away with your hat, his uncontrollable laughter would not be echoing all over the cave tauntingly to this day, and my target would still be alive!”

          Cotton thrust his hand against Konquer’s head, slamming his head against the jagged wall. Konquer’s bionic eyes stared at Cotton in indignation. With the other hand, Cotton swiftly retrieved his weapon and aimed it at its creator. Lambo halted his tinkering immediately, raised his hands, and stared at the weapon like a deer in the headlights. “Desist immediately.” Cotton warned. “Dare not to utter such insolence again. May I remind you that Lambo and I are the only beings capable of administering maintenance on your complex system?” Konquer remained staring at Cotton for a long time but finally closed his eyes in defeat.

          “I desist,” Konquer growled. “But I still think I deserve recompense.”

          “How to believe I, your creator, your surgeon, your provider of intellect and super-human capabilities, owe you recompense still? Ingrate!” Cotton allowed Konquer to pry himself from the wall and slowly lowered the gun when he was confident in Konquer’s quenched frustration. “Is the arm prepared?”

          “Yes, Cotton,” Lambo stated after a deep sigh of relief escaped him. He grabbed the arm and handed it over to Cotton, who quickly decided to retrieve his tools and order Konquer to lie down on the ground. There was no anesthesia, of course, so Konquer’s whimpering echoed across their hideout for an agonizing several minutes as Cotton blasted Konquer’s arm off with the gun and began using his bare hands and tools to recircuit Konquer’s nervous system.

          “All your limbs and eyes are now Exo, Konquer,” Cotton assured as he washed off the blood with some water. Lambo had been preparing all his materials for his journey out of such a cursed and evil cave so that he could bid Cotton farewell the moment he finished his procedure. Lambo attempted the hardest he could to seem cool and collected while every atom in his body screamed to bolt out of the cave as if his life depended on it before Cotton ordered him to remain for another task. As he was pushing on the stone to exit the hideout, however, he heard the whirring of Cotton’s gun. Quickly, he whipped around to witness Cotton pointing the weapon directly at him.

          “You possess too much knowledge, crafter,” Cotton stated ominously. Konquer, however, was faster than Cotton’s finger and shoved Cotton’s arm right before he pulled the trigger, saving Lambo and allowing Lambo to truly bolt out of the hideout squealing. Konquer’s enhancements allowed him to easily overpower Cotton, but Cotton had implanted a chip inside Konquer’s brain that would electrocute him whenever he disobeyed Cotton’s wishes. Such a mechanism could be bypassed if Konquer fooled himself into wholeheartedly assuming Cotton’s wishes were different than what they obviously were. Unfortunately, though Konquer had been able to fool himself into thinking that Cotton had not truly wanted to kill Lambo, Konquer was unable to convince himself that Cotton’s true wish was for Konquer to kill him. Before he had attempted to snatch the gun, the mere thought activated the chip and sent an excruciatingly painful signal across Konquer’s entire body. The pain was akin to fire ants crawling underneath one’s skin biting every chance they got. Konquer remained foaming at the mouth and convulsing as Cotton calmly readjusted his business suit and peered down at the worthless animal.

          “Explain yourself,” Cotton insisted. Konquer lay on the ground limp and silent. Suddenly, he twitched a couple times and inhaled deeply before coughing violently. “Matters not any longer,” Cotton continued, holstering his gun inside his pocket. He sat on the ground, leaned against the wall, and rubbed his head. “Upon your treason, I initially assumed the chip had malfunctioned, but I now understand its flaws have been discovered and exploited. I acknowledge your intellect yet condemn your insolence. How I wish for the newest invaders to massacre that crafter the first chance they get before he exposes all my secrets.” He grabbed a small stone from beside him and began to spin it with one hand. His mind slowly began to ruminate all his mistakes and foolish decisions, creating a list of circumstances in which his subpar intellect overlooked blaringly obvious unintended consequences or miscalculations as Konquer slowly regained functionality. “Tell, is your fealty intact?”

          Konquer slowly groaned to a sitting position facing Cotton and nodded, his eyes peering down on Cotton’s soul (or lack thereof). “Splendid. Follow me. We shall exploit the pandemonium that is sure to greet us upon our departure from this hideout in order to massacre as many defenders as we can find; however, I implore you to listen to my every wish: submit to not killing anyone I do not directly order you to kill, submit to not attacking me at any time, submit to remaining in close vicinity of my person, and submit to not assuming my will is different than that which I have spoken and shall speak. Do I make myself clear?” Konquer stared without acknowledging Cotton’s conditions, a dry tear searing his left cheek on its downward path. Cotton stood up, approached Konquer, and kicked his head as hard as he could. Konquer slammed against the ground massaging his neck and face. “Tell! Understand you my wishes? Dare not lie!” Konquer had no option but to nod, for he truly understood Cotton’s word and dared not refuse his direct command. “I acknowledge your fealty and shall proceed with the operation.”

          Cotton crawled out of the hideout, and the two of them, for Konquer could not allow himself to leave Cotton’s vicinity, witnessed the new world beyond the cave, a world invaded by creatures of another dimension, a dimension completely separate than that of the Humans, the Exos, and the Texeli. They witnessed the ravaging, destructive force of the Rogue Familiars.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          “Curses!” Odin shouted as he stood up, rubbing his sore back from the rather unsteady, multi-dimensional teleportation he had just experienced. “Sleipnir!” He shouted, his voice booming across the strange land before him.

          “Lost thy steed, hast thou?” Ira taunted, using her two magicked, bloody swords as leverage in her attempts to stand up. She had experienced more… turbulence… during the journey as a result of her being more specter than living flesh. Odin tightened his fists and caused lightning to spiral up his arms. His eyes began to emanate lightning as well. “Woah, calm down! I merely jest! Come, we must find your steed as quickly as possible before he does any more damage than he and his minions must have surely done by now.”

          Ijiraq, a massive beast whose formidable horns and tusks were just as lethal as they were composed of healing ice, scoffed, ejecting a plume of white smoke from his nostrils. He shook his head, raining down snow on the green grass below him, though the grass was beginning to frost. He stomped on the ground multiple times and shrieked in frustration.

          “Alas, I still cannot understand you,” Ira sighed, “but it does not take a beast-whisperer to know you are as agitated as me.” She swung her swords in a flashy manner, as if gauging her abilities. “I am feeling far less doozy from the journey. How about you?”

          “My condition matters not,” Odin responded. His eyes were perusing the land in search for his companion. “Not only have I lost my steed, but my weapon along with him.”

          “Oh please, you are a god! Let us end these rapscallions once and for all. You need not all these extra assets.”

          “Have I need to remind you of whom we are confronting? I may be a god, but so is he.” Odin charged lighting around his arms, thrust his hands down to the ground, and launched himself into the air using the force from the lighting. A few moments later, he crashed down and shook his head. “This world is unfathomably vast. Even at such altitude, the horizon barely curved.”

          “And who may you three be?” a voice shouted behind them. The three turned to address what appeared to be a species of harpy floating what she deemed a safe distance away. She had dark wings the size of her petite body and a staff longer still, which she held in a defensive stance with her two Human arms. Her eyebrows were furrowed full of determination despite her fear. She would be more akin to an angel had she not been sporting two sharp talons instead of feet. Beside her, a centaur huntress with beautiful, red hair flowing down to her human hips held a proportionally humongous, golden, spiky bow with a long silver arrow taut back and prepared to supposedly pierce any of the three. Though they may have been intimidating in their world, to the god, specter, and beast, the two of them were mere creatures whose bravery was far more applaudable than their prowess.

          “Ease, young ones, for we seek not to cause harm to the denizens of this land; in the contrary, we have traveled through dimensions in pursuit of three savage beasts of war bent on destruction. Aid us in our hunt for these creatures lest this world meet its demise at their hands!” Odin commanded. The two creatures did not let their guard down but looked at each other and seemed less aggressive.

          “My name is Ira the Hypnotic Specter. His name is Odin Stormgod, the God of Victory –- though a more fitting name for him and his current state would be Odin Groundstrider” she added mockingly. “And his is Ijiraq the Glacierwalker, the Brinicle. Who may you two be?”

          “My name is Inksparrow,” the harpy stated, then added sheepishly, as if resentful of having such a relatively short introduction, “She Who was Sprucewing. Her name is Griefall, She Who was Greysap.”

          Ijiraq scoffed and approached the two of them. Griefall, in a panic, shot her arrow at the beast, but Odin struck the arrow and shattered it with his lightning. Ijiraq froze in place for a short moment and lowered his head as if apologizing for having startled them. “I said fret not! We are not here to do battle.” Odin repeated. “We have far stronger foes to worry about.”

          “And who may these foes be?” Inksparrow asked, lowering her staff in acknowledgment of her powers being no match for the God of Victory. Ira and Ijiraq both looked at Odin, who in turn let loose a tormented sigh.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          A large explosion of untamable flames incinerated all lifeforms within a five-meter radius as the behemoth of destruction slammed onto Texel. Shortly thereafter, two less grandiose entities exploded onto the ground beside him. Montu, the God of War, rose from the ashen crater he carved onto the earth and spread his majestic, fiery wings. He shrieked at the sky in victory as his two minions, Managarmr, He Who Hates, and the Crystal Gillant, a formidable dragon, joined him in celebration of their successful cross-dimensional traverse.

          “Alas, friends, we have broken from our prison and have a new universe for us to ravage! Let us wish for formidable foes and plenty of destruction! May our bloodthirst be forever appeased,” Montu spoke. As he did so, the flames on his wings and body grew brighter and hotter. Managarmr howled and Gillant growled in agreement, but the three were soon distracted by a group of puny Humans and their numerous underlings. “Fresh meat!”

          Managarmr rushed forth and clawed at the underlings. To his surprise, the underlings all shattered into a million yellow cubes rather than bathing his claws in the blood he yearned for. Simultaneously, Gillant consumed the Humans in his flames, causing them all to frantically drop on the ground and start rolling, screaming their tiny heads off with cute, high-pitched squeals. “Silence them,” Montu ordered. Managarmr bit down on a Human and began to shake his head, spraying blood everywhere. He then chucked the corpse up into the air and swallowed it whole. Gillant, however, simply crushed their heads beneath his feet. “These creatures seem… underwhelming. There better be more worthy adversaries or my having expended so much magic in opening the rift to this disappointing universe would have been all in vain. Go forth, Managarmr and Crystal Gillant. Entertain me.”

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          Though Konquer had reluctantly begun his massacre of the unsuspecting Humans whose attentions were all solely focused on the invaders, the more blood he had shed, the more he had thirsted. He had always, from a young age back on Earth, been fond of bloodshed. The smell and taste were delightful beyond all others, and he distinctly remembered biting his tongue just for the taste. Knowing this, Cotton had not worried about Konquer’s compliance, for he had known that Konquer would soon regain his usual murderous tendencies and rid himself of the uncharacteristically rebellious nature that had temporarily consumed him. The death of his target had shattered him, but his desire for death had glued him back together.

          Cotton had been forever grateful for the invaders’ mayhem. He strategically orchestrated and ordered attacks in such a way that an entire week had flown by with little to no altercations between him, Konquer, the wolf, the dragon, and the hawk. The only ones ever confronting the invaders were the defenders, who decided to mobilize mob hosts against them as if they were Exos during a mob raid event, and other invaders. Cotton had no idea of their history, but the lightning-wielder, the zombie-ghost, and the ice beast were unquestionably opposed to the destruction of Texel. Those three would relentlessly bombard the other three with everything they had under the guidance of the defenders, though they were clearly more experienced in warfare and genocide than the average Texeli. Whatever world they had traveled from was not nearly as pacifistic as Texel had been before the war, that much Cotton was sure of. Due to the convoluted situation Texel found itself in, the elimination of undesirables was as easy as taking life from a child.

          One defender after another fell at the hands of Konquer. Cotton needed only to point his finger at those he deemed too inept to aid in the cause of the war and their life would be extinguished in a flash. Never did Cotton send Konquer to kill a group of defenders, however. That was the mistake the laughing specimen had committed that ultimately led to his demise -– he had been foolish enough to overexert himself by attacking multiple defenders working together with their bands. Cotton had not been there to witness his destruction, but Cotton assumed it had been swift and humiliating. Regardless, Cotton’s end goal was to eradicate more and more Humans. He strongly believed that most Humans were scourge and undeserving of a second chance on Texel -- only some Tier A were worthy in his eyes. Above all, the most glorious aspect of his operation was that no one suspected a Human of having committed the cleansing! The invaders received the entire blame. No matter how much Cotton and Konquer eliminated, neither of them were ever condemned.

          To Cotton’s surprise, he had not been the only one excited over the mass genocide -– the iris, too, celebrated Cotton’s ambitions; why else would the iris allow blood to rain down on the land to set up the mood? The gaping rift on the sky had not remained for long. Once the red meteor shower had ended, the iris had begun mending the sky and shrinking the window into the cosmos slowly but surely. Unfortunately, the smaller the aperture became, the more slowly could the iris continue to shrink the rift, as if the rift were actively combatting the iris’ powers. Once the rift had been a mere speck on the sky, the iris suddenly could no longer continue to mend itself, and the beautiful, mesmerizing rain began. The rift oozed blood that showered Texel. So much, in fact, that a small sanguine lake had formed on the mountain whereon the crimson cascade draped its mesmeric blanket. As if the new addition to Texeli geography had not been enough, the lake overflowed and soon a river had begun trailing down the side of the mountain. Such a sight excited both Cotton and Konquer, and as a direct result of such an invigorating scene and atmosphere, the two of them had massacred double if not triple the number they would have otherwise.

          Toward the end of the week, however, the duo had been forced to stagnate their massacre. The hawk creature had begun joining his underlings in battle against the Humans. This creature ravaged the land to such an extent that Cotton was faced with a most unprecedented yet pleasant surprise: the invader had been eradicating even more of the undesirables than could he. No longer was Konquer necessary to cleanse Texel; the hawk, the God of War, had been doing everything himself! The spectacle was jaw-dropping, and the two of them had been enjoying every moment… until they became the next targets.

          “So, there is where you have been hiding this entire week, coward!” Slangerr shouted, rushing toward Cotton and Konquer from afar. From the sound of his tone, he had yet to discern Konquer, and normally Cotton would order Konquer to kill whoever discovered them, but as surprising as it was, Cotton hesitated to kill Slangerr and instead order Konquer to stand down. Soon, Slangerr was close enough to notice the curious entity beside Cotton. Slangerr stopped running and clutched his pouch instinctively, ready to whip out his pavilion in self-defense. “The hell is that, Cotton.”

          “Konquer is his appellation,” Cotton stated calmly. He gritted his teeth, knowing with all his brain that he should kill Slangerr. “Bother not to summoning your band, Slangerr, for Konquer possesses more prowess than that of Qavl, the being who stole the straw hat about which you had inquired. You know well no Texeli in your band could possibly shield you if I so ordain your death.” Slangerr refused to relax his clutch on the pouch and was visibly distraught as he had never been before. Cotton’s superego continued to dictate Slangerr’s death. He heard a soft chuckle leave Konquer’s gluttonous mouth, and Cotton almost brought himself to order Konquer to refrain from killing Slangerr, but all Cotton could do was stare at Slangerr with eyes that were increasingly projecting an apologetic soul. Slangerr knew he did not have much time left and opened his pouch and pavilion. Konquer, without his chip activating, sprinted toward Slangerr as fast as the lightning that struck him from above.

          Konquer’s screams resonated about the battlefield as his circuits overloaded and his fuses exploded. Cotton had never expected an Exo’s circuits to overload, astonishing Cotton and wondering how powerful that lightning bolt had been. Konquer fell to his knees and began to steam, his flesh having burned and melted with the Exo metal. The lightning-wielder, Odin, exited the pavilion riding on a horse and clutching his signature weapon, Gungnir, infused with lightning. Odin’s laughter boomed as Cotton stared at the malfunctioning Konquer. If only he had ordered Konquer to kill Slangerr…

          “Why, Cotton!” Slangerr shouted, “I never truly saw you as a friend, but to learn of your evil deeds… I would have never expected you to be so evil! Why! How many of these machines have you manufactured!” Before Cotton could answer, however, Odin screamed and summoned another bolt of lightning, that time aimed at Montu, the half-falcon, half-human beast of destruction. Montu had flown in between Cotton and Slangerr to clutch Konquer’s remains and chuck them at Cotton’s feet. The lightning strike scarred Montu’s chiseled arms and chest, but he seemed to not acknowledge his injuries in the slightest. Cotton bent down to analyze Konquer as Montu faced Odin and his two companions, who had also exited the pavilion by then.

          “Enough!” Montu shouted. “Through dimensions have you followed me! Through the native magic have you cloned yourselves! Yet I and my companions have done the same. For weeks have we battled to no avail. Surrender, Odin. Why do you seek to save this universe? Why stop my rampage? None of my actions affect our own universe, you know. Let me be!”

          “Pathetic! Montu, God of War, beckoning me, God of Victory, to surrender. Have you acknowledged my-”

          “Watch out!” Ira shouted, jumping in front of Managarmr and Odin and stabbing her swords into the wolf’s mouth. Managarmr whipped his head to the side, launching Ira into the air, but the swords remained embedded in such a way that Managarmr was rendered unable to close his mouth. Gillant landed shortly thereafter attempting to ambush Odin, but Ijirak blasted the dragon with his icy breath, buying Odin enough time to strike the dragon with his staff and injure it enough for Inksparrow, Griefall, and other Texeli to finish the job slowly but surely. Managarmr managed to spit out the swords, but by the time he had done so, Odin had charged his magic and was ready to blast the wicked wolf with another charged lightning strike. The wolf yelped but refused to surrender, swatting at Odin and slamming him off Sleipnir and onto the ground. Ira snatched her swords and was ready to strike Managarmr alongside Ijirak, but Montu interceded and blasted the two of them away, instantly turning them into yellow cubes. Montu, who was yet to understand how dots worked and was still pondering over the peculiarity even after a week of witnessing carnage, stared at the yellow cubes that used to compose two of his mortal enemies before Gungnir struck one of his wings. The wing was damaged from the blow so severely that most of the wings were converted into the yellow dots he had been so distracted contemplating.

          “Curse you, Odin!” Montu bellowed, and a battle between gods ensued as Slangerr and his Texeli retreated from the battlefield, too afraid to hastily join the battle. While lightning and fired scorched the land, Cotton finished repairing Konquer. His eyes flashed red a few times and gasped.

          “Fucker hurt mo’ than the chip,” Konquer sluggishly stated. “Doozy. Very doozy. Hell be happenin’, Cotton?” Konquer clutched the side of his head and looked behind him at the awesome battle. “Betcha I’m outta mah league, huh?”

          “Silence, Konquer. Retreat is a must. We are currently amidst a mob raid, after all; a miracle has been granted to us for allowing me to repair you without the intrusion of defenders seeking to finish the boss before us.” Cotton stood up, helped Konquer stand up, and the two of them began to walk hastily away from the battle. Unfortunately for them, Cotton observed a sea of Tier A marching toward the battle. Cotton acknowledged then that the battle unfolding behind him was the final battle of the event. The Tier A were all ready to finish the invasion once and for all. If he were to be caught by another Tier A assisting Konquer, he would be either questioned or eliminated on the spot, so Cotton ordered Konquer to use whatever energy he had regained to shoot the two of them on top of a nearby tree to hopefully conceal them. The two of them remained on the tree as the army marched past them and began its onslaught on Montu.

          Montu, on the other hand, was acknowledging his inescapable situation. He shrieked “ENOUGH!” and bathed a wide area around him in flames, destroying many Texeli and Humans in the process. Suddenly, the bleeding aperture in the sky began to growl and disappeared, sealing the mysterious blood away for good and halting the cascade. The eyed rifts formed behind Managarmr and Gillant, allowing the two of them to recede into the depths of the shattered reality, but Montu’s pride prohibited him from retreating like a whimpering dog. In a final, desperate spark of energy, Montu flew up into the sky and dive-bombed beside the tree where Cotton and Konquer had been hiding.

          “I do not have much time, Human,” Montu groaned with an evil spark in his eyes. “This is not the last time this universe sees the likes of us Familiars, mark my words, and to solidify the prophecy, you must travel back to our universe. You are our key to returning.”

          “Halt this madness!” Cotton shouted, a rift splitting behind the two of them and tugging at their bodies, as if an invisible force were suctioning them in. “My mission lies on this very universe! Many defenders require elimination still!” Konquer, who was still weakened from the lightning strike, was the first to surrender and allow himself to be swallowed by the rift.

          “I care not for your Human desires,” Montu stated, grinning from ear to ear. “A Human bold enough to reject a god right to his face is a fine Human indeed. You will fit right in.” Montu, knowing the mob would soon be upon them, decided to force Cotton into the rift by flicking his stomach. Cotton spiraled into the void with a ruptured stomach that would soon be the cause of his death much like how a lack of knowledgeable scientists to administer regular maintenance was the cause of Konquer’s slow, prolonged agony. The rift closed, Montu faced the mob with open arms, and he massacred his foes to his last breath. To die in battle had been his wish all along, after all. His journey to find formidable foes had come to an end. He could finally die with an excited smile on his face.

Chapter Text

          Serakh snatched a stone from the ground beneath him and chucked it across the land, penetrating several trees. He clutched his horns and bellowed as loudly as he could. It had begun once more, that primordial, untamable rage. He slammed against and incinerated a tree, creating a pillar of fire emitting a dark, evil plume. Serakh curled up into a ball and continued to wail, hoping that he could expel his anger by merely exhaling, but such a plan never worked. The air around him began to boil and steam, the grass beneath him withered and caught fire, and the flames within the armor continued to crawl higher and higher. The more he attempted to contain his irascibility, the more catastrophic would he explode, hence why he had abandoned the mainland and secluded himself deep inside a vast, mostly uninhabited forest. In unmitigated exasperation, Serakh reluctantly allowed himself to succumb to his predisposition and ignited the forest once more in his magicked flames.

          Serakh had been like that for as long as he could remember, which was not much. Stricken by amnesia, he could not recall anything before the day he woke up inside a volcano with no parents, no memories, and no guidance. Despite the agonizing journeys, he had not been able to answer any of the questions that had been gnawing at him, infuriating him, perplexing him, questions such as who he was, what his purpose was, and why he had no flesh. Unlike all the other Texeli Serakh had encountered before he secluded himself in his forest, Serakh was not composed of flesh. He was a sentient torch forged from the fires of hell. His magicked existence, an existence not of a biologically conceived being but that of a magical incantation, was riddled with irrational hatred, sudden outbursts of sorrow, and unrelenting torment. His armor, a magicked garment capable of withstanding the heat of his flames yet whose creator was unknown, served as his only protection, his only possession.

          With neither memory nor body nor mental stability, Serakh had been unable to assimilate with the peoples of Texel. His anger only grew by the second, and every day at least one innocent being would meet a gruesome end basked in one of Serakh’s innumerable and indiscriminate conflagrations. He could no longer allow himself to smother the life of those who philanthropically extended an aiding and altruistic hand, so one day he isolated himself within the forest nearby the volcano wherein he had materialized.

          Heaving, Serakh rose to his feet and solemnly gazed at the destruction he had once again inflicted upon the forest -- his only home, scorched by his own hands, sizzling in agony and unwarranted castigation. His flames receded into his armor the more he resented his inferno. When would the torment end? How many more times would the forest be subjugated by his involuntary firestorms? He closed his eyes and implored his flames to recede farther into his armor. Even after not a single spark could escape the armor, Serakh continued to meditate and to recede the flames. Even after the wrist plates of his armor crashed onto the floor, Serakh continued to pray to the iris and to recede the flames. Even after the crackling fires surrounding him were shrouded in the darkness of slumber, Serakh continued to hope his pain would end and to recede the flames.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          An eerie rumbling of the ground awoke Serakh from his typical dreamless, unsatisfactory sleep, a sleep that would start and end before he could acknowledge its existence regardless of how long it had lasted, a sleep that would not alleviate his anger, malaise, or memory in the slightest. The tremor, though increasing in magnitude, had not surprised Serakh considering his active birthplace was nearby, but he was indeed startled by sounds unlike any the local wildlife had procured. The sounds were too ominous for Serakh to ignore, and upon climbing up a tree for a better view, he was greeted by a most terrifying and infuriating spectacle: there were tree canopies shaking wildly, far too wildly for any normal wind, before collapsing and slamming onto the ground to forever sleep. Boiling as he had never boiled before, Serakh jumped down to the ground and rushed at top speed toward the chaos. Never had the forest been attacked during his admittedly detrimental stay other than by his own flames, and Serakh would not forgive anyone who would dare join him in his destruction. At least he was repentant of his destruction, so repentant that he had vowed to protect the forest from any more ills. Though a parasitic relationship, Serakh had always aspired to alter the covenant between the forest and himself into one of defensive symbiosis.

          Awaiting him were humongous creatures armed with foreign weaponry unlike any he had the displeasure of witnessing. They were creatures with cylindrical pipes that emitted flames, claws large enough to crush the trunk of trees with ease, and multiple appendages with saws slicing and sautéing fauna and flora with reckless abandon while ramming the remains in large containers situated on their abdomens. They resembled praying mantises –- multiple legs and long, deadly appendages protruding from a thorax; thank the iris they had no wings.

          “Explain yourselves, cretins!” Serakh bellowed, scorching the creatures with his flames. That had been the first instance in numerous cycles in which he had purposefully summoned his flames, and once he had done so, all his repressed gluttony for destruction erupted. He did not even allow the creatures to speak, not like they would have spoken anyway. Serakh stormed the invaders with everything he had, and since the creatures had already shaved the vicinity of any trees, Serakh could engulf everything in flames without remorse -- there were no living trees to torture. A creature attempted to ambush Serakh by shoving one of its saws into his back, but by then Serakh had boiled to such a sweltering temperature that the saw melted before causing any harm to him, spraying the area around them in a liquid Serakh had never witnessed before. The liquid was neon, glowing orange and would incinerate anything it touched. Some of the liquid splashed on his back, but so accustomed was he to his own blaze that the creature’s blood barely fazed him. Without hesitation, Serakh whipped around and punched straight through the creature’s thorax, creating an aperture surrounded by the orange blood. Another one of the creatures attempted to subdue him by blasting him with his flamethrower, but the flames were naught but a cold breeze relative to his own, and in no time had Serakh killed that creature too.

          In a similar fashion, the raging Serakh melted one creature after the other after the other until eventually nothing remained but their blood scorching the bare ground. During a time of tranquility upon slaughtering the final invader, Serakh reflected on his own Self and realized that he had boiled to such a high temperature that he no longer felt like himself. He could no longer recede his flames despite slowly but surely calming down. Frantically, he prayed to the iris for guidance in extinguishing his flames, but the more he fruitlessly attempted to recede them, the brighter they would radiate. Afraid of the implications of the new development, Serakh rushed to the volcano and began to climb. The physical strain of scaling the volcano would sometimes distract him of his rage –- a tactic he often used to employ during his spontaneous tantrums -– but unfortunately, he reached the mouth of the volcano without ever calming down. He peered inside for a moment before leaping inside.

          There was a dent on the wall of the volcano, a dent wherein he would often sit and contemplate until his hunger overpowered him. Inside the volcano, there were no trees, no creatures, no casualties. He could rage to his heart’s malcontent without the crushing remorse that would otherwise inflict him afterward. He once again meditated inside the cave, begging of the iris an answer, and suddenly a hazy memory floated from the depths of his mind. He knew nothing of the memory, and the memory was less of a vision than it was a premonition, a disturbance, an ambiguous gnawing of his mind and stomach. He could sense animosity, as if there were an enemy nearby. Bloodthirst inundated all five of his senses as a blue hue began to alter the darkness in his mind. Suddenly, Serakh remembered a terrifying weapon, a weapon than would have ended his life in the blink of an eye had he not attempted to survive with all his strength, concentration, and unwavering will. The memory was so ancient that it was of a time during which he had not wished for death to cure him of his uncontrollable destruction.

          Serakh had entered a town in search of nourishment and had remained in the town for a couple days; however, during his stay, a stranger had approached him claiming that he wielded a magicked superweapon mighty enough to kill him. This axe, though unbeknownst to everyone then, was one of two legendary weapons crafted by one of the most powerful blacksmith magicians, who had gone missing in a time long, long prior, and even tough such irony would not become apparent for a long time to come, historians agree that such a coincidence could only have been inspired by the iris. The reason for the stranger’s anger had been Serakh’s actions the day prior: consumed by wrath, Serakh had incinerated a stranger who had accidentally spilled a drink on him while drunk at a bar; the drunk victim had been the stranger’s father. In vengeance only a loyal son could experience, a vengeance Serakh could never experience nor comprehend, the stranger had retrieved a battle axe infused by the strongest magic the town had ever witnessed. The stranger had called it the Hangfire Battleaxe, the weapon that would satiate their wraths.  Unfortunately, Serakh refused to be assassinated by the axe and barely escaped with his life by promptly casting his own spell: Scorch.

          The axe was especially dangerous to Serakh, for it was his polar opposite. Just as he was naught but flames, the axe was naught but ice, ice so cold it could freeze water immediately upon contact. Serakh writhed in pain in his hideout inside the volcano as his memories raided his mind more and more vividly. The stranger had been an exemplary warrior, and he had wielded the axe expertly. Serakh had attempted to blast the axe out of the stranger’s grasp with his flames, but to his utter amazement, his flames had been extinguished as easily as he had melted the invaders. All Serakh had been able to do during that fight had been to evade the axe and to attempt to create an opening with enough time to evoke his flames offensively. In all his life, Serakh could not recall a more dire moment. As he writhed in pain, he regretted ever allowing himself to survive the altercation. All his pain and all the forest’s pain could have been prevented if he had died that day by the hands of one of the many victims of his anger. Though the father had miraculously been healed by the iris and his dots perfectly reassembled, Serakh never returned to the town. He had been exiled. As he pondered his mistake of surviving, he remembered the enemies he had confronted, he remembered how if he had not been there, the forest would have been completely leveled, and he remembered why he had initially entered his birthplace. His flames had been empowered beyond his control and could no longer be tamed.

          Above all, he had remembered a memory so repressed that he could not have ever fathomed it. Throughout all the cycles of his tormenting the forest, the cure for his pain had been hiding beneath his nose the entire time! After the altercation, he had stolen the garments within which the stranger had concealed his super weapon, a magicked garment fabricated from a material powerful enough not to succumb to the axe’s temperature, a material that allowed anyone to transport the axe. Using this garment, Serakh had claimed the axe. Serakh's writhing gradually subsided, and he stared at the wall opposite to him. He stormed toward the wall and concentrated all his magic into a single onslaught that shattered it. As he had imagined, the tip of the axe’s hilt revealed itself, and after numerous blasts, Serakh successfully disinterred the only weapon that could kill him, the cure for which he had been yearning for the majority of his miserable life but one he no longer considered a cure. As he stared at the Hangfire Battleaxe, he analyzed not a suicide device but a weapon, a weapon he could finally wield.

          He knelt down to the ground, heaved a deep breath, and grasped the hilt of the axe. As he had expected, the axe, whose magic had not wavered despite its age, froze and nearly extinguished his hand. With his free hand, Serakh grasped his nearly-destroyed appendage and supplied it with the magic necessary to sustain it. He felt his soul cave in, but he focused on his wrath and bellowed at the top of his lungs. The magma beneath him began to slam against the walls more and more violently as he glowed brighter and brighter. The axe’s hilt slowly began to thaw as Serakh gripped harder. He continued to pray to the iris for strength, continued to focus on the magma beneath him, and continued to visualize in his mind the invaders that had destroyed part of his forest. What would happen if stronger invaders arrived? What would happen if he could no longer protect the forest? He understood that being able to tame the axe was the next step in his evolution; he could sense his soul morphing beneath his retched being. When he could feel his grip on the axe, Serakh grunted slightly closer to the edge of the precipice leading to the magma. He strained his every dot attempting to drag the axe closer and closer. He felt himself strengthen with every move. Grunt after grunt, wail after wail, Serakh eventually found himself at the edge of the dent with his hand fully grasping the hilt. He slowly lifted the hilt off the ground and attempted to stand up, but the pain was far too great, and he instead launched himself and the axe into the magma. The axe’s magic protected it from the magma, but the magma also empowered Serakh, whose irascibility had been activated by a deep loathing toward himself for his ineptitude, with even more magic than before. As both the axe and Serakh sunk deeper and deeper, Serakh gripped the axe, swam to the volcano’s inner wall, and with all his strength rammed the axe into it. He had successfully swung the axe with enough strength to penetrate the hardened wall, but Serakh was in no position to celebrate just yet. He still needed to device a plan for scaling the side of the mountain back to the dent and later out of the volcano entirely. The only plan he could muster was to use the axe. He would need to constantly create footholds with the axe during his ascent, but such a task required him to wield it. He was to either tame the axe and surpass its magic or wither away in the pool of lava after dying of thirst. He punched the wall hoping that he be strong enough to carve a hole in it much like he was planning on doing with the axe, but the wall was far too hard. He blasted the wall with his magic, but he soon realized that such a task would be too straining and long. His best bet was to use the axe, and so he did.

          He grabbed the hilt, moaned in pain, disinterred it from the wall, used the crack on the wall to lift himself higher, and swung the axe once more to create another crack higher up the wall. After doing so, he struggled to retrieve the axe, bit down on the axe, situated himself so he could use the first crack as a foothold and the second for his hand, and continued to swing the axe for a third crack. In such a manner, Serakh slowly but surely created a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh… constantly falling back down into the magma every time he painstakingly liberated the axe from the wall and cursing the iris for the anguish he felt every time he bit down on the axe. His hell may have very well lasted hours or maybe even days -- he had never bothered to look at the sky nor pry his attention from the task at hand. But in the end, he finally managed to grasp the ledge and heave himself onto the dent on the wall. Must have been well over fifty swings of the axe that Serakh had to endure, and all his conditioning served to strengthen his magic to unprecedented heights. He gazed at where he had blasted his magic to retrieve the axe and with a flick of his finger doubled its size. His magic was beyond comprehension! He grasped the axe as if the cold were nothing and began to swing, spin, toss, and twirl it. He had never used a weapon before, or at least as far as he could remember, but he, as if instinctively, began to develop his own techniques and strategy.

          He crawled out of the volcano and made his way down all the way to where the remnants of the invaders lay. The orange blood had dried and hardened to the same color as had been their skin, but Serakh noted that he could melt the blood again to an orange and even yellow color. As a pastime, Serakh spent many days either practicing his axemanship or playing with the invaders’ remnants that intriguingly never healed unlike had all his victims. In fact, the invaders did not seem to be made of dots at all. Regardless, the more Serakh learned how to wield his axe, the more inclined he became to call himself Maskim. He had evolved, after all, and no longer was he a child whose tantrums were a hindrance. He was a warrior, a warrior waiting for another invasion against which to gauge his new prowess.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          Despite having trained for moons and moons on end, Maskim had not been prepared for the onslaught. The next invaders were made of dots, and extremely durable dots at that. Unlike the original invaders, the new wave had not melted away with ease. Moreover, the new invaders were no longer reminiscent of praying mantises; they resembled lions, horses, and Hemi more than anything. Maskim strategically juggled between magical attacks from his axe and his own pyromancy. Unfortunately, he could only do so much by himself before being overpowered by the stampede. His stubborn nature did not allow him to retreat from the uphill battle, but he was given no choice when one of the invaders, after one fell swoop, amputated his left arm and sent it flying in the air. Maskim bellowed in anguish and cursed at the invader who had managed to injure him, but he could not rest for the slightest second due to another two invaders joining the fray. Being assaulted in such a manner, Maskim was beginning to rationalize a strategic withdrawal, and when he next discerned an opening, Maskim bolted out of the fight, making a beeline for the volcano where he knew he would be able to summon forth more power as he had done before.

          He could not believe how much stronger those invaders were than the previous ones! He had believed that he had surmounted his previous magic tenfold, yet the invaders seemed to have enhanced their own by a factor of one hundred. As he dashed through the trees with one arm gripping the axe tightly and the other missing, Maskim focused on a new strategy and extermination plan. Clearly, brute force could not possibly be enough to subdue the invaders that time around, and he leaped into the volcano without a second of hesitation. The sheer numbers of the invaders was daunting to say the least, and soon the forest would be completely leveled and the environment turned into nothing but a wasteland, a ghost of what it once used to be. When he splashed onto the magma, the volcano begun to quake tremendously. The pressure within the volcano skyrocketed and caused the mountain to explode. Lava sprayed everywhere, creating a flood that managed to burn some invader but also the few remaining trees in the vicinity.

          Maskim had come to terms with reality: the small forest he had vowed to protect had become nothing more than a barren desert in the span of a few short moments, and his most ardent attempts at confronting the hundreds of invaders had not been sufficient to save it. As the lava flowed around him, he closed his eyes, apologized deeply for not having been able to save the forest, raised his axe high in the air, and prayed to the iris for the strength to retaliate against the invaders in a way that would serve as a precedent to all other invaders. Another memory briefly flashed inside his mind, one of a green serpent, and suddenly he knew exactly what he needed.

          “AWAKE, FIRE DRAGON!” he exclaimed, and from the lava surrounding him, a mighty beast materialized and roared above the horrendous sounds of the invaders ravaging the landscape. He stared at the dragon for an instant and, as if he had known the creature his entire life, mounted him, and the two of them out-sped every single one of the invaders. Maskim could feel awakened, could feel as though he had emerged from a deep slumber. His magic had been amplified by a daunting factor, and his flames had grown powerful enough to melt the invaders before causing them to explode into dots that would disintegrate moments later. By summoning the beast, he had been able to transcend into the next stage in his evolution. He had become Nebuchadnezzar!

Chapter Text

         Jibberish approached the bright-yellow sheet of paper surrounded by the other dusty, wrinkled, and torn ones on the dilapidated wall of the pub. The “WANTED: Dead or Alive” announcements had been inhabiting that wall since the bounty on Qavl, yet rarely were they ever claimed. Bounties on Survivors –- those who were Undesirables yet survived the initial Cleansing –- were rather common, but neither the award nor the boasting rights were worth the straining effort that would go into somehow locating those pesky deadweights. However, the new poster was the most peculiar of all for reasons beyond just merely being the newest one or the one with the most appetizing prize: 515.000 Texi; rather, the poster’s image was of a Texeli instead of a Human.

          Anchromedea the Witch was her name. She was an entity who had recently revealed herself yet had already made a name for herself as the most competent gear thief in the land, though she also had a sea of henchmen working under her. The henchmen were said to be blue in pigment and grotesque beyond measure -- the most hideous knuckle-dragging abominations not even the most adventurous Texeli could have imagined. Some speculated that the henchmen were zombies, given their skeletal and rotten appearance, whilst others speculated that they were nocturnal beasts adapted to the impenetrable darkness of caves since they vaguely resembled some of the beasts who had been spotted during gear hunts. Jibberish had seen neither the witch nor her henchmen yet, only through police sketches and the like. No one knew her current whereabouts, but Jibberish, only recently having heard of her, was itching to confront her in battle. He pressed his fingers against her image on the poster and smiled wickedly. She was rather beautiful for a witch…

          “Fuck off!” a far too familiar, young voice squealed behind him, followed by the crashing of a table, the breaking of china, and the annoyed grumbling of the pub’s patrons. Jibberish instinctively grabbed the whistle inside his pocket before turning around to witness yet another drunken squabble between a stranger and his… competent and sane… partner. Kohai had somehow managed to pin a man slightly taller than him to the floor and had started to pummel the man’s face with his two deformed fists. Blob, a fellow officer, stood up from his stool beside the overturned table and casually made his way toward Jibberish.

          “My attempts at cautioning the new guy, Ty, from annoying Kohai fell on deaf ears. My apologies,” he stated nonchalantly. Jibberish sighed heavily and lifted the whistle to his lips but only blew the whistle after standing there motionless and following the trajectory of Ty’s blood across the air every time Kohai would land yet another blow on the unfortunate drunkard’s nose for a full minute. Once Jibberish finally brought himself to blow the device, Kohai’s manic punches ceased instantaneously.

          In the same spasmic actions of a man surrounded by ice-cold concrete and electrocuted over and over again in the basement of an old, dilapidated facility miles away from salvation, Kohai jerked violently off the stranger and stood at attention, staring at Jibberish with apologetic eyes frantically dancing in place. Kohai began to sweat and bite his lips. He only stood there frozen in place for a couple seconds before clasping his head with his bloody hands and shaking it from side to side wildly. His psychotic episode eventually ceased, and Kohai heaved profoundly as he attempted to reclaim any remnants of stability he had left. However, Ty regurgitated all the accumulated blood he had not yet swallowed, wiped his face, and trapped Kohai in a headlock. Kohai allowed Ty to slowly choke him while he stared silently up at Jibberish.

          “That is far enough, Ty. Cease your infuriating transgressions this instant,” Jibberish lazily muttered. His only desire at that moment was to return to his post staring at the image of Anchromedea.

          “What makes you think I’ll ever forgive this asshole for what he did? I shall make him pay! Do you see my nose? My nose for crying out loud! You couldn’t have gotten my type of nose just anywhere, you know! I have no idea what your little whistle did, but I sure as hell won’t let this opportunity go un-exploited!”

          Jibberish, out of respect, activated his contacts to examine the stranger’s biographical information. Ty, 16, B2. As annoyed as he was, Jibberish’s eyes hesitated to look away from Ty’s age, and somewhere in the dimmest profundity of his damaged heart, one of his strings resonated ever so slowly. Out of pity, Jibberish hesitantly granted Ty a second chance. “Back off at once, lest you regret your decision for the rest of your short, miserable existence.” Rather than heed his warning, Ty’s blood-dripping face contorted itself into a smirk as he tightened his headlock. Kohai’s eyes had started to become bloodshot. Everyone inside the pub had stopped doing whatever they had been doing and had been staring at the confrontation intently, anticipating what had happened time and time again without fail. They were all compelled by the same wicked force of curiosity and catharsis to stare at what was sure to follow despite having seen it all before.

          Jibberish snapped his fingers three times in quick succession, and Kohai, whose special ability was complete dismissal of pain with the efficiency only a suicidal maniac with no self-respect could accomplish, rammed his elbow deep into Ty’s ribs, shocking him into loosening his grip. Kohai capitalized on Ty’s moment of weakness by biting Ty’s arm with everything he got, causing severe bleeding and unignorable agony. Kohai made eye contact with Jibberish for an instant, but just that fleeting interaction slashed Jibberish’s back with violent goosebumps. All the Texeli in the pub either momentarily exited the establishment or adverted their eyes and ears, but all the Humans locked their eyes on the foolish victim out of respect; etiquette intensely discouraged adverting one’s eyes from public carnage, for there was nothing more discourteous than ignoring the one and only moment in a man’s life when he reveals his true soul.

          Having freed himself from Ty’s headlock, Kohai turned around and gripped the sides of Ty’s head. One, two, three, and even four times did the young psychopath smash his skull against Ty’s, his eyes becoming more vibrant as Ty’s grew duller and more faded. Once Ty was in the brink of unconsciousness, Kohai let go of his head, admired his work of art, and swiftly jammed his thumbs so forcefully against Ty’s eyes that the two of them stumbled backwards and crashed against the pub’s wall. Even long after Ty’s pleading arms had fallen limply by his side and he had been rendered no more than a rag doll, Kohai continued to twist his thumb deeper into Ty’s skull. However, Jibberish no longer felt inclined by societal expectations to continue watching the spectacle, so he decided to wait Kohai’s tantrum out by once again staring back at the image of the witch he vowed to hunt down.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          The bartender had been indulgent enough to provide Jibberish valuable information on the whereabouts of the witch, even if indirectly. Apparently, two Texeli -– Plumandias and Ukani –- had sauntered out of the pub not too long before Kohai’s altercation anxiously boasting to each other of their prowess and how they were going to be the one to claim the reward. All Jibberish had to do was hunt them down and eventually, by trailing them, he and Kohai would encounter her, especially if they flaunted their best gear under the night sky in hopes of their bling managing to attract one of the most precious fishes in the sea. As the two rushed out of the pub and searched for them, which did not take long, Jibberish sternly reminded Kohai not to hastily charge the witch when they encounter her. Ideally, both of them would remain hidden as the Texeli battle each other. Only once their battle ended would they advance. Kohai, as always, seemed not to pay attention.

          “Is this a hawkward silence or…” the hawk stated, nervously gripping his sword and shield and frantically whipping his head around. There was a peculiar Texeli beside him who also had begun surveying his surroundings. Startling both of them, a third Texeli rushed out from behind a nearby tree, laughing his three heads off at the two cowards. Jibberish stared at the three squabbling Texeli stoically awaiting Anchromedea to appear.

          “Riddle me this,” one of the serpent’s heads hissed.

          “Oh, puh-leeze spare me! Why do you Theri always have to speak in riddles all the time?” the yellow Texeli asked.

          “Aren’t ya a Theri yourself, Ukani?” the hawk interjected.

          “Shut up, Pluma.”

          “I told ya to stop calling me that!”

          “Gentlemen,” the serpent butted in, “what has light and dark, may be white or blue or orange or red, and can grow as well as shrink as it floats in the sea of darkness smiling only a short time during each cycle?”

          “Oh, I know, I know!” an eager, female voice frightened all three Texeli. They all began frantically perusing the sky, but no luck. “In fact, I can show you all a magic trick! In three seconds, I shall make the subject of the riddle disappear!” Once she said that, all three Texeli locked their eyes on the moon, terrified of what would become of them momentarily. “Ha, made ya look!” The voice shouted from behind them, causing them all to whip around only for Anchromedea to rise ominously behind them, alerting them of her presence only through her shadow stretching before them.

          Plumandias spun around and cursed at the witch. “Time to say bye-bye, birdie!” He bellowed, pointing his sword directly in the air in defiance. The other two Texeli also dismissed their fright and stampeded the witch only for her henchmen to pop out of the ground as she flew upwards to avoid all their attacks. Surrounded by her henchmen, the three Texeli who had hoped to battle for the bounty instead had to unite forces just to have a chance of surviving in one piece to see dawn. Anchromedea began to giggle to herself as she fluttered over the battle smugly and pleased with the spectacle, and Jibberish’s heart begun to race faster and faster.

          She was far more beautiful in person. Her red, flowing hair, her bottomless and heartless pits for eyes that matched the untarnished and polished obsidian wings that would terrorize any sane being, her massive yellow spear pressed tightly behind her bosom, her adequately skimpy attire revealing her smooth, delicate, blue skin, her wicked smile humiliating the helpless Texeli being torn to shreds below her… Jibberish was beginning to blush so much imagining all the ways in which he could violate her that even Kohai had begun to chuckle.

          “Hey, you seem to be just as desperate to capture her as I am to dismember her henchmen. How about you let me handle the henchmen and you can have her all for yourself?” Kohai proposed.

          “Great minds think alike, partner,” Jibberish responded. Seeing as how the last remaining Texeli, Plumandias, had been shattered into dots, Kohai slammed down his hefty armory in front of him, drawing the attention of all the henchmen and Anchromedea. He opened the armory and exposed all his precious gear to the henchmen.

          “Hey, maggots! I bet you would love to get your rotten paws on these bad boys! Well too bad, because I shall make sure none of you ever see the light of day again!” Kohai shouted, knowing very well Texeli could mend themselves but adamantly opposed to admitting that fact. The henchmen all laughed as Kohai pulled out a spear imbued with an inordinate amount of electrical magic: Odin’s evolved spear. Jibberish smiled as he recollected what Kohai had told him when he first wielded Odin’s gear. This pain… it feels nostalgic. I think I will enjoy wielding this a little too much. Kohai was what his peers considered a Suicide Agent –- someone who refused to mobilize Texeli to fight his battles. When Kohai was jokingly asked if he would ever consider becoming a Texeli if it were possible, his answer was one Jibberish had expected. No way in hell would I ever do such a thing. I would much rather suffer an excruciating, prolonged demise than become nothing but useless yellow cubes abandoned in perdition, awaiting some random Human to mend me by shooting goo all over my remnants! Kohai was a lost cause, but that was what amused Jibberish.

          “Hey, witch!” Jibberish bellowed, “you will no longer remain merely floating above the battle doing nothing. Time to make you sweat like never before.” Jibberish beckoned his band to exit the pavilion and told them to cover him as he charged her. Anchromedea laughed in her iconic smugness as she flew high enough for Jibberish to be rendered useless on his own, so he whistled at Ataneedusu. He had obtained a magicked garment that protected him from Ataneedusu’s flames, so all he had to do was lay it on Ataneedusu’s back, and both of them blasted forth toward the dark sky, chasing after the slippery witch.

          “You are one intriguing Human,” Anchromedea giggled. “Never before had I seen such act of lunacy from your kind.”

          “You flatter me, witch. Now strike me! We cannot fly around like butterflies in a bright, sunny flower field forever. Show me what power a Texeli must possess for the bounty on her head to surpass half a million Texi!”

          “Amazing! Your lunacy never ceases! I hope you are well aware that I shall not go easy on you just because you are a cute Human.”

          Jibberish was visually taken aback by being called cute for the first time in his life, something Achromedea dully noted, but quickly replied with “as you wish, Achromedea, but I should say the same to you. In fact, your being a dazzling specimen completely discourages me from going easy.” Achromedea smiled and landed on the ground. Jibberish jumped off Ataneedusu and landed a few strides away. Normally, he would let his band do all the messy fighting, but he wanted to feel Anchromedea with his own bare hands. He had brought with him the Ieniceri Axe, a superweapon any Texeli would fear. Anchromedea, however, stared at the gear with lustful eyes, causing Jibberish to become even more excited. “You like this, do you not?” He spun the heavy axe as to give her a view of it from all angles. “Took me a long time to max this bad boy out, but let me tell you: it was worth every last Texi.” He slammed the base down on the ground, creating a massive boom loud enough to distract Kohai from his almost smashing his fifth victim’s head in.

          “I must admit, Human,” Anchromedea stated, spinning her spear in front of her. “You have intrigued me far more than any other enemy. For the first time, I am excited not to massacre my opponent, but to battle.” She stopped spinning her spear and pointed it at Jibberish menacingly. “Please, do not disappoint me.”

          “I assure you, the last thing I ever want in this world is to disappoint you.” Jibberish got into his fighting stance with the axe in front of him almost hiding his wide, goofy smile he could not remove. Anchromedea exploded forth, nearly impaling him. By a hair, he had managed to deflect the spear with the body of his axe. Quickly, he repositioned his grip on the axe and nearly decapitated her. The momentum from the massive axe, both heavy in matter and magic, caused him to momentarily lose balance, allowing her to slam the body of her spear against his ribs. Fortunately, he managed to roll away from yet another attempted impalement but only managed to do so by letting go of the axe. She gleefully kicked the axe across the ground and began to stab her spear repeatedly on the ground, Jibberish being forced to crawl backward or roll to the side over and over again. Eventually, he waited for the spear to embed itself on the ground once more to immediately grip it tightly. He allowed her to lift him off the ground as she pulled back her weapon and did not hesitate to sweep her off her feet and slam her against the ground, making sure to step on her wings. He had never done so with someone wielding a spear, and the experience, albeit successful, had been relatively cumbersome to say the least. The moment Jibberish stepped on her wings, she moaned sensually to distract him -– a lethal strike. He blushed piping hot and was easily swatted off. He scurried as quickly as he could manage toward his axe and was barely able to wrap his fingers around the body before he was forced to let go in order to avoid her amused flurry.

          “You are doing fairly well for a Human, you know. Despite only evading, you have at least survived much longer than any of my previous Human victims. However, I was excited for a battle, not a repetitive game such as this one. Eventually, you either spice things up, or I might as well retreat.”

          Jibberish was panting heavily, slightly more than Anchromedea, but he was nowhere near giving up. He was far enough away from Anchromedea, who had slowed her movements after the last onslaught, and had enough time to catch his breath and assess his situation. Kohai only needed to whittle out a few more henchmen, but he was taking his sweet time enjoying every last second, and Jibberish’s path to the axe was being strategically obstructed by Anchromedea. His eyes easily wandered and locked into Anchromedea’s exposed midriff, and the longer he gawked, the more rejuvenated he became. Standing up straight and controlling his panting, Jibberish smiled confidently and got into a fighting stance.

          “You want the fight to be more exciting? Fine. No more evading.”

          “The audacity! I like you Human. I shall store your corpse and keep it from rotting with my magic.”

          “It would be an honor, witch.”

          “Well come on, then. No more running, you said? Charge me. Violate my indefensible personal space.” Anchromedea spread her arms wide tauntingly.

          “As you say.” Jibberish’s smirk widened as he prepared to take off running. After a deep breath, he whipped around and propelled himself the opposite direction. So bewildered was she by his anticlimactic actions that her brain lagged behind for a few seconds before she shook her head and flew at top speed to catch up to the coward. Those few seconds were all Jibberish needed to reach Kohai’s armory and slam it wide open. In a frenzy, Jibberish snatched the first gear he could reach – a shield – and swung it in front of him as he turned around, deflecting the witch’s spear just in time. He used the shield to smash her face in and quickly grabbed one of the twin sawtooths. As he swung the blade down, he let go of the shield and grabbed the second sawtooth with his other hand. The first sawtooth was blocked by Anchromedea’s blind, distraught swinging of her spear, but the second sawtooth served to deflect a mighty thrust of the spear that would have otherwise penetrated his heart. Rather than attempt to slice at her with the first sawtooth, for he assumed that she would simply fly backward as he pulled back his hand for an efficient swing, he hastily let go of both sawtooths and firmly grasped the spear.

          “Let go this instant!” She screeched, uncharacteristically infuriated and agitated.

          “Make me,” Jibberish challenged, staring daggers into her narrowed eyes.

          “Cease this awful game of tug o’ war or so help me iris I shall-” She furiously pulled back her weapon, but Jibberish defiantly planted his heel into the earth and mockingly shook his head. “Fine, you have provoked me far enough.” She let go of her staff and flew back. “I really detest resorting to such underhanded tactics against a Human, but as I said before, you should not have expected me to go easy on you for merely being a Human. I have only used my staff, but you shall now bear witness to my magic!” She made circular motions with her hands, and suddenly Jibberish felt as though the air around him were being stripped away from him… he could barely breath! Unexpectedly, air crushed him from all sides and just as quickly tossed him out of the armory. He crashed onto the ground with a loud thud, but Anchromedea had just begun. Using her magic, she manipulated powerful gusts of wind that repeatedly lifted Jibberish off the ground and slammed him back down. Once she had had her fun, she retrieved her spear using her magic and pointed it at Jibberish’s bruised body. “This final attack shall end your miserable, delicate Human body. You tested my patience, and now you shall taste my most powerful spell!”

          “I see this as a win regardless of whether I am killed or not,” Jibberish stated, painfully standing up. “I gave the mightiest witch no choice but to use her magic on a Human! How pathetic! To think the great and mighty Anchromedea could not dispose of me without using her magic!”

          “Such psychological attacks will not work on me, Human. You cannot hope to change my mind. Yes, I resorted to using my magic, but you were the one foolish enough to challenge me! You are the only one at fault here.”

          “That may be true, but… Humans are very resourceful. Especially when working together.” His statement scared Anchromedea into thinking Kohai had attempted to ambush her from behind, but Kohai had been kicking around the dots of his crushed enemies far away from the two of them. Jibberish used his successful bluff to retrieve a scythe he had been able to grab before being sent flying by her magic and chucked it with all his remaining strength at the silly witch who had foolishly turned around. The scythe embedded itself on her back, and she began to screech in pain. “Made you look.”

          “You imbecile!” She cursed. “I had refrained from using my magic until now, and you repay my favor by using underhanded tactics of your own!” Before she was able to use her magic again, Jibberish ran toward her and kneed her in her solar plexus. She doubled over in agony so tremendous that she could no longer keep herself afloat. Her wings sagged on either side of her as she kissed the ground. Jibberish knelt down on one knee, grabbed her hair, and violently pulled her head back so they could make eye contact.

          “You have such lovely eyes,” Jibberish confessed, running the fingers of his other hand aross her face. She jerked her face to the side, but Jibberish took hold of her chin and forced her to face him again. “I could kiss you right now…”

          “You despicable scourge,” she muttered, slowly regaining her breath.

          “By all means, continue playing hard to get. It only serves to make me more excited about having you all for myself.” Interestingly, Jibberish felt something warm begin to run down his legs. Fearing the worst, he looked down and realized that reality was once again worse than his worst expectations: Anchromedea had thrusted her spear into his stomach, and blood had begun marching down to the ground below. She was smiling at him victoriously, but Jibberish could not return the smile in the slightest. “You… you fiend…”

          “If it makes you feel better, I really enjoyed this battle. I will cherish it forever. Farewell, mortal.”

          “You wretched bitch!” Jibberish heard Kohai shout. Anchromedea kicked Jibberish off her spear, snapped it to the side to wipe some of the blood off, and the last thing Jibberish saw before passing out was her lovely, angelic form dashing out his darknening view and the flash of lightning from Kohai’s gear. He felt a sudden pang of sorrow spread from his wound. Had she not killed him, she would have been able to escape the altercation alive as his slave, but because of her transgression, the madman that is Kohai would not rest until every one of her dots were electrocuted into nothing but ashes. Jibberish gripped his wound tightly, closed his eyes, and visualized Anchromedea’s every curvaceous dot. He could almost touch them. Jokes on her, out of the two of them, he would be the one dying more peacefully.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          Jibberish sluggishly opened his eyes. Before him lay the sky in its bright and jolly splendor. His hand was still clutching his wound as though his life depended on it despite his not being able to feel the wet texture or the disturbing slushing sounds of his blood. In its place, a rough material prevented him from digging his fingers into himself. Jibberish sighed and turned his head, expecting to notice Kohai beside him.

          “How long have I been out?” Jibberish muttered. Kohai did not show any signs of acknowledgement. Instead, he remained twirling what looked like a thin, obsidian thorn between his fingers. “Hey, Earth to Kohai?” No response. Jibberish attempted to sit up slowly, and once upright, he waved his arm as high as he could without causing himself too much pain. “Do not ignore me!”

          “Are you finally awake?” Kohai asked. His tone of voice was one of a man who had suffered through the same grueling ordeal a hundred times over and was sure that the present was merely echoing that ordeal once more.

          “How long have I been out?”

          “You are one lazy son of a bitch, you know that?”

          “Look, I understand using profanity when battling an opponent, but can you at least pretend to be an educated individual when there is no provocation for such vulgarity?”

          “I was born and shall always be a mere C. I shall act the way I was always meant to act before you all decided to save me.”

          “Whatever. Just answer my question.”

          “As I was saying, you are one lazy son of a… Theri. You have woken up from your slumber so many infuriating times that I lost count. I don’t even know how many days have transpired due to my aggravation. I should have just left you to die.” He was teasing, of course. “If I were to guess, I would say it’s been about a week. All I know, by the messages I have received on the tablet, is that the dungeon event has ended and that the damn witch has receded back into obscurity, probably having become bored of toying around with us ‘mortals.’”

          “Wait, you did not manage to kill her?” Silence. Even in Jibberish’s stupor, he could sense the tension beginning to skyrocket as Kohai began to fidget with the thorn faster and more aggressively.

          “She did not hesitate in the slightest. The moment she saw me with Odin’s staff, she began to bludgeon me with her magic sparing no expense. It really fucking hurt, you know? She had every opportunity to end me right then and there, but instead she decided to toy with me and present a choice. The gall of such a wench!” He made his voice disgustingly high-pitched. “‘I purposefully avoided penetrating any of his vital organs, so if I were you, I would adhere to him before he bleeds out. Or, of course, you could continue fruitlessly and foolishly attempting to deal any damage.’”

          Jibberish lay back down and sighed. He had wholly expected Kohai to have vaporized the witch, but it seemed as though even he had not been successful. Only a full band of competent Texeli could have a chance. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. What was the point? Why were Humans brought to Texel? He looked at Kohai and began to recollect their time together back on Earth. They had been transported to Texel three months after the war had started, though they only found that out after they had arrived since not once did they ever hear of Humans disappearing from thin air. Had three months gone by, the news, as corrupt and biased as they were, would have definitely pointed out such an unbelievable phenomenon. Then again, would have anybody with a brain believed such news? By then, three months after the war, the iris had calmed down and had begun recruiting Humans more strategically rather than wildly, hence why both him and Kohai were teleported together. He was glad, for he could not envision a world in which Kohai were not his partner. They had been partners for years upon years. Kohai had been ten years old when he was salvaged from that awful basement, but instead of being escorted to an orphanage, the officers decided to observe his behavior. A kid who had suffered through such hell could not have possibly retained his sanity, after all. Fortunately for the police force, the kid proved to be perfectly insane. Just the right amount of sane to follow orders most of the time but definitely insane enough not to bat an eye while torturing countless infants, children, and families. Jibberish and Kohai had been assigned a mission to eliminate those children who were an “exception to the rule” –- children born from the union between individuals of the same tier yet who had somehow turned out to be of another. Somehow, fate had them end up in the current situation: once again, Jibberish lay severely wounded, that time from a Texeli rather than a crazed Human-Exo hybrid no one knew whence it came. Pathetic, Jibberish, utterly, utterly pathetic.

          “Kohai, why are we here?”

          “Don’t get all philosophical on me, man. Not in the mood.”

          “I mean, we Humans are meant to either lead Texeli into battle or work under the government to rid the war effort of Undesirables, Traitors, and other hindering Humans. If we are not out there in the front lines as generals, we are either hunting down other Humans or simply becoming deadweights, leeches, absolute scourge. So if our only benefit to this universe is to become generals, and Texeli such as that witch can wipe the floor with us, then what are we here for? The war has been raging for half a year now, surely the Texeli have become adept at combat during those months. Every week, stronger Texeli come from all over the planet to aid us in cleansing any remaining Exos. We are the weakest species only kept alive and for our military expertise that only becomes more and more superfluous as time flows forth. Eventually, inevitably, we Humans will all become deadweights, and just as we officers hunt and eliminate the deadweights now, the stronger Texeli of the future will surely hunt and eliminate us. Rather ironic, is it not?”

          “What is your point?” Kohai grumbled impatiently and dismissively, but Jibberish knew Kohai’s tone of voice was merely a façade; Kohai had begun tapping his left foot on the floor as he always did whenever he was anxiously and excitedly anticipating something. Kohai already knew what Jibberish was going to say before even Jibberish himself knew exactly where his monologue was heading.

          “We Humans will become the prey the moment the war ends, or perhaps sooner. If we are fated to die by the hands of those we are currently protecting regardless of our actions…” Kohai’s foot began to tap furiously, his fidgeting became frantic, and his smile finally began to form. “Perhaps we ought to live our lives as we see fit. Perhaps we ought to become rogues. Perhaps we ought to shatter our tablets, completely separate ourselves from the government, and do whatever atrocities we see fit with wanton recklessness and bliss.” Jibberish stood up, and the pain where he had been impaled seemed to be mere tickles compared to the adrenaline rush. “There are so many beautiful and defenseless Texeli out there waiting for us, so many Humans we have spared despite how much we detest them, so many places we have not visited because we kept on being assigned monotonous missions by our oppressors! This planet is gigantic! There is an endless universe of possibilities, Kohai, and we have merely been following the orders of Tier A we never even get to see in person!”

          Kohai, too, had stood up. “What about the Humanists?”

          “What about them? They are naïve simpletons who still believe Humans and Texeli can coexist. Let us not bother with labels, Kohai. Humans are Human, Texeli are Texeli. Let us just do as our hearts desire for once in our miserable lives rather than the mind or the heart of others.” Kohai tossed the thorn at Jibberish, and the moment it landed on his hands, Jibberish knew exactly what it was: a shard off Anchromedea’s wings.

          “You have finally opened your eyes, Jibb. You are just like me now. Welcome to being sane.” Jibberish smiled widely.

          Feels good to be sane.

Chapter Text

          “The wrench, dear Ozan,” Lambo requested as he inspected his creation for any last-minute tweaks. Ozan grabbed the wrench without taking his eyes off his own creation and tossed it to Lambo, who managed to take hold of it without breaking eye contact with the loose bolt he had cornered.

          “Speculate my happenings of yesterday,” Ozan commanded, running his hands on the sides of his blood, sweat, and tears. The trio – Lambo, Ozan, and Paul – was composed of three of the most competent crafters in Texel. Their task, over which they had been brooding for months, was the creation of motorcycles. For the three prodigies, such a menial task would have been completed in no time, and many nights would have been spent sleeping peacefully rather than sweating blood and bleeding oil, but the countless of complications from all fronts created an atmosphere of urgency, despair, and excitement so thick that their limbs had become heavy, their eyesight blurry, and their souls sunken before their keen, determined, and young minds had been able to register all the words in the reports they had received from their contractors days before their project had officially begun. Failure was not an option, but neither was success.

          “You surely jest, Ozan, for your boisterous nature renders such speculating an improbability so great that us two mortals would never cease pondering,” Paul answered.

          Lambo chuckled. “I concur. Of the three of us, you are indubitably the most enigmatic.” The cold, vast garage was filled with their echoing laughter, though not loud enough to dispel the slight, but unignorable, looming presence of dread and hopelessness. Their time together was coming to an end.

          “I desist, I desist,” Ozan surrendered between chuckles. “As always, your claims are irrefutable.” There was a pause long enough for the other two to realize Ozan’s amused nature had ceased completely. They lowered their tools and pried their eyes off their motorcycles. “A rather peculiar, alerting occurrence I have yet to fully analyze befell me afternoon yesterday: Officer Blob inquired of me the specifications of craftsmanship.”

          “Officer Blob?” Paul spouted, appalled. “Why to inquire of such as an officer?”

          “Truly suspicious,” Lambo added.

          “Enlighten us; how much did you disclose to the officer?”

          “You did not disclose location, correct?”

          “Nor, I believe, are you intellectually inferior to the extent of disclosing confidential assignments.”

          “Nor motive, I assume.”

          “Nor our biographical statistics.”

          Lambo’s eyes widened. “Submit to reassuring us you have not disclosed our involvement in this project!”

          “Cease!” Ozan bellowed, silencing the two bickering, befuddled boys. Yet, Ozan remained silent well after the other two’s patience had dwindled.

          “Talk!” Lambo shouted.

          “All three souls in this garage are very much cognizant, Ozan, of your introducing this conversation to our consciousness for one and only one ramification: for us to impose ourselves on your hesitant and sheepish person. Allow this inevitable outcome to unfold relatively unobstructed, dear Ozan, lest my wrench take action upon your pitiful countenance.”

          “I desist,” Ozan muttered. “I refrained from disclosing our present location, confidential assignments, motive, and biographical statistics on top of much more, so rest assured that Officer Blob, despite his status, failed to intimidate me to such a ludicrous extent as you two have so unsubstantiatedly assumed.”

          “Tell, then, of the conversation,” Paul insisted.

          “And precise you must be,” Lambo added.

          “But succinct. Not much time remains before our deadline.” All three once again grew quiet at such a grim reminder. Ozan took a deep breath, slowly exhaled, and proceeded with his narrative.

          “As I walked casually about the nearby marketplace in search for mundane necessities, I was confronted by an officer. Not accosted at all, but greeted as friends.

          ‘Good evening, Ozan’ he stated from behind me. Never having talked to him before, you two may be able to imagine my shock, especially after being beckoned by name.

          ‘Ah, good evening to you too, officer,’ I answered, turning around and reading his biographical information. After a long, superfluous dialogue in which nothing of relevance was discussed, the dreaded question arose.

          ‘Tell, you are a crafter, are you not?’

          ‘I am, officer,’ I answered, sweating from anticipation and confusion.

          ‘Never have I discussed such occupation with anyone before. I am rather curious of what you do.’ At that point, desertification had ransacked the entirety of my mouth and left me too frightened to proceed any further with the discussion, but worse of all was Officer Blob’s silent, patient stare that never ceased, as though there were nothing else in his itinerary aside from extracting the information from my rather awkward person. Alas, I answered the best I could without excessively revealing information.

          ‘We crafters basically collect dots and… well… craft them into things. We craft all sorts of stuff, the tablets everyone got being one of them.’

          ‘Are craftsmen also those who are responsible for pavilions and armories?’

          ‘No, officer. Such matters are at the hands of Texeli, since they have made similar, magicked things before our arrival. We crafters are only working on more… human technologies.’

          ‘Tell, what other technologies are there aside from tablets?’

          ‘To be honest, not much. Tablets are basically all we produce at the moment.’

          ‘Surely craftsmen such as yourself oversee more complex projects than merely tablets.’”

          “If I may interrupt, it is apparent Officer Blob knows more than he reveals. Interior motives are indisputable,” Paul interjected.

          “Correct,” Lambo proclaimed. “However, as I understand, Ozan has yet to assess and discern such motives.”

          “And as far as we know, such motives may not be harmful,” Ozan hoped.

          “Inasmuch as he is not a rectificationist.” All three shuddered at the mention.

          “Allow me to continue,” Ozan said, preceding the nods of the other two.

          “Upon being incited to foreclose my secrecy, I panicked ever so slightly but did not waver.

          ‘Alas, as you believe, we do, in fact, work on more projects, but none which are of interest, such as contacts and maintenance on demographical databases.’

          ‘Intriguing. So, craftsmen are not merely dotsmiths but computer scientists?’

          ‘Correct, officer.’

          ‘Tell, I recall motorcycles in use in the beginning of the war. I would be delighted to be illuminated on the matter, especially its fate.’”

          “Astonishing!” Lambo shouted. “The officer worries not of being surreptitious regarding his detective work. His prying is as obvious as day.”

          “Most certainly a rectificationist,” Paul scornfully muttered.

          “Compose yourselves and abstain from foolishly formulating insufficiently-corroborated postulations,” Ozan stated, annoyed. “Submit to listening to the remainder of my recollection without interruption, lest, I assure you, I not disclose all of the happening.” The two anxious crafters nodded.

          “‘Funny story, that. As you very well know, automobiles require some sort of fuel. None of our human technology functions properly with the current supply of Texeli fuel, and thus when our fuel ran out, so did the functionality of the motorcycles,’ I answered.

          ‘How, then, did the first motorcycles function without fuel?’

          ‘Exos, officer. As you may recall, the first Exos were not composed of dots, and by extension also utilized fuel. Our tablets and contacts are all created from the material scavenged from those initial Exos, but once the Exos learned to mass-produce themselves in factories using the stolen and harvested Texeli dots, our supply quickly diminished, and the production of such technologies ceased shortly thereafter.’

          ‘I applaud you for this information, Ozan. You have clarified why some defenders are baffled at my use of contacts to read their information when they cannot. I assume that they erroneously conclude contacts are an officer-only privilege.’ At this assumption, Officer Blob proceeded to chuckle. However, he was not finished in the slightest. ‘Tell, since craftsmen such as yourself still roam the planet and, as you clarified, the creation of human technologies have ceased due to a shortage in Human materials, of what are currently-in-production technologies comprised?’

          ‘Dots found in abandoned or otherwise disenfranchised Exo bases.’

          ‘So, my assumptions have proved correct. You all are truly dotsmiths, and you one of the most competent, I have come to believe.’

          ‘I humbly disagree, officer. I cannot confidently say so, though I would like to believe so.’ I can tell from your distraught countenances that you believe the conversation derailed to my revealing your existences; however, men of neglectable faith, I have already assured you that I never disclosed that information. Officer Blob did not press further. Instead, he continued by inquiring:

          ‘Tell, when I inquired of craftsmanship, you kindly answered by stating “we crafters basically collect dots and craft them into things. We craft all sorts of stuff, the tablets everyone got being one of them.” You later added to your statement upon my further pressing on the matter that “we do, in fact, work on more projects, but none which are of interest, such as contacts.” These claims are confusing to me, for you later asserted that “our tablets and contacts are all created from the material scavenged from those initial Exos, but once the Exos learned to mass-produce themselves in factories using the stolen and harvested Texeli dots, our supply quickly diminished, and the production of such technologies ceased shortly thereafter.” Correct my falsity in the event my deductions are incorrect, but you utilized the present tense to assert those claims, yet you say such projects had ceased.’

          ‘Keen observation, officer, and you are correct; everything you reiterated I had, indeed, claimed word for word. However, though the projects had ceased, crafters are currently conducting experiments to research ways with which to harness dots in order to resume the projects. After all, Exos are the original dotsmiths –- we Humans are merely commencing our research.’

          ‘One could even consider this craftsmanship the onset of a sixth industrial revolution, correct?’”

          “Confirmed! Rectificationist confirmed!” Paul interjected.

          “Cease your bickering, Paul! Have you no shame? Ozan had already affirmed he would no longer continue were we to interrupt once more, and so you just now have!” Paul looked at Ozan apologetically, but Ozan had no intentions of going back on his word. Swiftly, he grabbed the wrench from the ground and resumed inspecting his motorcycle. Lambo peered into Paul’s soul before resuming his own inspection. Paul eventually sighed, remembered the deadline, and continued too.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          Lambo stretched his back upon convincing himself his masterpiece was impeccable and peered over to his companions who were finishing also. Once all three of them were done, they rejoiced as friends a final time. Lambo stood back and gazed at his creation. His motorcycle’s specifications had dictated that it be composed of a golden body with the head of a lion roaring triumphantly at the front, its mane flowing defiantly and gloriously, its paws clawing at any foolish Exo in its way, and a tail on the back as if about to whip any enemies clean off the planet. The wheels, however, were to be obsidian black. Ozan did the same. His specifications, on the other hand, had dictated a completely obsidian body and wheels, the only exceptions being parts of the brakes, which were to be blue and green, and a silver gas tank. Of course, since dots were magicked beyond full Human comprehension and could generate their own energy, the bikes had no need for a gas tank, yet the Texeli who were to soon enough ride the contraptions into battle had insisted on maintaining the aesthetic form of a Human bike. Paul did the same. His bike’s specifications, in contrast, had dictated big, girthy, black wheels, light-blue body -- including axles and handles -– and some silver, especially on the curious axe blade on top of the front fender. Perhaps the rider would attempt to decapitate his foes with the fender somehow.

          All the events that followed flashed before the trio’s eyes. Its contractors arrived at the deadline five minutes or so after the trio had finished admiring its work accompanied by the three Texeli who were to ride the bikes -- or as they called them: moto-cycles. The three were Torquistador, the one to ride Lambo’s moto-cycle; Kohinoor, the one to ride Ozan’s; and Kavie, the one to ride Paul’s. Once the three Texeli had test-run their moto-cycles and had taken off into battle, the contractors all reminded the trio to leave the premises as soon as possible, and the trio briefly remained in the garage, looking at all their materials and recalling all the fond memories they had experienced while working together. They vowed to look for each other after parting ways and rushed out of the cave and descended the mountain. Not long after they had done so, an army of rectificationists and their bands marched up the mountain and set the entire cave on fire, destroying everything and anything while a couple other rectificationists frisked the trio in case one of them had dared to attempt sneaking a tool or contraption away, not devoid of physical and verbal harassment, of course. For the crafters, rectificationists were mortal enemies, but the Council of Tier A that oversaw all Human interactions had deemed the rectificationists’ demands to destroy all of the crafters’ works when finished with their contracts worthy of being approved, most likely as a precaution in case not appeasing at least some of every faction’s demands and conditions would lead to a Human civil war amidst the war with Exos, which could not happen again. Just one of these civil wars, the one to eradicate Texel of almost all undesirables at the beginning of the war, was seen as tolerable. Alas, the trio’s time had expired, and they all went their separate ways until an unforeseen future.

          Of the three of them, Lambo was the most able to mitigate the sorrow of parting ways, for he had one crucial fact to bring him joy: Cotton was no longer around, and he was free at last.

Chapter Text

          As misfortune dictated, from the gloomy mist rose a familiar shadow, the shadow of a mentally ill creature too competent as a defender to warrant murder but too disturbed to tolerate for long periods of time. Exposure to such creatures need be limited as much as possible, or so Slangerr always believed. All reason hollered at him to turn around and evade the shadow, but his ever-lazy soul could not bring itself to alter its path.

          “Well, what do we have here!” the creature shouted. “Fancy meeting you here, cyclops.”

          “Very funny, asshole.”

          “Ah, come on. Are we still on sour terms? Has it not been long enough for your wounds to heal?”

          “Would have been, had you not been repeatedly opening them.”

          “Pfft. Stop being a wuss.”

          “I see you, too, are allowing your band to stretch their legs.” Behind the creature, Texeli who normally would be used as fodder conversed. Slangerr had also decided to allow his fodder to breathe fresh air as he navigated the land.

          “Indeed, always do between events. It is the least I can do for the fellas. Hey, you do know we are close to a much peculiar sight, correct? Care to come check it out with me?”

          “Sure,” Slangerr answered hesitantly, not knowing what the sight could be and having been walking aimlessly for the past few hours.

          “Once we sight-see the river, we should probably part ways so as to prevent our eventual pairing during the upcoming War Game.”

          “Definitely. Would be a shame destroying you on the very first day,” Slangerr chuckled.

          “In your dreams, dear Slangerr. We both know I could wipe the floor with you in an instant. I am, after all, the-”

          “Do not dare say it.” Slangerr stopped walking and stared at the creature. “Seriously, I get it. I totally do. None of us ever want to admit to ourselves that we were born with deficiencies. But you are a grown man! For crying out loud, you should have either embraced your deficiency in order to mend yourself or have killed yourself by now, not have embraced it to live a twisted, insane fantasy.”

          “You still do not understand, do you. ‘Tis not a twisted, insane fantasy as you blindly believe. What I speak is truth! I am truly the protagonist!” Eveline placed a hand on Slangerr’s shoulder and smiled. Slangerr swatted his hand off and stared at Eveline in anger and pity. Eveline began walking once more. “I would be careful if I were you.”

          “You tell me that every time you barge into me, and this time is no different than any of the others. You have to realize this world does not function on who is or is not a protagonist, on who is or is not the antagonist.”

          “I have oodles of proof for my being the protagonist, but your uneducated self cannot see the signs that shine brightly in front of you! I have not once been damaged during any of the countless battles I have been involved in. Not even during the battle in Yakoun Forest did I get a scratch. How could you possibly be blind to the plot armor that has been granted to me by the gods?”

          “Plot armor?” Slangerr asked. He knew the creature had mentioned that term before during another one of his many episodes, but Slangerr never bothered to learn what it meant. “Listen, not everyone spent their neglected childhood reading fictional stories with Tier C hoodlums in the outskirts of a city, so cease your constant and needless use of jargon. In fact, stop talking entirely. Nothing you utter ever has meaning. It is all just the ramblings of a madman who thinks the world is fiction. Listen, perhaps the twerp you had under your wing that fateful day was correct. Have you ever thought about that? Have you ever admitted to yourself that if anyone had been the protagonist, it would have been H? Unlike you, he was not hated by everyone under the sun!”

          “You accuse me of spouting nonsense but spout nonsense of your own! Why speak when your ignorance is as thick as molasses? Once again, a protagonist is the most powerful character in a narrative. He cannot ever possibly die. H was nothing more than a supporting character discarded by the author the moment he had fulfilled his purpose. He was nothing!” Slangerr could not resist the temptation and punched Eveline in the face with all his might. All his pent-up anger from the day in Yakoun Forest was harnessed into a single bludgeon. Eveline laughed to himself and massaged his face. “Is the poor lad still distraught over the death of his boyfriend? You dare identify as a Tier B and diagnose me with a mental deficiency when you, too, clearly and always have been a deficient creature no better than the insolent child we both should have killed right then and there instead of sparing out of pity.”

          “As much as I would like to agree with you on killing that C scum, you did nothing to combat the Exo while he served as the only thing keeping you alive. What a protagonist you are, having others do all the heroic actions for you as to keep your cowardly ass intact and continue disillusioning yourself.”

          “You have crossed a line you should have never crossed, Slangerr. You have officially declared yourself my antagonist and as such shall suffer an antagonist’s gruesome fate as nothing more than stomping grounds for Exos.”

          “There you go again! How could you possibly call yourself a protagonist when you do not take action! H took action, that kid took action, but what have you ever done?” Slangerr began to laugh obnoxiously. “Calling upon the Exos to trample me rather than take care of your own antagonist? Why do you not confront me, coward? I am right in front of you. Finish me and prove to me you are truly the protagonist!”

          Eveline tightened his fists and was visibly enraged by Slangerr’s provocations, but before Eveline could do anything, a loud splashing sound echoed through the mist. Eveline’s eyes widened, and he rushed into the unknown. Slangerr decided to forget about the altercation for the meantime and observe what had transpired.

          “What the hell happened!” Slangerr heard Eveline shout ahead of him. “If I find out you thank me for allowing you to stretch your legs by horsing around and fighting each other, I will personally feed you to a power fodder!” Slangerr recalled that Eveline had spoken of a river nearby. Could someone have fallen in?

          “You idiots!” Eveline shouted, but his voice reverberated from behind Slangerr. Slangerr stopped running and looked about him, but the mist had become too thick to see far. He then realized how alone he was.

          “Ia?” Slangerr asked, beckoning his band. He dared not take another step in fear of falling into the river. He cautiously retraced his steps, attempting to reconvene with either his band or even Eveline at that point, but the fog was growing thicker and thicker. Even the grass below him was being gradually obstructed. “The hell did you go, Eveline?”

          “The fuck is that!” Eveline shouted, his voice sounding from Slangerr’s left and quickly echoing to the right. Slangerr’s breathing began to accelerate as he realized his surroundings were nowhere near normal. Eveline’s footsteps had echoed alongside his frantic voice; he had definitely been running away from something. Slangerr was about to start running to his right when a gray, aqua-ish hue began to emanate from that direction. No Exo he had ever encountered glowed as the creature, or thing, before him was. It had no form; it was merely a glow. A large, formless, ever-shifting glow. Slangerr was about to turn around and start running but the moment he turned around, the glow seemingly teleported in front of him and blasted him away. He thumped against the grass and stared, petrified, up at the glow.

          “What are you?” a voice that sounded like a lake of souls wailing in unison demanded of him. The voices repeated the question a second, more aggressive, time. Slangerr was too dumbfounded and terrified to formulate a response. “Countless of cycles have transpired since my slumber’s commencement, and surrounding me is a familiar yet evolved presence; however, from the depths of your soul I sense nothing. NOTHING. Speak! What are you?” The glow had become brighter and brighter, illuminating the vast, white darkness that had been asphyxiating him ever since he lost sight of his band. The glow began to shift violently, and though it grew smaller, a sharpened blade materialized and pointed straight at his trembling Adam’s apple. Slangerr’s mouth was agape, his lips mouthing the word he wanted to utter, but his throat was far too parched to save him. A second, identical blade protruded from the shrinking yet intensifying incandescence, this time pointing at his eyepatch. “We are merciful, but impatient. Answer us, lest we eliminate your wretched soul. Were you one of us, your wound would be healed, your mind laid at rest, and your soul familiar. You foreign entity, lest you do not consider your life precious, speak.”

          “Human…” Slangerr whispered. The incandescence had been flailing so violently that certain spots had been erupting from the center and gradually reconvening with the main amalgamation like matter exploding from a planet but not violently enough to exceed the escape velocity, but the moment the word managed to slither out of Slangerr’s mouth, the amalgamation froze and the bits that had popped off collapsed many times faster than their apparent terminal velocity, as if some unimaginable force were acting on them. Slangerr recollected himself, and as he calmed down, his random speculating of physics in a universe wherein no Human had tread for any longer than a few months in order to distract himself from the blades still mere centimeters away from impaling him faded and was replaced by a sudden, alarming development. No longer were there only two lethal objects materialized menacingly before him, but among the two blades was also the head of a hideous bird with a beak as sharp, if not sharper than, the blades. On its head rested a silver crown on top of a white hood enveloping the entire head, and its eyes were glowing a dull, gray hue, staring into Slangerr’s own. Without any warning, the creature squawked in such shrill voices that Slangerr began screaming alongside it in horror and agony. He covered his ears and tightened his eye, but nothing alleviated him from the torture.

          “May the iris have mercy on your soul,” the creature prayed, swinging the two blades down on Slangerr. Slangerr rolled out of their way and quickly stood up. As a Human, he had no hope of combatting a Texeli one-on-one, but he was not about to let himself be bested. He was far too young to die! “Return whence you came, Human. Texel needs not of your presence! May the iris grant us the strength to defeat you, vile creature.” Suddenly, wings protruded from behind the floating bird head followed by arms firmly grasping the two blades and legs hovering over the ground. Its true form had finally been revealed, and Slangerr felt almost as much horror as he had felt in Yakoun Forest.

          “Hold on! If you value Texel’s future, you would not assassinate me! The iris herself brought us Humans here!” The creature remained frozen for a short instant before charging Slangerr and nearly decapitating him. Slangerr managed to correctly guess the trajectory of the blade through the thick fog. “Pray to the iris for answers and see for yourself that my word is true!” The creature stabbed its blades on the ground and pressed its hands together. Did the creature really start praying? Slangerr took the time to catch his breath but did not lower his guard one bit. He had his hand ready to whip out his armory upon the first sign of hostility for whatever little it was worth.

          “You Humans are vile creatures,” the creature whispered. “We must not lower our guard around you fiends. Texel will never be truly safe with your presence. However, I acknowledge that Texel could also be doomed without it. It seems us Texeli and the iris have entered a period of utmost peril.”

          “Look, I do not blame you one bit for being apprehensive of Humans. No sane Human would deny that we are the vilest of the vile. However, not all of us are cretins out for destruction, believe it or not.”

          “Defenders…”

          “Yes. We Humans are here to aid Texeli in their fight against Exos. Do to us as you wish after the war, but even if only for the iris, spare us until then.”

          “SILENCE!” the creature bellowed. “Do not speak on behalf of the iris! You and all your kin are nothing more than heathens! Speak not of the iris, for you know nothing nor ever will. You creatures are all the same: self-centered and gluttons for destruction. Do not believe you can fool us. You care not for Texel; you revel at the sight of gore, despair, and anguish. You wish not for the war to end but to flourish. You delight in the sea of dots scattered across the battlefield. You rejuvenate yourselves amid what you repugnantly consider pawns in your games, having devised a substance with which to repeatedly ‘shatter’ and ‘mend’ dots at your whims. You do not respect the iris; you view yourselves as higher forms. To you foul demons, the iris is nothing more than a scientific anomaly to be analyzed and understood using your flawed, Human paradigms. Thus has spoken the iris, and the iris speaks only of the truth. Were it not for the iris, we would exterminate every last one of you, but the iris wishes for your continued support in the endeavor to cleanse Texel of the invasion, and we shall not intervene. Nonetheless, we advise you to leave our sight this instant before we alter our minds, for even the sight of you imbues us with bottomless abhorrence.” The fog around Slangerr quickly dissipated, and the creature deteriorated into the formless glow before slowly fading away without a trace. Slangerr’s heart had been racing for so long that after the adrenaline had died down, his chest felt as though it were on fire. He clutched his chest and fell on his knees. Before him flowed the river, and no one was anywhere to be seen. He was alone.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          Slangerr stumbled toward a tree and sat down, leaning against the trunk. A few grueling days had transpired since his encounter with the creature by the river. In fact, the War Game had begun the day prior, and Slangerr had been too preoccupied within his own turmoil to bother massacring other defenders’ bands in order to promote. The creature, Polyhymnia, had joined the war effort and had changed her appearance to one of a sky-blue, beautiful angel. No longer did she sport a beak and a terrifying aura. She was one of the most beautiful Texeli Slangerr had ever seen. Yet, Polyhymnia never forgot her encounter with him. Slangerr could be meters away, but Polyhymnia and all her copies would stare at Slangerr condescendingly from afar.

          The main reason why Slangerr had decided not to participate in the War Game had been to avoid ever recruiting her into his band. He was far from ready to deal with such a cumbersome situation. Yet another reason why he had refrained from participating had been the voices ringing in his head constantly reminding him of what she had screeched at him by the river. Humans did, in fact, want the war to prosper. That was all Humans knew how to do. Humans were made to cause mayhem, and for the first time in Human history, Humans were battling something unhuman. They were fighting creatures from a completely different universe! The thrill of battle had been coursing through all of Humanity’s veins, and Slangerr had been conditioned to believe such thrill was normal to the point of not realizing he, too, had been bloodthirsty and anticipating the next raid, the next dungeon expedition, the next War Game as if everything was just that, a game. They were not defending Texel, they were basking in the glory of being “defenders,” of being “heroes,” of being “protagonists” in a sick game of destroy-and-mend-all-Texeli-as-if-they-were-no-more-than-immortal-pawns-with-no-repercussions-like-total-jackasses.

          However, Polyhymnia’s voices were not the only ones gnawing at his sanity; the wretched kid, whom Slangerr until recently had been ruminating not ever having killed, had also been inhabiting his psyche rent-free. He had been the first Human Slangerr had ever encountered to proclaim his disdain toward Humanity’s proclivity to assassinate anything that moved. Slangerr that day had assumed he would commit suicide and thus had not bothered to kill him himself, but Slangerr’s sense of duty to kill all Tier C scourge that had arose since as early as the first War Game had been pestering him ceaselessly, constantly reminding him that he had no way of proving to himself that the wretch had actually committed suicide. If the kid did not commit suicide, then Slangerr would be guilty of one more Tier C having escaped. It would be all his fault that another deadweight, another despicable Undesirable, was still meandering the land. It would be all his fault that another defender somewhere had to go out of his way to exterminate the pest. Those thoughts all evaporated after his encounter with Polyhymnia, and the epistemological conundrum wherein he then found himself was so unmerciful that he had concluded he had not praised the kid enough! All the wanton murdering and torturing of women, children, and handicaps he had committed and perceived as heroic tumbled down. He saw himself as a monster.

          “Cyclops?” Slangerr heard someone say. He looked around for Eveline but did not see him anywhere. “How are you still alive?” Slangerr spun to his side. Eveline had squatted down just far enough to Slangerr's side for Slangerr not to be able to see him with his remaining eye even after turning his head. Slangerr sighed exasperatedly but found himself chuckling thereafter. He had needed anything, even Eveline’s teasing, to distract him from his own mind.

          “I thought you were dead!” The moment Slangerr said so, he realized he had given Eveline every excuse to continue his delusions by puffing out his chest and proclaiming there had never been a chance of him dying. However, to Slangerr’s delight, Eveline almost seemed like a functioning Human being for the first time since they met.

          “Same could go for you. When the mist cleared, I tried looking for you but you were nowhere.”

          “How sweet, you looked for me.”

          “I heard your screaming. You must have gone through something almost as horrific as I did.”

          “Let me guess, an eagle-faced, double-bladed, winged specter?”

          “What the hell are you talking about?” Eveline asked, dumbfounded. He then managed to put two and two together. “Wait, are you talking about Polyhymnia? Did she really have an eagle’s face?”

          “Yeah, she did. And if she was not who you saw, then did you see Melpomene?” Melpomene was the other, new specter everyone had been addressing as an Old One. She was a horned skeleton missing everything from the pelvis and below and floating defiantly with a mighty shield on one hand and a long staff on the other.

          “Indeed. However, you should have seen her when she first surfaced from the river! Scared the hell out of me. She had two heads, one on top of the other, and instead of a sword and shield, she wielded a massive axe made of bone! She could also split into a bunch of fragments and did not hesitate to send one of her skulls flying straight for me the moment she saw me!”

          “Let me guess once more, she wanted to exterminate you for not being a Texeli.”

          “No wonder you were screaming, so did Polyhymnia try to kill you too?”

          “Sure did.”

          “How did you manage to survive? My turn to guess; did Polyhymnia for no reason at all stop half-way through her final, killing strike and recede back into the river?”

          “No, in fact. I told her that if she cared about Texel’s well-being, she would not kill me, and if she did not believe me, then she should pray to the iris for answers. And so she did, and she disappeared.”

          “Hm, so perhaps the iris told Melpomene to spare me.”

          “Perhaps…” The two remained silent for a while. “Hey, Eveline, I think it is time we address the elephant in the room.”

          “Hmph. And who is this elephant you speak of?”

          “None other than your being here. I did not promote yesterday –- in fact, I am not even participating this event. So, care to explain how you managed to find me? Should you not have promoted elsewhere? Now that I am checking your event information, it seem you do not have that much more points than me. Could you possibly be sitting this event out? Unheard of!”

          “Speak tough all you want, but I know your reason for not participating is the same as mine.” The two of them sighed deeply. “We are both cowards.”

          “Yes, yes we are.”

Chapter Text


Entry No. 37. Day 100

Alas, the hundredth day of my inhabiting Texel as a scholar of its rich language and culture has creeped up on me. Woe is me who is devoid of any eloquent title! Had I been living thus for a hundred cycles, for instance, I could call myself a centenarian, but a span of a measly hundred moons apparently deserves no such accolade. Is such a milestone truly so insignificant? No, it could not be so. Perhaps no title has been devised due to the cumbersomeness of creating such a title. Centennial flows through one's lips as smooth as silk, yet a word such as centedian not as much. Who in their right mind would volunteer to be dubbed a centedian, centedianarian, or however else? I am unfit to surmise an eloquent appellation, and such a recognition would only grow worse as the days slip away. Not even a month hereafter I shall be rendered a quasquicentedian, and in only fifty days thereafter a dobransbicentedian! As influential as Latin is to my language, there are certain words that inevitably prove ineloquent and bastardized; however, the beautiful language of the Texeli makes Latin pale in comparison! Lo, how Latin shivers from head to toe at encountering a language far superior than it! Using Texeli roots, my title blossoms from being as horrid as centedianarian to as marvelous as souluxen! Soon I shall become a hasouluxen, then a kensouluxen, then a hankridesouluxen before becoming a full-fledged desouluxen! All these words are transliterated, of course, for even a soulux after becoming a scholar, I have yet to practice my calligraphy. Perhaps I shall wait another few before doing so.


           NXT chuckled at himself and set down his favorite pen. Somehow, the pen had not run out after writing upon a sea of paper during his many lessons on the language provided by none other than Zar and Iudith. Zar, of course, could not communicate with NXT directly, for he had no mouth and could only communicate with Iudith via telepathic powers granted by the iris. If Zar had anything to say to NXT, Iudith would have to speak for him. Neither NXT nor Zar nor Iudith could comprehend or even guess why NXT was in such a rare predicament, especially one that had not been remedied after months. During the hundred moons that NXT spent in Cackling, the city near Yakoun Forest, he had begun his quest to better understand Texeli. Unfortunately, since his mentors were two Xana, he was only taught their specific dialect. As it turns out, since all tribes of Texel had tended not to intermingle often, they each developed their own languages. Xana, who are further divided into Gallants, Barbarians, and Mages, each have their own dialects but similar language. Hemi and Theri, on the other hand, are completely separate beasts. Since these two tribes are composed of creatures of all backgrounds, their languages are numerous beyond imagination. All gorgons have their own, all dragons have their own, all harpies have their own, all unidentifiable creatures have their own. The list goes on ad infinitum, or so it seemed. Even Hemi, who are the offspring of Xana, do not comprehend the Xana language, for whomever they had as Xana ancestors must have completely forsaken their culture, and the iris must have exposed the offspring exclusively to the Theri translations. Peculiarly, no one other than NXT knew about this, for all Texeli NXT encountered would stare at him or his companions in bewilderment whenever they would mention the existence of various languages. NXT quickly understood that the Texeli had taken their understanding of each other for granted for who knows how many thousands of centuries or millennia.

          On one hand, NXT felt desolate and forsaken. Why him? Was the iris toying with him? Was stripping him of his memories, which he had not been able to recall even after weeks upon weeks of having woken up, not enough? On the other, NXT felt blessed and privileged. He was the only being in the entire history of Texel who knew about the differences in languages and dialects. Not even Abbott-Abbott had been able to discover the vast, uncharted lands upon he alone was treading. NXT also felt rejuvenated. The more he exercised his mind, the more he recalled technicalities and knowledge buried deep inside.

          His mind was nothing short of enigmatic. As if he valued knowledge from books more than knowledge from his life, he more quickly recalled Human history, science, mathematics, foreign languages, fictional stories, and biographies than the minor snippets from his experiences, like being stranded on a desert, entering a castle, swimming in a pool, and reading inside a small room. Had his previous life been so horrendous that he had repressed all his experiences?

          Perhaps his inclination toward documenting his experiences or random thoughts in a journal originated in the indignation he attracted from his incapacity to ascertain even a minutia of his being prior to nearly murdering Ataneedusu inside Poging’s pavilion. He, without thinking, had bought the journal alongside his paper and pen as if the journal had asked to be bought. “The NXT Chronicles.” He carried the journal everywhere, though he did not write entries habitually. Thus far, he had only averaged about five entries biweekly, often about interesting connections he had learned between Texel’s culture and the books he had read about Human culture or perhaps just the ramblings of a man who was still asking himself what his purpose was or if his life was always merely meant to be nothing but a scholar. Every day, news of the war would disseminate across Cackling from mouth to beak, and NXT would ask himself every day if he was correct in not becoming a defender, if he was correct in not helping alleviate such a wonderful planet full of rich history and peoples from the interdimensional threat they were all so suddenly thrust against. Yet every time such thoughts pervaded his mind, he would heave them aside, disgusted by his experiences with the likes of Eveline and dissuaded by the company he had with him: Zar, Iudith, and Yunmy.

          On the second day of living in Cackling, NXT had stumbled upon the same shopkeeper from whom he had bought his materials and instinctively attempted to hide behind Iudith. Iudith had merely stepped to the side to reveal NXT’s cowering and pathetic person to all the many witnesses who either shook their heads, chuckled, or outright ridiculed him. The shopkeeper had immediately recognized him, laughed, and approached him. NXT had been so unbalanced and terrified that in an attempt to calm down and reduce the awkwardness, he fumbled his words together, could not finish his sentences, and derailed the constructive conversation they may have had into an incoherent hodgepodge of groaning, apologizing, and whimpering. After Zar and Iudith had assured her that there was a half-adequate excuse for his behavior and invited her to dinner, the two Human deserters finally got to know each other.

         Yunmy had been a defender for a month and had obtained an efficient band, but then one day, as she commanded her band alongside one of her closest friends during a raid, a defender had attacked her friend and killed her right in front of her eyes. So overwhelmed with despair and anger had she become at her friend’s death that she had neglected the Exo and attacked the defender, who was an officer simply executing an “Undesirable,” and eliminated him with her own two hands. She could not bring herself to kill anything, not even in combat with other Texeli despite knowing of their immortality, for weeks thereafter, but during those weeks, she had meditated and ruminated fervently until she finally decided to desert the war and move to Cackling, a city far, far away from the place where her friend had been murdered. She also vowed to welcome any defenders, especially Undesirables, into Cackling with open arms, establishing what could very well be the first sanctuary city on Texel. All Texeli and deserters would work together to create a community for Humans who either did not want to or were unable to venture into the front lines, and all Texeli in Cackling were instructed to pretend as though the aforesaid operation was non-existent. Who knows what defenders would do if they found out deserters were inhabiting the city.

         “Souluxen,” Iudith read out loud behind NXT’s shoulder and chuckled. “Sounds better than NXT.”

         “I would not go that far, though it does have a nice ring to it. I wonder to what the iris would translate souluxen if there were a method of establishing it as my defender name for all others to see. It would have to be written in Texeli script, I would imagine, or else the iris would probably assume it to be gibberish to be left untranslated. Which then leads to the question of how the iris would go about transliterating this word into other scripts, like Cyrillic or Kanji.”

         “Well I see it normally,” Iudith stated. “Where did Zar go?”

         “Who knows? I do not recall him signaling me he was going anywhere. Having a hard time locating him?”

         “I wanted to…” NXT could not fully understand the rest, but he assumed it had something to do with asking Zar about the war. It seemed as though the few months Iudith had spent in the battlefield alongside defenders had ignited a fire deep inside her freezing soul that screamed for battle. She seemed restless. NXT had told her time and time again that he would not mind her leaving him to join a defender, but she remained with him regardless, to NXT’s relief.

         “Well, how far could a hand have gone?”

         Suddenly, Iudith whipped her head around and peered down at the familiar, dismembered hand crawling on the ground. She chuckled, presumably at something Zar had shouted. NXT did not even bother asking; he was sure Zar had defiantly whined not to be called a hand disparagingly or not to underestimate his prowess yet again. The two of them had a conversation to which NXT listened intently in an attempt to fish for any familiar words. All he managed to understand was the mention of a lake, presumably Loch Glum, and the fact that an event was nearing its end. If he was not mistaken, the event that was going on was none other than a War Game, the most insulting of all the events for its unnecessity. Why destroy each other? Could defenders not think of another recreation with which to kill time while waiting for the next Exo raid other than those ludicrous bloodbaths?

         “Hello!” Yunmy greeted, entering the pub wherein NXT always resided during his studies. For some inexplicable reason, he felt attracted to the boisterous nature of the pub. The atmosphere of rivals horsing around, friends swinging or swaying together in drunken bliss, and old friends reconvening after a long time calmed him. Perhaps in a memory long gone, something spectacular had happened to him at a pub.

          “Hey! Good evening. How has business been?” NXT inquired, knowing very well that he would not be able to understand anything from the response he was about to receive aside from whether she was in high spirits or low, which for that day was the former, by analyzing her tone. She spoke fast and, unlike with Xana language, NXT never bothered sitting down and learning her language. The only words he was able to single out were the ones most prominent, the ones she could not help saying almost every other sentence, which often times did not reveal much of the meaning at all. Once she had finished her long-winded speech, NXT replied by smiling and nodding his head and went back to reading over his journal entry for any mistakes. He heard her say something to Iudith, and soon enough Iudith asked him something about needing more supplies. Apparently, Yunmy wanted to gift him supplies to commemorate his soulux.

          “The only supply we need is a deserter who can speak English, that way I can have a translator,” NXT half-joked. The deserters were mostly women and children, but even the men were foreign to NXT. NXT was only fluent in English and Spanish, but the deserters were from everywhere in the world that did not speak those two languages. NXT often pondered what the odds of such a misfortune were, but he clearly did not have enough information to deduce any logical answer. One in a gazillion, perhaps?

          “Maybe,” Yunmy responded, handing NXT a fancy, green pen in the shape of a Bitter. NXT smiled and tested the ink on some scratch paper by signing his name.

          “Amazing! The pen writes so smoothly that I can barely tell if it is writing anything other than visually. I love it, thank you.” Yunmy nodded and said her goodbyes just to be interrupted by a Texeli on her way out. The Texeli pulled her to the side and began to whisper furiously. So fast was the poor creature attempting to convey his message that he barely allowed himself to pant despite clearly being out of breath. Yunmy’s expression quickly turned sour and terrified, and she stared at NXT pensively as the Texeli finished his prattling. Once she had heard everything she needed, she lifted her finger to silence the creature’s otherwise incessant rambling and lifted her arm in the air. In a matter of seconds, the entire pub had grown silent.

          NXT could not believe he was awake. How could fate be so cruel as to submit him to such a dire situation on his soulux celebration? Everyone in the pub knew what the gesture meant and soon resumed their normal operations with an atmosphere of despair looming ever-present above them all. Yunmy looked at NXT a final time, and NXT nodded to let her know he knew what to do. He retrieved Poging’s contacts from their special container and donned them. Yunmy had found a way to add NXT to the database so in the off-chance that another defender attempted to use his contacts to read NXT’s biographical information, he would not be met with a “???” error. He also stayed close to Iudith both for protection and for any translations he may need. However, merely having a plan for being discovered did not mean allowing himself to be discovered. He needed to find somewhere to hide, so he hid himself behind the bar, trembling beside the bartender who had begun drying the same cup for the seventh time.

          “Why are you here?” he heard an unfamiliar voice ask, and in Spanish no less! “Seems to me like there is nothing worth it here. We are far from any of the action, and reports indicate that there are no Exos roaming these parts.” NXT heard Yunmy answer, but he could only hope she was handling the situation adequately. “I see. I guess that is somewhat understandable from your perspective, but I assure you that we have everything far better monitored than whenever such a tragedy happened. The Exos are very systemic and do not often attack the same general area more than once … Where is your band, by the way? ... I see. Well, needless banter aside, I see my partner coming over.”

          The two strangers greeted each other, but while the first, Spanish-speaking one sounded more amiable and high-spirited, the second spoke as though he were only half-way through a twelve-hour shift and could not wait any longer to return home. NXT could not understand anything the second person was saying, but the language sounded like German to him.

          “This small town is pretty nice indeed. Too bad we will not be staying here much longer. We only came by as a pit stop before continuing our long journey to Allodiael … We shall not be disclosing that information, especially with our current audience. Let us simply say dire defender business that has major ramifications for Mages everywhere. Either way, when the deed is done, the news will inevitably spread across Texel like wildfire, and any stakeholders in the affair will be informed. Just wait and see, and if you never see, then it never concerned you to begin with.” By then, the two strangers had sat at the bar and ordered their drinks, and NXT felt uncomfortable in his fetal position with his back leaning against the very same bar that had a knee pressed against it on the other side. This also meant that Iudith was sitting right beside them.

          “After,” Iudith grumbled after the potentially-German-speaking defender asked her something. He responded with something to which she only scoffed, and their short conversation stuttered to a halt.

          “There is something I have been meaning to ask. Why are you hiding behind there, lad?” NXT’s soul froze. He could not move. He could not respond. He could not do anything. He only remained sitting there hoping that it was mere coincidence and that the defender had not addressed the question to him, but he felt a kick on the bar.

          “Yes, tell them of your problem,” Iudith demanded. NXT took a deep breath and stood up.

          “The hell were you doing back there?”

          “Well, you see…” NXT had begun sweating profusely. The two men in front of him were some of the most intimidating he had seen. One of them was staring dagger at him as if already planning on killing him no matter what the response would be while the other, the one NXT assumed was the Spanish-speaking one, had a smile on his face that told NXT that he was delighted to have stumbled into such a peculiar situation. NXT began to recall as much as he could about his past and in doing so decided to spill everything truthfully. “I was kidnapped by an Exo and somehow placed in one of the capsules wherein all the other Texeli are stuffed to have their dots harnessed -- perhaps the Exo confused me for a Texeli; consequently, by the time someone was able to free me, my brain was completely fried and now I am in this awful situation where I am unable to understand most people due to my severed connection to the iris. I do not have speech automatically translated to me, so I tend to hide from other defenders to alleviate myself from the awkward situations. Somehow, however, you both were able to find me. I guess I am bad at hide-and-seek, haha.” Silence.

          Yunmy stared at NXT in horror, disappointment, pity, and overall vexation. NXT had completely ignored their rehearsals on what to say in the event that he was confronted and instead spilled the truth and nothing but the truth. Iudith laughed and told the two defenders something.

         “Is that correct?” Iudith asked NXT. NXT only smiled, not having understood anything. “Show them.” NXT was confused for a second but eventually realized what she meant. He retrieved the notepads and loose paper he had been writing on and showed them to the defenders, who looked at each other in disbelief and mild amusement before leafing through them. NXT did not forfeit his journal, however. That precious item was to be kept as far away from potential enemies as possible.

         “What language am I speaking right now?” the Spanish-speaking defender asked NXT, that time in English. NXT could not believe it, yet another defender who was bilingual!

         “You were speaking Spanish but asked me the question in English. You are one of the only three defenders I have met so far who are able to speak in multiple languages, the other two being Officers Taurus and Feyk.” The two defenders looked at each other, this time without smiling.

         “You will have to come with us, NXT. We must interrogate you thoroughly about your experiences. It is not every day we get to meet someone whose relationship with the iris has fallen to such lows.”

         “I… well… I am terribly sorry but I do not think interrogating me will amount to much. I barely remember a thing! I would only be able to explain what has happened to me in the past couple weeks but nothing of importance.”

         “We will be interrogating you nonetheless. You will be our new companion from now on. Have you been to Allodiael before?”

         “As I said, I do not remember much from my initial stay in Texel, but I am certain I have not been there since I woke up from the capsule.”

         “You will love it there.” The two defenders laughed to each other in a way that was clear they had no well intentions for NXT. NXT awkwardly laughed beneath his breath. Yunmy, on the other hand, stood up and began walking away.

         “And where do you think you are going?” NXT used his contacts to read the names of the two defenders. He was unable to read the language of the second defender, but the bilingual one’s name was Nightmare. For some reason, his name was in English despite his preferred language clearly being Spanish. “Are we not entertaining enough for you?” Yunmy looked back and told them something about having better things to do. “What an attitude! And what even is there to do, sweetheart? This is a small town, after all. What could possibly be of importance? Perhaps you feel envy that this guy over here gets to come with us to Allodiael and want to start getting ready for a journey tail-gating us?” She quickly replied defensively. The German spoke without ever looking back. NXT even wholeheartedly believed the German had spoken to him until Yunmy’s expression contorted in madness, indignation, and disbelief. She quickly turned around but was grasped by the wrist before running away by the German who had stood up and reeled her in.

         “Yes, it is true sweetheart. My partner does not play around, especially not after having received his new toy that is able to detect infrared radiation. It is amazing what those crafters can build from random junk they find in Exo bases!” Yunmy kept squirming, attempting to break the defender’s hold but to no avail. Iudith quickly stood up and began charging her magic. Nightmare stood between Iudith and Yunmy. “Iudith, calm down! Do you not see that we are doing you a favor by cleansing this world from Undesirables?” Afraid to accidentally kill the frail Human, Iudith did not use all of her magic and instead merely bunked Nightmare on the side of his head hard enough to knock him out, but Nightmare had seen the strike a mile away and dodged. “Please! We are only here to cleanse! We do not want to start a quarrel with Texeli.”

         NXT had enough. He jumped on the bar and launched himself on top of Nightmare. Nightmare broke free, flipped the two of them around, and began choking NXT, pinning him against the ground for good measure. “We will have fun with you, specimen. We were planning on committing suicide shortly after our mission, but you have given us both a reason to live. We will have to run some tests on your brain, you disabled waste of space!” Iudith no longer cared about sparing the Humans, and neither did the others in the bar. The German defender pulled out what looked like a gun, twisted Yunmy’s arm behind her, and pointed the gun at her head.

         “If anybody in this pub moves, we kill her! Do you all not understand that she has committed treason by harboring all these pests? Do you all not understand that Humans were never meant to be here on Texel? You all are so complacent in having Humans invade your towns when they are no better than the Exos! Humans are not heroes, they are parasites! We few with an inkling of self-awareness want to make sure we Humans are all either helping you all combat the Exos or laying six feet under the ground where we deserve to be! Open your eyes!” NXT was mere seconds from dying when Iudith suddenly began glowing blue. The German stared intently at her, ready to pull the trigger at any moment, but Zar ambushed him and startled him enough for Yunmy to escape the hold. The defender quickly pointed his gun at Yunmy, but it was far too late. Iudith blasted the defender’s shoulder with enough magic to amputate him. Nightmare let go of NXT, closed his eyes, mouthed what seemed to the fainting NXT as a prayer, and swiftly looped his arm around Iudith in a headlock, snapping her neck before she could defend herself. She crumbled into dots that fell all around Nightmare.

         “To hell with all of you insolent Texeli! Why are you all so blind! They are only a pair of parasites thinking they could live happily ever after splurging on your resources when they do not lift a single finger to help against the Exo armies!” Yunmy had run toward the defender’s hand, pried the gun from its fingers, and pointed it at Nightmare. “How ironic. You would much rather kill a Human doing his job than an Exo! In what twisted reality are you living?” Yunmy struggled to pull the trigger despite being enraged beyond description, and as soon as the amputee assaulted her, a Texeli who had been sitting at a table close by punched Nightmare in the face. Nightmare was sent flying and crashing onto the bar, but the Texeli did not stop his onslaught. Nightmare tried evading the barrage of punches, but he could barely block any of them.

         By that point, NXT had finally recuperated enough energy to stand up, and as he saw the fighting before him, he decided to charge the amputee. Pulling out the new pen he had just received from Yunmy, NXT stabbed the defender in the neck. Yunmy capitalized on the defender’s moment of weakness to punch him as hard as she could in his exposed solar plexus, blasting the air out of his chest. She tossed the gun to the other side of the pub and together with NXT pinned the defender to the ground. Struggle as he might, the two of them overpowered him tremendously, but the insolent misanthrope never once gave up. Meanwhile, Nightmare had found a way to escape the flurry of punches by kneeing the Texeli and slithering out of his predicament between the Texeli’s legs. He grabbed a chair from a nearby table and crashed it on top of the Texeli’s head. Other Texeli decided to charge Nightmare, but he was able to retrieve his gun before they got close enough and began blasting lasers everywhere with reckless abandon, screaming at the top of his shattered lungs and regurgitating blood.

         “You can kill me later, damn it! I accept my death, but first I must eradicate these pests!” He turned his laser toward Yunmy and NXT, but the two of them were able to roll out of its way. All Nightmare accomplished was to burn his companion to a crisp, a smile forever singed into the corpse. The laser ran out, and, seeing the predicament he was in, Nightmare decided to run for the exit. Three Texeli rushed to block his path, but Nightmare had a sword ready to pull out of the open pouch inside his pocket and sliced across two of them by the time NXT had reached the gun Yunmy had tossed across the pub. NXT quickly pointed the gun at Nightmare but the recoil from the laser blast made him lose control over his aim. He was sent back, the laser cutting through the opposite wall of the pub and completely missing his target. Yunmy had barely managed to escape the blast, and NXT was left feeling completely powerless and pathetic. Nightmare was about to slice across the third Texeli when that Texeli, having seen his two partners being murdered before his very eyes, grabbed the blade with his bare hand and dealt an uppercut with the other. The quick-thinking and resourceful Nightmare, however, managed to recalibrate himself, pull the twin sawtooth from his pouch, and charge the Texeli. Before NXT was able to aim the laser back at Nightmare, Nightmare had already sliced through his last obstacle and escaped the pub, Yunmy in close pursuit.

         “Leave me alone you wench!” He heard Nightmare shout in Spanish. He then heard the roars of a motorcycle that soon enough blasted to the distance. NXT rushed out of the pub too late and saw Yunmy biting the motorcycle’s dust.

         “I am so sorry that I could not kill him,” NXT lamented, but Yunmy had a much worse sorrow to contend with. She ran toward a center where most of the deserters used to congregate, and when NXT caught up to her, the two of them stared in hopelessness. The German defender had not used his laser during his extermination of Undesirables. He savored every last moment with his bare hands. Mostly everyone had been choked or punched to death with the exception of children whose skulls had been crushed beneath his feet, women whose skin had been sliced repeatedly, and men whose eyes had been shoved inside their skulls. Not another deserter survived in the entire town. Yunmy and NXT were the only Humans within a several-mile radius.

Chapter Text


Entry No. 38. Day 101

I could not sleep. Goosebumps have yet to cease their unneglectable pestering. I have washed my hands more times than I care to count, but I can still see and smell their blood. The stench, the ever-infuriating odor, is unforgettable. My heart weeps for all those who were exterminated, but my soul fumes in utter indignation. No matter how unrecognizably obliterated their faces, every victim reminded me of Poging. No matter how splattered and ransacked their corpses, their figure reminded me of Poging's as he lay on the grass. What was their crime? Children's only crime is being who they are -- children. All were killed: babies not yet weaned, infants not yet speaking, children not yet fully psychologically developed, and adolescents not yet intellectually capable. The men and women were massacred as well, not necessarily for the aforesaid circumstances, but rather for their treason and negligence. Their duty as defenders dictated that they kill any and all Undesirables regardless of familial relations, meaning that by not having snuffed out the lives of their own flesh and blood, they had transgressed against the new government in Texel. How could I have been so foolish? To think I had pondered whether I should become a defender, to think I had even slightly entertained the idea of leaving the sanctuary city and defending Texel alongside those monsters! Such exhibition of apathy has solidified my stance on the matter, and I at present cannot fathom ever changing my mind.

Whenever I see Yunmy's soulless eyes, a fire within me explodes with ardent determination to eradicate every single defender I come across. My abhorrence toward such a vile breed clouds my judgment, and no longer do I recognize Texel's need for defenders to eradicate Exos. Every time our eyes lock, my entire being is occupied by one and only one ambition -- to quarter, disembowel, and flay all defenders. I want their blood to shower my body. I want to see their desperation and realization of all the wrongs they have committed as I dig my fingers into their chests and squeeze their repugnant, frozen, and rotten hearts. Eveline, Slangerr, Feyk, Taurus, Jibberish, Kohai... how many of them are like Poging and how many of them are like Nightmare? How many of them are heavenly radiance and how many of them are psychopathic demons? Is even asking of such a futile exercise? Should such even be considered? Is there any defender out there who deserves mercy?

I have begun to loathe defenders with all my soul, and detestation's metastasis has infiltrated even the farthest recesses of my irreparable brain. Poging no longer shines as brightly as he used to. As if my imprint on Poging were being extinguished by the arctic storm intensifying within me, I have begun to analyze my time with him with greater scrutiny, and his initial transgressions against me have grown viler, more sinister, more maleficent. Poging, as much as the fraction of a fraction of my heart does not dare admit it, may not have been as much of a saint as I had thus far deemed him. Yet, despite his outbursts, he had reformed, he had refrained from bludgeoning me, he had opened his eyes to the atrocities he had been administering to me, and he had sacrificed his own life so I, his puppet, his slave, his rag doll, could continue suffering. Had he truly reformed, had he truly forsaken his nature as a defender, or had he, upon sparing me of his violent proclivities, transferred his rage onto another being, manufacturing a mere illusion of having transformed? Are defenders curable of their sadism, or has the impulse to massacre been indoctrinated into their DNA forevermore?

My chest aches as I write this entry. Tears flow without consideration for the frail paper below them. My hand shakes and barely manages to scribble intelligibly. My mouth can barely muster any saliva. I have become blind. I have become incapacitated. I have become hopeless. I know I cannot stay here in Cackling much longer; no one can. Nightmare will surely return with reinforcements, and most of my being desires to wait right here to welcome them to the city he has destroyed to reap his soul. Yet Yunmy, a far stronger individual than I could ever strive to be, a woman whose compassion and intellect far surpasses anyone's, with her eyes as empty as my heart will surely be the longer I allow myself to deteriorate, has coaxed me into following her. She, Zar, Iudith, and I shall depart from the city soon, and I am confident that she has a plan in mind for all of us.

Iris, I pray to you, and though I may not hear you nor may you wish to speak to me, I implore you to prevent me from encountering any hostile defenders on my journey with Yunmy, for you know as well as I do that I would have no choice but to immerse my hand in their feculent entrails and expose Yunmy to the same atrocities as yesterday. If not for me, iris, then for Yunmy, so she may not relive such torment.


          NXT stuffed his belongings inside his pouch, stared at the contacts on his hand for an inordinate amount of time before donning them, and wiped the tears off his face. He took hold of the laser gun he had been unable to aim correctly and could not help but wonder what would have turned out differently had he not lost his left arm a long time ago. At a moment like that, NXT would have begun wondering if he had even lost his arm in a technical sense, considering he had no recollection of ever having both arms intact, but his mind was too preoccupied with the road ahead of him to entertain such superfluous and asinine questions. He met with Yunmy, Iudith, and Zar (on Iudith’s shoulder) outside the pub, and the three of them departed the city in hopes that any defenders who came to eradicate but learned of their departure would spare the Texeli if the Texeli told them that they were the ones who had kicked the four of them out of their city. NXT had comforted Yunmy by pointing out that the two defenders who they had battled the day prior had refrained from hurting any Texeli needlessly. NXT still remembered the small prayer Nightmare had uttered before deteriorating Iudith. They, after all, only killed Humans because they believed they were protecting Texel from parasites by doing so.

          “Where are we going?” NXT finally asked after a long while of walking in silence. “Will we venture forth until we stumble upon another town or do you have a particular location in mind?”

          “Allodiael,” Yunmy answered.

          “What? Is that not the place to which Nightmare had said he and his partner were planning on going?” Yunmy nodded. “Do you think we will meet him there or something? Or perhaps you are intrigued by whatever Nightmare had said was his mission to Allodiael?” Yunmy nodded again, raising her fingers in the shape of a “V” to signify the latter speculation. “What even is there in Allodiael?” Iudith turned to look at NXT after taking off her hat, and Zar crawled on top of her head, laid on his back, and pointed all his fingers up at the sky. Iudith puffed out her chest in a pretentious manner and slammed her staff down. NXT was glad to be blessed with a keen competence at playing charades. “King?”

          Iudith smiled. “Mage King,” she said, and NXT made a mental note of the new vocabulary term.

          “No wonder Nightmare had said something about their mission having great ramifications for all Mages in Texel. This is the king we are talking about! Could they have been planning on killing the king? Oh, what am I saying, of course not. Those bastards only want to kill Humans. But then what could have befallen the king? Perhaps the king is not even the reason for their journey, or perhaps they merely wanted to negotiate terms with him. Whatever the case, I believe there is nothing we can do to definitively deduce their motives. Speculation is pointless when we are heading over there anyway. We will discover the truth sooner or later.” Yunmy then retrieved something from her own pouch -– a barely-functional tablet scorched from a laser blast.

          “She read the messages,” Iudith translated Yunmy’s statement.

          “Obviously! I cannot believe I overlooked that. What was their mission?” Iudith began to cough while Zar began to have seizures on top of her head. “The king is fatally sick?” Both Iudith and Yunmy nodded. “No way! I thought you Texeli were immortal and devoid of sickness! Even if you could become sick, what kind of horrendous disease could possibly cripple a being as powerful as the king of all Mages? Could he not swing his metaphorical wand a couple times to alleviate himself?” Suddenly, the tablet began to vibrate.

          “Raid,” Iudith stated after Yunmy had read the message that had been sent to the tablet, pointing a finger down at the ground.

          “Wait, you do not mean a raid right here, right now… right?” Yunmy stopped walking. “How can this be? Are we not still near Yakoun forest? Was it not the case that Exos did not attack the same relative area more than once? It has been months since then for crying out loud!” NXT noticed that everyone had begun staring at something in the sky. NXT squinted his eyes, using his straw hat to block the sun’s rays, and faintly did he distinguish what appeared to be a glowing, light-blue spot only visible due to the cloud behind it preventing the bright, sunny sky from camouflaging it. Yunmy began to run toward the direction of the light, most likely due to her ambition to protect any Undesirables, deserters, or injured defenders that may have been abandoned to fend for themselves during the raid, and Iudith urged her horse to run ahead, most likely fueled by her repressed desire to combat and wage war on the Exos once again. NXT stood there for a second before attempting to run after them, though his stamina was far inferior, and he was soon left behind.

          “Let me… catch my breath… damn it,” NXT panted. He stared at the horse who scuffed and seemed to laugh at him. By the time NXT had arrived at the town, Yunmy, who had ridden on Iudith’s horse, had already ventured into the center of the town to ask for any information on the raid thus far and was actively seeking any injured souls. Iudith had simply remained at the point where she and Yunmy had entered in hopes of encountering NXT eventually. NXT plopped down on the ground and stared at the sky where the nearest floating vessel had stationed, though it was still fairly far away. “It took me so damn long to get here!” NXT began coughing violently. “There is a sea of fortresses up there! Who even taught the Exos how to create levitating headquarters? That is absolutely insane.”

          “Nothing new,” Iudith clarified. “Rare.”

          “Oh.”

          “Different. It is made of dots.”

          “What do you mean?” Slowly he deduced what she meant. “Is this the first time they have devised a way to create levitating contraptions using Texeli technology?”

          “I think so.”

          “What are we supposed to do? We cannot simply fly all the way up there. Plus, it would probably take us days to get there. They seem to be pretty far away and up in the mountains of all places. Let the professional murderers take care of them somehow.”

          Zar dropped to the ground and used his index and middle fingers as legs with which to “walk” on the ground just for Iudith to block his path with her staff. They both looked at NXT, and Iudith uttered something NXT assumed to mean “they are in our way.”

          “Great, just great. Why could Allodiael not be anywhere else? Wait, why do we not just circle around the mountains? No need to cross through there, right?”

          “We will go.”

          “Fine, fine. Whatever. I just have an extremely bad feeling about that place, and not just because we will be exposing ourselves to two of the deadliest armies in the entirety of this planet: the defenders and the Exos.”

          Yunmy approached them and explained to Iudith every factoid she was able to squeeze from anyone she came across or any defenders she may have encountered who were also on their way to the raid area. NXT sighed and asked her where the nearest water pump was located so he could refresh himself. After getting something to drink, he turned around and noticed some defenders looking at him. Afraid of what would happen if they approached him about his missing arm and tried to assess his competence as a defender, NXT hurried over to where the four of them had agreed to reconvene and tried to stay low.

          “Shall we continue?” Iudith asked. Yunmy nodded and looked at NXT.

          “Yes, I am ready, but I am not walking… no wait, I said I will not be walking!” NXT stared at Yunmy as she mounted Iudith’s horse. “Hey, I will not stand here and pretend to give a rat’s tail about chivalry when you two abandoned me as cold-heartedly as you did.” Iudith rolled her eyes, the two women looked at each other for some time without saying anything, and then Iudith began to laugh.

          “OK, you will not walk,” NXT assumed she said.

          “Good, very good.” Suddenly, Iudith hooked NXT’s shirt with her staff and held him up in the air. “What the hell! Let me go!” The two of them laughed as the group rode off toward the mountains.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          The journey to the mountains had taken much longer than they anticipated, over three days in fact. Even cutting through forests rather than taking the winding paths seemed not to speed the process up at all. Every night, the glowing fortresses grew larger and larger, but they did not feel any closer to the action. By the time they had arrived close enough to discern the fallen trees, scorched ground, and Human corpses, the raid had been raging on for about five days. NXT had refused to venture too far into the action, and Yunmy only wished to administer first aid to those in the camps erected by the defenders at the bases of the mountains instead of scaling the mountains toward the action, but Iudith wished to enter the fortresses to cause mayhem. After having told Zar to hop on NXT’s shoulder, she had bid everyone farewell and ridden into the distance in hopes of finding a band to tailgate and fight alongside.

          “Will we ever see her again? I mean our Iudith, not just a random Iudith freshly-built with the memories of the past few months,” NXT asked Zar shortly after the two of them had been left alone. Since the sun was setting, NXT could not help but find himself in a mellow yet melancholic mood as he leaned back against a tree and saw the massive ball of flames commit suicide by slowly sinking into the sea before them. Zar crawled down NXT’s chest, hopped onto the ground, and shrugged his fingers. He traced his fingers on the ground and wrote something on the dirt, but NXT apologized for not being able to understand. Zar lay down on the dirt, and NXT almost thought he heard him sigh. NXT pulled out one of his notepads and began to scribble down to the best of his ability what Zar had written on the ground for future reference. Perhaps Iudith could translate it for him and try to explain what Zar meant if they ever saw each other again. “Are you fine with staying alongside me in the forest? We could try to find Yunmy somewhere in the camp so that you can stay with her instead. You might become insane staying with someone who cannot even hear you.” Zar just lay there motionless for a short while before lazily scribbling “no” on the dirt. “Suit yourself, and thank you for keeping me company.” NXT wanted to study his notes, but the sun had already departed, and the lights from the moon, camp, and fortresses were far too dim. NXT felt himself become slightly drowsy, and soon any inspiration left him as he slumped farther down the tree.

          “Zar!” NXT whispered firmly. He scrambled in the dark until he found his pouch. After fumbling inside for some time, he grasped the tablet and frantically shone the light in all directions until he found Zar. “Zar! Thank the iris you are okay! Must have been a terrible nightmare…” Though his dream was quickly fading away, he could remember a mirror and a pale figure staring back at him, warning him, and supplicating him to end his life… Zar had seemed drowsy as he sluggishly crawled back to where he had been resting, but in a swift motion, he pointed his index finger behind NXT and crawled into the open pouch.

          NXT was petrified. He heard the whirring and humming of a machine behind him. NXT slowly retrieved a gauntlet he kept inside his pouch at all times especially designed for an amputee for ease of donning (one of the deserters had been a crafter). As the sounds of the Exo grew closer, the temperature plummeted down to sub-zero at record speeds. This was no normal Exo. Somehow, as if by instinct, as if his soul were speaking to him, NXT knew that he was about to combat against the Exo. The same one from Yakoun forest. NXT stood up and turned around. Due to the asphyxiating darkness, the only parts of the Exo NXT could distinguish were its glowing chest, eyes, and… wings! The Exo seemed even stronger than the last time, and his eyes did not seem to flicker anymore. They were a steady, determined, blood-thirsty red.

          “NXT,” it growled. Its wings, chest, and eyes grew even brighter. NXT looked down at his gauntlet and chuckled. Who was he kidding? He had nearly died during their last battle; what hope did he have in fighting an improved model in the darkness and surviving to tell Iudith and Yunmy about his triumphant act of heroism? He may have mental issues, but he was far from foolish. The Exo charged at NXT, but he was able to evade the blow and began running as fast as he could while also being cautious about not running straight into a tree. The Exo, however, worried not about those toothpicks and flew straight across them. All NXT had to do was manage to reach the camp and arouse any defenders that could help out, but then he realized that by doing so, he would be bringing danger to Yunmy. He did not have a band, he did not have a fighting spirit, he did not even have both his arms! What hope did he have? What could he possibly do? He could handle minor Exos, but a behemoth such as that one? Was he going to die? It was not as if he had anything to live for except the learning of a foreign language! He was nothing but a deadweight for Zar, Iudith, and Yunmy.

          The Exo swatted at NXT, but NXT managed to roll on the ground to avoid all but one of its fingers, which sliced a cut across his back horizontally. NXT continued to roll, but little did he know that they were close to the edge of a plateau. Terror seized him as he felt the ground below him give away. In no time, he found himself tumbling downhill having lost all control. His arm, legs, and back were repeatedly bashed by trees and rocks in his agonizing descent. He ducked his head into his chest and tried to cover it as much as possible with his one arm, but by the time he had reached the bottom, gashes were running across his forehead and cheeks. He was bruised everywhere and could barely move from the agony. To make matters worse, the Exo had not slowed down its pursuit and had followed him downhill using its wings to swoop down like a vulture. The behemoth crashed near NXT, shaking the ground below them so gravely that NXT felt himself bounce up in the air slightly, and began looking for NXT among the trees. However, hope creeped its way into NXT’s being when he heard two men shouting to each other about something in languages he could not understand, but it meant that there were defenders nearby.

          “NXT!” The Exo shouted, knowing it did not have much time before it would be ganged upon. NXT remained still, but the Exo was no dinosaur. Once it spotted NXT, it ran toward him and lifted both its arms to smash them down and splatter him across the grass that felt like shards of glass. NXT attempted to roll away, but he had lost so much blood and had suffered through so many blows that his body no longer obeyed his orders. Fortunately, before the deed was done, emerald fire blasted in a thin line from somewhere to NXT’s right and scorched the Exo in the middle of the chest. Some of its armor chipped away. NXT heard a female voice shout in triumph, presumably celebrating her bull’s eye, followed by a war cry and an impressive explosion of electricity. A yellow-armored Texeli flew from the darkness on a purple dragon imbued with so much magical power that NXT was not sure if he could see him because he was glowing or if NXT was merely seeing his magical aura. The power residing within that Texeli had made NXT’s hair stand erect. The dragon blasted the Exo once again on the chest, causing it to explode. The Exo shrieked in indignation, consternation, and exasperation. It covered its chest, as if protecting something even more precious than killing NXT, and flew away as quickly as it could. However, NXT had noticed something fall from its chest and smack down on the ground.

          A voice within him shouted for him not to approach the object, implored him not to witness such horror, warned him it would only bring unspeakable anguish, but NXT refused to listen to it and instead listened to his second voice, the voice supplicating him to relieve him from the curiosity. Slowly, he began to crawl on the ground ignoring his injuries and pain. He slowly stood up and wobbled toward where he had seen the thing crash. Blood continued to cascade onto the ground, leaving a trail behind him, but he wanted to witness whatever it was even if it was the last thing he ever saw. As he staggered toward it, he could not help but stumble onto the ground multiple times, but every time he would rest for only a second before forcing himself upright once again. He was determined. He ignored the Texeli who approached him and the defenders who had rushed to his aid, for he was fixated on the black spot that he could barely distinguish from the darkness around him but that he nonetheless knew was the object that had fallen from the Exo’s chest. What was it trying to protect? What had it been harboring all this time? For all NXT knew, that object could be the answer to all his questions. Why was the Exo so unique, so powerful, so determined, so focused on exterminating him specifically?

          NXT finally reached the object, knelt down, and grabbed it. He could feel cables and metal parts. Could it have been its heart? Its core? “Hey, I need light here!” NXT shouted as loudly as he could. When the yellow-armored Texeli approached him, his shining armor illuminated the object. NXT immediately let go of it with a shriek. What the hell was the Exo doing with such a thing? How did it find it? Nothing made sense for NXT. He had even more questions than before. NXT’s mind deteriorated to the point of insanity. He began to scream, cry, and violently shake uncontrollably. The defenders attempted to calm him down and pin him to the floor, but NXT did not let them. “I’ll kill you!” NXT bellowed at the sky. “Can you hear me? I’ll kill you! You bastard! I’ll kill you!”

          Using a special restorative substance composed of the same elements found in Bitter and the yellow liquid that deteriorates and liquifies Texeli dots, the Exo had managed to preserve the object for months inside his core, feeding it the liquid through cables. Poging’s head.

Chapter Text


Entry No. 39. Day 107

It has been a couple days since I was crippled from my confrontation with that Exo. I believe this is day 107 since my experiences in Yakoun forest, but I have lost count. It seems to me as though the recent developments have far more severity than attempting to recall how many days have transpired since my independence, since my new life. How did the Exo find me? Was it the reason why I had such a terrible feeling deep in my gut dissuading me from journeying toward the flying fortresses? Could I have possibly foreseen its presence instinctively? Bullocks, I say. I may still be delusional from my injuries.

I sustained terrible bruises. Yunmy told me I had even had minor internal bleeding she had had to contend with as I had lain unconscious on the ground. Thankfully, it does not seem as though I fractured any bones, but my entire body still aches. I am just now able to pick up my pencil and start writing without the pain forcing me to spasm and let go of it every two seconds. The deep gashes littering my body seem to be there to stay, and so, too, does my anger.

What the hell was that thing doing with Poging's head? When I had finally been awake enough to ask Yunmy what had become of Poging's head, she had told me that it had decomposed rapidly and was no longer above the ground. It sickens me to think of how Poging's corpse had been defiled by that Exo. What other reason could there be for such an act of utter disrespect than merely insulting me and causing my sanity to plummet further into the darkness? Could the Exo have planned this all out? Had Poging's head been nothing more than a demented psychological operation? a plan B? a trump card? Had the Exo confronted me during the day and I had fought back, would the Exo have retrieved his head from its chest and tossed it at me in an attempt to distract me long enough to eradicate my confused self? If such had been the case, it would make that Exo by far the most intelligent. No other Exo to my nor anyone else's knowledge has seemed to possess the cognitive capabilities to pull off such a multi-layered attack.

Regardless, I have discussed this with Yunmy, Zar, and Iudith. We will be parting ways soon. Yunmy remains fixed on her journey to Allodiael to investigate the sickness that has crippled the Mage King, but I have decided on following the defenders wherever they go awaiting the moment when the Exo will strike again. When the time comes, I will be more ready than ever. Not only that, but remaining with the other defenders may provide me a chance to meet others I have met before, such as Eveline or even Nightmare. I would like to… settle the score. Iudith and Zar have decided to remain with me, bless their souls. They have done far too much for me when I have done nothing in return, yet they remain with me, never abandoning me, never allowing me to carelessly venture too far all alone.

Whatever is in store for me, I know one thing quite clearly, and that is that I will attempt to increase my strength and competence. I am still reluctant about calling myself a defender, but if I am to accompany those pests around for who knows how long, and if I am to have any hopes of defeating the Exo, I should exercise and gather a band of Texeli. Iudith is powerful, but she may not cut it when facing an Exo as powerful as that. I mark my words in this journal: I will become strong enough to defeat that Exo once and for all at whatever cost, even if it means having to subjugate myself to the life of a defender and pretend to be one until that fateful day during which we shall battle for the final time.


          NXT packed all his belongings inside his pouch and stared at the hill he had rolled down. Half of him wished for the Exo to emerge from the trees so it could spare him from having to venture alongside defenders, but the other half was of a far more logical variety and would much rather the Exo reveal itself after he had transformed himself into more than just a scrawny, mutilated sack of incompetence. How many times had he nearly died? Who knows how many times he had had near-death experiences prior to being stuffed inside the capsule, but he knew for sure he had had at least one considering many of the injuries decorating his body had been there since before Poging had begun abusing him. NXT sighed deeply. His life would have been so much easier had the Exo just killed him, or if Poging had let him die instead of having thrown his life away so carelessly. Poging would have already defeated that Exo!

          His tablet began to vibrate, and Yunmy had instructed him before she left to always check his tablet even if he knew he would not be able to understand a single word, that way he could pretend to be normal and not attract too much attention. Iudith was standing behind NXT as he turned on the tablet and opened up the message sent to everyone. She nodded once she had finished reading, but she could not explain the contents of the message with words she had taught NXT so far. Instead, NXT silently turned off the tablet and followed her instructions to mount her horse. Some defenders ridiculed him for riding on the horse of a Texeli, others would have done so but were letting him off the hook since they knew of the injuries he had recently sustained, and others were utterly disgusted at the disrespect he was showing by even laying hands on a Texeli. NXT quickly dismissed the latter group, for they were too blind to their own hypocrisy to warrant any brain cells.

          The horse ride had made him slightly nauseated, so he rested his head on Iudith’s back for the remainder of the journey toward where he assumed the next event would take place. NXT had been anticipating the next event with dread since the event after a raid had always been dungeon expeditions, which involved combat against malevolent Texeli at specific locations. NXT’s goal for that event was not necessarily to advance into the dungeons as far as he could nor acquire a high-ranking position in the leaderboards as though the extermination were just a game; his mission was merely to strengthen himself and Iudith, and so he did. Whenever a dungeon would open, he would venture forth but never any farther than he needed to. He fought alongside Iudith, a two-man team that was seen by every defender as unsettling. While everyone plowed through the dungeons with their full band of nine, NXT would don his gauntlet and crumble any of the blue-skinned, grotesque crawlers he encountered. Iudith, on the other hand, would, after NXT would grow tired of sparring with the creatures, venture deeper into the caves to encounter more powerful and challenging adversaries, bringing back loot and resources with a wide smile.

          As usual, the dungeon expeditions and exterminations lasted a whole week, and NXT had managed not to get himself killed during that time. Using the crystals known as ixstones, NXT had managed to build power fodder with which to strengthen Iudith and let all the other Texeli wander freely, for he had no intentions of subjugating them under his rule. Most of them would leave while others would instinctively want to join him until he revealed not to be a defender, after which they would leave the most confused they had probably been in their entire lives. However, the most confused being was NXT himself. He had not expected himself to be able to summon the divine totem, or whatever that yellow cradle was called inside which the Texeli were born, but he had successfully beckoned the structure after raising a Pixite in the air on his third attempt. He was delighted to have been able to do so, and he had thrown himself at the base of the structure pleading for any answers. “Why has the iris forsaken me” he had shouted, “why am I so afflicted?” Unfortunately, the structure had remained silent, and NXT had blushed with embarrassment. Of course the structure could not answer; at the end of the day, the cradle was only that -– a cradle. NXT had essentially been talking to a wall.

          During the time between events, he had separated himself from the congregation of defenders and entered a nearby forest –- there seemed to always be a forest no matter where they went. There, he had continued his training under the supervision of Iudith and Zar. He attempted everything from push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups to jogging until he could not breathe, sparring Iudith until he was overwhelmed by her magic, and practicing his rolls and other evasion techniques. He had had every intention to continue that schedule for a week, because if the typical routine for events had held true, the next event would have been a War Game NXT had no intentions of ever entertaining, but that had not been the case. When his tablet vibrated, he had not bothered to retrieve it from the bag, but the curious Iudith had rummaged through the pouch and read the message herself.

          “We must attend!” she had exclaimed with a glimmer in her eyes. NXT had frowned and asked why. “New challenge! Not a War Game.” Intrigued, NXT had allowed himself not to follow through with his excruciating training regimen but had refused to ride on Iudith’s horse. Instead, NXT had decided to jog behind Iudith, and as an extra incentive, he had retrieved some rope and tied himself about the neck to her horse’s saddle. After NXT nearly died from tripping on a rock, the three of them arrived at the event area. They were all welcomed by a structure none of them had ever seen, a structure being unveiled to the universe for the first time in history: a siege stronghold.

          It would take many, many moons for NXT and most defenders to understand the significance of the siege strongholds, and for many moons would there be protests against the sieges just as there were protests against the War Games by those who wished for a more productive event than merely pinning Texeli against Texeli for sport. Regardless, Tier A knew of what was to come. From the war’s onset, Tier A had made their surveillance of every Human, Texeli, and Exo a priority. They organized departments and committees for all sorts of reconnaissance, strategy, and reconciliation. Tier A crafters, Tier A businessmen, Tier A scientists, Tier A politicians… they all knew what was coming. Exos were becoming more and more desperate, but with desperation came strength in their case.

          The initial Exos were made of materials familiar to Humans: steel, oil, electric circuits, and the like. To Texeli, they were mere tin cans. Texeli’s only flaw was having been far too inexperienced in mass warfare, but their strength had been far superior… and the Exos knew so. It did not take them long to construct massive factories and spaceships that would allow them to kidnap Texeli and harvest them for their dots. Soon enough, a new generation of Exos began, an era of Exos composed of dots. Dots are, by all accounts, more durable, more flexible, and more destructive. As their proficiency in dotsmithing grew more and more, and at an extremely rapid rate far greater than that of Humans or even Texeli, no longer could the average Texeli stand a chance against the behemoths. The Exos’ defensive capabilities had only managed to improve over the moons, and their structures had evolved from being modeled after animals to also being modeled after Humans, as if they learned that they had to become their worst enemies to beat them. The latest raid had proved to Tier A that the Exos were entering a new generation. They had revealed to Tier A that their proficiency had achieved flying fortresses, even if not yet implemented on Exo soldiers. They had also revealed that the durability of Exos had become far greater than before. The necessity to train Texeli and defenders not only in swift extermination but prolonged battles had been becoming clearer after every breath. Exos were no longer going to be defeated as easily unless Texeli even stronger than the legendary Nebuchadnezzar awoke from their slumber wherever they may be.

          To train Texeli and defenders for this new era of warfare, crafters were made to construct strongholds with durability at the core of the design. They were to be gargantuan, at least enough for multiple defenders to gang upon and still withhold for several minutes. An incredible number of dots would be needed to construct such strongholds, but Humans had also been able to gather their fair share of unused dots from Exo bases. Alas, those dots had been used up to that point merely for the creation of moto-cycles and other minor creations, and the excess could have been used to create weapons that would eliminate Exos with ease given the time to analyze, engineer, and test them, but the rectificationists had insisted so ardently in the banning of such practices that the only use the committees had been able to approve was the strongholds.

          Enough said. Point being, sieges were there to stay, and NXT became acquainted with the event from the very first. He quite enjoyed venting his frustrations on what essentially could be deemed a wall. Granted, in order to get to the stronghold, defenders were to first plow through Texeli sentries and guardians, but NXT could simply sit back as others did the dirty work before joining them in the siege. The siege event was the only event on which NXT could partake without feeling the bitter remorse of crumbling other Texeli, and Iudith seemed to enjoy the event even more than did NXT. However, the event did not hinder NXT’s training by much, for NXT made it his mission to find some time, even if only a few minutes, every day to continue exercising. As many times as NXT had thought similarly, he could not help but think to himself yet another time those same words: a new stage in his development had just begun.

Chapter Text

          Yunmy had arrived at Allodiael too late. A funeral was being held when she arrived, but His Majesty’s send-off was unlike any funeral she had ever witnessed on Earth, and she wondered if all Texeli, after who knows how many millennia of inhabiting the planet, eventually experienced the same “funeral.” Though different from the funerals she had attended, she had read about the funeral ceremonies held centuries prior and could draw many connections. Back then, funerals were inspired by a deity and would have images of crosses, animals, or winged humanoids known as angels; though lacking the imagery, Texeli funerals were most definitely inspired by a deity: the iris. Everyone in attendance was to hold an iris flower and solemnly contemplate the dots of their fallen king, dots that not even GLU could heal. Yunmy observed from afar as everyone, after a moment of silence, tossed their flowers on top of the pile of dots and walked off.

          “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, dot to dot,” Yunmy muttered to herself as the ceremony ended.

          “And what brings you all the way here?” someone spoke behind her. She turned around and activated her contacts.

          “Sorry for my intrusion, Diggo. I caught wind of the sorrowful tribulation that has befallen this land and decided to journey all the way here.”

          “We rarely see defenders so detached from the battlefield ever since the Exos stopped raiding this area. How far did you have to travel?”

          “A week’s worth of walking.”

          “My iris! The Exos have wandered off that far already?”

          “If I may be so bold, Diggo, what exactly plagued the king? Excuse my ignorance, but I was under the impression that Texeli never fell ill, let alone died. What cursed ailment could possibly stump as powerful of a being as a Xana king?”

          Diggo remained silently staring at the pile of irises. “We Texeli may seem immortal to you Human folk, but we hardly see each other that way. We all know there will come a time when our dots shall reunite with the world around us. Until then, we shall continue to navigate throughout life evolving into stronger beings and mending ourselves in due time whenever injured. However, for reasons iris alone knows, the day will come when our dots no longer mend. The king is… was an ancient mage, the oldest any one of us knew by far. He never disclosed his age, but he seemed to have the wisdom of a man who had lived for as long as time itself. When the Exos raided Louran, he expended too much of his magic in creating a magical barrier. He sacrificed all he had to protect us, but to no avail. The Exos were far too strong in number, and his barrier could not withhold against the sea of them. He never fully recovered his magic after that fateful day. Months have transpired, defender. Months! Even in his old age, even after having sacrificed so much, he remained stubborn to the very end. Months, defender. Our lifetimes may be thousands upon thousands of times longer than these past few months, but that does not belittle his courage and determination. Anyone else would have kicked the bucket after a few weeks. He truly loved his people, defender; let no one ever tell you otherwise.” He paused for a second and looked up at Yunmy. “That being said, I do not believe his illness was a result of his expended energy.”

          “You do not?”

          “Defender, I do not mean to cast doubt upon you all, for you have saved our planet –- no questioning it. Yet, I cannot help but be suspicious of the other defender who arrived only days before the king’s sickness reached its final, terminal stage. He had come to discuss business with the king behind closed doors, but I hope to iris his presence days before the king’s sickness worsened is mere coincidence. What motive could a defender have for terminating the mage king?”

          Yunmy closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “None, Diggo. Perhaps this defender has a knack for being in the wrong places at the most inopportune times.”

          “Perhaps.”

          “Is he still here?”

          “Sure is, though he did not attend the funeral.”

          “Thank you for this information, Diggo. I shall pay him a visit.”

          “Feel free to stay in Louran for a few more days, defender. The king had an heir, and soon it will be time for a new king. You would not want to miss the coronation, would you?”

          “I will gladly accept this invitation. Farewell, Diggo.” The two parted ways, and Yunmy headed to the showers. She pondered whether to confront the defender that evening or rest from her travels beforehand, and her voices unanimously agreed to rest.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          “Morning,” Yunmy stated as she walked inside a bar. The bartender raised a cup in salutation as she sat at the bar and asked for a drink. She was anticipating stumbling upon the defender, but the defender was nowhere in sight. Perhaps he had left Louran during the night. As she drank, she wondered what she would find more favorable –- for the defender to have departed or remained. As far as she knew, the defender could be Nightmare. If that were the case, she would most likely have to confront him in battle, but she had no weapons with her while he would probably have that laser gun of his fully loaded. There was also the question of why Nightmare had been planning on coming to Louran in the first place. All she knew so far was that a certain defender had arrived and discussed something with the king behind closed doors shortly before the king’s illness went terminal. She was certain that it had been that very same defender who had contacted other defenders about the king’s complications, but why would they want to travel so far just to witness the death of the king? There was also the fact that the defender had not attended the funeral. What could have been more important? She remained in the bar for some time after having finished her third glass, but the defender never revealed himself. Alas, she stood, said her goodbyes, and headed to the room where she had spent the night.

          Yunmy sat down on her bed and stared at a locket with dry blood encrusting over half of it. It was in the shape of a diamond, and there was no image inside. In its place had been a tiny note with writing so small anybody with even remotely inferior eyesight would need the aid of a magnifying glass to read it comfortably. It was an intimate note between father and daughter, one Yunmy had out of respect never read. She opened the empty locket and stared inside, imagining the face of its owner smiling back at her. Slowly caressing the dry blood, she recalled her time with Lizardwizard, her friend who had been stripped away ever so violently. Yunmy had taken the liberty of removing the note and burying her alongside it, retrieving the locket for herself as a keepsake. Though Yunmy’s soul had never healed from having lost her, and so tormenting was the agony that not even having avenged her death had abated the anguish, Yunmy’s soul was weeping even louder than usual. The minor raid during which her friend’s soul had been reaped had transpired in Wellmeant only a few days before she eventually entered the very same city in which she currently found herself. She tucked away the locket and went out for some fresh air.

          After talking with some Mages, she learned that the heir was to be a relatively young Mage with a rather intriguing history. Centuries had flown past, but not for the Xana child whose indignation had carved into his soul the memories of so many countless moons earlier. Everyone had unanimously prosecuted a Theri under the charge of beastly assault. Even in those days, Theri were in no way welcome by the Mages and were seen as uncivilized and inferior; to no one’s surprise, then, when word spread that the child who was next in line to the throne had allegedly been mauled by a Theri, that Theri had been scapegoated instantaneously with no hope of escaping severe punishment. Not even the child’s pleas to spare the Theri, who the child insisted was innocent, dissuaded the Mages from exacting their revenge. Their disdain for Theri had blinded them from the truth, and inside a barred cave on the side of a remote mountain would the poor beast suffer. There had been rekindled whispers spreading ever since the king’s funeral of the child’s actions as the new king. Many were worried that he would release the beast, believing the child, not the judges of then, was delusional and would be confronted by harsh reality the hard way.

          Yunmy was startled nearly out of her skin when she felt someone’s hand slam down on her shoulder. She spun around and jumped back. In front of her was a human male she had never seen before, presumable the defender whom Diggo had mentioned after the funeral. “My apologies, miss. I had no intention of startling you,” he said, smirking and rubbing together the fingers of the hand he had used to grope her shoulder.

          “How dare you,” Yunmy growled, using her contacts to read the stranger’s information. “I have heard of you from Texeli on my short stay here, Wolfjunk. What business did you have here?”

          “No need for hostility, Yunmy.”

          “That is Officer Yunmy to you, bastard.”

          “Enough. Do not insult my intelligence nor take my kindness for granted. You cross the line one more time in addressing me, a real officer, and I will personally introduce your vital organs to this beautiful, sunny day.”

          “Real officer, you say? Have you no shame, Wolfjunk? Not only do you greet me by assaulting me, but you dare impersonate an officer? Give me one valid reason dissuading me from apprehending you for your treason this instant. Your empty threats do not intimidate me.”

          “Nor do yours, Yunmy. Pretend all you want, but the fact of the matter remains thus: you are betting all your money on my being an impersonator while you yourself attempt to impersonate an officer. Such foul meta-tactics will not work on me, missy.”

          Yunmy retrieved an officer’s badge from her pocket and thrust it in front of Wolfjunk’s face. “If I were you, incorrigible scum, I would sew my mouth shut before accidentally spouting more intolerable dribble.” Wolfjunk was taken aback and began to sweat nervously.

          “The hell are you doing here, officer?” he muttered, slowly reaching into his back pocket.

          “Hands where I can see them this instant, fiend!” Yunmy bellowed, stepping closer to Wolfjunk. He panicked and pulled out a laser gun similar to the one Nightmare had dropped at the bar and pressed on the trigger. Yunmy’s many gifts was predicting trajectories, and she successfully deflected the blast using the badge made of dots specifically crafted to serve as shields against such attacks. Due to the force of the blast, she had had to press both her hands behind the badge, but once the blast had dissipated, she charged at Wolfjunk, swept his feet, slammed him against the ground face down, stomped her foot between his shoulder blades, leaned over to grab his right wrist, and twisted his arm, pinning him to the ground. The pain had caused him to soften his grip on the gun, which Yunmy kicked far away. “Speak! The hell is your business here!” When Wolfjunk did not answer within a couple seconds, she twisted his arm further.

          “Fuck! Alright, alright, I will speak!”

          “Who the hell do you think you are, impersonating an officer.”

          “I just wanted to say hi!”

          “Bullshit! What were you planning on doing to me?”

          “Nothing!”

          “Where is your band, defender, or were you merely impersonating an officer as an excuse not to have one?”

          “Of course I have a band!”

          Yunmy dug her heel deeper into his back. “Do you now… Show me.”

          “I will the moment you-” he was interrupted by a punch to the back of his head.

          “Do not dare. I do as I please. Now, show me your band.” Wolfjunk struggled to retrieve his pouch but managed to do so. Yunmy leaned over even further to grab the pouch from the ground, applying even more pressure on Wolfjunk’s back. Once she had the pouch, she removed her foot and let Wolfjunk rest. She sighed deeply and tossed the pouch back without checking for a pavilion. “Not worth checking. However, there is something I want you to tell me. What was your business with the king?”

          “Business with the king? What business? I just came here, officer!”

          “Excuse me?”

          “Impressive, Officer Yunmy,” she heard another voice behind her say. “How ruthless of you.” She spun around and saw another man she had never seen before.

          “What? Did you attack me for no reason, officer?” Wolfjunk asked indignantly. He stood up, fuming. “You destroyed my back because you got the wrong guy?”

          “Silence. You are dismissed,” the man demanded. Wolfjunk scoffed and left. “You want to know about my business here, huh? Unfortunately, that reveals to me that you are, in fact, not an officer yourself. I commend your efforts, but it is time to-”

          “Cease. Your body language and composure assure me of your intelligence, so do not patronize me. I thought you better than to resort to such petty and desperate measures. I shall forgive you this once. Tell me, what business did you have with the king? I suspect that you have already devised an excuse or alibi to have me believe you had no involvement with the death of the king, correct?”

          “Wait, you believe me to have a direct involvement with the death of the king, officer? I assure you, I-”

          “Merely answer the question. I do not know what to believe as of yet.” Yunmy made her way toward the gun she had kicked and inspected it as she awaited his answer.

          “So, you came here to serve as a detective and to interrogate the suspect yet have no idea how he looks like? You are pretty bad at your job, huh?” the man began to laugh. “Look, officer, with all due respect, you had your chance when there was no one here but him. Your window has closed. As you very well know, all defenders received a message briefing us on the misfortune and date of the coronation. This only happens once every who-knows-how-many millennia, so as expected, many defenders, especially low-tiers like myself who are of no worth in the actual battlefield other than clean-up duty, decided to show up and observe the ceremony. This city is soon to be flooded by defenders and Xana from all nearby areas, making the suspect’s escape rather easy, if he wishes to escape. He probably does not need to, considering how inept you are at finding culprits. Are you new to the job, officer?” Yunmy’s grip on the gun tightened more and more to the point that she believed she was about to crush it, but she breathed in and let out a long sigh to calm herself down. She was infuriated by his monologue and the confusing turn of events that had provided her with no answers to the mystery, but she reminded herself that she was not an officer sent to investigate the death of the king, so there was nothing at stake to worry about aside from her own curiosity.

          “Look, I was not sent here as a detective or anything of that sort, I just happened to be around and was notified of the misfortune before any of you did; however, such notice did not include anything about an investigation. This leads me to believe that whoever was here had official business with the king, someone the higher-ups trusted enough not to place a bounty on, but my curiosity got the better of me, and I hoped I would get some answers. Alas, as you say, my window has closed. Seems my curiosity will never be satisfied. Now scram.” The defender bowed his head and departed. Yunmy made her way back to her temporary quarters, chucked the laser gun across the room knowing very well it could explode or trigger a laser blast, and began to punch the ground out of frustration at how awkward and absolutely inconsequential the past half-hour had been. What had she expected? For the culprit to just spill all the information? How foolish she had been!

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

          As expected, Louran was indeed flooded by many Texeli and defenders who did not want to miss the coronation. Though Yunmy had forfeited her attempts at finding any information on what had taken place in Louran on the days preceding the king’s demise, she had decided to remain in the city long enough to congratulate the new king. The coronation was extremely jolly, and both Texeli and defenders intermingled as though there were not a war raging at that very moment that could spell the mass extinction of all Texeli. Granted, it seemed as though the timing of the coronation had clashed with the plans of the higher-ups, who had scheduled their new-fangled “siege” event for the same week. Probably the contention was for the best, for the event that would have otherwise raged on would have been a War Game, and she shuddered at the thought of defenders commanding their bands to crumble each other instead of celebrating such a momentous occurrence.

          She remained in Louran well past the coronation, lamenting the loss of her home -– Cackling -– and knowing very well that she had nowhere else to venture off to unless she ever decided to attempt reconvening with that child, NXT. However, even staying in Louran had not been enough to dissuade misfortune from befalling her; less than a month after the siege event ended, the new Exo raid began, that time near Louran. Everyone had been surprised by the sudden turn of events, for Exos had never ventured back so closely to an area they had already attempted to ransack. They could not have chosen a worst time and place to do so, for most of the defenders who had attended the coronation had already ventured forth to join with the rest of the defenders, leaving only the few who had decided to stay in Louran for as long as they could before they were forced out by Tier A who demanded they join the war effort after their extended and undeserving vacation. The timing served as a reminder to Yunmy and other defenders that Exos are a species of sentient beings at the end of the day, not machines raiding random places at random times.

          As one of the first major decisions during his kingship, the new king decided to demand the freedom of the Theri beast who had allegedly mauled him centuries prior, to no one’s surprise but to many’s dismay, in hopes that he would be able to aid defenders in their newest battle. The Beast of Texemere, Gerra, he who was described by Abbott-Abbott as “the hound of hell, shaking sulfur’d sap from a naked snout.” Yunmy in the past few days had heard a lot about the beast’s nature, history, and appearance, but she could not surmise what was biased and twisted by Xana and what was accurate. According to what she had heard, the beast was a ferocious, intimidating beast whose power had been lying dormant ever since his imprisonment and whose red fur and bloodthirsty eyes would surely send the Exos running the opposite direction at the expense of many Texeli lives as they try to subdue the beast. Many Mages, mostly the older folk, would go around warning defenders of the beast, one which could not be trusted, but the younger folk, who had been at the front lines aiding defenders and fighting alongside Theri, were as skeptical as defenders on the true nature of the so-called beast. Gerra resembled a canine with long ears in the shape of horns and extremely sharp teeth, but his most notably features were everything but biological. Yunmy had not been able to gather much about what had caused his ailments, but Gerra for as long as anyone could remember had sported metallic armor and paw prosthetics, eventually building for himself metallic wings to intimidate the Mages even further. Before long, Yunmy got to meet Gerra. Though he seemed to have prosthetics, Yunmy learned he merely had armor and rudimentary enhancements. During the raid, crafters were given the opportunity to enhance Gerra’s armor and weaponry, making him even stronger than he was already. It was a mystery how the iris did it, but once a Gerra was enhanced using the Human-made amor, every subsequent Gerra built from ixstones donned the new armor.

          Gerra was not the only Texeli being enhanced with left-over scraps from Exos. There was another Texeli, Zartosht, whose prowess had ranked him at the same level as Nebuchadnezzar: a Legendary. He had been a headless knight who lost his head many centuries prior but had never been healed. He never revealed how he lost his head, nor could anyone provide an adequate answer to why the iris had never healed him, but the reason why he had decided to join the war effort during that particular raid was because of the Exos’ appearance that time around. The Exos seemed to be more and more interested in mimicking Humans, and strangely enough, the Exos that raided were not modeled after animals nor Humanoid bipedals; rather, they were modeled after Human body parts! Floating heads and even body-less feet and hands invaded and terrorized everyone. Long story short, though stronger than previous models due mostly to their extremely cumbersome and unorthodox fighting tactics, all the Exos were eventually destroyed. One of the beaten floating heads, however, was beaten by Zartosht, who decided to incorporate it into his own self, giving it life as his own head. Very unsightly and jarring, that Texeli. Soon enough, all other subsequent Zartosht began evolving into their final forms with the Exo head resting upon their shoulders.

          As Humans remained fighting in Texel longer and longer, they became witnesses for more and more peculiar powers by the iris, and the hungrier for answers did they become. Unfortunately, since no such interdimensional conflicts had happened at anytime in Texeli’s long and winding history, even Texeli historians, iris’ so-called prophets, and elders were unable to recall a time when the iris had done something similar in such a grand scale or interpret iris’ answers to such questions, if they even received an answer at all. It seemed that the iris did not like speaking to even its own prophets, or perhaps the iris had communicated with the prophets its wish to not disclose too much information to Humans. Whatever the case, more and more Humans became restless for answers. Yunmy, on the other hand, had done what she did best: administer first aid to any fallen defenders. She never learned what the culprit's motives had been for being in Louran, but she was happy as long as she could remain serving as a doctor of sorts and could remain hidden from Nightmare and whoever else may be looking to exterminate her. She was even considering the possibility of starting another sanctuary city, though she was highly dissuaded from doing so by the side of her who could not possibly relive another extermination like the one that had plagued Cackling.

Chapter Text

           As someone who never cared much for defending anyone but himself, Lugon found himself in a particularly cumbersome situation. He had traveled to the Amber Sea to relax, but little did he know that in doing so, he had been traveling closer to the next siege area. He should have expected as much; it was only natural for the event organizers to hold the event close to the sea. Every defender had at least heard of the two legendary seas, the other being the Silver Sea at the other extreme of the land. The raid that had just happened had been all the way back in Louran, so most defenders had not bothered traveling such a long distance and had kept walking forth toward the sea. Thankfully, there had been some defenders, who had been ridiculed time and time again in abhorrence and admonition for remaining in Louran lazing around after the coronation, who had been able to deal with the Exos with the help of the Tier A police force who had remained in Louran to kick people out whenever they had spent too long merely leeching from the Mages. Lugon assumed that Tier A would begin re-evaluating their tactics to accommodate the new revelation that Exos had begun invading areas that had already been invaded. Most likely, there would be announcements sent to certain tablets ordering people to remain behind instead of venturing forth in case the Exos decided to be sneaky again.

           A new event having started would not have normally intrigued Lugon, for he had up to that point barely ever contributed to an event that was not a War Game, but that siege was an exceptional event not due to the tactics or the challenge or the refreshingly new tasks in an otherwise monotonous war, but the roster. As if the crafters had known ahead of time who were planning on visiting the mainland, they had constructed strongholds no longer resembling medieval European architecture, but Asian. The aesthetic had thrown off many defenders who had been expecting more castles rather than pagoda… until they bore witness to the new visitors from an island surrounded by the Amber Sea.

           These visitors were rightfully dubbed “Amberlings” by the mainlanders. They were the only handful of Texeli who knew the secrets of traveling across the sea. Every defender had been instructed not to venture too close to the shore, for the sea would snatch any poor soul foolish enough to do so. Naturally, many defenders decided their visit to the sea served as a hilarious opportunity to wheedle out more Undesirables, so they began spreading false information about the sea to trick the intellectually inferior into remaining forever ensnared by the greedy and envious waters. Legends have it that countless of millennia ago, sap from nearby trees had begun changing the once “normal” ocean, but as the moons sauntered by, the ocean began to grow hungrier and more stubborn. Eventually, the sea became nothing more than a trap.

           The morning of the day before the event started, Lugon had been enjoying the sand with his bare feet when he noticed an amputee lying on the sand with a worn-down straw hat providing him shade. Lugon assumed the man was a lousy Undesirable and decided to amuse himself by confronting him. “Howdy there, partner.”

           “Howdy,” he replied softly.

           “What happened to that arm of yours? Has it been like that since you were on Earth?”

           “Perhaps.”

           “Don’t ‘perhaps’ me, you fool. Why are you here?”

           “Same as everyone else –- enjoying the sounds of the sea.” The two remained silent to soak in the ambience, though the crowd of defenders was creating such a commotion that the sea itself was indistinguishable.

           “Very funny.” Lugon sat down beside the man. “Next, is it?”

           “Right you are, Luigi.”

           “The hell did you get Luigi from? It’s Lugon!”

           “And where the hell did you get ‘Next’ from? My mispronunciation is no crazier than yours, considering all the letters in my name are capitalized.”

           “You are one infuriating bastard, aren’t you? I greet you nicely and all I get in return is passive-aggressive pestering.”

           “My apologies. Perhaps you should move on with your day so I may stop bothering you.” NXT dismissed Lugon with a nonchalant wave of his hand.

           Lugon burst out laughing to hide his frustration, but nothing could have hidden the twitch on his right eyebrow. “You are one infuriating little man, aren’t you?” Lugon grappled for any comebacks but ultimately failed. “Why aren’t you enjoying the water? I know you want to!”

           NXT for the first time decided to move his head and lift his hat to make eye contact with Lugon. “Do I really look like another average fool to you? Who would you say is the bigger fool, the man who merely wishes to relax and just so happens to have lost his arm during the war or a man who cannot control his emotions, nagging, and indignation enough to think for at least a second about how the person he is talking to is far above being fooled into letting a single toe touch those deadly waters? Good luck finding another, less intelligent victim, but I would really appreciate it if you cease your abhorrent pestering.” He readjusted his hat as it had been and sighed deeply. Lugon remained quiet and admitted to himself how stupidly he had comported himself.

           “Let us start from scratch, shall we? Name’s Lugon. Where’s your band?”

           “My band? Well, I assume they have done what your own band did, and that is to get as away from this massacre as possible.” Lugon turned his head to watch all the fools who had stepped too deep into the ocean screaming their little, retarded heads off as they struggled to escape from the amber, slowly being dragged deeper and deeper, their lungs beings flooded slowly but surely. Somehow, Undesirables who had survived up to that point -– presumably by hiding rather than participating in battles -– were still running to bathe in the sea as if blind and deaf to all the struggling souls. Lugon could not fathom how stupid one must be to still wish to enter the water after so many had been lost right in front of one’s eyes.

           “Right you are; my band decided not to accompany me.”

           “Perhaps public execution is a human-only past-time.”

           “Perhaps.”

           “Though the irony would be exquisite, would you not say?”

           “How so?”

           “Well, Texeli are immortal and can mend themselves with time, no? Would such species not be more inclined to massacre one another for sport? Imagine if us Humans could glue ourselves after being reduced to pieces. There would be killing for the hell of it everywhere you looked! Yet Texeli are repulsed by violence.”

           Lugon was at a loss for words and did not bother to formulate a follow-up. He remained seated beside NXT, staring at the drowning Humans in contemplation rather than amusement for once. “What do you think happens if a Texeli is tossed into the waters? As you said, they never die, so would they simply be dragged to the depths of the ocean in endless, cyclic purgatory as they drown and mend?”

           “I would rather not imagine such things.”

           “Fair enough.” After some time, Lugon decided to lay on the sand as well, and the two of them meditated on the screams, chatting, and waves hitting the beach.

           Suddenly, NXT began to speak. “I feel so relaxed, you know? I have never felt so relaxed before. I feel as though I have fulfilled a major milestone in my life by merely being here. I feel as though I had always been destined to be in this exact spot but god had not been so sure my destiny would be fulfilled, so the relief I feel is an extension of god’s own upon realizing my fate had indeed come to pass at long last.”

           “The hell did you just say?”

           “Nothing. I merely tend to mumble nonsense to myself from time to time.” There was silence between them again until they heard multiple people start screaming that they were seeing something in the distance coming from the ocean. What could possibly be coming from the ocean? The two of them sat up and looked around, but sure enough there was a small object zooming over the water and making its way straight toward them.

           “Could it be an Exo?” Lugon asked.

           “I doubt they have devised technology capable of navigating the sea.”

           “Well, how much harder would it be to construct such a vessel when their massive headquarters have now proven to float above mountains?”

           “Fair point.” The two of them remained silent as they stared in awe at what appeared to be a bird in flames. Soon, they distinguished a man with long, red hair on top of a small ship below the bird, whose female rider could now barely be witnessed. Behind the flaming bird was a golden dragon with three passengers on his long body. By the time the creatures were close enough to observe in detail, they merely zoomed past everyone without stopping. Not even a hello. Despite their short appearance, they had made one hell of a first impression.

          At the front of the fleet had been the red-haired man on a magic-infused ship that sprung forth wheels upon reaching land and whose magic exclusive to Amberlings allowed it to sail over the treacherous waters. As had been revealed later in the event, he had been the fabled Ishpah. All knowledgeable defenders had read Ishpah’s writings, for he had written multiple manuscripts on many Texeli, most who had joined the war effort by then, and who knows how many more would join them later. He was an extremely peculiar kabuki warrior, or so NXT and some others had stated. Not like Lugon knew much about ancient Earth history, but he could not help but criticize all those linking Ishpah to an Earthly tradition just because of appearance. He proved to be an extremely passionate man when it came to showing off in the most elaborate of ways. His ship would eventually be adorned with all sorts of gadgets, but the most astonishing, ludicrous, and controversial of all was a gift bestowed upon him by those incorrigible crafters. Ishpah had foolishly commissioned from them an item that met certain criteria: it had to be exclusive to Earth’s culture in some way, it had to be something astonishingly unexpected, and it had to make him stand out above the rest. And those requirements were surpassed in all the wrong ways! Lugon could not wrap his mind around how the crafters could have possibly been granted permission to construct such a weapon, but the crafters gifted Ishpah an assault rifle! Lugon trembled upon realizing that creating such Earthly weapons from dots was possible, shuddering at the thought of mass-producing such weapons and those weapons falling onto the wrong hands. Clearly, the higher-ups could not be trusted to control the manufacturing of weapons. In fact, Lugon had witnessed with his own eyes the use of laser guns. A most terrifying prospect it was, the eventual damnation of Humanity not at the hands of Exos but their own as weapons are turned against themselves due to Humanity’s nature to obliterate one another.

          Behind Ishpah had been two magical beasts: a flaming peacock and a long, golden dragon. On top of the latter had been a trio: Llewnosk the dragon rider, Shilanuy the sumo wrestler, and Alleumad the horse-riding, demon-mask-wearing samurai wielding a scythe. Lugon cared not for that trio; his eyes were locked upon the creature whom the flaming peacock bore on her shoulders. The creature came to be known as Azuna the Amberling, or sometimes even the Queen of Dance. She was extremely adaptable, able to change from a mage to a scout class depending on whether she fought on foot or on top of her peacock friend -– Zunie. When riding her companion, she would attack swiftly, using Zunie’s superior speed and grace to deal devastating damage. When those two were together, they could create a whirlwind of cherry blossom pedals that could shatter any Texeli in its wake. They were the most formidable Texeli duo there was. When on foot, however, she would attack her foes with concentrated fire magic as she gracefully danced wearing her iconic dress and wielded her two golden, bladed fans. She quickly became yet another victim of NXT and others’ linking to Earthly traditions after being called a geisha, whatever that was. All Lugon cared about was how beautiful she looked. Had someone told him that he would fall in love with a Xana before that event, he would have scoffed; up to that point, he had only had eyes for certain Hemi he had encountered in brothels. Yet there he stood at the beach that fateful morning, gawking at the Xana who had escaped her homeland, her monotonous life as an entertainer, for the thrill of battle!

          He had not been the only one who had fallen head over heels for her. That siege event saw one of the highest turn-outs of any event thus far in the war. News about her spread like wildfire thanks to the tablets, so even those foolish enough to attempt to travel from all the way in Louran rushed as fast as they could to participate even for a second in the event. NXT, too, had fallen for her, though in a very peculiar way. When they next saw each other days after the fateful morning at the beach, he seemed far more hostile rather than just an arrogant jerk. He had with him Llewnosk and seemed to already be close friends with him. Rather than lusting for her, NXT seemed to be more inclined to protect her, as if her fate had not been to submit herself to the rule of defenders like every other Texeli out there. Lugon and NXT’s dispute that day had opened Lugon’s eyes to the hidden nature of Texeli.

          Lugon had been leisurely making his way toward the stronghold when suddenly Llewnosk’s dragon flew into his path, stopping him dead in his tracks. Llewnosk and NXT both hopped off the dragon and confronted him. “How the hell do you already have him!” Lugon shook his head as to shake off his surprise. NXT was clearly not the average defender. “What brings you two folks here? I’m surprised to see you in the Argent Host, and my enemy no less. Are you here to prevent me from helping out my host, or are you here just to make my life miserable again?”

          “If anybody is making anyone’s life miserable, it is people such as yourself.”

          “Oh really, and how come?”

          “We have heard rumors, Human,” Llewnosk interjected. “You are the kind of mongrel that so brazenly extracts comfort from your despicable god complex.”

          “What we are trying to say, in case your feeble mind did not comprehend my friend here, is that your behavior and actions have spread as rumors from defender to defender from how shameless they have been. Most defenders are contempt merely acquiring Texeli, but you seem to lust after Azuna as though you were no better than a Tier C in heat.”

          Lugon burst into laughter. “And what of it? It’s not my fault not every defender out there takes advantage of his role as a leader to subjugate his band! And I assure you, I am not the only one.” Lugon had been so focused on NXT that he had not noticed that he had not arrived alone with Llewnosk. The crafty Iudith created a slide out of ice down which she and her horse slid from on top the dragon. Most interestingly, a disembodied hand rested on her shoulder. “Well, if it isn’t a necromancer and her pet.” Iudith glared at him as she rode her horse beside NXT. “You see NXT, I am what I consider what a defender should be. A leader, not a companion. We are not here to befriend; we are here to subjugate. There is no time for such petty relationships. You clearly consider that Texeli your friend instead of servant. A pity. I wonder how awfully that relationship has resulted for you in the battlefield.”

          “We are not here to entertain superfluous chatter, Human,” Llewnosk interrupted.

          “And who do you think you are addressing me as Human instead of defender?”

          “Enough, Lugon. We have come here to liberate Azuna from you undeserving grasp,” NXT proclaimed.

          “Undeserving grasp? Who the hell do you think you are talking to? Me, unworthy to be a leader? For crying out loud!”

          “You abuse your Texeli, Lugon! You see them as nothing more than bargaining chips, as nothing more than objects. You see Azuna as a trophy, as a-”

          “Calm down for a second, NXT, and think rationally. You have let your emotions and whatever that foolish dragon-rider has told you cloud your judgment. I understand Llewnosk has been loyal to his lady for who knows how many centuries, so to see his beloved escort become the slave of another truly must be heartbreaking, but to see you, a Human who cannot have possibly known her for more than a week yet, attempt to defend her in such a shaming manner truly stirs pity from the bottom of my heart. Do you really believe that a woman who escaped her homeland deep in the sea where no Exo would ever dream to invade would unwillingly become the slave of someone else? Every Texeli that joins the war simultaneously consents to becoming nothing more than pawns, and she has the power to merely escape back home if she so wished, yet she is still with me with no intentions of parting, or am I wrong?” Mitziya, Azuna’s form before evolving into Azuna, stepped forth. She stared at Llewnosk for some time before giggling to herself.

          “M’lady?” Llewnosk asked, approaching her.

          “Do not approach me!” she shouted. Llewnosk was startled stiff, his shoulders sagging in confusion and despair. She opened one of her fans with a flick of her wrist and covered her frown. “How pitiful of you.”

          “Is that truly you, m’lady? Did you not-”

          “Silence!” she shouted again. “Dear Llewnosk, do you recall my reason for traveling here?”

          “To escape your ennui, I believe.”

          “And do you recall your reason for traveling here?”

          “M’lady, you know I shall travel wherever you may lead,” he said, bowing his head.

          “And there lies your gravest mistake. What do you aim to accomplish here? Is this not completely foreign land? Is this not a complete culture shock? Is this not an opportunity to explore oneself to the fullest extent? Yet you remain one-dimensional, constantly occupied over me instead of yourself. I believe you have spent the past restless days merely obsessing over my well-being rather than your own, diminishing your sanity as you labor over the horror of seeing me split into my earlier forms and disseminated as nothing more than rewards for these ‘unworthy scum’, yet not once did you attempt to place yourself in my shoes. I, Mitziya who has been Shimka and who shall be Azuna, not once concerned myself over you.” She hesitated and breathed deeply before continuing. “You ought to grow up.”

          Llewnosk was completely defeated and fell on his knees. Pressing his forehead against the ground, Llewnosk cried out: “What has become of you, m’lady! You speak not as she would! You speak not as anyone I have ever known! You speak as though under the spell of these foul mainlanders! Has this world truly altered you this much? Allow me to comprehend you! I plead of you, forgive me, forgive my inability to see the world as you do through such beautiful and wise eyes! Please, I implore you, I shall die a restless man if you do not dispel this awful cloud looming above me. Do you truly wish to live as a pawn? as nothing more than a toy? as nothing more than yet another servant for these wicked folk who know naught but destruction and savagery? who know nothing of beauty and tranquility as you have so immaculately embodied since I ever first laid eyes upon you? If this is truly so, if you truly wish to become as you are, then I shall have no objections and shall remove myself from your path. I am merely an obstacle in your endeavors.” He lifted his head only to retrieve his blade from behind him. “I am nothing but deadweight. It seems my purpose here is over.” He stared at his reflection upon the blade.

          As this debacle transpired, Lugon had been staring at NXT, whose eyes seemed to gloss over more and more as their conversation went on. Perhaps he was bored, or perhaps he just wanted the battle to begin, but Lugon could not help but think that those eyes were of a man who was struggling to comprehend something that he had no hope of ever comprehending. Lugon knew that face well. Mitziya walked over to Llewnosk and placed a hand on his shoulder. From his angle, Llewnosk could not see her face covered by her fan, as she would have wished. Her eyes had started to water.

          “Llewnosk, we have entered a war now, do you understand? Our lives will change in a most drastic way. We will depart each other’s presences unless we meet again in the battlefield or are joined under the same defender, yet even if that is the case, it will not be us who shall experience this but our future selves. I admit, all these prospects are scary. To know we will be together but unable to experience those countless adventures is heartbreaking…” She knelt down in front of him and covered them both under the shade of her umbrella. “Listen to me, I am in no need of saving anymore, but that does not mean by any stretch of the imagination that I do not still need you. I may have been unnecessarily harsh earlier, but I know you well enough to conclude you would have stubbornly chased after my protection unless I shattered your very soul. Do not be a fool, Llewnosk. Do not wither away for my sake. We cannot afford to do so here amidst the war.” She stood up and stepped away to give enough room for Llewnosk to stand up.

          Lugon had grown tired of staring at the two love-birds bicker and walked over to Mitziya to grab her by the shoulder and pull her back. He had prolonged the distraction enough. He needed to get back to destroying sentries and strongholds for his host. Before he came close enough to grab her, however, Mitziya spun around so fast that he had no time to register her movements. In the span of a single blink, she had sliced at his head, cutting the tips of his hair with the bladed fan that had been covering her face.

          “And you, know your place. Your arrogance is sickening to the bone. I may have allowed you to command me up to this point as to not distort any rumors, but as you can see, my mission to open Llewnosk’s mind has been completed. I no longer need your putrid presence infringing on my person. You dare approach me one more time and I shall leave your band with no remorse. I did not sail the seas just to be manhandled by lunatics such as yourself.”

          Lugon fumed with indignation. No Texeli had ever laid a single finger on him, let alone harmed him. If he let her get away with such a transgression, then the rest of his band who had been standing patiently and obediently behind him would most likely get rebellious ideas. Having sensed evil intent, Llewnosk swooped between her and Lugon and pointed his y-shaped sword so both blades were directed straight into Lugon’s eyes.

          “You defenders have grown too accustomed to Texeli adhering to your every whim. We are not weak; we do not need a leader such as yourself. We can fight this war all on our own if need be. You heard m’lady, mongrel: Know. Your. Place.” His blades inched closer to Lugon’s eyes as Llewnosk said those last three words, and Lugon gulped nervously.

          “Enough, Llewnosk,” NXT commanded, and Llewnosk lowered his sword.

          “NX-” Lugon began to say, but the moment he turned around to look at NXT, NXT used all his strength to pummel Lugon’s face with a gauntlet he had somehow equipped on his last remaining hand. Lugon fell down to the ground, bleeding from his nose profusely. “You fucking bastard!”

          “Texeli cannot harm defenders; that is the law.”

          “And the same goes for defenders against defenders, bastard!”

          NXT stomped on Lugon’s arm, causing Lugon to scream in agony. “I have broken no such law. When did I ever say I was a defender?” NXT lifted his foot and walked away.

          “You’ll pay for this, bastard!” Lugon shouted as Llewnosk, NXT, and Iudith began mounting the dragon. “I’ll report your ass to the officers, and you will regret ever laying your hand on me!” As Llewnosk flew away, Mitziya stared at Lugon on the ground, her fan hiding her large smile.

Chapter Text

           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?”

           “Worry not.”

           “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 on 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 detat 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.

           “Correct.”

           “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?”

           “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.”

Chapter Text

          “Welcome back, gentlemen,” Monkey stated after everyone -– himself, his amanuensis, the leaders of HEF-1 and -23, the crafter, and Blob -– was sat around the oval table. “Now that the first session has expired, we shall commence the second session. This session shall be exclusively led by Officer Blob. Please, commence when ready.” Monkey raised his hand toward Blob and sat down. Blob looked about him. Lemon and Pheenix were staring at him intently, as though wary of his competence after another high-ranking officer had proven to be nothing but an unreliable fool. Blob donned a wide smile and commenced his report.

          “I wish to commence my session by extending my gratitude to all of you. As this is my first HEF convocation, I am beyond ecstatic. Unfortunately, the topic for which I have attended this gathering is nothing short of horrific. Since many of you are far beyond caring for the lives of two scum such as Jibberish and Kohai, I would like to brief you with brevity in mind as to their relationship with each other and with me.” Blob sighed in agony and hatred. “If you would like a more complete report, I have requested that my paper be sent to all of you gentlemen. Feel free to retrieve it at any time and inquire of me any doubts, concerns, or general questions. As if such were so, the two men are each a half of Gemini -– inseparable. Jibberish, the older one, was the more collected of the two, though both were deemed so mentally irreparable that they were assigned positions as Rectifiers.” The revelation had been so sudden and unprecedented that even the amanuensis’ rapid-fire typing screeched to a halt.

          Rectifiers were members of the most dangerous department in the police force. They were those who had failed the sanity examination with flying colors. For society to function, three tiers were created: tiers A, B, and C. Furthermore, A’s were to copulate with A’s, B’s with B’s, and C’s with C’s. As fortune would have it, however, even in such controlled settings, offspring of intra-tier unifications would occasionally test outside of their parents’ tiers. Yet another curse of excessive overpopulation, that; even a fraction of a percentage chance could explode into millions of cases, millions of rectifications. As Rectifiers, Jibberish and Kohai would be assigned homes to investigate. More often than not, their investigation would prove positive for such anomalies. When positive, their task would become nothing more than to rectify the paradox, to exterminate the pest before it dares corrupt society any further with its genetic defect. Naturally, the parents would receive punishment, though not too severe, for not having reported the anomaly sooner, but Rectifiers were given permission to exterminate any parents who dared oppose the rectification of their household. As one would imagine, the assassination of multiple infants, most not even several months old, was mentally taxing to most officers, so a sanity test would be conducted. If failed with flying colors, the officers would be deemed too damaged to function as a standard officer but not too dysfunctional to be assassinated right then and there. Their perfect position in society was none other than as a Rectifier. They were useful, but also dangerous, for most had to be under constant surveillance lest they explode into a rampage.

          “No wonder,” Pheenix mumbled. “I have heard of the two due to their status as the most dangerous among those in the bounty list. With Achromedea in third at 700.000 Texi, Jibberish and Kohai have ascended to absurd heights at three-quarters-a-million for each of their heads; a total of one-and-a-half-million altogether. I had not been informed of that, however.”

          “Likewise,” Lemon stated.

          Monkey bit his lower lip pensively. “Do continue with your report and elaborate on Jibberish. What do you mean by ‘the more collected of the two?’”

          “Correct, the more collected of the two, by which I mean Kohai had been deemed an exceptionally volatile asset even among Rectifiers. Do bear in mind, gentlemen, that my report’s main source is the two themselves. I was incapable of finding any officer or defender who knew of the two back on Earth, so corroboration is non-existent. That said, Jibberish had served as a Rectifier for approximately a lustrum prior to being paired with Kohai. Jibberish, a B-3, was competent enough to be a leader of sorts. He somehow learned how to repress his bloodthirst and manic episodes enough to disguise himself as a functional member of society, but he remained as a Rectifier voluntarily. As mentioned by him retrospectively, he always enjoyed the rush of seeing others massacre the infants, but he hardly ever did so himself. His life, and I quote, ‘was fulfilled the moment I was assigned a most perfect and compatible partner: Kohai.’

          “In contrast, Kohai never had the luxury of being even remotely suitable for society. Born of an incompatible intra-tier-C relationship in the slums, he was caged in a basement wherein he would be tortured day in and day out by his abusive father, who thought of himself as a God of Lightning during his many frequent and long episodes of what could only be described, from what was recalled to me, as a form of disassociated identity. To augment Kohai’s trauma, he was caged in the same jail wherein his mother had been scorched to death, her corpse allegedly rotting beside him as he was tortured. He suffered thus for approximately three years before being rescued by agents at the age of ten. As you would imagine, he had to be re-trained to be remotely civilized, at least enough to adequately resemble a Human being, and none other than Jibberish had been tasked with Kohai’s re-introduction to the world outside the decrepit basement.”

          “Excuse me, dear Blob,” Lemon interrupted. “But I do wonder why agents would bother investigating the slums.”

          “My apologies, I overlooked such a concern in my report. In fact, that peculiarity is one I inquired of the two one day, and according to Jibberish, he had been briefed that Kohai’s father had either accidentally or deliberately created multiple black-outs that caught the attention of those living near the slums. The investigation was inevitable.” After waiting a few short seconds, Blob continued.

          “Jibberish disclosed a major vulnerability of Kohai, and that is a whistle Jibberish keeps in his person perpetually. Apparently, during Kohai’s training, Jibberish had deduced that not even he would be able to control Kohai at all times; hence, Jibberish conditioned the maniac to completely shut down whenever he hears the sounds from a specially-crafted whistle. That specific frequency sends Kohai into a traumatic episode that renders him indefensible. I saw the effects of the whistle first-hand one night at a pub. Kohai and a newly-arrived defender entered a quarrel with each other when the defender drunkenly annoyed Kohai. Kohai, in anger, battered the defender’s face into a bloody pulp with no signs of ever stopping until Jibberish set off the whistle. At that moment, Kohai froze and allowed himself to be choked in a headlock by the defender upon his regaining composure. Kohai would have allowed himself to die had Jibberish not snapped his fingers three times in a deliberate manner I no longer recall. My apologies. I would also like to apologize for never recording and analyzing the frequency of the whistle. Otherwise, we would have been able to create our own device wherewith to produce the same frequency.”

          “We acknowledge,” Monkey reluctantly stated, speaking for Lemon and Pheenix.

          “I would gladly craft such a device if given the information,” Lambo chimed in, having finally understood his purpose in the meeting. “I have a background in such technologies.”

          “Splendid,” Blob acknowledged. “However, I do fear if now that Jibberish has released his repression in its totality that he may have destroyed the whistle.”

          “Desist. Pessimistic speculation should not be entertained,” Lemon interjected.

          “Untrue,” Pheenix disagreed. “Blob has stated no such speculation but a viable possibility we must take into account."

          “I desist,” Lemon stated, leaning back on his chair defensively.

          “Would you mind elaborating on the incident mentioned in your brief report before commencing our discussion on how to best deal with these two miscreants, dear Blob?” Monkey requested. Blob swallowed nervously as he recalled the events he had purposefully omitted from the report, but he dared not to retaliate Monkey’s wishes by having him submit to the incident being unimportant. Everyone in the room nodded in agreement, and Blob sighed.

          “Jibberish, after his defeat following his encounter with Anchromedea, buckled under the pressure of his insanity and indignation, rendering him indistinguishable from Kohai and further strengthening my obscure metaphor to Gemini. They are now twins of destruction, relentlessly raping, torturing, and murdering Texeli, Undesirables, and Humans, though they seem to prefer Undesirables and Humans over Texeli, presumably due to their disdain for Texeli immortality and inconsequential crumbling. As someone who had been their acquaintance ever since they were teleported to Texel approximately seven months ago, I understand just how uncharacteristic of Jibberish this sudden mental breakdown is. He seemed so collected, and not once had such an outcome crossed my mind! But I digress.

          “In my report, I briefly mention their ‘latest confirmed stunt’: the Zartosht incident that occurred during the raid near Louran. If you all must know, I was dispatched to the crime scene and can provide an eye-witness account of the aftermath of the events that befell those poor victims. I have personally requested to be summoned whenever a crime so ludicrous that the chances of Jibberish and Kohai having been the culprits are astronomical is reported, and summoned I was when officer headquarters was contacted because of a rather gruesome scene: ten decapitated corpses back-to-back in a circle. However, Jibberish and Kohai are not the type to merely decapitate and organize their victims. They truly love to show off. In this case, all ten corpses had not only been decapitated but stuffed inside Zartosht’s armor. As if purposefully having sought obese defenders, eight of the ten had been too large for the armor, and their corpses had significant chunks of flesh from the abdomen, arms, and legs sliced off. The corpses had also been decapitated because Jibberish and Kohai managed to wire Zartosht’s Exo head into them. To illustrate the crime scene, all we officers saw were ten Zartosht sitting in a circle facing away from each other but bleeding profusely from the cracks in their armor. Though we had our suspicions, the victims were only confirmed to be Human when suddenly the Exo heads and armors began to crumble into dots two at a time, leaving only the butchered remains of defenders in a sea of yellow.” Blob remained silent to allow his audience to register the implications of his report.

          “This cannot possibly be true!” Lambo exclaimed.

          “True it is,” Monkey stated, his lower lip bleeding slightly. “The report has been confirmed with the signature of the chief of police. Her credibility is indisputable.” Lemon and Pheenix both nodded.

          Lambo’s mouth fell agape. “How could two Humans possibly detain ten Legendary-tier Texeli and keep them prisoner for an unknown duration until the officers arrived, after which they simply crumbled them as if they were nothing!”

          “I would like to remind this congregation that the subjects of today’s session are none other than Jibberish and Kohai,” Monkey stated. “Admittedly, I was never acquainted with either one, but prior to being granted my position as head of an HEF, I had served in the frontlines since as early as the war itself. We are here today discussing two powerful beings. Were they not the two who had single-handedly toppled a flying fortress during the raid of February and miraculously survived the crash landing? Were they not the two who had insisted on facing against none other than Montu, God of War, all by their lonesome just to boast of their combat techniques?”

          “Surely they must have utilized Texeli for those tasks, yet what Texeli would possibly aid the two now that they have become evil incarnate?” Lemon chimed in.

          “Perhaps those overwhelmed by their fear, those overwhelmed by their disdain toward Humans, those overwhelmed by their desire to alter the monotonous beat of this dreadful war?” Lambo speculated.

          “Perhaps such Texeli exist, but if they do, of none of them are we aware.”

          “Additionally, if they do, could they possibly be strong enough to alter the outcome of a battle against the likes of Zartosht?” Pheenix appended.

          “Desist,” Monkey stated. “If Blob and others are unaware of their methodology, who are we to waste our times speculating such enigmatic contrivances? Have Blob deal with reconnaissance.”

          “With all due respect, Monkey,” Lemon rejected, “possible is it for us to strategize the means for their extermination without first considering if they have garnered aid from unknown Texeli?”

          “Consider, if you will, their acquisition of such,” Monkey continued. “What consequences would that entail for us at this very moment?”

          “Foolish of you, Monkey,” Pheenix stated, deeply disappointed. “Do you have history with those two that you are not disclosing to the congregation? Your comportment is rather odd. Of course such acquisition is of importance! Defenders work alongside Texeli in their endeavors every day, and if we do not ascertain which, if any, are their companions, Jibberish and Kohai may very well have in their possession a highly-effective army of spies and we would be none the wiser!”

          Monkey remained silent. “I insist on not having any history with those two; however, I do acknowledge my ineptitude and inexcusable folly just now. I apologize.” Monkey bowed his head.

          “Acknowledged,” Lemon and Pheenix responded.

          “What are we to do about those two, then? With or without Texeli aid?” Lambo inquired.

          “Before anything, we must ascertain if they do, in fact, possess Texeli aid. However, for simplicity’s sake and for the duration of this convocation, I suggest assuming the best-case scenario. Nevertheless, even without aid, those two are formidable forces. Kohai, from the very beginning, had insisted on combatting Exos with nothing but Texeli gear. He never had a band of his own. Jibberish, on the other hand, did depend on his band for most of his missions. We must not let our guards down against Jibberish, however, for he is adept at multiple martial arts. I have seen first-hand what he is capable of, and I assure you that even I would have a hard time apprehending him. Both possess an inordinate quantity of stamina and conviction. Their perseverance is enough to power an entire town! I would suggest detaining Jibberish first. If we do, we will be able to use the whistle to detain Kohai. However, if we somehow are able to recreate the frequency of the whistle, we could decommission Kohai from the very onset of what will surely be a very bloody and messy encounter,” Blob elaborated.

          “I could theoretically craft a machine that would resonate a plethora of different frequencies. Such an apparatus could be either extremely effective or absurdly useless all depending on how lucky we are in finding the correct frequency as they are cycled by it,” Lambo stated.

          “If only we could device a plan to send Kohai spiraling out of control enough for Jibberish to be rendered with no choice but to use the whistle…”

          “Are we even aware of their location?” Pheenix inquired. “How to implement any offensive plan without prior knowledge of their whereabouts?”

          “My team is currently attempting to locate them, but they are always on the move. Chances of their having a permanent hideout is miniscule.”

          “Then, to recapitulate, we are neither aware of their affiliations nor are we of their location. All our knowledge is limited to their appearance, nature, and crimes, correct?” Lemon summarized.

          “Correct. However, we must act quickly. We cannot allow their treachery to continue much longer and hinder this war.”

          “That goes without saying, dear Blob. Yet, what are we to do with such little information?” Monkey took a deep breath. “Indisputably, you must increase the fervor wherewith your team investigates the two, Officer Blob. Increase your numbers a hundred-fold if need be. We must garner as much intelligence on those two as quickly as possibly by all means necessary. You must not dilly-dally much longer.”

          “Acknowledged.”

          “Lambo, submit to abandoning or devolving to someone else your current project. Henceforth, you are to focus your resources into creating the aforementioned machine.”

          “Acknowledged,” Lambo affirmed hesitantly, closing his eyes in ponder.

          “Fellow sovereigns,” Monkey announced, looking at Lemon and then at Pheenix, “apparent it is that our aid in the matter is unquestionable. I implore you to sacrifice some of your fellow officers to the cause of apprehending these two. Aid Officer Blob’s party in collecting intelligence. Best case scenario, Jibberish and Kohai are apprehended and exterminated during reconnaissance, but acknowledging their prowess as a duo, such a task is far easier said than done. Needless to say, only confront them if a window reveals itself and never allow yourselves to start a battle in the defensive.”

          “Acknowledged,” the two of them replied.

          “That being said, I declare the second session of this far-too-extensive convocation finished. After this break, we shall commence the third and final session.” Everyone stood and bowed. As everyone left, Elise stared at his empty cup and sighed heavily. He peered into the computer screen before closing his eyes, leaning back on his chair, and stretching his arms.

          “You seem troubled,” Lambo approached.

          “I am quite fine, thank you for your concern, dear Lambo.”

          “May I?” requested Lambo, laying a hand on one of the chairs.

          “Proceed as you wish.”

          Lambo moved the chair closer to Elise and sat down, facing him. “Seasoned am I as a distinguisher of those whose incalculable ambitions have procured mental somnolence in par with their perseverance to suppress the fact. With all due respect, sir, amid us all, you harbor the most intense of such. I do not respond in kind to falsehoods, even those as understandable as the ones merely uttered to appease the concerned, so I implore you to admit, not to me but yourself, that the self-inflicted duress has done more impairment than augmentation.”

          Elise’s eyes widened as he gripped his cup more tightly. Such language was reserved solely in moments of grave importance or haughtiness. Clearly, Lambo was far too concerned for Elise’s well-being. Elise smiled professionally. “You are under a grave misunderstanding, sir. I am under no such duress. I acknowledge that my ambitions are beyond me, and that my mental health is of priority, yet I am neither coerced nor ordained by anyone including myself. I am merely compelled by my own nature. I am deeply grateful for your concern, but rest assured I am far from any danger. Now, if you would excuse me, I must acquire another cup of delectable Aja tea before the final session commences. Care to join me under the condition that you not fret over my health any further?”

          Lambo apprehensively observed as Elise’s hand quivered ever so slightly as it grasped the cup but ultimately desisted. “It would be my pleasure, amanuensis. I might as well acquire one for myself. Any suggestions as to how I shall prepare mine? I am admittedly unfamiliar with Aja tea preparation.”

          Elise’s eyes beamed. “Please allow me to disclose my knowledge on such matters! You see, Aja tea is…” As Elise rambled on and on about Aja tea, it seemed as though for that instant, Elise’s worries had evaporated.