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The Trials that Bind Us

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Valsena, Kingdom of the Plains

Breathe, he told himself. Breathing was key in this. Breathing...and focus. Focus on breathing. Focus on each and every breath you take. Have complete and total control. For control was vital. Control was everything. Control meant victory.

“Combatants, com forward!”

He sighed and slung his sword over his shoulder and walked out from the darkened space he resided in, his brow chilled with the cooling sweat he produced from the last challenge he cleared. 


In front of a large, gathered crowd that consisted of near the entire kingdom, a stalwart man garbed in royal attire of violet and green with curled, bronze hair smiled at the sound of the clamouring cheers that echoed throughout the area. Such sounds brought him back to simpler days. Indeed, though he was in no position to do so now, there were times that he felt very tempted to go and pick up a sword again. He nearly lost himself entirely when the participant from the left stepped forward. By the Goddess Herself, he looked so much like his father at his age…he bore the same vitality too.

“It is time for the final round of the Sword Mastery Tournament, Youth Addition!” the bearded, royal figure announced, looking to the young man that had just exited from the right. He had his features mainly hidden behind a suit of red armor, a yellow tail protruding from the top of the helmet, and a back plate with several spikes. Indeed, the armor was intimidating and fitting for such an event. Yet it was too early to declare a certainty of victory just yet. And though he dare not say it, the royal man had set his hopes up for the other participant.

The one that had entered from the left was a completely different sight in comparison to his competitor. For one, he had exposed his face and a good number of other places upon his form, his arms able to display the muscles that had developed, his figure lean, but quite clearly durable. Like his competitor, he bore armor, though it was a contrasting green, his helmet and shield a rounded, angular shape, bearing a crest that ran down the middle and expanded on either side. He bore pauldrons and gauntlets of the same color, the pauldrons connected via a buckle that was secured in the middle via a golden fastener. Though instead of armor coating the rest of his body, a blue, sleeveless shirt rested on his top, ending at his midsection, as if to display the hardened core he had developed throughout the years. A thickened, brown belt was fastened around his waist, though it was obviously too big for him, as a considerable amount was hanging out freely, a pair of rather free flowing, loose pants rested on his legs that contrasted greatly with the tight, brown boots with silver bands around the middle section of the foot. Yet perhaps the greatest contrast between him and his opponent was the facial region. While the combatant on the right had his face covered, the one on the left let his features be presented for all to see. Eyes of, despite being violet, pure fire and an iron will that would not be challenged bore into the darkened visor of the one he was to face. His hair was long and fanned out, making the young man appear as if he were a lion that had just reached maturity. And indeed, the young man had every intention in making everyone in the crowd hear his roar. 

“In this corner, we have the keeper of nine consecative wins, the local champion, The Bruiser!” the monarch proclaimed, cheers ringing through the crowd. “And in this corner, we have the up and coming youth who, despite having just entered a few short years ago, has climbed the ranks and earned a place amongst the Royal Guards! Duran!” The crowd cheered again, yet the young man swore he could hear two distinct voices calling out for him.

“Yay! Get ‘em, big brother!”

“Don’t go getting yourself too banged up now!” 

A small smile came to him. Typical Wendy and Aunt Stella. Especially the latter. Had she forgotten what kind of tournament this was? Well, no matter. Their eyes, as well as the man hosting this tournament, were on him now. There was no way that he could afford to lose. Not now. The Bruiser, as he was called, faced him, slinging his sword over his shoulder. “Well, well, look at you. Little guy thinking he’s all big now that he’s gotten into the Guard.” he chuckled, the young man, Duran, swearing that the arrogant punk was sneering at him from behind his helmet. “I’ll break you like a dry noodle, kid!”

What did that bastard say?! How dare he-no, no, breathe, he told himself. Breathe, keep a cool head, just like Aunt Stella said. But oh...he would deliver what this jerk was asking for. By the Goddess, he would deliver! “Then what’s stopping you?” he growled, beckoning the other swordsman forward. “Come on and try it! I dare you!”

The ruler of the kingdom looked to both of them, the tension high. He held no reservation or preference on who would be the victor, yet he couldn’t help but let his eyes fall on Duran for a moment longer than that of The Bruiser. ‘So much like Loki…’ he thought. And with one final shout of “BEGIN!”, the match was on.

The Bruiser launched himself forward, catching Duran by surprise, he stumbled back and lost his footing, falling right to the ground. A young brunette was about to rush right into the ring, but a hand seized  her wrist. A blonde woman whose hair was tied up in a bun shook her head. “But Aunt Stella! That guy hurt Duran!”

“No, Wendy.” the woman sighed. “I told you this. This is his fight. And you’re going to have to let it be his fight.” The girl was clearly unhappy with this answer, but she was near helpless against the woman’s superior strength. She winced at the remembrance of her bare bottom meeting the palm of Stella’s hand. Though, if anyone asked her, Duran got WAY more than she did. And since he was ‘too old’ for that, as Stella told her, the young girl supposed that she meant hitting him on the head was the ‘grown up’ version. Still, she far from liked seeing her brother start out so poorly. But ultimately, as Stella said, there was nothing that could be done about it.

Damn it, damn it, damn it! A flood of them soared through Duran’s mind. To start off so poorly, and in front of His Majesty no less! He had executed each and EVERY practice run perfectly! What had gone wrong?? He wasn’t allowed to ponder this further, however, as the fake sword of wood was swung down, Duran rolling out of the way and getting back up to his feet. “How’d a guy like you managed to even get into the Guard? Or did you get in because your daddy’s got connections in high places?”

He felt and immediate surge of fury overtake him, his blood pumping, its temperature rising along with everything else as he leapt forward, The Bruiser taken somewhat off guard by the sheer force of the young man as he came forward, wooden sword slashing down, The Bruiser being forced to back up a bit. Indeed, the young man had a fire in him that couldn’t be denied. Still, fire could be snuffed out. He lunged forward, the large haired youth putting up his shield and blocking the weapon, though his opponent had superior weight to him, causing him to reel back somewhat from the force of it. The Bruiser swung his weapon forward, Duran rolling out of way. Though he didn’t get the chance to retaliate, as another swing came his way. Up, down, up down, he kept track of where the sword was being swung. The Bruiser then stepped up and prepared an attack with full force, raising his sword high and planning to bring it down on Duran. The less armored youth parried the attack with the forte of his sword. This gave him some leeway, and the fully armored opponent came down with the same attack again, Duran once again preparing himself and blocking it with his shield. Though when it seemed he was about to do it again-

“ARGH!!!”

He had been a fool, Duran thought. How could he not see that he was aiming for the young man’s leg?! Unfortunately, the revelation came too late, Duran finding himself sent to the ground, a foot placing itself on his throat and holding him down. “So, you give up, kid?” The Bruiser questioned, continuing to add pressure. “Maybe call out for your Auntie? Or maybe your little sister will save you?” he leaned in closer. “Or maybe...your Mom or Dad?”

Duran’s eyes widened, The Bruiser seeing the fire that had been present still becoming a raging inferno. “I’ll only yield…” Duran said, voice choked. “When I’m dead!” he then thrust his sword upward, right into guard above the visor. The sudden jab caused the armored foe to back up, allowing the less armored young man to rise and finally deliver everything he had stored in him, both building for this very day, and what had built up from the sheer foolishness that his opponent had displayed in bringing up the string of names he just had. 

Duran lunged forward, The Bruiser unprepared for the barrages of upward and downward strikes, parries, and attacks he was delivering. By the Mana Goddess Herself, he was pouring everything he had into it! Finally, The Bruiser found himself knocked off his feet by the other swordsman, the edge of the fake sword pointing down on him, Duran standing atop of his chassis. “W-Wait!” the warrior proclaimed, raising his hands up in surrender. “I-I yield! I yield!” Duran seemed to only apply further pressure down on his opponent, keeping the sword in place, blazing fire still in his eyes. ‘This guy’s nuts…’ The Bruiser thought, the young man still not letting him up, surveying him as if he were some sort of prey animal. “H-Hey! I said I surrender! Let me up! C’mon!”

“And so,” the voice of King Richard rang out, taking Duran’s attention off his opponent, allowing The Bruiser to make a quick getaway from him. “This concludes the tournament!” He then took the young man’s wrist and lifted his arm up. “We have ourselves a new champion!”

Cheers erupted from the crowd, shouts of ‘Duran!’ echoing throughout the whole area. Richard looked to the young man, his face beaming with something of a maternal pride of sorts, to his surprise. So much like his father...although...that fire of his perhaps ran too hot.

Though, amidst the crowd, two watchful eyes were looking upon what had transpired with curiosity. The figure was hidden in the back and remained silent as the crowd cheered on, yet his eyes centered on the King, as well as the young fighter that had just won the competition.

Altena, Kingdom of Sorcery

He was getting too old for this. 

For nearly half an hour, he had waited on her. True, the library had more than its fair share of interesting and engaging texts, he currently being buried in the pages of a book that told of the rather interesting history of beasts of old and their connection to Mana, but he wasn’t here to indulge in his own academic pleasures. No, his role tied specifically to someone else’s academia.

Someone that should’ve been here by now…

“Hm?” The sound of footsteps drew his attention, the entrance to the section of the castle at the top of the stairway being opened, heeled boots giving light echoes as the source of them came down, finally reached the end of the stairs. “Good to see you, Princess Angela. Finally.”

The young woman had her arms crossed, obviously displeased in being here at all. Contrary to her title, she wore rather risque clothing, a ruby, sleeveless leotard that brought up her chest and was embellished with golden trims, two sections of cloth fanning outward around her waist and attached to the leotard, both sharing the same embellishments of gold. A ribbon fashioned into a necktie of sorts was fastened with a green stone around her throat, a pair of ruby red earrings in her ears. Gloves and boots of dark violet with white cuffs rested on her hands and feet, and a head ornament of the same color rested on her head. Despite her rather unorthodox attire, she was a perfect reflection of her mother. Her skin was fair and light, her long, luscious hair a beautiful magenta, of which was tied in a half ponytail, the rest hanging down, and her eyes were a perfect replica of the Peridot gemstone. Indeed, she WAS the daughter of their dearest Queen of Reason.

“You win, old man, Jose.” well...in body at least. “Victor promises that he’d stop hounding me if I come to at least ONE of your lessons this week.”

Jose smilled, taking a moment to groom his mustache and beard. “Well, then.” he sat down by the pile of books he had just laid out for himself. Yet now that she was here, and had kept him waiting for so long...he had a different sort of educational session in mind. “I do hope that you’re in a reading mood, because I found that a good number of these texts would do you some good to read.”

The magenta haired young woman looked at the plethora of books strewn out on the table. At first, she was going to make herself scarce, promise or not. But then, she saw the titles of them, and realized that several of them related to Arcane texts and literature. “What is this?”

Jose gave a knowing smile. “Tell me, for one who’s so set on getting magic down, how much studying have you actually been doing?”

Angela bit her lip and averted her widened eyes. Curses, despite his age, the old man was sharp. “I’ve…” she crossed her arms. “I’ve been studying!” he gave her a deadpanned look, clearly knowing better. “Well…” she then said, twiddling her fingers. “I’ve been studying enough…”

“Well then,” Jose began, clearing his throat. “Surely you can answer me this.” he then pulled out a blackboard, eight circles on it, each with a unique symbol in them. “There are eight forces that govern not only magic, but the entire world. Name them for me.”

Angela huffed. This was what he had planned? This was child’s play! Even she could do this! Even she could...yet couldn’t...she shook her head. Not the time. “Earth, water, fire, wind, light, darkness, moon, and wood.” She listed them all perfectly.

“Good, you have that down, I would hope.” Jose remarked. “But what is the relation between them all?”

Relation? There was a relation? “Um...they all…” the princess struggled to answer. “Are elements?”

Jose smirked. “You’ve forgotten the most important part: they are all a part of Mana.” 

“I-I knew that.” Angela answered, crossing her arms. 

“They are the forces we can harness, yet it is through Mana that we can harness them at all.” He then produced a small flame in the palm of his hand, Angela drawn to it as if she were a hapless, entranced moth. “Mana is the source, Princess. Magic is only a way of manifesting it.”

She got up and grabbed the staff by one of the bookshelves, she had forgotten it the last trip she had come here. And skipped class. Again. Well, no matter. She couldn’t sit still any longer. Pointing it forward, she concentrated all her energy into the crafted wand, closing her eyes and reciting Jose’s words in her mind, along with all that he had said before. She concentrated, concentrated, concentrated…

And yet, nothing. She growled, trying again, and again, and again. Only to yield nothing. As always.

“And I’ve also told you that form is NOT the only manner that magic requires.” Jose interjected sternly. “One must focus all they have into the casting.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing?” Angela told him, clearly frustrated. “I’m TRYING the best I can!”

“Then it perhaps lies in your execution. The wand is your channel. You must focus your energy into that.” Jose suggested, though he sensed he knew where this was going to go. Indeed, she looked at the staff in her hands, then threw it to the side. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Out.” she said curtly. “Besides, Victor’s your favorite student anyway, go teach him something.” with that, she traveled up the stairs and exited the room, leaving Jose alone with the collection of texts he had been previously reading through. 

He sighed and shook his head. Such a difficult young woman...though it couldn’t be denied that he saw her struggle to properly cast something, anything. After all, what good was a magicless magician in the Kingdom of Sorcery?

Valsena

With a sigh, the young man was walking down the streets, congratulations and cheering of his name still ringing in his ear. “My big brother!” Wendy proclaimed in a sing-song voice. “Winner of the Tournament!”

“Well,” Duran felt his Aunt’s strong yet soft hand place itself on his shoulder. “Looks like all that obsessive training paid off.”

The wild haired young man gave the woman a smirk. “And you said that all of it was a ‘waste of time.’” he gained a small glare in response.

“It was when you were shirking your chores!” Stella remarked, giving him a small knock in the back of the head. Helmet or not, the woman could give a good hit. 

“Hey, I did them all!” Duran argued back.

“Yeah, hours AFTER I asked!” Stella replied. “And then, you went RIGHT back to swinging that sword of yours! Keeping us up all night…” she groaned. “My hand nearly broke from how many times I had to knock some sense into you.” The young man inwardly winced at this, though he dare not openly show it. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from rubbing the back of his head. Indeed, the woman’s knocks could STILL be felt, each and every one of them. “That said,” she began again, her irritation disappearing and being replaced with a pride that could match his own. “You really were something out there.” her hand ran from his plaudron and to the flesh of his muscled arm. “And while it still doesn’t excuse you for neglecting your other responsibilities, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud of you.”

The young man felt his chest well up at that and had to take a moment to compose himself. He’d never let such a thing show, especially not now, but still, his resistance was crumbling. He needed more time, at least until he got home. 

“Hello there.” The three family members were taken from their private circle of warmth and turned to face a rather peculiar looking stranger. He had his facial features mostly covered up along with a good portion of everything else in a long, flowing, red shroud save for the lower part of him, of which seemed to be a long tunic of sorts decorated with golden trimmings, a pair of brown slippers on his feet. His face was mainly concealed, but his intense, amethyst eyes seemed to bore into everyone and heavily contrasted with the strands of blonde locks that slipped out from the clutches of the shroud. “Forgive my intrusion, but I couldn’t contain myself from congratulating you on your success in the tournament.”

Duran blinked, more than a little off put by the sudden emergence of this stranger. Still, he quickly straightened himself up and puffed out his chest. “Well, ahem, thank you kindly, sir.” he then relaxed somewhat. “Though...I DID put in months of training, and that Bruiser guy was nothing more than some guy blowing smoke out of his-” a hand placed itself on his shoulder, Aunt Stella giving him a subtle warning to cut it out. 

“What he means to say, is that he’s glad that such effort didn’t go to waste.” the blonde guardian answered for him, Duran about to protest, yet a glare shut him up. “Anyway, thank you kindly, sir.” 

The cloaked man nodded, looking at the older woman, he then taking her hand. “You have quite a talented son.” he remarked, Stella’s face growing hot. By the spirits, his voice was sweeter than honey, not to mention young. 

“Oh, no.” she told him. “He and this little one here are my... sister’s children.” there was a notable pause in her voice when she told him that he caught on.

“I apologize if I brought up anything painful.” 

“No, no. It’s fine.” Stella told him. “You had no idea.”

The shrouded man looked at Wendy and Duran, particularly at the young man. “You’ve raised them well.” he then, to the surprise of everyone, bequeathed a kiss on Stella’s hand, practically giving the woman a heart attack. She stumbled back, still swooning, Duran in turn catching her. “I must be off, but I congratulate you again on your victory.” he then turned away. “May such fortune and fortitude follow you in your future. Farewell.” with that, he turned away, leaving a rather confused and bewildered trio. Well, duo, seeing as Stella was just near unconscious from the small peck she received.


“Ugh! She’s heavy!” 

“Shh!” Wendy told her older brother. “Don’t let her hear you say that!” the little girl skipped beside Duran, of whom had Aunt Stella swung over his back. “Besides, consider this...weight training!”

“Weight training, you say?” both froze upon hearing that voice, the body Duran was holding beginning to move. 

“Um...I-I didn’t mean it!” Wendy began, then pointing to Duran. “He’s the one that said you were heavy!”

“You brat! Don’t try to make yourself look innocent!”

Stella then began giggling, much to the bewilderment of the two. “Geez, you two act like I don’t have a sense of humor!” she then got off of Duran and to her own feet. “Besides, it’s been a terrific day! We’ve got ourselves a champion living with us, and even more,” she giggled. “I managed to get a little memory to remember this day by even more.” she then rubbed the spot where the younger man had kissed her hand. Aunt Stella’s abode was a bit of a distance away from the castle, but ultimately, it wasn’t that long of a walk. Good thing too, because while he wouldn’t show it, Duran’s body was quite spent from all that had happened earlier. Even if he’d insist and probably try to go a few more rounds with whomever was foolish enough to challenge him. Entering through the door, Wendy immediately went to her room to her collection of toys that were waiting for her. Duran felt a hand place itself on his arm, his blonde guardian smiled at him. “Go on and wash up. We’re going to have a feast tonight!”

He needed no further motivation, going up to his shared room and placing his armor on the table stationed next to his bed, Wendy in the world she had created with her toys. Given that it’d be some time before it was done, and that he would definitely need to assist, Duran took this time to allow himself to sit on the bed before going to get himself clean, the thought of chilled water relieving him of the heat his still pumping blood caused quite alluring at the moment. Completely oblivious to his little sister, he released a heavy sigh, a small smile coming to his face. “I did it.” he said quietly, unaware that Wendy was listening. “I did it...father.”

Downstairs, Stella closed her eyes, a smile creeping on her face. “You had better have seen that, Loki.” she said softly. “You too, Simone.” she didn’t manage to catch the single tear that had begun to travel down her cheek.

Altena

Yet another productive day.

Bah.

It was just like any other. Nothing. No progress, no inkling of some form of the ability she was supposed to have. Nothing! Oooh, she wished she had taken that staff, the flowering tree of bright, fat, golden blossoms she was sitting under would’ve made for perfect target practice! Hell, she might even succeed in setting something on fire! 

Though like that'll ever happen. It hadn’t happened in the last eighteen years of her life, so what was the chance that it’d happen now?

“You broke your promise.” a male voice caught the Princess’ attention, she looked up from her sitting position to see a blonde the same age as she dressed in simple attire looking down at her, clearly disappointed. She simply huffed.

“I said that I’d GO to old Jose’s class. I never said I’d STAY for it.”

The blonde sighed, looking at her and asking silent permission to take a seat beside her. She agreed, scooting over to create a place for him below the tree. “Angela,” he sighed. “You know well that magic isn’t something that can just be conjured up. It takes time.”

“Eighteen years? Forgive me if I’m a LITTLE tired of waiting.” she stated, folding her arms. “Damn it all…”

“Language, Princess!” the blonde lectured, though she wasn’t having it.

“I don’t care, Victor!” Angela cried out, rising up and stomping her foot down. Victor sighed. Honesty, the heir to the throne acting in such a way… “I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I CAN’T DO IT!” she huffed and puffed, winded by her tirade, slumping down when she exerted all her energy. “I can’t get it...it doesn’t matter how many of the old man’s lessons I attend. I haven’t been able to get ANYTHING.” she bit down on her lip, Victor seeing the beginnings of tears form in her eyes, of wish she wiped away, turning away from him to conceal herself. 

“Angela…” Victor began, but found himself at a loss for words. Really though, what was there to say? ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it!’ No, that’d do no good. Or ‘We all have trouble at first.’ Only, this was FAR from her first. Then, it came to him. “You know,” he began. “There’s somebody else that had quite a hard time with magic when he was younger.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Angela said, expecting what he was going to say. “You. I know.”

“Actually,” what he said next caught her off guard. “It’s none other than our own Crimson Wizard.”

Angela’s green eyes widened. “You mean Koren?!” she exclaimed, Victor nodding. “No way!”

“It’s true! At least, that’s what Jose said.”

She was still quite skeptical. “Well, the old man’s bound to go senile some time…”

“Lord Koren was presumably a mage that couldn’t have done magic all his life. In fact, he was probably a more difficult student than you.” 

She paid no attention to this jab, more than curious about this sudden revelation. “Well, what happened?”

“That...is where not even Jose knows.” Victor answered.

“What are you talking about?” Angela asked. “You can’t leave me hanging on that! What happened?”

“I’m telling you, Jose doesn’t know either.” the blonde young man told her. “What he does know is that Lord Koren set off to travel and discover new methods of learning, methods outside of Jose and Altenian teachings. He traveled outside of the country's borders and presumably sailed all around the world, as it was a good year before he came back.”

“Did he say where he went specifically?” Angela asked, hopeful.

“No, that’s the weird part.” Victor said, much to the Princess’ disappointment. “It wasn’t as if he had just come with a good degree of training. He came back…” he paused for a moment. “Enormously powerful.”

“Well...doesn’t a year of training do that? Hell, I’d kill for that.” the young woman huffed, but she was completely invested now. 

“No, that’s...it’s hard to explain.” Victor told her. “Jose...he said that, even for as long as he was gone...there was no way that he could be as powerful as he was. You have to understand, he could light this entire garden on fire should he see fit.” he explained. “As well as, as he told Jose once, kill anyone or anything he wished to. You have to understand, Jose is powerful, yet it took him years upon years, decades upon decades, to be at the level he is now. Lord Koren...he matched his level in just one year. It...it’s simply not possible.”

Angela was left speechless, though now, a plan was forming in her mind. “Speaking of, where IS Lord Koren anyway?”

“On an assignment for the Queen.” Victor answered.

“What kind of assignment?”

“She didn’t say.” he told her plainly. “Though she warned me not to question her of it again.”

“That sounds like my mother…” Angela muttered to herself. She looked up, the sun setting over the horizon. 

And yet...and yet, she could’ve sworn that she felt a chill in the air. And not just the chill of the approaching night...

Chapter Text

Wendel, the Holy City

The flowering fields stretched on and on as far as her wide, blue eyes could see. They were still somewhere in the temple grounds, though it looked far from it. She didn’t exactly know ‘how’ she could know, it was just something she sensed. There was a strong sense of security and comfort perminating everywhere, so where would she be if not the temple grounds? And if not there, then it was somewhere just as pleasant, if not more so. She knelt down by a patch of colorful, perfectly shaped flowers, seemingly teasing, begging her to pick them and take them with her. This land was perfect. Nothing short of absolute perfection. 

Then, she became aware that she wasn’t alone. 

Looking up from the flower patch, she saw two figures standing a short distance away from her. A brunette man garbed in armor and a blonde woman garbed in a flowing dress that resembled the petals of a flower at the sleeves and skirt. Both gazed upon the small girl, the woman bending down and extending her arms, as if offering her an embrace. She felt herself drawn to the woman, leaving her flowers and running towards the two with little idea of who they were, but nonetheless, she felt a deep connection, far deeper than she could’ve fathomed for people she had never met. Even then, she knew who they were. 

Yet as she drew closer, the two figures began to seemingly dematerialize before her eyes. She tried to quicken her pace, rushing with outstretched hands in some futile attempt to catch them before they went away again. Again…

“Mama!” she cried out, tears beginning to brim in her eyes. “Papa! Whewe are you going?!” she ran as fast as she could, yet she couldn’t go fast enough. Just as soon as she had spotted them, they vanished away from the once pristine, beautiful area, which began to grey and rot all around, flowering plants withering away and the trees growing gnarled and dead. “Wait!” she shouted, continuing to run, even through the particles that once composed her parents. “Don’t weave me!” she lost her footing and tripped over herself, landing hard in the dried, cracked earth that once was fertile and green. “Don’t weave me…”


“Don’t weave me…”

“Charlotte? Charlotte, wake up.”

“Pwease...Mama...Papa…”

“Charlotte!”

Her blue eyes opened up, the sight of a young man decked in a white tunic and robe with chopped, lilac hair staring down at her with pale blue eyes. “H-Heath…” she breathed out, the young man hoisting her up and helping her get a steady breathing pattern back. 

“Another dream?” he asked, the girl, Charlotte, nodding. 

“They were wight thewe.” she told him, voice unsteady and wavering. “They wewe wight thewe, and then they disappeawed again.” 

Heath averted his gaze for a moment, pondering on what to say. “Do you want me to tell your grandfather?”

“N-No.” she told him, shaking her head. “I’m a big giwl now. I just wurned fifween last month! I...I’m ok. Weawwy!”

“Well, if you say so.” the young man rose from her bed, going over to the door. Truth be told, he was already needing to speak about something earlier with His Emmenice. Now it seemed that there was yet another subject at hand.

The girl got up from her bed, her nightgown trailing along the floor as she went to her drawers to retrieve her regular wear. Slipping it on, she went over to a small mirror stationed in the corner of the room to observe herself. Her hair resembled that of the woman in her dream, her ‘Mama’: her hair was long and volumized, waves and curls fanning out to her lower back. A bright, pink cap adorned her head, a white trim around the brim and two sections that came outward with large puffballs at the ends, resembling a jester’s hat. She wore a collared jumpsuit of blue with a small tunic being attached to it, it decorated with several patterns, one in particular being that of a sun in the center. A pair of pink boots rested on her feet, her socks  hidden from view, the shoes somewhat comically big on her. In fact, her attire made her somewhat look like a clown. She exited the room, releasing a heavy sigh before she went.

Maybe some time with Mik would get her spirits back up. 


Only thing was, where WAS he? Where was that boy? He wasn’t anywhere in the usual spots. The garden? Nope. The balcony? Nope. Where WAS he? She doubted that she’d find anything downstairs, but still, she had to look everywhere.

“Your Eminence,” wait, that voice. “I’d like to talk to you about Charlotte.” Heath? Charlotte snuck around, peering behind the wall that led to the main hall, and thus, the place of worship in the temple. 

Peering around, a bearded man in elderly age gazed upon the younger priest, he garbed in white robes and a large bishop’s cap atop his head. “Mana’s blessings be with you, young Heath. But yes, how is my dear granddaughter?”

Heath’s features then grew concerned. “I believe...there may be something going on.”

“Such as?”

“Well...you know of her elven heritage, yes?”

The Priest averted his eyes for a moment, as if the remembrance of something painful came to mind. “Yes. What of it concerns you?”

“Well, it’s just a hunch,” Heath spoke. “But...I believe that, given it, she might be sensing something.”

The Priest was puzzled, yet nonetheless intrigued. Perhaps this would serve as even further conviction to what he needed to know. “Such as?”

“The shift in Mana, your Eminence.” Heath explained. “Again, it’s simply a theory. Yet given the race’s connection to it-”

“Young man,” the Priest interrupted. “Forgive me, but this is what I feared to hear.” he then muttered. “I knew that the sign I saw wasn’t just a fantasy...yet...yet I didn’t wish to believe it.”

“Your Eminence?” He then was caught off guard by him being led to the sculpture of a beautiful, lovely woman: a characterture of the Mana Goddess herself, though no one knew of her true appearance. 

“Look at her eyes.” the Priest told him. “And look carefully. Then tell me, what do you see?” 

Heath looked up at the gorgeous visage of stone, pondering as to what sort of oddity could be on its structure. Then, he saw it. From her every watching eyes, trails of what appeared to be water were seeping from her carved tear ducts. “This...is this…”

“Indeed.” The Priest answered, nodding solemnly. The Goddess statue was shedding genuine tears. Though whether for Mana or them, neither were sure. Perhaps it was for both.

Ferolia, Kingdom of the Beastmen

A punch aiming for his abdomen was thrust forward, of which he blocked. A kick to the side of his head, of which he ducked. Punch, kick, kick, punch. Punch, kick, kick, punch. This seemed to be the basic pattern his opponent had followed, of which was no stranger to him. He had mastered it well. 

His opponent was a hulking brute in comparison to him, his muscles large and his skin dark. He bore a long mane of gold and pointed ears, though he was no elf or faerie. He bore eyes of amber and long nails of black that resembled claws, and tufts of fur that covered his chest, shoulders, and forearms, making him appear akin to a hybrid of animal and man. Bands of silver rested on his wrists, and he wore a long cloak of red with golden trimmings with a collar of white fur. A black belt was fastened around his waist with a pair of baggy martial parts pants that bore a yellow color with blue stripes that resembled claw markings all over them. He wore silver greaves, though he bore no footwear of any kind, the nails on his toes as equally black as his claws. 

The young man fighting him was, while resembling the larger man in many ways, bore just as many differences to him, as well as the rest of his race. He bore the same dark skin tone, amber eyes, and mane, his being far wilder than his opponents, and he wore similar clothing to him, consisting of a pair of martial arts pants with the same pattern and bearing nothing on his feet save for bandages wrapped around the soles and going up the calves with the toes and heels free. In contrast to a cloak, he wore a vest with a similar pattern to his pants and a collar of fur, no shirt so that his developed muscles were on full view to see, a blue sash around his waist with golden trims at the ends, blue cuffs on his forearms, a necklace with a single fang, two armlets consisting of green and red beads on his right arm while the other arm were brownish bands, and a hat that resembled a fez with a large puff ball of fur in the back. The differences also continued as, while he was heavily muscled, he was far smaller in stature, as well as bearing no thick hair on his person save for the top of his head. His eyes bore, while he bore a present ferocity, no sense of a bloodlust that echoed in the others’ eyes. 

And it continued to show in combat.

“Come on, Princeling!” the larger man shouted, thrusting his leg his way. “Is that all you can do?!” another punch. “Present your real power, damn you!” On and on he went, throwing blow after blow. 

Finally, at long last, he received some sense of retaliation. The younger man, when his opponent kicked in his direction, he let the incoming foot pass him by over his shoulder and he seized the ankle. He then swiped his own foot against the other ankle of the larger man, essentially bringing him off his feet and to the floor, landing in a heap. He got back up, yet a series of blows met him as he rose, forcing him further and further back. He threw a punch, yet he was greeted with a swift kick to the side of his head, sending the older man spinning and landing flat on the ground on his stomach, he then growing still and silent. 

The younger man’s adrenaline began to subside at the sight of the motionless figure on the floor, standing there and awaiting some form of movement, only to receive none. ‘Oh no…’ he thought, steadily beginning to approach the still form of his opponent. Had he gone too far? Kneeling down by the fallen figure, the young man shook him gently. “Are...you ok?” he asked, only to receive no answer. “Hey, are you-ULK!”

He was cut off by a large, clawed hand seizing his throat, cutting off his air and lifting him high off the ground. The larger man had gotten the literal upper hand, his victim thrashing around and trying to pry his hand from his throat: digging into the skin of his hand and arm, pulling at the hair on his forearms, yet to no avail. The claws of his seizer dug into his throat, breaking the skin and allowing small trails of blood to travel down his fingers, the one in his grasp beginning to cease his struggles, his throat burning and the world around him becoming little more than blurs of colors and vague shapes surrounding him in a blackening world.

“Ludgar! Enough!” a bellowing, deeply toned voice shouted, the larger man, Ludgar, dropping the younger man, he in turn taking in deep gasps of air as he tried to get to his knees. A larger man entered the room, a long cape of blue lined with fur trailing behind him. He bore a large beard and a mane of gold and fur on his forearms and legs, as well as the tops of his feet, his nails on them as well as his hands dark and clawed. A wrap of blue was around his waist, as well as a cloth of a lighter blue in the center that came down lower, bracelets around his wrists and ankles, and a golden belt around his waist. He stepped forward and looked down at the younger man, clearly displeased with what he had just seen. “Kevin…” he snarled, the young man got to his feet, though he didn’t dare gaze at the towering figure in the face. 

The young man, Kevin, only could look down at the floor, wishing nothing more than to sink into it and disappear from everything and everyone.

Wendel

“Wh-What is the meaning of this?” Heath questioned, clearly unnerved by what he was seeing. 

The Priest of Light shook his head, just as disturbed as he and the hidden Charlotte were. “It had begun but a short time ago.” he answered, remembering the day he had first seen it well. “The weekly service was taking place, and as I was speaking, those in the pews, regular attendees began gasping and screaming, getting up and rushing towards the exit as if something terrible had somehow manifested before them. I was bewildered as to what was going on, yet as I turned to see, I too nearly ran from here myself.”

“Upon seeing the statue crying?”

“No.” the old man shook his head, chills coming up his body. “It wasn’t just crying tears then.” the next words that came from his mouth made both Heath and Charlotte’s freeze up. “It was crying blood.”

The entirety of the temple seemed to go silent. “B-Blood?”

The Priest nodded. “I fear that dark times are coming upon us.” he then turned to look upon the statue again, tears still continuing to flow down its cheeks. “And your report of Charlotte only further cements this conclusion.”

The younger member of the temple looked to the floor, at a complete loss at what he had just heard. “Is there...something that we can do?”

The old man sighed. “That...is hard to say.” 

Then, Heath spoke again. “Your Eminence,” he began. “Send me to go.”

Charlotte nearly allowed a “WHAT?!” to slip from her lips, yet she covered her mouth and kept herself silent. 

“You, Heath?” The Priest questioned.

“Yes.” Heath nodded. “I shall go and seek council the elemental Lumina themself, as well as view the Light Stone.”

Charlotte listened in well. “The Light Stone? Lumina?” her grandfather questioned. “But Heath, the reports on the dwellings of Cascade Cave have been troubling as of late. The monsters that have taken to calling it home have increased in number, and there have been rumors of seizment tremors occurring from deep within.”

“Tremors?”

“Yes. What is causing them, no one is sure, but whatever it is, it must be rather massive in size. Though where it lies, it’s unknown.”

“Your Eminence,” Heath argued. “If these signs are to be believed, then we cannot afford to wait.” the young priest approached the stand that the old man stood behind. “If Mana’s power is fading, then things will only get worse from here. You know well the catastrophes that occurred when such times come upon us. In your time, while Mana was not wanning, there was a great catastrophe and the real possibility of war breaking out?” the old man grew silent at that. “There is a passage in the Cascade Cave, east of Astoria, that leads to the Light Stone. If there is something going on, then the Stone shall tell us. And should I be able to gain an audience, then Lumina themselves shall alert me of what is occuring.”

The Priest remained silent for a good while, the entire hall bathed in silence, Charlotte watching, having nearly forgotten to breathe due to the choking tension present. “...all right.” her grandfather finally said. “You shall go.”

Heath inwardly sighed in relief. “Thank you, your Eminence.” 

“But please, do not go until you are absolutely prepared. The distance may not be as far as traveling to a different land, yet it is nonetheless as treacherous.”

“I won’t simply leave without any essentials.” Heath assured. 

“But, I must ask this of you, Heath.” the old man began. “Please, do not tell Charlotte a word of this. If she asks, simply say that you have been called to Astoria for some business.”

“I know she probably won’t take that well either.” the Priest confessed. “Yet tell her gently. Perhaps she’ll understand.”

Quite the contrary, Charlotte needed to hear no more. 

Ferolia

Duskmoon forest. A place that aptly lived up to its name. The entirety of the Beastmen’s Kingdom was surrounded by this thickened collection of flora, the moon ever present and every hanging over their heads. The sun never showed its face here, casting the area in perpetual night, everything shrouded in thickened shadows with sparse light from the lesser light above.

Though to Kevin, it was the perfect place to hide himself from everything.

‘You fool.’ The bearded beastman’s voice echoed in his head. ‘You let yourself be bested so easily?’ he continued to walk through the thickened brush, trying with every amount of willpower he could muster to block out the voice, yet to no avail. ‘Shameful. Completely shameful. And those around here even wonder if you are truly my son.’

“RRAGH!” he could take it no more. A nearby tree served as the means to take his wrath on, a fist pounding into the thickened trunk as leaves rustled and some fell due to the impact, several of the airborne denizens above becoming startled and rising from their branches to go off somewhere presumably safer. He bit his lip, feeling his eyes begin to grow moist. No, no, no! He couldn’t! Not now!

‘And those around here even wonder if you are truly my son.’

Yet he couldn’t stop it, a single tear began to trail down his cheek, his teeth practically gnawing down on his lip as he tried to contain any more from coming down. Yet it was no use. The older beastman’s words continued to recite themselves in his mind on a continuous loop with no reprieve in sight.

Suddenly, he heard a whine down below. Then, he felt small paws putting themselves against his leg. Sighing, he looked down to see a small wolf pup looking up at him with large, curiosity filled eyes. His fur was a light, golden color, and around its right foreleg were small bracelets that resembled the young man’s own armlets. “K-Karl…” Kevin breathed out, kneeling down to greet the pup. Karl gave out a small whimper, though the young beastman shook his head. “No. I’m...fine. It’s nothing. Really.” this didn’t stop the pup from hosting himself up and licking at his cheek, catching the salty moisture on his tongue. “H-Hey! Karl! T-Tickles!” The pup seemed to use this as further motivation, continuing to lick. Then, Kevin fell over, Karl using this opportunity to deliver licks to anywhere he could reach on his face and neck. “K-Karl! Haha! C-C’mon! Stop!” Kevin’s pleas fell on deaf ears however, the pup continuing his assault. “Ok! Ok! I-heehee-I’m fine! Ple-hee-se stop!” seemingly satisfied with this, and due to the fact that he didn’t want to completely exhaust him, Karl stopped, allowing the beastman to rise up to a sitting position. “Thank you…” the pup wagged his tail and leapt up on Kevin again, giving him a few more licks on the cheek. 

 

Chapter Text

Borders of Laurent, Kingdom of the Mountain Winds

The band of armored women peered over the edge of the cliff, seeing the land below. “I can’t believe it.” one amongst them said. “So many at once, and so close…”

The women composing of the group were of many different features: some bearing hair of red, violet, gold, teal, several colors of eyes, yet all bore the same armor that bore the appearance of a soldier, yet also that of a woman. The armor consisted of essentials such as breastplates, pauldrons, greaves, and gauntlets, yet there were areas where their flesh was seen, the armor fashioned to where it both protected them, but also exemplified their assets. They were dressed for the occasion, yet also openly presented their femininity. 

Such was the way of the Amazon.

Below them was a brood of an entirely different color. They bore the heads of women, yet that was all. Their humanity was sparse, as in place of arms, they bore wings of various colored feathers, ranging from green to blue to violet and several others.  Their chests where bare, yet feathers covered their breasts and groin areas, bearing tails and sharpened talons. Currently, they were presumably looking around and scouting the area, ironically mirroring what the troop had been doing before they arrived at this very spot. 

“Captain,” one among the armored women began. “When shall we get going?”

The ‘Captain’ in question narrowed her eyes, looking down at the gathering of bird women. “Hold a moment.” she whispered. Odd that ‘she’ had yet to arrive yet…

“W-Whoa!” Everyone turned to see one among them sliding down and falling from the edge, having put pressure on a looser piece of earth and lost their hold. 

“Eliza!” some of the troop shouted as the young, cerulean, pigtailed haired girl fell, landing hard onto the ground below.

The harpies immediately had their attention drawn to the young scout that had just fallen, gathering around her. Eliza herself moaned as she lifted her head up, only to see that the harpies had, unfortunately, become interested in her. And just one look at her armor cemented that she was their enemy. Getting to her feet, the young Amazon held out her spear, the bird women gazing and sizing her up. Then, one of them rose upward and swooped down. She jabbed her weapon forward, this scraping the side of the harpy and actually managing to dislodge a few feathers. Though this move wasn’t exactly wise, as now she left herself open on the other two sides, two harpies coming in for the attack. A slash to her thigh and a bite to her arm made Eliza shriek, she tried to push them off with her weapon. Then, another harpy descended on her, the one that she had managed to strike, sending her to the ground, a pair of sharpened talons keeping her in place. Then, it raised its head and opened its mouth, revealing large, dagger-like canines that were looking to puncture her throat.

Only, that never occured.

From above, a figure leapt down, slashing at the harpy about to end Eliza, cutting its chest and forcing it back, along with the others. The inexperienced young woman looked up to her rescuer: a female youth with blue eyes and long, flowing, golden hair that was all but hanging down save for a single, green ribbon that tied the remaining part in a low ponytail. She bore a spear like her own, hers more along the lines of a trident, yet her attire was different from her own. Instead of having a steely blue, hers was mostly a vibrant green, bearing pauldrons decorated in golden markings, a headdress that bore two, feathered wing-like ornaments on either side, an emerald gemstone in the center that was connected to the headdress, and her uniform was more akin to a dress than a suit of armor. Said dress split into different sections that fanned out at the skirt, white ruffled areas underneath, they had golden ornaments stationed at each split, as well as trimmings on the sections. She wore simple, brown shoes on her feet, and from a first glance, indeed, it seemed that, in comparison to them, she was a little on the low side when it came to armor. Though when she saw her, Eliza knew that she was saved.

The young, blonde woman beat back the harpies away from Eliza, looking to the group that had congregated, then directed her attention to her troop, though she dare not take her eyes off the bird women. She gave the signal for them to come in.

Nerval Fortress, Headquarters of Thieves

“She’s talking to him again.” a young man observed, another youth with him nodding in agreement as they both hid behind the wall that served as a corner. 

The first youth bore sandy blonde hair tied in a low ponytail and wore a silver breastplate, pauldrons, and gauntlets, tanned pants and brown boots. The second youth bore a vest of red with golden trims with a white, sleeveless undershirt. Cuffs of lilac rested on both his forearms and calves, simple, brown shoes on his feet: not as defensive as his friend’s attire, but given his line of work, they were more than appropriate. His pants were tight fitting and darkly colored, a sash the same color of his cuffs around his waist, along with a headband with silver designs on it. His skin was far more tanned than his friend, and his hair was far longer, a vibrant violet tied in a long, low ponytail with a mauve ribbon tied around the trapped fibers of hair, creating a ‘tail’ of sorts. 

Currently, the two were observing an older man bearing a turban and a far younger woman seemingly in deep conversation with each other, the younger woman concealed mainly from the shawl of striped cloth that resembled a tiger’s skin. Their voices were soft, yet some dialogue between them could be heard. 

“Do you really speak the truth?” the older man said, concern and worry in his voice.

“My dear, what reason would I have to lie to you?” the woman answered, her voice comforting. The two young men couldn’t deny that her voice was like honey...yet despite its pleasantness, there was an underlying element to it. She tried to disguise it, yet the two young men could hear it well. And they didn’t like it one bit. “The wells are drying up. All the animals are leaving. I have felt the disturbances from the earth and air. Mana is fading…”

Mana was fading? Both young men looked to each other, their blue and amber eyes continuing to observe the two far off figures. 

“Then...I suppose something MUST be done.” the older man said. “Yet...do you really think that such an extreme measure is necessary?”

“My dear, I would not suggest such a thing if there were no other option.” she told him, drawing closer to him, holding onto him as if she were his lover. “Yet I fear that, as the old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures.” 

The older man sighed. “There will be those that won’t be receptive to this.”

“No, not all will.” she admitted. “Yet, once they realize that there is no other way, then they will see. It is for the good of all of us. For those that you lead. Your children will have a prosperous future and be guaranteed survival. Besides...” she purred akin to a cat. “You shall be a great King.”

That seemed to really get his attention. “You really believe that?” 

She giggled in a girlish way, as if she were some hapless, airheaded little teenager. “I always have, dearest.”

He then, to the shock of the two watching, put his arm around her waist. “What would I do without you?”

“Don’t sell yourself so short.” she told him, rubbing her head on his shoulder. “Though, I do wonder whether or not you’d be able to make sure your clothes don’t have any wrinkles if I didn’t inspect them.” he gave a hearty laugh at that, the two continuing their conversation as they went on further and further away. 

The two young men were about to move forward to follow them, yet “Eagle? Hawkeye?” a young, female voice stopped them. “What do you think you’re doing?” 

Turning around, a young woman was looking at them inquisitively, her violet eyes staring into theirs. She bore turquoise hair pulled up in a long ponytail tied with a white ribbon, said ponytail coming down to her mid back. She wore a sleeveless dress tha bore a light blue top with a golden belt around her waist with golden trimmings on the breasts and lower part that ended below the belt. Attached to the belt were transparent material that sparkled, golden bands on her wrists, the rest of her dress consisting of white ruffles that went down to the floor, covering her slippers. Around her neck, however, rested a new piece of jewelry: a golden choker with a large, red gemstone centered in the middle.

“Whatcha doing here, Jessica?” the purple haired youth, Hawkeye, questioned.

“I could be asking you the same thing.” Jessica replied. “And you, Eagle, what’s going on? Unless you’re planning on stealing someone’s socks, I don’t see the reason for you to be skulking around like this.”

“No way.” Hawkeye answered, looking at Eagle. “I know better than to go anywhere NEAR your socks.” Eagle in turn rolled his eyes, yet a chuckle came out.

“Really, though, what are you two doing-”

The blonde, Eagle, shushed her. “Quiet! They might hear.”

The blue haired girl put her hands on her hips. “You’re spying on father again, aren’t you?”

“Well...not really.” Hawkeye answered, rubbing the back of his head. 

“Then what?” she was about to turn the corner, only to be grabbed by both of them and forced up against the wall with them. “I knew it! You WERE spying!”

“No, we’re not!” Eagle told her.

“Yes you are!” she retorted. 

“Technically, we’re not.” Hawkeye answered, only to recieve a look from Jessica. “We were spying on both him AND Isabella.”

Jessica raised a brow. “Isabella’s with him?”

Eagle nodded, not exactly happy to relay this information. “Seems like she’s ALWAYS with him these days.”

“Well...maybe he just LIKES being around her?” Jessica suggested, not exactly understanding her brother’s animosity. “I mean, yes, she’s a little...clingy, but aside from that, I don’t see anything wrong with her.”

“A LITTLE is an understatement.” Hawkeye scoffed. “She’s practically on him all the time like they’re lovers or something.”

“Hawkeye!” Jessica scolded. “My father is NOT some dirty old man!”

“Hey, at his age, if he can still get it down, that’s admirable in my book.”

“Hawkeye…”

“Ok, fine. Fine. Shutting up now.” 

Eagle chuckled at this, though then noticed what was around his sister’s neck. “When’d you get that?”

“Oh this?” Jessica gestured to the piece of jewelry. “Well...truth be told, father gave it to me earlier.”

“Father gave you this?” Eagle asked, though Jessica wasn’t exactly finished.

“Well, sort of. He said that it was a gift from Isabella.”

‘Oh I see.’ Hawkeye thought. ‘So you like her just because you get pretty stuff from her.’ he opened his mouth to speak, but the blue haired young lady cut him off. 

“Do you like it, Hawkeye?” she asked, her violet eyes wide and boring into his, drawing close to him and sort of putting him on spot. Yet she couldn’t leave without an answer. 

“Uh, yeah. Sure. Looks great.” the thief answered, mainly to get her to back up just a bit, yet that wasn’t exactly the right move, he found out, as she proceeded to embrace him. 

“Oh, I knew you’d like it! Thank you!” Jessica happily chirped, holding him in her arms for a few more moments before letting go. “Oh, that’s right! You guys have a raid tonight! Well, I better leave you to plan that out. Still, thank you, Hawkeye!” with that, she happily skipped down the hallway and out of sight. 

“Heh, looks like you’re still popular.” Eagle answered, Hawkeye still trying to take in some air.

“Hey, it’s a natural gift.” he told his blonde friend. “It’s not my fault the ladies here can’t keep their hands to themselves.”

“You’re not THAT good.” Eagle replied.

“Oh yeah? When are you planning to get a girlfriend? In the next fifty years or so?”

“Hey, I could get any woman I want in this place! Not to brag, but being the head’s son does have its benefits.”

“Oh yeah, ass kissing is such a benefit. Everybody better learn to pucker their lips tight enough.” Hawkeye smirked. 

“Hey, c’mon now-”

“And hey, maybe you’ll become an old player like your old man.”

“You take that back!”

“You don’t like it? Do something about it.”

“Why you…”

The two young men stared at each other in silence, as if about to engage in a fight. Then, they both burst out laughing. “Seriously though, you’re gonna find somebody who’s going to give you a black eye one day.”

“I’d like to see them try.”

The two laughed again, unaware that they now were being watched. Her eyes watched hungrily like a cat at the two ‘mice’, taking in what she could hear. 

“Well now…” she murmured to herself. “Such cheeky little boys.” she despised those two ever since she laid eyes on them. However...in time, perhaps they could be somewhat useful to her.

Borders of Laurent

Storms of feathers and battlecries were plentiful on the field, both groups of women combating each other and wasting no time in trying to tear at the other. Slashes from spears and talons went on and on, injuries being dealt on either side. The blonde, young captain was at the head of the charge, beating back the winged creatures further and further away from the border. Though as she did so, she kept her eyes peeled. She was coming. The young princess knew that these harpies wouldn’t be here without there-

“Look!”

“It’s her! It’s their leader!”

All the women stopped, the harpies as well, a far larger figure from on high looking down upon them all, blocking out the sun with their massive wings. The winged creatures down below immediately parted, allowing the other to come down and make a landing. Clawed talons dug into the ground and looked directly at the Captain with hate filled eyes. The creature before them all bore the body of a woman similar to the harpies, yet unlike the others, she bore no wings for ‘arms’. She had arms and legs, yet in place of hands or feet, she bore long, sharpened, blackened talons, of which she displayed for all to see. She did have wings, however, positioned on her back, as well as a tail, the feathers bright and consisting of deep blue, violet, and magenta. A light coating of turquoise feathers covered her breasts, sides, and groin, yet everything else was bare skin, presenting a lean, toned figure. Jewelry of sorts adorned her person, yet they were far from regarded as anything beautiful: they were crafted from bone and centered around her neck and her upper, right arm, her attire of sorts finished by the top halves of human skulls being tied around her waist with a rope of sorts to make something of a ‘belt’, white-greyish feathers protruding from under the skulls’ upper jaw. Long, flowing, light magenta hair flowed in the light breeze, yet her eyes presented her true intent, her scalara golden with violet irises, boring into the Captain’s own blue, clearly indicating she wanted a challenge. Though the most distinguishing feature on her was a long, angular scar that started from the top of her left breast down to the lower right of her stomach. It had long since healed up, yet the wound itself would leave a reminder of itself.

And even more, where it came from.

The Captain began to approach. “Princess Riesz!” Eliza cried out, yet she was held back by another harpy, the other Amazons continuing to combat the hoarde. 

Riesz looked upon the larger harpy, particularly at the scar on her chest, the harpy looking back at her chest, or rather, how intact the skin was. Then, the harpy thrust a clawed hand downward, the princess and captain leaping out of the way and rolling to the side, landing a slice to the larger bird woman’s side. The bird woman released a cry of pain, yet retaliated in turn, slashing at the young woman’s upper arm, her roll to the other side of her opponent being interrupted by the blow, she landing rather ungracefully on her stomach. The head harpy launched herself at the fallen princess, she rolling out of the way just in time to avoid her adversary’s talons. 

Getting back on her feet, Riesz thrust her spear forward, creating a gash in her foe’s side, this being returned by a taloned ‘hand’ seizing her throat and throwing her back against the rocky wall, the Amazons and harpies parting ways to make room for their two respective leaders and their battle. The pink haired harpy shrieked as she dove forward.

“PRINCESS!!!” Eliza shouted, yet, to her shock and amazement, her leader managed to get up and leap forward and dive downwards, slicing down and piercing the wing of the harpy. The harpy leader let out a high-pitched scream that sounded like a strange concofiny of a young woman and the calls of a bird of prey. Neither animal, yet neither human either. 

The harpies stopped upon seeing their leader wounded, the wing that was struck laying limp by her side, she looked and visually examined it. Giving it a light flutter, she saw it wasn’t broken, yet flying for long periods were out of the question for a week or two.  She looked to the blonde young woman, who was more than ready to go further if need be. 

The harpy shot her one last glare before flapping her gigantic wings and taking off into the skies, the rest of her fellow bird women following behind. Soon, they disappeared from sight. 

“Princess!” Eliza shouted again, going to her side. “Are you ok?” all the other troops began to gather around their captain. 

“I...I’m fine.” Riesz assured her, though as she went to take a step, she began to feel the ache of her wounds already. The others only drew in further with the sole, collective goal of helping their captain, yet the blonde continued to look up to the skies. ‘They’re getting bolder...just as I feared.’

Nerval

Desert Capital Sirhtan

Well, well, well. They weren’t kidding when they said tonight’s operation was going to be big. 

The walls of the city were easy enough to get over, yet now that they were inside, that was when the real challenge began. Oh sure, they were more than apt in sneaking around, not to mention that they had come at the opportune hour at night, yet still, their target was one of some considerable status. And said status usually came with more than a few forces of ‘protection’. But hell with it. He was itching for a challenge for some time. 

The members of the guild that had silently invaded consisted of Hawkeye himself, a short, cat-like creature of violet fur with an empty sack over his shoulders, ready to be filled up, and a pair of darkly clad individuals that, had it not been for the differing colors in their headdresses, those who didn’t know them well would’ve assumed that they were outright clones of each other. The four pairs of eyes surveyed and observed the multitude of run down homes of adobe, windows darkened to assure them that they would mostly be unseen and unheard, if they were careful. 

“Ok.” Hawkeye spoke up, turning to the other three. “Bill and Ben, you keep a lookout. Niccolo, you’re with me.'' All three nodded and followed the violet haired thief’s lead, making their way to the rooftop of one of the small dwellings and using them as stepping stones to reach the one they were after. 

And it wasn’t hard to find, considering that it was in quite a better state than the others, not to mention far larger. Hawkeye gave a whistle at observing the home. “Nice place.” he mentioned. He then looked around at the far small, less well kept abodes all around them. “Why not put out a welcome sign too?” Niccolo gave a small giggle at that, though Bill and Ben were silent. “Hey, at least SOMEBODY finds my jokes funny.”

“That’s because Nicky here has no taste.” Bill answered, Ben in turn nodding. The cat puffed out his cheeks and narrowed his brow. 

“Ok, you know what to do.” Hawkeye stated, he and Niccolo jumping down whilst Bill and Ben stayed where they were, watching as the younger man successfully picked the lock and entered the home. 

Indeed, the interior was something to behold: the floors were composed of diamond shaped tiles scrubbed until they shone in the small bits of moonlight that crept in, and clearly elaborate and expensive rugs composed of the finest material rested on the floor. Tapestries of a similar vein lined the walls, and various baubles and trinkets of high value decorated the shelves. 

“Mew…” Niccolo observed in awe. “It’s beautiful.”

“Yeah.” Hawkeye agreed, though he had more to say on the matter. “It’s only beautiful because he’s taken everyone else’s ability to have such beauty.” he then began to make his way up the stairs. “Get all you can. I’ll see what goods our dear, well-off fellow’s got upstairs.” Niccolo gave a salute and began to open his empty sack that was ready to be filled. 

Quietly making his way up, the young man saw the visage of an overweight man snoring away in a large, extravagant bed. Well, at least he had something to drown out his own noise. Kneeling and creeping around, his amber eyes surveyed what was around him, the interior mainly in line with what he had seen downstairs. Though, to his surprise, a single, smaller bed rested not too far from his against the wall. A child’s bed? Yet no child was around. Nor a wife. He wouldn’t be surprised if perhaps this pompous old fart drove them away, yet he was here on the job, not to conjure up possible theories. 

“Zzzz...that’s…” the sleeping man murmured. “That’s...my money…”

Hawkeye couldn’t help but roll his eyes. Geez, not that he was complaining or anything, yet this entire operation was completely devoid of any subtly. But, did his wandering eyes deceive him, or was that a big ol’ treasure chest in the corner whispering to him ‘C’mon! Pick me! Break into me! Take everything you can!’ Well...if it insisted. Going over and picking the lock, he heard small, faint footsteps coming up, the violet furred cat coming in with a full sack. 

“Mew...that was easy.” Niccolo meowed, adjusting the nearly full sack. For such a little guy, he had quite the firm grip, Hawkeye thought. Opening the chest for him, Niccolo wasted no time in gathering up all he could, the human tipping the rather heavy container sideways to better load the lurce into the sack. 

Save for one, single coin that bounced off the floor.

“Hm?!” Hawkeye deadpanned. Really? What were the odds? The once sleeping man rose up to see the violet haired youth and cat looting him of his belongings. “Thieves! What do you think you’re doing!?” he then noticed the single coin on the floor. Of all things, Hawkeye thought. Not the chest being emptied, nor the full sack on the cat’s back. “My money!”

“Niccolo, go!” Hawkeye ordered, the cat nodding and, in a rather impressive feat, leapt up and out the window. At least, he would’ve, had the sack not been caught in the window due to its size. “Good grief.” he sighed.

“Ruffians!” the rich man hollered angrily. “Good for nothing bandits! Who do you think you are?!”

Idiot just HAD to make this complicated, didn’t he? Well, as long as he was here...eh, what the hell. “I’d go with the whole spiel that this is just a dream...but nah. This is something you need to hear wide awake.” Hawkeye smirked. “Let me just say that, you seem like a guy that has it all together. All the while, everybody else here isn’t as well off. Now, why is that? Methinks that your so-called ‘hard earned’ money wasn’t exactly as ‘hard earned’ as you say it is.”

“Why you…”

“So, if anything, perhaps you should consider this a wake up call. Now, you get to experience what the other fine folks in this place go through.”

“Hawkeye!” Niccolo shouted. “A little help here?”

With a kick, the cat and his sack were sent out the window, the thief following suit. The well off man ran outside, seeing the cat and youth making their way off. “Guards!” he shouted. “Guards! Catch them!” yet, to his surprise, no one came. Going around the home, he saw that the entirety of his protection were lying on the ground, seemingly knocked out with bits of strange powder scattered all over them. Whatever it was, it seemed to be effective, for as he went forward to take a whiff, he too fell over and joined the collection of sleeping forms. 

Bill and Ben couldn’t help but chuckle as they passed over, having hung back and dealt with the guards whilst Hawkeye and Niccolo were busy inside. “What,” Bill began.

“An,” Ben added. 

“Idiot.” the two then said in unison, joining the other two thieves in their escape.

Chapter Text

Three Weeks Prior

Should one be brave or foolish enough to travel west of the isolated Kingdom of Altena, whose territory composes of bitter, frozen tundra, and northwest of  The Kingdom of Valsena, whose plains extend as far as the eye can see, one could perhaps stumble upon a vast dessert whose grains of ‘sand’ actual compose of compact, microscopic shards of glass. The canyons that compose the landscape are crafted from large, towering structures of shimmering crystal all around, the few creatures that dwelt here built for survival and bore little mercy for others, even their own kind. And should one be fortunate enough to make it through the unforgiving, unpredictable domain, they shall find the large entrance to an even larger cavern. 

The inner dwellings of the cavern were even deadlier than those outside, the creatures that called it home boarding on both the natural and the unnatural. Beings that both hid in the darkened places of the world and those that were never meant to see the surface of the world, let alone the land of the living. So, for one to intentionally come here either meant that they were the highest degree of foolish, or, as the one entering the cavern had, they had an agenda. 

The dwellers of the cavern didn’t strike him, however. The intruder was able to pass through freely without any threat to his person. No, he was known well to the master of this place, as well as the master to these creatures. Making his way through the winding tunnels, he finally reached the innermost section of the cavern, it appearing as a sanctum of sorts, a ‘throne’ of carved rock near the northern wall. Going to it, the figure garbed in shadow knelt down to the figure stationed in the throne, another figure present with them, standing off to the side in complete silence. 

“You’re actually on time.” the figure in the throne spoke, voice deep and rumbling, as if they were speaking through an ever continuous growl. 

“Of course.” the one that had just arrived stood up, dusting himself off. “I am ALWAYS on time.” 

The one on the throne didn’t respond to the quip, only interested in discussing the matter at hand. “Have you informed...her ‘majesty’ of what must be done?”

The figure nodded. “Yes. She sees the effects already. If not me, then one among us would suggest something along the lines of what I’ve told her. I’m just the only one that can bring it up openly without being dismissed.”

The sitting figure rose up, looking to the one that had come to report to him. “And I trust that she only knows what she needs to?”

“She knows nothing. Especially you.” 

“I would hope not. Seeing as you are still quite vital for me.” he then turned to the other figure in the chamber, hidden in the shadows. “Has she sent you on assignment yet?”

“I am to investigate the whereabouts of the Mana Stone located in Valsena.” the one that had just arrived answered. “And, given I’m there, I’ll perhaps pay a visit to an old ‘friend’ of yours.”

A smile came to the lips of the one that had risen up off the throne. “Is that so?” He then went to the third individual, who had been keeping silent for the entire time. “Hear that? We shall be visiting your old home soon.” the figure was still silent, unmoving as if he were composed of the very stone that surrounded them all. “And even more, you shall have a chance to...reconnect, if you will. Isn’t that grand?” Again, the figure was mostly silent, yet surprisingly, he did give a small reaction. He looked to the others, as if what had just been said managed to snag his interest. “When shall you depart for Valsena?”

“The Queen believes I am on assignment already. Given that the location is unknown to us, I have some extra time.”

“Time you chose to use wisely.” the figure sat back on his throne. “Long...it’s been so long...dear Richard.” he sighed, as if reminiscing some sort of fond memory. Though given how his fingers clutched against the ‘arms’, it was clear that it was anything but something he wished to remember. Yet it mattered not. Now, it would be paid in kind. And not just to dear Richard, but to everyone else as well.


Should one be brave or foolish enough to travel northeast of the city of Jadd, or north of the mighty kingdom of Laurent,  one would find a cavern similar to that which lies at the end of the desert of glass, this one also home to a bevy of terrible creatures that are not of this world. Some, should they be unfortunate enough to see them, would declare that they had come from Hell itself. And perhaps they would be right to assume so. 

Though should one actually be able to make it through the treacherous tunnels swarming with the denizens that were never meant to see the upper world, they would come to find themselves standing at the gates of a massive palace. The structure stands tall, with several towers and spires, clearly gothic architecture, declaring it openly as somewhere not to be treated, yet should one be daring or foolish enough, invite them to try. The interior of the palace consisted of dark shades of bronze lining the walls and pillars with floors of the blackest obsidian, and despite there being present windows, no light shone through, casting the whole area in a perpetual, everlasting night. Not even that, for the moon was not even allowed to shimmer its lesser light down. 

Making way even further into the expansive abode, a door rests in the very center of the palace, the bronze visages of the Angel of Death standing on either side of it, scythes held as if seemingly waiting to cut down whomever dared come this way. Thankfully, however, the one that was entering through the door was more than welcome here by the owner of this abode. Entering, the young, beautiful woman, who was no stranger to sights such as this, nor the denizens that resided in the cave that had to be traversed to get here, traveled to the throne and knelt down in respect to the figure sitting on it, his pale features visible due to the flickering flames of the two torches on either side of the throne, yet not much else could be seen. 

“My dearest Majesty…” she greeted, putting emphasis on ‘dearest’. “You wished to see me?” another figure stationed in the corner nodded, having been the one to deliver the message that their master had sought an audience with her. 

“Yes.” the voice answered cooly. “It’s been some time since I last heard from you. Ever since you traveled to that desert country, Nerval, your words have been sparse.”

“Forgive me, dearest Majesty.” she drew closer to him, caressing his hand. “I’ll admit to having gotten somewhat...sidetracked.”

The figure in the throne raised a brow. “In?”

“During the search of the Mana Stones, she came across a rather interesting figure.” the individual hidden in shadows answered, the woman shooting him a glare. 

“Is that so?” the one on the throne questioned. “Who could be of such interest that you would forego your duties?”

“I’ve done no such thing, dearest, I assure you.” she told him, still glaring at the figure in the shadows. “I was doing JUST as instructed. In fact, dare I say, THIS one here was more interesting in satiating his ‘cravings’ than the assignment at hand.” the figure in the shadows stiffened, now glaring back at her. “In fact, had I not stopped him, we would’ve very well been worse off.”

“I’m not interested in hearing you compliment yourself or arguing amongst you two. I’m interested in what exactly you’ve been doing that’s been so important all this time.”

“Oh, it’s nothing much.” the shadowed figure stepped forward, the outlines of a cape with a rather large collar able to be seen in the small bits of light. “She’s just managed to snag a place amongst the Thieves of Nerval.” 

To his surprise, it seemed that his Majesty was intrigued by this bit of news. “Really now?” he questioned. 

“Indeed.” she told him, still caressing his hand. “And even more, it was the very leader of them that we happened upon in the desert.”

“What would someone of his status be doing out in such a place? What sort of leader would endanger himself in such a way?”

“Apparently, one of his children, the boy, I think, was stricken with illness, and was on the way to gather some herbs to ease his fever.” the caped figure explained. “However, I suppose mortal men don’t entirely understand that nature does not surrender to their whims simply because they have a mission in mind.”

“Had I not been there, he would’ve met his end in one way or another.” the caped figure snarled. “And since then, he believes that he’s indebted to me, and has offered me a place amongst them. He believed my words that I am merely a homeless ward with nowhere to go. That my family has abandoned me, and that I am a lost soul wanting a home.” she smiled. “The old man may be the head of a guild of thieves, yet he has little sense of discernment.”

“He probably wouldn’t have satisfied my taste anyway.” the caped figures scoffed. 

“I’ll get you some of the women there, don’t worry.” she sighed, turning back to her master. “It took some time, but I think that the old man’s warmed up to me.”

“Has he now?” her master questioned, she nodding in response. 

“Dare say, I think that I’m his most trusted confidant. He tells me everything. Especially matters regarding his children. A son and a daughter from his second wife. The first was lost to him. There is another youth there that’s good friends with his children, though where he came from, he hasn’t said. I suppose some secrets last forever.”

“But does he know the location of the Mana Stone in that country?”

“Yes.” she answered. “And even better, I know how to acquire the others for ourselves.”

He grew interested. “How so?”

“Well...going back to the old man’s children, I’ve been talking to him about them. Mainly their futures, whether or not they shall be guaranteed protection and be protected accordingly. After all, even with the loyalty that he says is in the guild, they ARE thieves after all. And maybe, just maybe, honor amongst them doesn’t apply for some. Not to mention that the depletion of Mana is hitting the area hard. His children, and his children’s children, his grandchildren, and those of the rest of the guild, are at stake if he doesn’t do something.”

“And has he given you an answer to your proposal?”

“Not yet...but I sense that his resistance is waning. And in more ways that one.” she answered, eyes glistening with an unnatural power. 

Suddenly, the figure on the throne rose, taking her hand from his. “Then make sure that he sees things your way. Yet do not believe that either of work is done by simply doing this.” he then turned to the caped figure. “You STILL have a vessel for me to find. The Mana Stones are crucial, yes, but there is on especially that we MUST find. No exceptions. Until a vessel is found, our efforts will be for naught.”

“I shan’t disappoint you, Majesty.” the caped figure assured him, bowing. 

“I would hope you wouldn’t. For your own sake. Lest I personally give you a small taste of Hell before I send you there myself.” With that, he made his way out of the throne room, leaving his two servents on their own.

“You would do anything for him to notice you.” the caped one smirked, the woman frowning.

“And all you ever think about is your next meal.”

“You will NEVER know of such things as true hunger.” he snarled. 

She clenched her fist, glaring daggers at him before leaving, her master’s face, the feel of his hand in her mind. ‘You have NO idea…’


Should one be brave or foolish enough to travel southwest of the already perilous Duskmoon Forest and Beastman Kingdom of Ferolia, they would come to find themselves in an expansive, dense jungle. The flora was thick with roots of unnatural strength, and the fauna consisted of several creatures that housed dangerous abilities and a high place on the food chain. Though, like the other two dwellings that no one should go, many dwellings there were not of the natural world. Should one make their way through the thickened brush and manage to survive not becoming a meal and/or being torn into pieces, there are two directions one could go. 

One could go to the east and come across the remains of an ancient kingdom, the city once belonging to a powerful and prosperous people that were cut off from the entire world and regarded as an enigma by it. Despite this, the people there held a culture that was significantly advanced in comparison to several others, in aspects of the artisans, mechanics, and even sorcery. Yet, in a turn that no one could have foreseen, the kingdom waged war on the rest of the world, its foolish boy king and his cunning, female general heralding the attacks. Yet their ambitions were not simply for waging war, they had ideas on reaching the realm of the divine by releasing power from places all over the world, not caring for the hapless lives of those they ruled over. Then, as those called to defend the world arrived in the city, the boy king and the general escaped and attacked from their airship, costing several lives of their own people. This also left the once great and powerful kingdom little more than a reminder of the great war, and the several lives lost in the conflict. 

Yet if one were to travel north, they would find another structure of sorts. An expansive, darkly colored palace that, from the outside, appeared to have just emerged from the dense jungle surrounding it. Yet should one enter, they would find that nothing about it was as it seemed. The corridors twisted and wound in impossible ways and in impossible angles, the walls and pillars decorated with faces that one could mistake for being alive for how their eyes seemed to follow and their mouths curl up into hungry grins. Visages of winged humanoids wielding swords stand all around, yet one figure passed all these sights with no amount of care. Dare say, he found the environment just to his liking. Walking through the door, he came upon a shadowed figure stationed upon a throne that looked akin to the large, gaping maw of a demonish skull ready to swallow anyone that dared to get too close. 

“You’ve returned with news, yes?”

The one that had arrived let out a ghoulish giggle, unable to contain his excitement. “Oooh hoo hoo! You bet I do!” he chortled. “The Beastmen, they’re planning to invade Wendel and take control of the city! They’re already making plans to move into Jadd!”

The mentioning of the Holy City made the one in the throne grow silent for a moment, a low sigh escaping him. It had changed...he inwardly chuckled. So much had changed. Had he been asked long ago, he would have thought that his being here now, what he was, would have NEVER been even a remote possibility. And to think, it all started over so small a thing...so small a person… “Any more news on what King Gauser has said to his people?”

“Hee hee! Only that they’ve been oppressed for too long by the outside. Their aim is the same as ours. At least it will be, once you plant it in their heads! The Mana Stones shall fall into their hands, then into ours!” the figure couldn’t contain himself and trembled in excitement. All those souls! All those ripe, precious, delicious souls! All for him! Ooooh, it was too much to bear! “Can we proceed now? Pretty please?”

“Calm yourself.” the one in the throne told him. “You’ve yet to even introduce yourself to the good king yet.”

“Well...yeah, there’s that.” he then thought. He knew well the invasion would go on without them, but how to convince them of a potential alliance? Oooh! Wait! He knew! “But I DID see something interesting the other day in the woods!”

“Did you now?”

“Yep! The wittle prince!”

The one in the throne raised a brow. “Prince?”

“Yessiree! Was out playing in the woods! Had a cute little puppy and everything!” 

So Gauser had a son, did he? Hm...it was perhaps too soon to tell, yet maybe he could prove to be of some use. Still, the mere mention of the word brought some rather unsavory memories to him. The visage of a particular young man infecting his mind. “Go then.” he finally told his visitor. “Go and seek an audience with the king.”

“Will do!” the visitor giggled, heading out to leave. 

“But-” he paused, turning to his master. “I want the boy found. And I want him brought to me.”

“The little prince? But what does he-”

“No, not him.” his master shook his head. “This one, he hails from Wendel. He’s young and fair.” at least, he had assumed so. It had been so long, and truthfully...he had only seen him but once. “He is surely under the tutelage of the Priest of Light. Seek him, and bring him to me. Alive.” Clear disappointment was on the soon to depart visitor’s features. No soul to reap? A pity. Still, what could the master want a boy for? If it were the prince, he could understand as means for a bargaining chip, but what use did he have for a wannabe priest of Wendel?

Well...no matter. Orders were orders. And besides...he didn’t say anything about NOT having a few souls along the way.

Chapter Text

Champion of the Tournament. Strong, powerful, valiant, brave. All these flew through his mind as he stood on the castle’s walls, his blue eyes watching the open plains that lay outside. Indeed, ‘Kingdom of the Plains’ lived up to its name. 

If only he could keep himself awake long enough to fully see it!

“Tired?” a voice said from behind, frightening the young man, he whirling around, sword and shield out. “Whoa! Hey, hey, take it easy!”

“Oh...it’s just you.” Duran sighed, putting his weapons back where they belonged. 

“Sorry I startled you.” the armored soldier apologized.

“I-I wasn’t startled.” the younger man protested. “You...you just caught me off guard. Just a little though.”

“Ok, whatever you want, tough guy.” the soldier jested, though Duran gave him a sour look. “Hey, I’m only teasing.” he then noticed the young man’s tired eyes. “Not used to staying up so late?”

“No, it’s not that.” Duran answered him, reclining on the wall. “It’s just…” he was cut off by a yawn. “Huh.” he chuckled. “Guess I am. A bit.” indeed, he wasn’t exactly used to NOT having Aunt Stella ordering him to get into bed, lest she give out a few ‘taps’ to the backside of his head. 

“It’s hard during the first few times.” the soldier admitted. “I remember my days when I was first in the guard. You get used to it with time, but I’ll admit, a good few cups of coffee can do wonders for you.”

“I’m not even allowed to drink the stuff.” Duran admitted. 

“Really?” the soldier was surprised.

“Aunt Stella’s rules.” he openly admitted, realizing what he had just said. Goddess, this night watch was getting to him more than he thought. 

“Well, let me know, and maybe I can slip you a few. After all, what she doesn’t know…” the soldier began to move away, but not before turning back to the younger soldier. “It’s just a few more hours, then our shift’s over. I’m going to make one more round. Try to stay awake until then, ok?”

Duran nodded, the older soldier going off. Yet despite his words, he found himself losing that battle rather quickly, his eyelids refusing to cooperate with him until, finally, he found the darkened veil that had been hanging over him plunge him into a still and silent slumber.


He wasn’t supposed to be up, his parents would surely get onto him. And he had to tread light as to not wake Wendy. And even more so to not garner the attention from the one he wished to see.

“Is this really necessary?” a female voice questioned, the young boy peeking around the corner and seeing a green haired woman with her hair kept up in a ponytail and had a light blue dress with a mauve corset on. The one she was addressing was garbed in golden armor and light blue hair that fanned out behind his headband, a small mustache above his lip. 

“You know well that if I hadn’t been called, then it wouldn’t have been as crucial as it is, Simone.” the man told her, the woman biting her lip. 

“Still...Loki…why now? Why has that...that Dragon Emperor or whatever he is risen up now?”

“Dragon Lord.” he corrected. “And honestly, that I don’t know. Since the fall of Pedda, he has had no allies save himself and the rest of his forces. Yet even then, even after dealing with that mess, he has ever remained in the shadows. If he’s acting now, then it’s all the more reason to take him out here and now.”

“Why you though?” Simon questioned.

“You know well why.” he told her. “Status doesn’t negate responsibility to one’s country.”

“And not your family?” Simone interjected. “Duran has yet to even become a young boy, and Wendy has just been delivered into this world.”

“Simone…”

Just then, as the child moved his foot, he, to his horror, landed on a rather creaky board of wood, clearly getting the attention of the two adults. “And what do we have here?” Loki asked, he and Simone coming over to see the wild-haired boy by the stairwell, of whom just presented a sheepish smile. Drat. 

“Duran, what do you think you’re doing?” Simone asked, hands on her hips. 

“Well...you two were talking.” he answered softly, somewhat intimidated by the two adults towering over him. “Like...a lot. All this week. And...and well…” he was at a loss for words. It was useless, he had been caught and he knew it. 

It was then that Loki and Simone couldn’t help but feeling a little guilty. “I’m sorry about that, hun.” Simone told him. “But this is an adult discussion. Now, go back to bed.”

“But mom, why are you so scared? Daddy can do it!” the woman’s eyes, as well as her husband’s, widened, they looked to each other, then to the young boy. “Daddy and King Wichard can get a dragon!”

“Well, lookie here.” Loki said, looking at Simone. “From the mouths of babes.”

“Don’t think this means anything.” Simone told him plainly. “I...I still don’t you to…” she then fell into his arms, embracing her.

“I know. I know.” Loki told her. “And truly, I don’t want to either. Yet you know well what happened when Pedda declared war on every other country in the world. How the Dragon Lord’s own forces wrought destruction wherever they could, along with the other advancements that Pedda had on the rest of the world. How Valsena was captured before. If any of this has even the remotest chance of happening again, then it must be put to a stop as soon as possible!”

“Yeah!” Duran exclaimed, pumped up. “You’re gonna get roast dragon for dinner!”

“Maybe…” Loki said, then, to the boy’s surprise, scooped him up. “Or maybe I should have an eavesdropping boy who doesn’t go to bed!” he then buried his face in his stomach, playfully gnawing, all the while Duran released peals and peals of giggles. 

“Daddy! No! Do-ho-n’t! Tickles!”

“Shh! You two are going to-”

“WAAAH!!!”

Simone rose her palm to her head and sighed, both Loki and Duran smiling sheepishly as the woman made her way upstairs to comfort her now awake infant. The boy looked back to his father. “You gonna be ok though?”

“Yes.” Loki told him earnestly. True, perhaps he should be sending him promises like this, but what else could he say to the child? “But until then, you’re the man of the house. And that means taking care of your sister and mother when I’m gone.”

“And Aunt Stella?”

Loki chuckled. “Yes. AND Aunt Stella.” funny, considering that his sister in law wasn’t exactly too fond of him at first, yet then again, she didn’t think anyone was good enough for Simone. Still, after some years, she had softened up a bit. He then put Duran down. “I’m to meet with Richard soon. So I’ll need to be heading off.”

“Wait!” a voice from the stairwell cried out, Simone coming down with the swaddled form of an infant. The baby had been able to now take in solid food, but still, she was always wanting to be by her mother's side whenever possible. “At least let this one here get to see you off.”

“Of course.” Loki said, giving Wendy a small peck on her bare forehead, then a full on kiss to his wife. Duran received a rustle to his hair, the armored man then headed to the door. 

“Have fun!” the boy called out, his father giving a wave goodbye before exiting from the home.


Exiting out of their lives…

He opened his eyes, only to have a bright, hot light assault them. “What the-” Duran began, seeing the area below seemingly burst into flames, a figure too fast for the eye to catch seemingly manifesting in one place, then another a small distance away, then another, and another. The young man rushed forward and down the stairs, to the side of a fallen soldier. “Hey! C’mon! Get up!” he half shouted and pleaded, only to receive no answer. Whether he was either unconscious or dead, Duran didn’t know, he looked around and saw several others in the same state. “The Hell is going on here?!”

“Hey, you ok?!” he turned to see the same soldier that he had previously been talking to approach him. “Looks like you’re the only one in this area that wasn’t taken out!”

“What happened?!”

“I don’t know, but there’s fire everywhere!” the soldier explained. “And some guys said that two people burst through the gates! One of them was a real tall guy in armor black as night, and the other was in some sort of cape!”

‘Cape…’ he didn’t know why, but that particular detail stuck a cord of familiarity with Duran. “As in, a shroud of sorts?”

“Yeah, like that! Why?”

It...no. No, it was too coincidental. And yet…”C’mon!” Duran called out, brandishing his sword and shield. “We’ve got to make sure they don’t get to King Richard!”

Nodding, the other soldier took out his weapons as well and made their way from the walls and down to the lower area, surveying the damage done, but also looking for a potential trail left. Several fallen forms were littered all around, this only fueling Duran’s desire to tail down whomever had dared do this! 

“Look!” the soldier with him called out, and indeed, there was someone there. “It’s him!” 

The red cloaked individual gave a passing glance back at the two, only to then disappear again. “Oh, no you don’t!” Duran rushed forward, the cloaked figure only having the wisps he left in the midst of his teleportation be the only thing to meet the tip of the young man’s blade. 

“Go after him!” the other soldier shouted. “I’ll go in and check on King Richard!” 

“Right!” Duran pursued the red hooded figure who clearly was magically inclined, he finally ceased to teleport just enough of a distance away atop one of the walls, Duran standing right behind him. “Stop right there!”

The figure did indeed stop, a low chuckled emitting from him. “My, my…” he began. “Such an eager youth you are…” he then turned to face the young man. 

“Y-You!” Duran KNEW it! He KNEW that he had seen him before!

“Yes, I.” the red cloaked man confirmed. “Such a stunning performance you had shown before. And I must say, your dear Aunt wasn’t too bad of a looker herself.”

“RAAGH!” Duran cried out, leaping up and slashing his sword, only to have it met little more than red wisps and dead air.

“I suppose that now you’ve won a tournament, you think that you’re suddenly the best and most skilled swordsman around. Yet if I recall, wasn’t the tournament strictly the ‘youth division’?” again, the young man slashed, only to meet nothing, the cloaked man appearing behind him. “So King Richard is now employing mere children into his ranks? Shame. A clear indicator the old fool’s growing senile.”

“Don’t you DARE insult His Majesty!” Duran roared, quite winded from chasing the man all around by now, yet his pumping, boiling blood was more than enough to keep him going.

“Then come over and do something about it.” turning to face him, the man undid the wrapping around his head, revealing a long, luxurious mane of golden hair and piercing, contrasting violet eyes. He wore a long, black tunic that came to his ankles, brown slippers, and had large, golden rings on his wrists. “Well?” he questioned. “I gave you an open invitation.”

Duran needed no more, lunging forward. In response, the blonde wizard produced several fireballs from his hand, all heading in the direction of the young man. He found himself unable to move forward, having to rely on his shield to keep the hot flames from touching him, yet he could already feel the heat, he momentarily cursed his long hair as the danger of it catching fire was very real. Still, amidst the flames, he persisted, going forward and rolling out of the way of the fiery barrage. Having gotten to the backside of the wizard, he rose his sword to strike-

Only to hit nothing once again. 


“Ohhh, I hope that kid’s ok…” indeed, a part of himself was thinking, well, what was he thinking leaving someone so young to fend for themselves? Still, there was little time for thinking of anything other than getting to His Majesty before whoever these creeps were! Seeing the main entrance to the castle, the soldier burst through the doors, only to see even more fallen comrades. Moaning came from some of them, yet given how many were unmoving, it only made him press on further. Going up the stairs and down the hallway, the soldier thrust open the doorway to the throne room. “Stop right there you-WHOA!” 

He was cut off by a massive, blackened blade just mere inches away from slicing through his head. A darkly clad, towering figure was forced back through the doorway, only for the soldier to see a sight that made his heart nearly stop. “Y-Your Majesty!” the king was outright FIGHTING this guy! Sword in hand, King Richard had grabbed a sword and shield and proceeded to try and fend off this intruder himself, if not for the sake of those that had fallen in an attempt to protect him. 

Memories came rushing back to him as he and the darkly armored foe battle, sword against sword, the clanging of metal and shouts and grunts echoing throughout the hallway, the soldier finding all he could do was helplessly watch. A young prince he was once. A young prince, who one day became king. Yet in his time as prince, despite his heritage and position in the royalty, he always felt it unfair that others should have to die for him due to his status. After all, had not enough died when Pedda launched their attack beforehand? Had not his own kin, his parents, perished along with several others in the siege of Valsena before? And had not Loki been lost to...

No. He would NOT allow such a thing to happen again! Not if he could help it! 

The dark knight slashed his sword horizontally, just barely missing Richard’s stomach, the king repaying in kind by swinging vertically, only to have it stopped by the blade that his foe possessed. 

‘Nice job at getting your ass kicked.’ a young, boisterous voice said in his mind.

‘Hey, not ALL of us are perfect!’ a younger him shot back at the other young man.

‘Look, you want to learn this or not?’

‘More than anything.’ Why...why was that particular event coming to him now?

‘Look, you’re holding it too hard.’ another slash of the blade came down. ‘You need to have some ease when you hold it. Otherwise, your movements are going to be too stiff. There has to be a degree of flexibility.’ Another block with his shield. ‘Yeah, like that.’ Flexibility….’Act as if the sword is an extension of your arm. Essentially, it is.’ An extension of the arm...why? Why did ‘his’ image come into his mind?


‘Flexibility.’ Duran metally repeated, a flurry of what appeared to be a small pocket of a literal hailstorm coming his way. ‘The sword is an extension of the arm…’ King Richard himself had told him such as a boy. And thus, it had been etched into his mind, never to be forgotten. It had gotten him far, far enough to where he could get to where he was now. Champion. The youngest soldier in the King’s royal guard. The best. 

The best at getting his ass handed to him by some girlish man in what could’ve been mistaken for a red dress!

On and on, Duran struck. Blow and blow, slice after slice with his sword and block after block with his shield. Yet still, it yielded no result. “Fight me, damn you!” the young man shouted, continuing to slash his sword. Again, the wizard teleported away.

“You’re looking a little bit run down…” the blonde magician observed, Duran releasing heavy sighs and huffs. “And believe it or not, I’m a little pressed for time.”

“So…” Duran huffed. “Why come here at all?”

“I wanted to see what the so-called ‘Kingdom of the Plains’ had to offer. Whether or not they WERE supposedly the strongest nation in the world.” the wizard smirked. “I now see that it’s all talk. The old fool that rules this place has grown too soft and lax since his warring days.”

“Don’t...speak...of...His...Majesty...THAT WAY!” Duran leapt forward, only to find his throat seized by the wizard, lifting him off the ground. 

“I shall speak as I see fit!” the wizard shouted, having grown rather tired of this fool’s continuous, fruitless attempts against him. Honestly, how thickheaded was this child? Still, no matter, for soon, it’d all be over.

Inside the Palace

“Your Majesty!” the soldier shouted, trying to get closer, only to find himself forced to back away again by the barrage of attacks being sent in the other’s direction. King Richard, however, found himself beginning to lose his standing against the darkly clad knight. 

Yet still…’his’ image came to his mind. Something about the way that this fiend moved...no, everything was about how this fiend moved. His mannerisms, his strikes, it was all so familiar. 

“GAH!” Just then, the knight began spinning around, creating a whirlwind of sorts all around him, knocking Richard off his feet. Then, he slashed and sent several, disc shaped wisps of wind in his direction, of which he blocked with his shield, yet a good few of them managed to make contact with him, his cheeks being cut and his arms and legs receiving several slices as well. The knight then came forward and didn’t even give Richard the time to defend himself, his foot stomping down on his chest, a good few ‘cracks’ being heard when he did so. Raising his sword, he readied himself to deliver the killing blow-

“MAJESTY!” the soldier found his opening. Leaping in front of the dark knight’s sword, a mass of dark energy being produced from the blade, meant for Richard, yet it was delivered to the sudden intruder. The energy pierced through the armor and sent him flying against the wall, crashing into one of the suits of armor that stood in front of the entrance to the throne room, the soldier falling and landing on his stomach, unmoving and silent. 

It was then that, to Richard’s surprise, he saw the knight pause and gaze at the soldier he had just disposed of, as if fascinated by what he had just done. Or maybe, from the way his hand began to shake, shocked? He then looked to the king, then to his sword, as if contemplating what he was about to do, what for what reason? He seemed so certain of himself before, so why now? Had what he had just done affect him so much? 

Again, why did ‘his’ image come to the ruler’s mind?

“There he is!” several voices cried out, the sound of several feet rushing forward heard as the few soldiers that had survived or weren’t too gravely injured surrounded the both of them, swords and spears and whatever else they could get their hands on at the ready to strike. The knight looked to Richard, then to the mob surrounding them, then to the soldier that had fallen taking the blow meant for the King. 

Then, to everyone’s surprise, the knight appeared to evaporate from their sight, leave dark wisps of smoke as the only reminder he was once there.

Outside

“There’s also another reason that I came.” the wizard mentioned, smirking, Duran cursing as his hands were burnt and he was forced to release his grip on his only means of defense. “I hear that your King Richard has some knowledge on some little trinkets.”

“T-Trinkets?” Duran questioned, feeling his body begin to grow lax due to lack of air. 

“Maybe you’ve heard of them. Do the words ‘Mana Stones’ ring any bells?” Mana Stones? What in the world would his King know about such things? But one thing was clear. Whomever this guy was, his intentions in invading the castle wasn’t merely due to just wanting to get a kick out of how many guards he could take out. “Heh. Look at you.” the wizard strengthened his hold on the young man’s throat. “THIS is the champion? The youngest soldier to join the guard? Then again, you ARE just a boy, aren’t you? Just a young, silly little boy. It’s not as fun when you’re no longer playing with a toy sword, now is it?”

“S-Stop calling me a boy!”

“Hm? You don’t WANT to be a boy anymore?” the wizard smirked. “I feel you tremble. Don’t feel ashamed. Fear is only a natural response.”

“I’m not...afraid! E-Especially...of you!”

“And look at you, literally wasting your breath. And you came at me with no strategy or discipline, just swung your sword like a madman in my direction. No forethought, no maturity...indeed, you are just a silly little boy.”

He felt himself beginning to slip. “D-Damn you. Damn you to Hell…”

“Hell, you say?” the wizard questioned. “Funny you should mention that. As I was pondering just how to release you from your misery, little boy.” the hand clasping Duran’s throat suddenly grew hot, unbearably so. “Should I roast your insides until your little more than a pile of ash?” then, his hand grew icy cold. “Or should I turn you into a sculpture to smash? I’m feeling generous, for even if your performance was poor, you get a gold star for trying. So I’m offering you the chance to take your pick.” Duran found himself unable to form words, the world beginning to turn black. “Oh, you can’t decide?” Suddenly, the young man found himself dropped to the floor. “All right...I’ll give you the best of both worlds!” the wizard lifted his hands, blazing flames in one hand while searing cold was in the other. 

“STOP RIGHT THERE!!!” 

Both the wizard and Duran looked to see a swarm of survivors coming around the corner, weapons at the ready. Then, from the other side, more soldiers rushed in, surrounding the two completely. The wizard looked around, surveying his surroundings, then to the young man on the ground. He remembered his Queen’s words well. ‘No more than necessary. This is merely a test of their defenses.’ he then looked to Duran. “Consider yourself fortunate, boy. But when you eventually manage to get back on your feet, I’d advise that you learn the limits of your body. As well as how, no matter your superficial title, you’re nothing but a foolish, silly little boy.” 

With that, the wizard disappeared. 

“N-No.” Duran protested, rising to his feet, though his movements were wobbly and disoriented, the world little more than a series of swirling colors and shapes. He grabbed his sword and shield, yet could do little more than stumble forward, the blade dragging along the stone ground. “Get...back here…” he didn’t get far, his hand released his blade and his body gave out. Falling to his knees, the young man found nothing more than a black void awaiting him as he fell forward into complete and utter darkness. 

Chapter Text

Altena

The Previous Night

She lay in the golden bathtub in the shape of a ship in the front, the crafted visage of a mermaid on the front while a rising wave was crafted on the other end, carvings of various fish lined the exterior of the tub, hot water filling it. She was more than clean enough by now, yet she found herself not caring much. Frankly, the water could’ve been ice cold, and she still wouldn’t have been motivated enough to come out immediately.

All she had requested was an audience with her mother. The fact she even had to do such a thing at all still tore at her, yet all she wanted to say was just a few words, nothing more! All she wanted to tell her was that things were beginning to feel a little colder as of late. As in, unseasonably cold. It was something that warranted looking into, surely! And AS Princess, as Victor and Jose always saw fit to remind her, she would have to take upon such responsibilities one day. Yet what did she get for her efforts? 

‘The Queen has a message for you.’ one of the Altenian guards told her plainly, her voice and direct and cold as the winds she had been feeling for some nights. ‘Come to her when something of actual value is needing to be said.’

Thus, here she was, attempting to wash away those words, yet she doubted it’d do anything. Eventually, she exited and slipped on the nightgown she had brought in with her, a sleeveless, flowing dress of lilac with gold trimmings on the chest, a robe of pink coming on after. She made her way to her bedroom, yet felt far from tired. She sat by the window that peered out in the courtyard, the blooming trees able to be seen, their blossoms fat as ever. Maybe...maybe she was just imagining things. As her mother said, or rather, had someone say for her, she was putting importance on the wrong-

“AHH!” Angela was rattled upon hearing a piercing scream. 

Grabbing her robe and a pair of slippers, she rushed out of her room. “What?! What’s happening?!”

“Outside!” she heard a voice cry. “It’s happening outside!” 

What the...she was just looking outside! What could be outside? Nevertheless, she followed the sound of where the multitudes of feet seemed to be running, it seemed to be right where the gates were. When she arrived, the young woman saw first hand what was causing such a panic among everyone. 

From the sky, small pellets of white slowly fell, the clouds that produced them darkly colored, even for the night sky. 

Snow. It was snowing.

Present Time

Yet another day. Another failed class. Another skipping of said class due to failure, and, as she had seen Victor come her way, yet another lecture was the last thing to be checked off the list. 

“Yeah, yeah. Give it to me, Victor.” Angela sighed, having taken to reclining on one of the pews in the worship area of the castle. 

He was more shocked than anything. Really, how could she display such disrespect and not even bat an eye?! “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Studying.” she told the blonde plainly, holding up a book, though it was clearly not a magical text. Dare say, it looks like something that, even at her age, was rather risque for her to be reading.

“Really, Angela, is this any way to behave in all places?” 

“If the Goddess has a problem with it,” Angela began, propping her feet up on the pew ahead of her. “Then she can come down and say it herself.”

Honestly, he sometimes wondered why he put up with her. “Well, believe it or not, I’m NOT here to lecture you.”

“Oh, that’s new.” Angela said, flipping through the pages of her book, eyes widening as some rather spicy material was on the next few pages. “Or has Jose caught on that you and he are just wasting your breath?”

Victor crossed his arms and sighed. “No, it’s a different matter entirely.” at first, she gave it no mind, yet what came from him next made the book she had been so engrossed in (especially the part of the man’s muscular arms taking ahold of the protagonist’s naked body) fall from her hands. “Your mother wishes to see you.”

Kingdom of Laurant 

“Elliot, come on! You have to do better than that!” the blonde princess commanded, a far smaller boy blocking the strikes made by her staff, his staff somewhat too large for him, but he could maneuver with it decently. Yet that was just it. Decently. The boy was far younger than the princess, wearing a green tunic with white and gold linings, a short, indigo cape and pants, and a pair of brown, leather gloves and boots. He bore short, shaggy blonde hair and blue eyes just like the older young woman currently engaging with him. “Elliot, have you been practicing your katas?” Riesz asked, taking a moment to allow him to speak.

“Yeah. I have!” the boy, Elliot, responded. “It’s just hard, Riesz!”

“That’s why it’s called practice.” she informed him directly. “Katas are meant to be repetitive in order to hone your body and mind so that it comes naturally to you.”

“But there’s so many steps...your katas are so confusing.”

“Then it needs to be studied more.” she told him. “Now, come on.” she got into position again. “Come at me again.” 

Gulping, he readied himself, not having much confidence...no, having no confidence at all that he’d succeed. Still, he knew well that he wasn’t getting out of this. Not until his sister was satisfied. He ran at her, holding his bo staff out like he was about to ram into her. “Oof!” only to have her duck to the side, take ahold of it from his hands, which sent him falling towards the floor. “Oww….”

“You came at me without thinking.” Riesz told him. “Charging is a last resort. The enemy will surely take advantage of that. Always be the last one to move if you can.”

“Oww…” Elliot whined. “Sis, that hurt…”

“Training isn’t supposed to be pleasant, Elliot.” she lectured. “It’s a preparation for the eventual struggle between life and death. Now get up and try again.” she commanded. The boy puffed out his cheeks, yet did as he was told. She insisted that it was for his own good, that it would be useful one day, yet he had no interest in such things yet. 

All he wanted to do was just play. Perhaps with her…

Altena

She was a nervous wreck, knowing well that she caught the eyes of several that she had passed as she made her way to the main body of the castle. On one hand, Angela found herself exhilarated. Her mother, the woman that birthed her, and yet barely acknowledged her existence, actually wanted to see her. For her to be in her presence. And on the other, nothing short of utmost trepidation and anxiety twisted her insides into knots. What in the world could she be being summoned for? Perhaps her mother reconsidered her words yesterday. Maybe...maybe she was wanting to apologize? No, no, that couldn’t be it. The True Queen...she’s above such things. At least, that was the general attitude that Angela had gotten throughout the years. Yet perhaps, in a way, she should be grateful considering this was happening at all.

Approaching the doors to the throne room, she steeled herself, yet really, there probably was no way she could prepare herself. Thankfully, it seemed that she didn’t have to open the doors, they opened themselves, two Altenian mages behind them. In fact, from what the green eyed princess could see, a lot of mages were present in the room. More so than what was probably necessary. “What in the world…” she said aloud, not even noticing the woman stationed before her on a throne. 

The throne room was furnished with deep blue curtains and perfectly polished windows stationed behind the Queen’s golden throne, the stone tiles beneath everyone’s feet arranged in a diamond pattern, a long, red carpet serving as the way to lead to the throne. Large, stone columns stood beside the throne area, and beside the throne itself appeared to be two, floating, shimmering crystals on two platforms. Then, there was the Queen herself.

While others had called the princess a perfect reflection of her mother, Angela herself found herself doubting such. For indeed, her mother was nothing short of divine in her eyes. Long, flowing, violet hair with beautiful green eyes that shimmered like stones. She wore long, blue robes that trailed the floor, a golden fauld that served as a belt, and a tall crown of gold atop her head, an oval, smooth gemstone of blue centered in it. Her eyes and everything else about her were gorgeous...and yet...and yet there was an undeniably chill to her. A prevailing coldness that made Angela liken her to the tundra that resided outside the kingdom’s grounds: beautiful, yet a place she’d not wish to stay in for too long. 

Yet beside her stood Lord Koren, surprising Angela. Had he come back so soon? Whatever the case, she was here now.

“Mother,” the young woman began, approaching the throne. Though as she did so, she saw the woman’s eyes narrow in displeasure, Angela realized her mistake. Immediately, she knelt down and lowered her head. “Mother-” she could see it, but felt her eyes of steel on her. “I mean, Your Highness, you wished to see me?” it didn’t make it much better, yet at least the weight of her gaze began to lessen.

She didn’t speak, Koren spoke for her. “Princess, allow me to explain,” he began.

Laurent

If Elliot himself saw her doing this, he would’ve immediately decreed her as a hypocrite. Yet technically, she wasn’t outside of the kingdom’s borders. Just on the edge of it. Besides, she had her lance with her, should any trouble arise. Riesz sighed, feeling the wind grace itself upon her, her body slightly chilled, yet the hot rays of the sun lessened it, allowing her to full engulf and appreciate the air that came her way. Reaching around, she undid the ribbon that held the lower part of her hair together and let her golden mane flow freely, it completely enslaved to the whims of the dancing breeze. 

‘Riesz…’ she heard him say in her mind. ‘Where did mom go?’ Why had that come? Was it the wind? Or maybe...maybe it was just because all she could think about was him. And maybe her.

‘What kind of question is that? You know well where she is.’

By Goddess, she loved coming out here on days like this. The wind was perfect, the sun was perfect, everything was perfect. The blades of grass lightly nipped at her calves and thighs as she sat down, though despite the seemingly picturesque scenery, she didn’t exactly come out to relax. This environment was also where she came to reflect. And at the moment, she found herself with much to reflect on.

‘She’s with the wind, Elliot.’ she told him. 

‘How? Can I be with the wind too?’

‘No, it doesn’t work like that.’

‘Then how does it work?’

Elliot’s training session didn’t exactly go well...as did several other of his sessions. Honestly, Riesz didn’t know what to do with that boy. He insisted that he had been practicing his katas, and indeed, some of those under her command had attested that he had been doing so, but why was he showing so little signs of improvement? It made no sense to her. After all, her training regiment at that age was far harsher under Alma. If anything, she was being merciful in her methods in comparison to the former captain. Rather surreal, in a way, that a woman such as that could become such a thing later in life. Then again, her relegation to such a position wasn’t exactly of her choosing. 

The rose haired leader of the harpies immediately came to the princess’ mind. 

‘Everything that lives has a spirit, right?’ she asked him, nodding his head. ‘Well, when someone or something dies...their spirit becomes one with the wind. They blow throughout the world, traveling all around and viewing the world from below. They can soar high above the clouds to down here to wherever they want.’

She closed her eyes.

‘Then why doesn’t she come by here?’

‘You…sometimes doubt that she’s there. That’s what father told me once. But, he also said that it’s not about seeing. Just as you can’t see the wind, you can’t see her. But she’s there. She may be somewhere else in the world, or above it, yet she passes through here more often than you think. So...father told me this once: she’s with you, even if you can’t see her. For even if the wind doesn’t blow, that doesn’t mean she isn’t there with you.’

Still, the issue was with Elliot. She found herself stuck. What could she do to see some sense of improvement in the boy? For as long as she had been personally training him, he should’ve at least gotten something down, surely! It infuriated her at times. Even the young girls that had just enlisted into the guard had done better. Even Eliza, possibly the most accident-prone young woman she had ever seen could score a hit or two! She had reviewed her methods time and time again, yet could find nothing. She didn’t make him do any strenuous exercise when he missed or performed poorly, as Alma had done. Yet this wasn’t to imply Alma was too harsh or unkind. Far from it. Everything she did, she did with a nurturing spirit. And Riesz tried to recapture such...at least, she had thought she did. But...something was off, she could tell. She tried to teach Elliot as Alma did, but she had to admit, there was something she wasn’t doing right. She didn’t exactly know what it was, yet it had to be something, otherwise there’d be some progress by now.

‘Why can’t she be here now all the time then? Why does she have to go to other places? Why did she have to go at all?’

She couldn’t answer him then, nor now.

Maybe, the princess thought, the wind continuing to play with her hair, her father would have a better idea of what she should do.

Altena

“As you know, our kingdom is preparing an invasion to claim the Mana Stones of the other nations due to the power of Mana of our own nation fading.”

“Yes, I’m aware.” Angela stated. Truly though, no one aside from Victor had told her much of anything, and even his information was limited. She hadn’t really known what to think of it, mainly because, like everything else, things would go on with or without her input anyway. “But what does that have to do with-”

“Silence.” The Queen interrupted, voice firm and cold. “Lord Koren is speaking.”

Angela flinched. “As I was saying,” Koren continued. “Mana is fading from our country. Thus, we shall conquer the other countries and claim their Mana Stones. I believe that Valsena should be our first target.” Angela was about to speak again, mainly to question as to why that particular location, due to the past relations Altena had with the country, yet she remained silent. “To harness the power of the Mana Stones means access to the Mana Sanctuary, and thus, the source of Mana, the Mana Tree, as well as the Mana Sword. With the Sword in the Queen’s hands, we shall possess access to all the Mana that resides in the world. Once the Stones are activated, the portal to the Sanctuary will be opened.”

“That’s all?” Angela found herself unable to stay silent any longer. “How do you know that it’ll work? Has anyone done it before? I mean, it just sounds like you’re putting in blind faith into something based on some old legend that we don’t even know if-”

“We do NOT question legends.” The Queen interrupted again, voice seemingly even colder than before. Angela immediately regretted her decision. 

 “However,” Koren paused. “The process in harnessing the full power of the Stones “In order to harness that power, there are several methods, yet all are deadly. One in particular that me and the Queen have decided on requires the use of a powerful, yet ancient and forbidden spell that, for a good long while, had been lost to time.” Lost to time, Angela thought. Sounds like something Old Jose would’ve been looking into, the old man always researching such things. “The spell was forbidden to use due to it consuming and taking the life of the caster.”

“It...it kills you?” Angela questioned, afraid as she had accidentally opened her mouth again. Yet, to her surprise, she was chastised for it this time. 

“Indeed.” The Queen answered. “Thus, you understand the dilemma. In order to activate the Stone, a person’s life must be forfeit. That said,” Angela knew not why, yet a chill began to creep up her spine. “Neither I, nor Lord Koren can afford such a risk. I as Queen of the nation, and Lord Koren, our most skilled and prized magic user in the entire kingdom, are of too much importance to simply throw our lives away.”

“Then...someone has to die?” Angela questioned, steadily growing more and more uncomfortable. 

“That is correct.” Koren confirmed.

“Then...then who would…” the young woman then grew silent, noticing that all eyes were centered on her. 

Laurent

She opened her mouth to speak, yet before she could, he looked right in her direction. “Yes, Riesz?”

Damn, she thought, though she dare not speak such language. He really DID have a sixth sense, or something along those lines. “H-Hello, father.” she greeted, still somewhat off put by the man’s seemingly unnatural intuition. 

“You seem troubled,” he observed. “Something on your mind?”

Indeed, there was, though really, just how much COULD this man sense? Said man had blonde hair like she and Elliot, though it was a far lighter shade, appearing a sandy color. His hair was long and his beard was kept in a braid of sorts, and he had a handlebar mustache with thick eyebrows. Atop of his head was a red cap with a golden rim that had diamond-like pieces attached, a green gemstone on the center of the rim, making it look like a combination of a cap and crown. He wore a red cape and a darkly colored, long sleeved undershirt underneath with a red tunic lined with gold around the short sleeves and section on the lower half, a darkly colored belt around his waist. A pair of black pants rested on his legs, covering up his shoes as he sat on his throne. His eyes, however, were perhaps his most notable feature. They were a hazy, golden color that, had one not known better, would’ve assumed they looked dead, yet those who knew him knew well that this was a ruse. Yet due to their glazed look, no one could really tell what he was thinking exactly. If eyes truly were a mirror to the soul, then while his depicted a calm and mellow nature, they hit elements that one couldn’t help but let out in moments of extreme emotion. Yet somehow, he managed to keep everything in check, and only released what he wanted to present to the open. 

King Joster, Ruler of Laurent.

“Well...I don’t know if I would say that.” Riesz bit her lip. “But...I suppose you could say I’m having some...conflict.” 

“It’s Elliot again, isn’t it?” 

The princess felt her breath hitch for a moment. Seriously, how in the world did he do it? “Well...yes. You could say that.”

“And it deals with his training, does it not?”

Ok, now it was just getting creepy. “I don’t know what to do with the boy.” Riesz confessed. “I admit I’m having difficulty with his training. He just…” she sighed. “He just doesn’t seem to be improving in the slightest.”

“In what way?” her father questioned.

“He...he insists that he’s been practicing. And...I don’t want to just up and call him a liar, yet one would think that he would’ve gotten at least the bare basics down by now, surely!”

“At age ten?” King Joster asked.

“I began training at five.” Riesz protested. “And I was allowed to handle a real spear at his age.” 

“Yes. YOU did. He isn’t you, is he?”

The princess paused. “Well...no. But it shouldn’t be that-”

“Tell me, when has he had time to play?” 

“Father, he has to attend to not only training, but his studies, his chores, his-”

“Tell me, when has he had time to play?”

Riesz was silent. “Um...he...he has time to go out and play. I don’t really know when, but...but he does, surely.”

Joster sighed and closed his eyes. “I’ll allow you to think about this, Riesz. Think for a small while, then maybe you’ll find the answer for yourself.”

“...all right. Thank you, father.” with that, she went away to the training room. Not because she needed to, she had done her daily routine of patrolling and training, yet...she needed to train. She needed to get all this tension out. Then, she’d go out into the wind again. She’d certainly need a bath after this session. Maybe that would finally relieve her of all this nonsense thinking.

Altena

No. They...they weren’t serious. These...these eyes all on her...they, they couldn’t mean...then why were so many in here then? Was it for this reason? To keep her from...no. No!

“You...you’re not serious.” Angela found herself beginning to say. “Your...Your Highness...Lord Koren…” no reply came from them or anyone, her blood running cold at the silence she received. “But...but you...you can’t mean-”

“That this is the most viable option?” The Queen interrupted. “That this shall be what this kingdom needs, that shall save us all?” her eyes narrowed. “I’ve never been more serious.”

As if instinctually, the princess turned, only to find several mages in her way, all with wands aimed in her direction. “M-Mother...Mother, I-” she couldn’t contain herself, she rushed up to the throne and grabbed at the Queen’s robes. “Mother, you can’t! You can’t do this! I’m your child-”

SLAP!

Her cheek felt as if it were on fire, her feet lost contact with the ground, and she felt on her side, her gloved hand cusping the stinging side of her face. 

“My child?” the Queen questioned, rising from her throne. “My child that has shown no progress in her magical studies? Who cannot do the simplest of spells? My child that has been nothing but a blight on my and this kingdom’s legacy?” she shook her head. “No. You are NO child of mine.”

“M-Mother...please.” Angela croaked, tears flooding her eyes. “Don’t say that…”

“In fact, you should be grateful to me that I am allowing you an honor such as this.” the Queen spoke again. “With this act, you shall at least have SOME semblance of contribution to this operation, and be remembered for something other than a blight on my lineage.”

Lord Koren began to approach her, Angela backing away from him. “Now come, princess.” he urged, reaching out a hand. “There’s no need to make this difficult.” 

“N-No…” 

“It’ll only be a brief moment of pain, I promise you.”

“N-No. Don’t touch me!” she slapped his hand away.

Koren sighed, shaking his head. “Restrain her.” he ordered, Angela feeling several hands clasping her arms and hosting her up to her feet. “Take her to a cell and make sure to keep it secure. Yet do not treat her too roughly. The less bruising there is on her, the better.”

“N-No! Please!” Angela begged, her captors dragging her away. “Mother, please! Lord Koren!” they did nothing but stare ahead at her quite literally being dragged to her death. “No…” she cried. “No!” 

“Hm? What’s that?” one of the mages holding the princess questioned. Indeed, something was happening. They were sparse at first, yet small orbs of light began to form, yet where where they coming from? Could they be coming from-

“NOOOO!!!!” Angela shrieked, not even realizing her entire body was consumed by light that blinded everyone in the room. The light expanded and overtook everything, the sensation as if a massive current of wind had just entered and rustled everyone, some being taken off their feet. Yet when the light dispersed and dematerialized, there appeared to be no damage done. Everyone was present and fine.

Save for Angela herself.


“NOOOO!!!” she screamed, yet realized something had changed when she had fallen forward into...snow? Yes, there was no mistake, this WAS a thick blanket of snow beneath her.

And looking up, she could see why that was. Before her stood the palace gates, towering over her. Was...was she outside? Rising to her feet, the below freezing temperature struck her, her legs buckling and her hands immediately clasping at her arms to warm them. How did she get out here? What had she just done? All she knew was that she was desperate to get away, to run, to do something, to be somewhere other than where she was, and now, she was outside the palace? Had...had she just used magic? Actual magic? This made her nearly faint in shock, yet another sensation came over her. One of paralyzing fear. If she was outside...then...then what her mother and Koren said they would do...she would be searched for. And when they found out she wasn’t in the palace, then surely they would…

No. No, she wouldn’t let them! She wouldn’t let them use her for such a thing! She...she didn’t understand. She understood nothing at that moment. Nothing, aside from one thing.

Run.

Chapter Text

Nerval Fortress

And the night had been going so well too.

When he, Niccolo, Bill and Ben had returned from the raid, everyone was in a bit of a stir. And from what he had heard, the announcement was going to be big. Being led to the area where all the branching corridors and hallways met in the fortress, everyone was gathered before a bearded old man bearing tanned skin and mustache of wiry fibers. His turban was light blue, and he wore a cape of white with baggy, tan pants and blue slippers. From the looks of it, he appeared more sultan-like than someone that was the head of a guild of thieves. Yet if not for this man, Hawkeye and everyone else present wouldn’t have probably been here at all. 

Beside him stood a woman of considerable beauty with long, flowing red hair and contrasting, pale skin. Her arms were adorned with bangles studded with jewels, a collar-like necklace around her lower neck and shoulders, and she had a shawl bearing the stripes of a tiger around her arms, two golden pieces clasping it and the tassels of violet together. Atop of her head rested a turban of blue with various feathers sticking out at the top, ranging from the local wild birds to peacock, a strapless corset of the same color was on her person, a tight fitting, pink skirt that fanned out at her ankles, red slippers adorned with turquoise stones on her feet. Indeed, she was the purest definition of beauty. And yet...and yet, those who got a good look, a VERY good look, they could sense that something was amiss, unnatural with her.

“Attention, everyone!” she suddenly proclaimed. “I know that you all are wondering as to why you all are here. Yet rest assured, this shall be a great day for us all.” the woman assured, everyone talking amongst themselves as to what she could possibly mean. No one but a select few saw, yet her eyes lit up like that of a cat who had just spotted prey. “Yet perhaps I shall let our own guild master…” she paused. “Oh, please excuse me, His Majesty, Flamekhan.”

Hawkeye was at a loss for words at what he had just heard. 

“Thank you, Isabella.” the old man, Flamekhan, thanked, turning to those gathered around. “As you have just heard, I have declared us, this region, a sovereign state, and we shall no longer go under the title of ‘guild’, but ‘kingdom’.” immediately, the room was filled with voices, some questioning the reasoning for this, some protesting, and some pondering as to what this meant for them. “I do not do this out of a lack of concern for you all, however.” the old man continued. “Mana is disappearing from the world. The wells are drying up, and game is becoming scarce. We must take it upon ourselves to strive for a future of security and prosperity!” he declared. “I say this to you as my people. As your king, I shall not fail you. We shall build for us a strong, solid kingdom that shall be known by all the world!” he cried out passionately, convincing everyone that he was serious. “However,” he continued, far calmer now. “We cannot simply stay here, hidden away from the world. If we are to be recognized, we must expand and spread our territory. And we shall start,” what was said next made everyone erupt in shocked cries and exclamations of confusion. “By invading and seizing the country of Laurant!”

Hawkeye couldn’t speak, looking at Niccolo with widened eyes. He tried to catch Eagle and Jessica somewhere in the crowd, yet he could see neither. 

“That is all.” what the?! First he makes this big announcement, then the old man just up and ends it like that?! The hell?! “You are all dismissed.”


What the hell?

Just...what the hell? The hell just happened? Was that real?

“Hawkeye?” a feminine voice asked from behind him, a young woman with blue hair and a frilly dress approached him. 

“Jessica.” he acknowledged her presence. “What’s up?”

“What’s up with you?” she asked. “Eagle said that you’ve been completely bummed out since father’s meeting.”

Hawkeye sighed, looking outside of the small space in the mountain that served as a window, the once searing, desert landscape now bathed in the pale light of the moon and brought to near freezing temperatures. It was fascinating how, depending on the time of day, that the environment could change so drastically. In a way...it was a perfect reflection of what had just happened. “The Nerval Kingdom…” Hawkeye began. “The hell is the old man thinking?”

Jessica felt a sting. Was that a jab at her father? “What do you mean?”

“The Nerval Kingdom?” he repeated again. “It...it makes no sense.” he sighed. “Why would Flamekhan of all people go and do this?” he slammed his fist on the wall. “He’s not ONCE been ashamed of himself as a thief! Hell, he’s the one that brought Nerval back after the destruction that was left during the war with Pedda! He BUILT this guild! And now he’s just going to forsake it all?!”

Jessica bit her lip. Indeed, she suspected that this would happen. “Well...father did say that not everyone would be open to it.”

Hawkeye then looked at her. “You’ve talked to him?”

“Rather, he’s talked to me. And Eagle too.” the young woman answered. “And I’ll admit, at first, we were just as shocked as everyone else. But...he raised several good points.”

This, Hawkeye HAD to hear. “Such as?” he couldn’t help but subdue the skeptical, somewhat condescending tone in his voice. He didn’t mean to, as he saw the hurt in Jessica’s face, but she went on.

“Well, for one thing, we can’t stay here.” she said. “It’s as he said: Mana is fading from the world.”

“Is there any proof of that?”

“Well, for one, the wells and oasis’ are drying up. Not to mention, the animals and general natural food supplies are growing scarce. Nevarl...well, we’ve never been a wealthy place…”

“We’ve been doing fine so far.”

“But what about the future generations?” Jessica argued. “Father...father said that this isn’t about respect or status. This is about guaranteeing a future for the children that will be born.” he saw her eyes looking upon him longingly. “And the children’s children.”

“But a king? Him becoming a king?” Hawkeye argued. “The hell is that? He DESPISES monarchy!” he huffed. “Either the man’s gone senile, or he really has lost his dignity.”

“Hawkeye!” Jessica exclaimed. “Don’t talk about my father like that!”

“Oh, and I suppose you’re ok with all this?”

“I...I don’t…” the young woman stammered. “But...but I trust his judgement.”

“And what about invading Laurant? Are you ok with that too?”

“I...I don’t…”

“Oh, I get it.” Hawkeye crossed his arms. “You’re a fan of being a pretty little princess, aren’t you?”

“Hawkeye, stop it.” she said firmly, but he kept going.

“Princess Jessica! Beauty of the Desert! Come one, come all, and see her Highness-”

“STOP IT!” the next thing he knew, his cheek was on fire as she delivered a hard slap, Hawkeye stumbling back from the sheer force of it. Once he saw the tears developing in her eyes, he knew he had gone too far. 

“Jessica-”

“Don’t.” she choked out. “You’ve made your point.” with that, she ran off in tears. 

‘Great.’ the violet haired thief sighed. ‘Yet ANOTHER fine turn this night’s brought.’ 


“Hey,” he heard a voice say, clearly not happy. It was a young man not much younger than Hawkeye himself with shaggy, brown hair and tan skin with a false white, raggedy shirt and green pants with several patches on it. He had simple, brown shoes on his feet, yet they were clearly worn down, the top on the left one somewhat torn off and revealing a raggedy, old sock. “What’d you say to Jessica? She went by here crying!”

‘Lovely.’ Hawkeye sighed. “Let’s just say...I said some things I shouldn’t have, Phil.”

“I’ll say.” Phil huffed, placing his arms on his hips. “Really, if you keep this up, you two are NEVER going to get any further!”

Again, Hawkeye sighed. It seemed everyone here had already decided that he and Jessica were up and going to get it on someday. “Well, you have any idea where she went?”

“To her room.” Phil answered. “Otherwise known as, you’d probably be best in staying away from her for a bit.”

“True…” Hawkeye sighed. Tonight was just getting better and better. 

“Anyway, there’s been something I’ve wanted to ask you.” the young man asked, rubbing the back of his head. “You wouldn’t have happened to have seen Alyssa anywhere, have you?”

“Alyssa?” the thief pondered for a moment. Long, brown hair, pink dress…”Can’t say I have. Not since last night.”

Phil got a chill. “That’s what everyone else has said too.” 

“What do you mean?” the violet haired young man questioned.

“She went to get some water from one of the wells last night, but she didn’t come back!” Phil told him. “I went out and looked everywhere, but I couldn’t see her anywhere! And no one said that they’ve seen her either!”

“Has anyone else looked for her?” Hawkeye asked. This was news to him, he hadn’t heard a thing about it. Granted, he was out on a raid that night, but still. 

“Yes, we looked everywhere!” Phil confirmed. “I...I don’t want to say it...but...do you think that she’s been...taken?”

Taken...Hawkeye knew well what Phil was getting at. It had been small instances at first, yet since the past couple of months, there had been some weird happenings going on around, and NOT including what Flamekhan had just told them tonight. Some of the women in both the smaller village of Diin to the capital of Sirhtan itself, had seemingly been going missing. No one knew what to make of it, as Hawkeye himself had only heard whispers, yet it seemed that everyone had begun to become more cautious when going out at night. And now, some women around the fortress itself were turning up missing. Very few, if any of the women were found, yet they all had one defining element connecting them all: what appeared to be bite marks on their throats, and being completely drained of blood. 

“Hey now, let’s not jump to any conclusions yet.” Hawkeye said. ‘That’s rich, seeing what you just did.’ his mind lectured him. Still, he continued. “Tell you what, I’ll look for her.”

“You will?” Phil asked, Hawkeye nodding. “Thanks. But still...be careful.” With that, Phil went off, leaving the thief alone. 

He had intended to fulfill Phil’s request, but at the moment, he had somewhere to be. 


Hearing the door to his room open, Eagle rose up from the chair and looked to a sore cheeked Hawkeye. A small chuckle came from him as he shook his head. “You’re going to be remaining a bachelor for a LONG time…”

“Hey, I’m in no rush. If it happens, it happens.” the thief shrugged. “Anway, what’d you get?”

Eagle rested a hand on his chin. “Not much. At least, nothing too incriminating.” 

“As always.” Hawkeye sighed. “Damn woman is good.”

“Really good.” Eagle admitted. “But no one’s that good.”

“Except me.” 

The blonde sighed. “Seriously though, it all ties to her. Ever since she’s come into everyone’s lives, father’s been steadily going down a different path. It’s like he’s not even the same person anymore.”

Hawkeye nodded. Finally, someone appeared to be seeing things his way, but openly saying something about it. “Well, what do you suggest we do?”

Eagle sighed. “Truth be told...I’m kinda at a loss.” he then clenched his fists. “But I’m going to find out.”

“No, WE’RE going to find out.” Hawkeye corrected, Eagle presenting a small smile in return. 

Days Later

And ‘we’re going to find out’ mainly consisted of just following her wherever she went. Not exactly the most elaborate or clever plan...but it was technically a plan. And frankly, if he had to be frank, there was no one better at sneaking than he. 

Sure, it was risky, and there had been several times that they had very well nearly gotten caught, yet so far, even if it was the most basic of plans, Hawkeye and Eagle had been successful. Hawkeye was actually pretty surprised, the guy was actually better and remaining scarce than he had given him credit for. He had at first pondered whether or not he should’ve gotten Bill and Ben in on the operation, yet ultimately, he decided against it. Not that he doubted their skills, but the less parties to worry about, the better. 

So far, they haven't really gotten anything or been successful, but tonight...tonight might’ve just been their one and only shot.

It was late at night, and nearly everyone had turned in. Save for Isabella. Immediately, Hawkeye and Eagle tailed the woman, watching as she made her way to Flamekhan’s chambers. This was it. This was what they had been waiting for. “Ok, ready?” Eagle questioned, Hawkeye simply responding with a thumbs up. The two made their move. Hiding behind the wall that, once the corner was turned, led to the head of the guild’s (or rather, now kingdom’s) room, they heard two voices conversing with each other. 

“So, it hasn’t been found?” a male voice said, tone low, yet strangely seductive. It reminded the two, young men of some form of a male version of the woman they were tailing. Honeyed, and yet with an underlying darkness to it.

“Not yet.'' That voice was definitely Isabella. “But do not dare to tell His Majesty that I’m slacking off. Let alone giving...special services to this fossil here.” they peered around the corner to see Flamekhan, completely motionless, assumedly asleep. Still, how was he sleeping through two people being in the room? Something about it wasn’t natural. 

The figure in the room with Isabella was a darkly clad individual with unnaturally pale skin and ivory hair that came up to resemble horns of some kind. He was dressed very much like a nobleman, bearing a vest lined with gold, an angular emblem fastened over a red scarf around his neck, a white undershirt, black pants, and fancy shoes. And when he smiled, both Eagle and Hawkeye saw a pair of highly developed canines. “It’s not my place to question what you do in your free time, dear woman.” the man sneered. “Yet Majesty IS growing impatient.”

“I am doing what I can to fish the location out from this old man.” Isabella huffed. “Yet it seems that even my magic struggles to break through some barriers.”

“Have you considered that perhaps he doesn’t know?” the man suggested.

“Doesn’t know?” Isabella exclaimed, shocked. “How could he not know? This is HIS land! If ANYONE should know where the Stone is, it’s him!”

“Yet you also forget, didn’t he have an...estranged, family member? One that he declared a traitor and sought to kill?”

Wait...what? Hawkeye and Eagle listened in closer.

“Hmm…” Isabella pondered. “There WAS something about that once. When I asked him about his children. There was an instance where he slipped and mentioned a name. Apparently, those two came from his second wife. His first and he...he mentioned that they couldn’t conceive. She was unable to become pregnant. So, they adopted and raised an orphan girl as their own. From what little I got, she was declared a traitor, yet he couldn’t bring himself to end her. Thus, they went their separate ways.”

“Lovely story.” the man scoffed. “Yet what does that have to do with the Stone’s location?”

“I’m getting there.” Isabella told him. “In the times of the war with Pedda, a young man by the name of Roget that had traveled the world and eventually ended up saving it from destruction, as well as his own former kingdom. Let’s just say that the young man was rather popular, as he managed to get several others in his cause. He was led to and bore knowledge of the Stones, receiving power from the Elemental Spirits themselves. One of these allies was this adopted daughter.”

So much was coming their way, neither of the young men knew what to make of it. Still, they listened on. “So, the old man here has more of a history than I thought.” he looked at him. So many wrinkles, so old...the man grimaced in disgust. “So, where is she now? This...young woman?” he bore his canines, smiling with anticipation.”

“Dead.” Isabella answered. “For some time. She and her husband.” the woman narrowed her eyes. “And presumably, the location died with them.”

The man’s eyes flared up. “So you mean to tell me that you’ve simply WASTED your time here?!”

The woman then smiled. “Not necessarily.” before he could ask, she went on. “During the war with Pedda, the old fool was the second in command to the former leader, Olbex. He bore knowledge of all the land, even that of the Stone. So, if my hunch is right, then, even if it is just a hint, there IS something in the old man’s brain that reveals something vital to its location.”

“Then go about your business in getting it.” the caped man told her. “Lest the Majesty becomes displeased...or disinterested in you.” both Hawkeye and Eagle saw Isabella flinch at that. “I must be off.” the man said, turning his back to her. “There is a young maiden calling my name.”

“Don’t take more than you need.” Isabella warned. “The last one was too close for comfort. Alyssa is STILL being searched for.”

“She was outside, and you DID say that any that should stumble outside of the guild’s territory was mine to take.” the man said, licking his teeth. “I must say...she was lovely. And, there’s another here that’s caught my eye. A young, fair one. Jessica, was it?” Eagle stiffened at that. This...this being dared prey on his sister?! He could take no more of this! 

“Eagle wait!” Hawkeye hissed, yet it was too late. Eagle leapt from his hiding spot and drew out his sword. 

“Don’t you DARE think of laying your filth ridden hands on her, monster!” the man and Isabella looked at the young, blonde man, he was shocked, yet she seemed amused.

“Well, well, well.” Isabella smirked. “I was wondering when you two were going to make your move.” she then peered at the wall. “Come on out, little birdie. I know you’re there.” C-Crap! How did she know?! Still, Hawkeye didn’t move. “Oh? You want me to come collect you, is that it?” She moved, yet Eagle placed his sword to her neck. “Hm.” she looked as if she had nothing to fear, then looked to her company. “Malocchio, would you excuse us? I believe that there’s a young girl that you may be interested in. Long hair, fair skin...I believe I saw her in Diin today.” smiling hungrily, he made his exit, seemingly walking through the very wall in a veil of dark shadow. Isabella then directed her attention back to Eagle. “I wouldn’t do that. I really wouldn’t.”

“A little late to be begging for your life now.”

“Who said it was my life?” her eyes then turned to the slumbering Flamekhan. Hawkeye was by no means a coward, yet simply jumping into the fray as Eagle had wasn’t exactly getting good results. If anything, Eagle had just opened himself up. “Rather, you should be concerned about your own.” 

“What do you-” Eagle was cut off, Hawkeye unable to wait any longer either. He rushed into the room to the sight of Isabella holding the blonde by the chin and looking dead at him. Or rather, through him.

“Yes, that’s it.” Isabella said soothingly. “Let me into your mind…” 

“Eagle!” the violet haired thief called out, Flamekhan STILL just as unresponsive. “The hell do you think you’re doing?! Release him!”

“I’m merely giving dear Eagle here a new way to see things.” Hawkeye observed what was in front of him, immediately taking notice of her eyes. They were glowing yellow and had seemingly developed slit pupils like a cat. Eagle’s own eyes were dulling and glowing yellow as well, clearly enraptured by her gaze. Then, to the thief’s surprise, she planted a kiss on his lips, Eagle’s eyes widening before fluttering and closing. Isabella broke the kiss and placed a finger on his forehead. “Now then…” she then turned to Hawkeye. “Help your friend here keep this little exchange a secret for me, would you, dear?”

Eagle then turned to his friend, his once vibrant eyes glazed over and dull. He then thrust his sword in his direction, Hawkeye completely taken off guard, his side grazed by the weapon, tearing through his clothing. “Eagle!” he cried out, falling to the ground. “What do you think you’re doing?!” Eagle didn’t respond, he then turned his attention to Isabella. “What have you done to him?!”

“Don’t trouble yourself with it.” she told him. “Soon, you won’t be around to even care.”

He rose up to make a lunge at her, yet his friend stopped him, swinging the sword in his direction. “Eagle! Stop!” Hawkeye pleaded, only to receive more swings in his direction. “Don’t you recognize me?! I’m-” a slash very near could’ve slit his throat had he not backed up, yet he fell to the floor, the blonde young man towering over him. He readied his sword and thrust it downward, only to have it intercepted by two, curved daggers holding it back. “I’m sorry…” with a strong kick, Hawkeye sent Eagle back against the wall, jostling the shelves and causing several items to fall off. He was about to get up, yet a punch to the throat and subsequent grabbing of it held him firm. “Snap him out of it! NOW!” Hawkeye demanded of the woman who mesmerized his friend. The woman only smirked. 

“What will you do? Your life is at stake...yet so is his.”

He knew well what she was getting at. “You...you sick, twisted-UGH!” The thief was cut off by his own throat being seized, he being forced to the ground again. Eagle brought his sword mere inches from Hawkeye’s throat, he then raised it with the intent to slice right through-”GAH!!” only to feel a blade pierce the side of his neck. Blood splattered down onto the young man’s face, Eagle only able to look down at him with shocked, pain filled eyes. The blonde rose up, reaching for the weapon, yet his fingers fumbled around fruitlessly, clumsily pulling it out and releasing a fresh stream of blood to flow from the wound. “H-Hawkeye…” he choked out, blood beginning to trail down his chin. 

“E-Eagle…” Hawkeye said back, rising and slowly going over to his friend, wanting nothing more than to help him, yet still cautious as to what he might do. Isabella remained silent as she watched the scene take place. “Eagle...don’t. Let me help.”

“Hawkeye...get away from me.” Eagle begged. “I...I don’t have control over my body. I can’t stop. Run. G-Get out of here.”

“C’mon, you’re stronger than this!” the thief told him desperately. “Fight it! Fight her! She has no power over you!” 

No power...no power...these words began to lift the haze over his mind. Eagle’s eyes slowly began to return to normal, he then turned to Isabella.

“Well, well.” she said, actually somewhat shocked. “Your resilience IS stronger than I thought.” yet she extended her hand in his direction. “Not that it matters.” Suddenly, her nails appeared to grow. “ROSE SLASH!”  She rushed up to Eagle and began to, as Hawkeye found the only way to say it, deliver repeated slashes all over his body. 

“EAGLE!” Hawkeye shouted, rushing to help his friend, only to be sent back as claws slashed over his chest, knocking him back.

“And now, the coup de gra!” Isabella then began to ‘change’. To Eagle and Hawkeye’s horror, the woman’s face began to morph into some strange visage that resembled that of some inhuman creature, as if she had become some hybrid between a monster and a woman. And said monster appeared to be oddly feline-like. Then, she opened her mouth wide to reveal sharpened, extremely long teeth. A sickening tearing of flesh and crunch was heard, Hawkeye horrified but unable to turn his eyes away from what was taking place. When she was finished, Eagle was little more than a limp form that she dropped to the ground. 

“EAGLE!” Hawkeye shouted, crawling over to his friend, who had essentially had his throat ripped out. All he could get out of him was a small twitch of his fingers before everything went still. “You...You…” he turned to Isabella, tears falling from his eyes. “YOU MURDERER!”

Isabella, whose features had become much more human now, only smiled, the dagger Hawkeye had struck Eagle with in her hands. “That’s not what they’re going to think.”

“What do you-” before he could finish, to his surprise, the woman stabbed herself in the side, wincing at the pain. She then threw it to Hawkeye, then looked to Flamekhan. She snapped her fingers, and the old man’s eyes fluttered open.

“Wh-What? What’s-”

“OH SIRE!” Isabella cried out, throwing herself on the old man. “YOUR SON! YOUR SON!”

“Wh-What? Isabella, why are you-” Flamekhan stopped upon seeing the blood. “What happened here!”

“HIM!” Isabella hollered, pointing to Hawkeye. “HE MURDERED YOUR SON!”

“What?!” Flamekhan rose from his bed and went over to see what had happened. Indeed, what he saw was Hawkeye over his son’s body. “N-No…” he stammered, not wishing to believe what was in front of him. “No...my boy. My boy!”

“Sir, I didn’t!” Hawkeye pleaded. “I would never! She-”

“He then tried to attack me!” Isabella interrupted, showing the self-inflicted wound. “I tried to stop him! I tried, but…oh Sire!” she threw herself on the old man, weeping.

“You...you…” Flamekhan shook. “YOU BASTARD CHILD!” he then struck Hawkeye hard, sending him crashing against the wall. 

“What the?!” a familiar voice said, entering the room.

“What’s going on-” the other accompanying him said, they both stopped at what they saw. More and more came, they all seeing the scene before them. “Eagle!” Bill shouted, then looked to Hawkeye. “What happened? What happened?!”

“What did you do?!” Ben then shouted after.

“Let me through!” A female voice demanded, Jessica working her way through the gathered crowd and screaming at what she saw.

“Jessica!” Hawkeye began. “Bill, Ben, everyone, I didn’t! I would never-”

“Enough of your lies!” Flamekhan bellowed. “I should have NEVER taken you in! You...you killed my…” 

Hawkeye was left without words, eyes upon eyes staring at him. He only looked down at the slain Eagle, teardrops falling onto his now lifeless body.

Chapter Text

Kingdom of Ferrolia

"Hold still, beast!" Ludgar ordered, the large, darkly colored bird barking a deep, but still shrill screech in his direction as he put the harness on. "I need to take you out for a test run. The bird, along with several others of its kind in the aviary, were quite sizable, even for a beastman, and bore dark brown feathers and sharpened, golden beaks. One would have mistaken then for massive eagles, yet these bore no relation to the bird, however alike their appearance was. No, these birds were of an entirely different calibur, both in temperament and how easily they could render anything the size of a man into little more than a sliced up sack of meat in mere moments. Dangerous, hard to control, yet given what they would be used for, there couldn't have been a better creature to make use of.

"Are they ready?" a new arrival asked, his violet mane contrasting heavily with Ludgar's.

"Soon to be." the now appointed head of the soon to be invasion answered. "These here will pick off what we missed." he let a small, toothy grin come to his lips.

"We shall attack in mere days." the other beastman said. "We can't afford any loose ends."

"There won't be." Ludger assured. "Not with me at the helm." The bird let out another protest, yet it was silenced when the reigns came on, the blonde beastman giving it a whack to its backside, alerting it whom the master was here.

The creatures were kept in a secluded, but free area. They were allowed to travel and hunt as they saw fit, yet always came back to the castle due to there being a guaranteed place to nest and feed. This symbiotic relationship had been going on for as long as Ludgar and every other beastman could remember, even in the times before Gauser had become king, these avian behemoths served them, and they in turn served them in a manner. Female birds were only kept for mating and the production of eggs, thus, only male birds were used in times such as this. They were fed quite a bit of red meat and protein, as well as parts of the animal they were given that held quite a good degree of testosterone. That, along with selective breeding, made them even more aggressive than they would've naturally been. Thus, their name was justifiably earned: Hellriders.

"Have you heard?" the other beastman asked. "There's been reports of a strange figure lurking out in the woods."

Ludgar raised a thickened brow. "What kind of figure?"

"I'm not too sure, yet some say that he has a strange appearance. He's all thin and lanky, yet it's clear he's not from this area. Those that have gotten at least a decent enough look at him say that he looks like some sort of clown or jester."

Clown or jester? "Hahaha! That's ridiculous!" Ludgar chortled. "Poor fool would've been torn to pieces by now with what lies in these woods!"

"You'd think." the other beastman agreed. "But still...if all these others had seemingly seen him…"

"It's simply nerves." the blonde beastman said. "Everyone's a little on edge about this whole thing, and some are probably mistaking some animal for something else. Or hell, maybe there IS some guy running around in a stupid outfit trying to get a rise out of people. And if that's the case…" he readied his ride. "Then I'll give them a REAL good laugh, that's for sure."

The other beastman stumbled back, the massive bird extending its wings and flapping. Rising off the ground, it soared high into the air, it and Ludger soon disappearing from sight.

In the Castle

Such a weak fool. Indeed, the fact that he was his own kin was nothing but frustrating to him. True, the midwife and all of the medics in the kingdom warned him of the potential consequences that could arise given his rather unique genes, yet even then, such a thing shouldn't have resulted in such a nature his own son possessed. He had done all the necessary trials that his people went through in the early years: fending for themselves in the woods at a young age among the beasts there, fending against the others that poses challenges to them (bloodline or no, no one would respect a weak king), so many things that were the building blocks of rearing even a low class member of their race, and yet it yielded no results for him. His own child, the prince, and future ruler of his kingdom was nothing more than a soft, naive fool. Indeed, it tormented him greatly. In his later years, it seemed that he was finally beginning to come around. All the training, beatings from his peers, and subsequent trips in the wilderness outside had begun to mold the boy into the appropriate image as his heir. Then...the pup was found.

Suddenly, he became aware that he was not alone in the throne room. The others in the castle were either elsewhere or preparing the armada for their subsequent invasion, yet his ears twitched and he caught a strange scent in the room. It smelt of death, yet it bore no familiar stench of rot. Rather, it reminded him of dried flowers or popuri. Something that one would perhaps find on a grave. And from the shadows, he emerged.

The first thing that came to Gauser's mind was 'strange', yet even that wasn't a strong enough term to describe what was before him. He had heard the reports and stories, yet he gave them no mind, yet lo and behold, the so-called 'jester' had emerged to present himself openly. He lived up to his, albeit shortly developed, but still relevant reputation, his attire perfectly mimicking that of a jester: a purple hood with two sections with golden ornaments and red stones at the end, a yellow, segmented collar, puffed up short sleeves and shorts segmented in vertical stripes of violet and yellow, two trails of cloth behind him mainly covered in black with a check pattern underside, and a tight corset-like middle with silver studs down the center as if they were elaborately decorated buttons. A pair of slippers with cuffs similar to his neckpiece and ends that curled upward were on his feet, a pair of gloves on his hands and following the same appearance. Yet despite bearing the appearance of jester, there was nothing about him that looked comical. His skin was a dulled grey, and his limbs held just enough muscle to them to support himself, yet aside from that, he appeared rather malnourished. His facial region befuddled the king the most. His face looked more like a mask than an actual face, angled down the middle with empty sockets save from glowing, yellow eyes and a lower jaw that appeared to be lined like that of a ventriloquist dummy, only the entirety of it was segmented like this.

"Good evening, dear Majesty!" the mysterious jester greeted. "Then again, it's always evening here it seems." he giggled after saying this, his voice high pitched and unhinged. Yet Gauser had no interest in jokes.

"How did you get in here?!" he demanded, rising from his throne.

"Well, you know what they say, a magician NEVER reveals his secrets." the jester answered.

"And no one will EVER find your remains!" the king looked to the two, large hounds that sat on either side of his throne. "Fang, Thorn, he's all yours." the two wolves got the message and growled, approaching the jester.

It would've been so easy. So unbearably, insultingly easy to chop these two mutts up and have himself a light snack on their spirits. And the king….oh, his mouth began to salivate at the thought of it. Yet, painful as it was, he had a mission to do. Thus, it was time to put on an act. "W-Wait!" the jester cried out. "Wait! Mercy!" he held out his hands to protect himself. "I came here with a proposition for His Majesty!"

Gauser called off Fang and Thorn with a snap of his fingers, the two, albeit disappointed in not being able to act out their natural urges, went back beside the throne. "Now THAT is a joke." the beastman chuckled. "Yet...go on. At least you may make someone laugh before you're ripped to shreds."

The jester smilled. "Thank you, oh kind King. Though before we continue, allow me the introduction." he then bowed. "Call me...Goremand. And I come bearing vital news for you as well."

"What kind of news?"

"News regarding the state of the world." Goremand replied. "Mana is fading and becoming unstable. You are planning an invasion, are you not? And your first stop will be in Jadd?" Gauser was silent. Just who was this person? If he could be called a person. "Well, I have the perfect solution to guarantee your victory. Not just for that conquest, but for the whole world."

"Do you now?"

"Yes." Goremand was practically giddy with anticipation. "Are you familiar with the Mana Stones?"

"What of them?"

Goremand grinned. He had him now. "Forgive me, but without them, I'd say your little invasion is doomed to failure."

Gauser rose from his throne again. "You DARE come here to merely insult me?! Now I shall SURELY feed you to my dear pets!"

"Wait!" the jester pleaded (planned to say beforehand). "I say this with the best intentions, Majesty." he assured. "For, you see, I am sympathetic to your cause. Me...and my master."

What was with this fool? One moment, he puts himself in mortal peril, the next, he says yet another thing that intrigues him. Gauser wasn't exactly a fan of feeling so indecisive. "Tell your master that we have no need for any interlopers. This is for beastmen and beastmen alone."

"...tell me, how is your son?"

"Excuse me?"

"Your son, Majesty." Goremand repeated. "I've seen him at times in the woods. So unlike the others here. So young and yet...soft."

Gauser growled. "What he is and is not isn't your concern."

"But you must be frustrated with it." the jester pressed on. "Him being so weak. All he does is play with that little puppy all day. He doesn't even regard his training, does he?" he could tell that he was getting under the king's skin yet again. But this hook had the most succulent bait yet on it. "What if I told you that I could help him achieve what he's truly capable of?"

Wendel

It was small things at first: a missing pair of socks, some undergarments, yet when near the entirety of his wardrobe went missing, Heath suspected that something was up.

'C'mon Mick! Twy Hawdew!" and he had a good idea as to what it was.

"Charlotte?" the young priest asked, coming upon the half elven girl and a young boy with green hair chopped short wearing a white, long sleeved tunic trying to close up the young girl's wardrobe.

"H-Heath!" Charlotte squeaked, Mick about to run away, but he was forced to stay by her grabbing him by the arm. "How...awe you today?"

"Missing a good deal of clothes." Heath mentioned, eyeing the wardrobe about to burst behind them. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about it, would you?"

"Uh...no! No, no!" the blonde assured. "Push hawdew!" she hissed to Mick.

"I'm trying!" he whispered back, all the while Heath's eyes kept themselves locked on them.

"Looks like you've got quite a bit of stuff in there." He observed, going over to the wardrobe. "Mind if I help out in-"

"No!" Charlotte answered, blocking the priest. "Thewe's no need! Nothing's in thewe!"

"Nothing?"

Charlotte shook her head, stepping away from it for just a second. "Nope! Not one thing!"

"I can't hold it anymore!" Mick shouted, though before Charlotte could protest and scold him for blowing their cover, it happened: a tsunami of clothing burst from the storage area, knocking everyone off their feet and filling the entirety of Charlotte's room with strewn about cloths, most of which were Heath's. Heath shook his head to get a pair of underwear off and then looked to Charlotte, somewhat amused, but annoyed.

"Oh...wouwd you wook at that?" Charlotte sheepishly giggled. "Guess some wandry got mixed up."

"Some?" Heath raised a brow, the blonde girl not even bothering. She knew well she had been caught.

"Hello?" a muffled voice called out from underneath the pile. "If it's not too much trouble...how about someone help me before I suffocate in here!"

Duskmoon Forest

The cool air of the constant night was always something of a comfort to him, especially after a day like today. More training, more blows delivered to and from him. And yet again, he had, according to that with him, granted 'too much' mercy. The moment he could, he retreated here, and Karl somehow always managed to find him. If there was anyone that he would happily spar with, it was him. Though 'sparring' usually meant little more than roughhousing, several ruffling of fur, licks, touches from a cold nose, and small yips. Both Kevin and Karl had finished one such session, Karl being the victor, though mainly because he knew to deliver licks to particularly sensitive, ticklish areas on the young man's person. He enjoyed these sessions every time, yet he made sure that all of them were private. Goddess forbid that anyone find him doing such, let alone being brought down by something so, in the words of both his father and especially Ludger, 'weak'.

'What sort of fight is that, Princeling!' he heard the beastman's mocking voice in his head. 'That pup has turned you into little more than a simpering weakling!'

Then came his father's. 'Heir to the throne? Only by blood. Though that may not be enough to save your position as future king.'

Honestly, he couldn't care less. He couldn't care less about any of that. Yes, he didn't wish to be weak, strength was the core value of the beastmen. Yet their methods...all they generated was such apathy for them. In fact...there was a time where he had apathy for everything. Everything...until Karl came.

His thoughts were cut off by a series of licks delivered to his face, rousing him from his half sleep. Looking up, the wolf pup was looking down with wide eyes, tail wagging behind him. He gave a yip. "Heh." Kevin chuckled. "Bit to go before you can really bark." Karl gave a light growl before leaping on him and delivering a series of licks to the young man's face. "Ok, ok! You win. Again."

'Weak Princling…'

Kevin's features grew dark, Karl giving a small whine. Kevin rose up, looking at the castle a short distance away. "Should be heading back." he then looked at the pup. "Walk with me there?" Karl yipped enthusiastically, the two beginning their trek back.

"Grr…" Kevin's ears twitched, he turned to the pup.

"Karl?" before his eyes, something in the young wolf began to change. "Karl, what's wrong?" he approached him, the young wolf's body beginning to tremble. "Karl-" just then, he heard it. What sounded like joints popping was heard, the prince stepped back and watched what was taking place, he realizing that whatever was going on, it was out of his control. Karl's body began to contort and change: muscles enlarged and limbs grew longer, teeth grew larger and seemingly more sharp, and what once were the eyes of a young pup were replaced with that of a vicious predator. He barely resembled what he was, let alone a young pup, or young anything. A large, savage beast that only bore the smallest bit of Karl's features was before Kevin.

Then, the beast pounced.

Wendel

She had been here before: the same flower field, the same lush, fertile landscape. And she had once again expected to see those two familiar faces awaiting her. Yet now...now there was only one.

"Heath?" Indeed, Heath was there, and the environment around her began to rot. Yet behind him, a shadow of some kind seemed to emerge. She couldn't quite make it out, but it was there, and the energy it was giving off made her blood run cold. "H-Heath…" she nervously began, legs trembling as the figure from behind grew closer. She still could discern little from him, yet a more solid shape was beginning to form. Two large, curved objects grew from its head (horns?) and it was carrying something. A long stick with something sharp and curved on the end. She believed that she had seen such a thing before. What was it called? Sickle or scythe? Whatever the case, the object clearly wasn't going to be used for anything good. "Heath!" She shouted, yet still couldn't will herself to move. "Heath, wook out!" The young priest appeared confused, yet the figure's hand gripped onto his shoulder, he turning with widened, horrified eyes at the glowing, yellow eyes. "HEATH!"


"...and that's what happened." Charlotte sniffed, recalling the horrid vision having more than upset her a little. Frankly, Heath was left with little to say.

"Charlotte…" he began, but was cut off by the girl throwing herself on him.

"Heath, don't go!" the blonde girl wept. "You can't! You can't go! I don't cawe what Gwandpa says! You can't go! Something bad wiwl happen!"

"Charlotte." finally managing to get her off of him, Heath stood up and sighed. "You grandfather has nothing to do with it. It's my decision to go."

"But...but you-"

"Charlotte, listen." he explained. "Strange things are happening. And things might be getting a little dangerous. Very dangerous."

"How dangerwous?"

"That's not something for you to worry about. The point is, I have to go. Your grandfather is too old, and there's rumors of…" he stopped. "Well, that's not something you have to worry about either."

"But Heath-"

"It's been decided, Charlotte." Heath sternly told her, though he felt guilty about seeing her eyes well up with tears. "But I'll try to not be gone too long."

"Hic...pwomise?"

"Promise." Heath's blue eyes then turned to the pile of clothes, noticing that something was poking out of it. A hand? Wait...oh no! Going over, he grabbed it and lifted Mick out from the pile.

"GAH!" the boy gasped. "Well it's about time!" he then looked to Charlotte, then to Heath. "Just so you know, this was all HER idea-"

"I don't care whose idea it was." the priest interrupted. "All that matters now is getting these back where they belong. Isn't that right, you two?" Mick and Charlotte sighed. This was going to be a LONG afternoon.

Ferrolia

"K-Karl?" Kevin backed up, looking for any trace of the pup in those eyes. "Karl, what are you-" he leapt back, Karl snapping his jaws in his direction. He leapt in his direction, Kevin in turn rolling out of the way. "Karl! What's wrong with you?!" Another leap, bit, slash of the claws, it seemed that Karl was employing the skills and methods of several animals at once, all with the means to apparently draw blood. Another lunge and Kevin blocked it, forcing the mutated wolf to flip backward onto its paws, it snarling with strands of saliva dripping from his mouth as if he were rabid. "Karl, please! I don't-"

Kevin could get no more out before teeth sunk into his forearm. Releasing a cry of pain, the young man was forced to the ground, Karl finally in the opportune position to begin his mauling. Scratches and bites were delivered everywhere they could be delivered, the former pup's strength unnatural and weighing Kevin down, he was unable to fight against the mutant's superior power.

'Tell me...will this bring out my son's true power?'

Suddenly, he began to feel something.

'Well...we shall see, shan't we?'

Heat. Overwhelming heat everywhere. "K-Karl!" Kevin cried out, the bites and clawing steadily being overtaken by the sensation of growing, internal heat. "H-Hot!" he shouted, his hair standing on end and, while he couldn't notice it, it began stiffening. Stiffening...and growing. Skin felt tighter, muscle felt denser, and teeth felt as if they were protruding more and more outward. His nose...or something on his face was extending outward, and while he always had a good sense of smell and sight, they were never THIS good. He could never have known how unique his own blood smelt in comparison to that of the other creatures being hunted tonight.

Just as he was. He was being hunted. Or rather, he had been found, and was to be prey.

Yet no. No, that would be unfitting. Unfitting for a creature such as himself. A powerful, strong, unstoppable creature! He would show this filthy mongrel who held the true title of predator!

It was as if he were seeing through the eyes of another. Kevin saw a strange, powerful creature covered in fur and rippling muscles bring its claws down and slash at the wolf attacking him, taking off a good bit of fur from the swipe. The wolf came at him again, yet this time, the creature leapt forward and seized it by the throat, pinning it down to the ground. It kicked, bit, fought, yet it was in the literal jaws of the beast now. Then, it bit down. Liquid fire poured down its throat, the taste and sensation of it like nothing he had ever experienced before. It wanted more. It bit, and bit, and bit, and bit, not caring if its opponent was dead already. It wanted it. It NEEDED it!

Just then...a whimper. The wolf's form began to change.

The beast stopped, the fury in its eyes dying down at what it now saw before it. "K...Ka...rl?" it muttered, slowly regaining its voice. "Ka..rl?" It blinked its eyes, trying to process what had just happened, why it tasted liquid metal on its tongue...and why its friend was lying there, barely able to breathe. "Karl?" It spoke, its form having changed back into the young man it once had been. "Karl?" the pup merely looked up, just as confused as to what had happened as well. "Karl…" the former beast could do no more but repeat the pup's name, it recieving a small lick on the hand before the pup's eyes rolled in the back of its head and his breathing stopped.

Chapter Text

There was a shift in the wind. It had been gradual, ever so slowly changing, but there was no mistaking it now. Something had changed. Something was in the air, a strange yet familiar howl that he could register in the dead of night. And a scent. Roses. Fresh roses on a grave.

“Father?” King Joster registered that someone was before him, and he needn’t guess who. “Have you seen Elliot? It’s time for his training.”

The blonde king chuckled. “Curious question for a blind man.” he then paused for a moment. “Rest assured, Riesz, he is on the grounds. And not too far away from what I feel. You should be able to catch up to him no problem.”

“Ah, that’s a relief. Thank you!” with that, the princess began to run off

“Wait.” yet her father’s words stopped her in her tracks. “Have you given any consideration as to our conversation beforehand.”

Riesz bit her lip. “I’ve...been thinking about it, yes.” 

“It’s all right.” Joster assured. “Such a thing does not change overnight. Perhaps even for a good while. Yet please, do consider it.”

“I...I will. Thank you, father.” With that, Riesz made her exit from the throne room, her first stop being Elliot’s room. The boy thought he was clever in hiding there to escape her, yet she knew this castle like the back of her hand, even quarters that didn’t belong to her. Yet as she went up the stairs- “Oof!” she was sent back by an object in her way.

“Oh geez, Riesz! Er, I mean captain, er, princess, I’m sorry!” looking up, the blonde saw a blue haired girl with her hair done in low pigtails looking down at her. “Here, let me-”

“No, no, it’s fine, Eliza.” Riesz assured, getting herself back on her feet. Once again, the young woman wasn’t watching where she was going. Typical. “On your way to practice?”

“Yeah.” Eliza sighed. “I, uh, got a little lost.” she sheepishly admitted, causing Riesz to moan internally. Honestly, this girl… 

“Eliza,” the captain then asked. “Have you seen Elliot anywhere?”

“Uh, no. Why?”

“Well, it’s time for his training. But, I’ll admit, he’s been getting more and more difficult to find.”

“What? Why would he want to hide from you?” Eliza regretted those words upon seeing the expression the princess gave. “Maybe Auntie Alma would know?”

Yes, that could be a possibility. “I’ll check in with her on that. Thank you.” Riesz made her way upstairs to the handmaid’s chambers, Eliza going on her way to practice. Though, in her mind, and she dare not say it openly, she was somewhat sympathetic to the boy. Amazonian methods...well...they weren’t exactly forgiving. Sure, as her Auntie said, it was necessary, but still, a part of her wondered.

Outside

He was exposing himself out in the open, yet anywhere inside the castle he had hid, his sister always managed to find him. And while he didn’t have as much of a guarantee, maybe hiding somewhere outside would help him. The section in which Elliot was treading wasn’t all that populated today, most of the soldiers having gone to practice and the castle staff working elsewhere, yet still, there was always the chance of being caught. He was still quite sore from the last session, wondering whether or not Riesz was a little extra hard due to him hiding until the time for training was halfway over. She claimed to not have extended it past its time limit, yet he knew well she kept him there an extra half hour or so. And if he was caught now...oooh, he didn’t want to think of it. 

“Psst! Hey!” Elliot turned to a nearby collection of shrubbery. “Hey, you! Yeah, you!” 

“Come here!” wait...that was a different voice. There were two people there? He backed up. “Oh no, it’s fine!”

“Don’t be scared!”

“Who...who are you?” the boy asked, torn between natural curiosity to uncover the unknown, but also obeying the instincts blaring off in his head. 

“Oh, c’mon now!”

“We’re good guys!”

“Here!” suddenly, a hand stuck out from the bush, fingers uncurling and revealing a wrapped bon-bon. “Have some candy.”

Candy? Wow...Elliot began to reach for it, but pulled back. “I’m...not supposed to take stuff from strangers. My sister says so.”

 “And that’s very wise of her.”

“Yep! Very wise indeed, Elliot!”

“Yeah, she’s smart and-” wait a moment. “How do you know my name?”

“Because…”

“We’re magicians!” 

“Magicians?” Elliot asked, stumbling back as two darkly clad figures rose from the bushes. 

“Yep! I’m Ben!” one of them said, getting into a position as if he was about to go into a sprint, arms spread out to the side.

“And I’m Bill!” the other said, standing above the other, spreading his legs out and taking a spread eagle pose. 

“And we’re magician extraordinaires!” Elliot watched in awe as sparkles and lights appeared behind them. 

“Here.” Bill said, holding out the candy again. “You look like you need this, little prince.”

They knew he was the prince too? Geez, these guys DID know a lot! Still...his sister’s words echoed in his mind. Yet the candy...it looked so good. Taking small, baby steps, he inched his way forward before swiping it from the man’s hand. He unwrapped it and gave it a sniff. It didn’t smell like it was poisoned or anything. He then gave it a lick. Wow...it was good. Really good! Elliot needed no more before he popped it into his mouth. “It’s really good!” he told the two. “Thank you!”

“That’s not all we can do!” Ben said cheerily, looking at his compatriant and nodding. This was going far better than either of them had planned. 

But still, something bothered the blonde boy. “How did you get here?”

“Wind just blew us here.” Ben answered. “We were nearly lost to it!”

“But thanks to our magic, we were able to come here!” Bill said afterward. “Hey, you have your castle that has its own sort of magic, doesn’t it?”

“Magic?” Elliot thought for a moment. “Well...I don’t know if I'd call it that.”

Bill and Ben looked at each other. Looks like they would have to step up their game. “Here.” suddenly, another bon-bon appeared in his hand. “Have another.” Elliot happily took it. It clearly wasn’t poisoned, so he was convinced it was safe to have. “And guess what?” Ben said, smirking under his mask. “We can do FAR more than just that.” 

“You can?”

“Of course!” Bill confirmed. “But...we need you to do a little something for us first…”

Inside

“Alma?” 

A blue haired woman dressed in a mauve linen cap and brown shawl fastened with a silver emblem and a dress of sandy brown with purple lining the ends of the sleeves with silver rings on them looked to the blonde princess. “Have you seen Elliot anywhere?”

“Elliot?” Alma answered, going over to Riesz, an evident limp in her movements. “Hmm...not that I’m aware. Trying to get out of training again?”

Riesz rolled her eyes. “I don’t know where he’s gotten it in his head that he can, but you’d think that he would’ve gotten it by now that he can’t hide.”

“Not from you.” Alma chuckled. “Still...he has been a bit more distant from you lately.” Yes, the princess was more than aware of that. As well as her father’s words weighing more and more heavily on her mind as of late. “Riesz? Dear?”

“Oh! Um, yes. Well, thank you, Alma. I suppose I’ll just look elsewhere.” With that, Riesz exited the room, the nursemaid and former captain looking on. 

She looked down to the ground, the king’s words having plagued her since he had said them. Indeed, the princess pondered, Elliot...well...from what she had seen, he didn’t really have much time to play. To just go outside, to feel the wind in his hair...but...but times were becoming dangerous. More and more monsters such as those dreadful harpies were encroaching further and further on the kingdom’s territory. What would he do if, Goddess forbid, he came across such a creature? True, Riesz doubted he’d be able to properly defend himself against such a creature, but still, at least he wouldn’t be totally defenseless. After all, she herself had to learn how to make use of a spear since she was a mere ten years old, and he was quickly approaching the same age. Then again, her early training was more or less out of necessity. After all, Alma didn’t receive that limp on her own. Still, was she being too forceful in her methods? Ugh, so many questions and so many directions she felt herself being pulled in.

Ultimately, for now, she decided that the top priority was finding her brother.


“You like that candy, don’t you?” Ben questioned, the boy having four bon-bons stuffed in his cheeks.

“Yep!” then, he swallowed them all, much to the duo’s shock. Geez, this kid could guzzle down sweets like no tomorrow. And they were running out of candy…

“You don’t get a lot of candy, do you?” Bill asked, Elliot lowering his head. “Sister doesn’t let you have any?”

“Well...she says that they’re not really good for you. Stuff like veggies and fruit are better. Especially stuff like broccoli and carrots.” he grimaced. “I hate it though.”

“We were never fans either.” Ben interjected. “Sounds like that sister of yours is a stickler for rules.”

“Doesn’t sound like someone who knows how to have fun.” Bill then said.

“No...she’s not.” Elliot admitted. “But she’s not a bad person!”

“Oh no, there’s no question she isn’t. Isn’t that right, Ben?”

“Oh yes, Bill. After all, from what you’ve told us, being both captain and princess are VERY hard jobs for someone to have. But,” he continued. “She could afford to not be so hard on you.”

Elliot was silent. True...what they were saying were registering with him, but still, his sister...he loved her...but… “Hey,” he just remembered. “Didn’t you say you wanted to show me some more tricks? And something about your friends?”

“Yes, that’s right!” Bill nodded. “There’s a way that the winds here are controlled, right?”

“Yeah. That’s how the kingdom’s kept safe. But how did you two get by them?”

“It wasn’t easy.” Ben admitted. “We had to climb a LONG way up.”

“And go through an old tunnel. We thought it was going to collapse any minute!” Elliot was amazed. He wondered if even his sister knew of something like that being around the citadel. “We were afraid of everyone, so we hid. But we listened and heard a lot. And these people seem like good guys.”

“Well, yeah. Everyone’s nice, I guess.”

“And our friends are magicians as well.” Bill went on. “But because of the wind, and them not being as good of climbers as us, they can’t get in. So,” he then drew closer. “That’s why we need your help.”

Elliot shifted his eyes. “Well…”

“We want to help put on a party for everyone!” Ben said after Bill. “A big party! A party that everyone, even your sister will enjoy! And hey, it might encourage her to finally have some fun!” 

“You think so?” Elliot asked.

“We don’t think!” Ben said.

“We know!” Bill said after. “But first,” he gestured to the hallway before them. “You need to give us a little help…”


“Elliot! Elliot!?” Riesz shouted, her throat beginning to become sore. No luck. She had looked nearly everywhere, and still no sign of the little blonde boy. As irritated as she was that he had once again skipped a lesson, she was at least getting a good workout running around the place. Perhaps she should make him run a couple of laps around the citadel when she found him. Though with these thoughts, her father’s words came back to her. As well as Alma’s. Still, it was her father’s that were at the forefront of her mind. But once again, she pushed them back. For now, she had to find Elliot. Then...then she could muse on those things. After training finally got underway of course. 

Still...where could he be?

From what she could remember, there was only one place she hadn’t looked...but...for what reason would he have to go down there?


“Um, hey.” Elliot asked, Bill and Ben turning to him. “Aren’t you going to show me another trick?”

“Oh, yeah! Sure!” Bill answered, all three of them standing in front of a large door. 

“But first...we need your help.” Ben said, placing his hand on the door. “Is what controls the winds in here?”

“I think so.” the young prince thought. “I’ve only been here a few times, so I might be wrong.”

‘You had better hope you’re not.’ both ninjas thought in unison, then opening the door together. Inside of the chamber, centered near the northern wall, rested a platform that held a shimmering, perfectly shaped and floating x-prism shaped crystal with what appeared to be swirling energy around it. “So...this is it.” Ben observed, the three approaching the crystal. 

“What controls the winds…” Bill added. The two then reached in to touch it, only to have the wisps surrounding it slash at their hands. They drew their hands back immediately, small cuts in their gloves being made, but so far, there was no blood drawn. 

“Ouch! Are you ok?” Elliot asked.

“Yeah. We’re fine.” Ben answered. “But, how are we going to turn off the wind now?”

“Well,” the prince began. “There IS a way to turn it off.” 

Both ninjas looked at the boy. “Is there now?” Bill asked.

“Yeah, but only Riesz and dad know a way to do it. They said something about the crystal only ‘responding’ to the touch of the royal family or something. I don’t really know what ‘responding’ means, but…”

“Well then, it should be no problem for you!” Bill told the boy.

“That’s right!” Ben added. “You’re part of the royal family! You’re the prince, and your sister’s a princess, and your father’s a king! And your mother-” Bill hit him in the shoulder at the mention of ‘mother’. Oh yeah, that was right. From what they had heard and seen, there was no mention of a queen. And the boy’s face cemented that fact. “Oh. I’m sorry.” Ben apologized.

“No, it’s ok.” Elliot said. “Truth is, I didn’t really know her at all. Only sis did. I mean, I do miss her, but really, I don’t really know what kind of person she was.” 

Bill and Ben then looked at each other. Perhaps they just found their ticket to make this operation a success. “Here’s a secret.” Ben then said. “We were going to save it for later to show everyone, but just for you, we’re going to do it early.”

“Do what?” 

Bill and Ben looked at each other, both smirking under their masks. “We’re going to bring your mother to see you.”

Elliot was left speechless for a good while. “Wh-What?” he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Th-That’s not funny.”

“It’s no joke.” Ben said.

“Yeah, we can truly bring your mother back, and then you can meet her in person.”

They...they couldn’t. No way. And yet...what he had seen them do was nothing like anything he had seen before. “...how?”

“You believe that the spirits of the dead travel with the wind, right?” Bill asked, Elliot in turn nodding. “Well, your mother’s with them, right?” again, Elliot nodded. “Well, have you ever thought that maybe she can’t come visit you because of the winds surrounding this place?”

“What?” 

“The winds are strong around here, right?” Ben asked. “It’s to protect you, but maybe they’re too strong. Maybe so strong that your mother’s spirit hasn’t come to visit you because of it.” he then looked to the crystal. “If you turn off the winds, just for a second, then maybe she can come and finally see you. And then, our friends can come up and show her to everyone.”

“Really?” Elliot asked, growing more and more intrigued.

“Of course!” Bill confirmed. “Your sister and father will be so happy! As will everyone else! All you have to do,” he then moved to the side, allowing Elliot to fully see the crystal. “Is to turn the winds off.”

“That’s all?”

Bill and Ben nodded. “That’s all.” 

Elliot thought about it, but frankly, didn’t know what to think about any of this. These guys were magicians, then they wanted him to come down here, and now they said that they could show him his mother. He didn’t really know what to believe. True, these guys had shown him that they were pretty cool, but could they really do something like that? Has that been why his mother hasn’t used the wind to come see him? Or Riesz or dad? His large, blue eyes looked at the shimmering crystal, then to his small hand. “If I do this…” he began. “You promise you can do it?”

“Promise.” Bill and Ben answered together. Elliot stepped up and drew closer to the crystal. “Go on. Your mother’s waiting.” Mom was waiting...waiting for him. For Reisz, for dad...he reached for it, his hand passing through the wisps and they feeling like little more than cool air on his skin.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!?” all three turned around to see a blonde, long-haired young woman in a green dress, spear in hand and glaring daggers at them. 

“Sis?” Elliot said, startled by both her appearance and the fact that she had found him like this.

“Elliot! What are you doing with these two?! Come here, now!” She then turned her attention to the ninjas. “How did you manage to get in here!?”

“Well,” Ben began.

“We’re not telling!” Bill finished.

“Step away from my brother this instant!” the princess demanded. “And Elliot, what do you think you’re doing with the crystal? Get your hand away from there!”

“Aw, but the little prince just wants to see his mother.” Ben told her. 

“Yeah, all he wants is to see his mother.”

“That’s impossible and ridiculous! Stop spouting nonsense!” Riesz shouted, drawing closer. But it was then that she saw the glint of something on their person. Indeed, it seemed that these two weren’t as foolish as to come unarmed. “Elliot, come here, now!” 

“But...but they said that they could get mom to come.” the boy protested. “They said mom hasn’t come to see me because the winds are too strong.”

“That’s absurd!” Riesz replied. 

“Then why hasn’t his mother visited him?” Ben asked.

“Why hasn’t she visited you?” Bill added on. Riesz grew silent, her lips tightening in anger. “You know...maybe your sister needs some convincing.” the ninja told Elliot. “Or maybe…”

“She doesn’t WANT you to see your mother.” Ben then said.

“What?” Elliot asked.

“The spirits ride on the wind, but the winds are too strong so that she can’t come see you. Or anyone else. So, maybe your sister’s grown bitter because of that.” Bill turned his eyes to the young woman with the intent to skewer both of them. “If she can’t see her, then neither can you. Neither can anyone.”

“Th-That’s not true!” Elliot protested. 

“Oh?” Ben responded, looking at Riesz. “Then ask her,”

“Yourself.” Bill finished. Elliot looked at his sister, his face fighting between confusion and hurt. 

“Riesz…” he began. “Why hasn’t mom come to visit me?”

“Elliot…”

“Why?”

Riesz found herself with nothing to say. “Elliot...just...just come here. Now.” her tone grew more forceful, though she realized that this was a mistake. The boy drew closer to the crystal. “Elliot, wait!” there was nothing that could be done. “Elliot, no!”


Joster’s eyes shot wide open, his hands gripping the sides of his throne until his knuckles turned white. “Your Majesty?” Alma asked, having come down from Riesz’s quarters. “Joster, what is it?” it had been so long since she had called him by his first name, yet it had also been so long since she had seen such a look on his face. 

“The wind.” he said, rising and looking upward, eyes widening in horror. “The winds have stopped.


The look on his sister’s face...whatever would happen next, he would never forget it. He screwed up, and he was just about to figure out how badly.

“Well, thank you, kid.” Ben told Elliot, he suddenly taking the prince tightly by the arm. 

“Now the ‘Castle that Never Fell’ loses its title this day!” Bill roared triumphantly. “He then looked to his compatriot. “Take the kid!” he then turned to Riesz. “I’ll deal with this one.”

“Sis!” Elliot cried out, powerless against Ben’s superior strength. 

“Elliot!” the young woman made a mad dash for her brother, yet Bill leapt upward and landed right in front of her. “Get the hell out of my way!” Elliot’s eyes widened at that, having never even heard his sister outright curse before. 

“Heh.” The ninja drew out both daggers. “I have to admit, I was worried whether or not we’d get this far.” his eyes then turned back to his brother and the captured prince. “Yet I’m glad we were able to find a little side help.” he sneered from underneath his mask. “Now then, get ready for the magic show of your lives!” he leapt forward, Riesz forced the staff of her weapon to block the incoming weapons, they clashed against the material that composed part of it. While she was able to fend off the blades, she wasn’t given much of a chance to get in an offensive strike herself. Just then, she received a kick to the side, blocking it with her spear.

“GAH!” only to have a dagger slice into her right arm. 

“Sis!” Elliot cried out, yet Ben held him back. 

“Bill, we need to get going!” 

Bill looked back to him then to the young woman getting back up on her feet. “Fine.” he huffed. “Belladonna will want this area scouted for the Stone anyway.” 

Stone? As in...Mana Stone? “W-Wait!” Riesz called out, running up to Bill again. Not a wise move, making the first strike, yet still, her logic left her at the sight of her brother in the hands of these two. “Elliot!” there was nothing that could’ve been done. Before her, a cloud of smoke appeared, blinding her completely. And when she fumbled and felt her way through it, she fell and it eventually dissipated. Only for her to find that she was the only one in the room. 


“ELLIOT!!!” Riesz hollered, running up the stairs and very near tripping over herself as she did so, yet as she reached the outside, only more horror awaited the princess. Several figures similar to the two that had spirited her brother away were running everywhere, striking down soldiers that were emerging from the castle and attempting to defend it, several more on the ground. “Hey!” the princess rushed up to one with blonde hair tied up in a ponytail. “Hang in there!”

“C-Captain…” she weakly moaned.

“What happened?!” Riesz asked. 

“Sl-Sleep.” the soldier choked out. “Sleep power. Poured all over the kingdom. Not like the samosa flowers. This...this made up of forgien chemicals.” Sleep power, Riesz thought, looking at the several women lying down. Though, she sensed that not all of them were affected by the powder, not the ones lying next to puddles of red. “H-His Majesty.” the woman gasped, Riesz then realizing she was holding her side, a large gash in it. “Go! His Majesty…”

Oh Goddess! Father! It shamed her to do so, yet the princess left the woman’s side and made her way to the entrance of the castle, only for several of the strange individuals to surround her. Getting into position, the hoard threw themselves at her, she in turn ducking and letting them all but heads with each other. She had little time to deal with them, yet luck was not on her side, as more only came. It seemed for every one of them, there were two. Yet for her, there were now three. All of them charged at her, a smoke bomb going off and blinding her. Riesz felt an arm grab her own, she responded with a kick. Another arm made a grab for her leg, striking it with her weapon. And then, someone leapt up right upon her, forcing her to the ground. The smoke had cleared and revealed the visage of an assassin holding her down with one hand, pinning her with her own spear, and a dagger in the other. Both of them fought against each other, exerting their force, she pushing up to get the dagger away from her, he forcing downward to bring it closer and closer to her throat. As this was going on, in the corner of Riesz’s eye, she saw someone going through the entrance of the castle. Father! She momentarily lost her focus, the dagger came down on her. Thankfully, she tilted her head to the side, the blade only slicing though the skin on the left. This also momentarily left her aggressor open, she brought her leg up and with a swift kick, delivered a blow to his lower stomach, throwing him off her. True, she could’ve aimed lower, yet such a tactic was dishonorable, her code standing strong, even in such circumstances. Rising, Riesz rushed into the palace, stopping for a moment to see everything around her set ablaze. Fire seemed to overtake everything, dancing flames overtaking her vision. Yet this far from deterred her, the princess continued on to the throne room. 

And upon thrusting open the doors, a terrible sight awaited her.

“FATHER!!!” she screamed at the sight of King Joster on the floor, the carpet soaked with his blood from a deep wound in his chest. Riesz scrambled to him, the smoke becoming too much to bear. Yet still, she persisted. “Father!” she knelt by his side, trying to rouse him. Thankfully, he opened his eyes, though whether or not she should be thankful was yet to be seen, as it was clear that she had been too late already. 

“Ri-Riesz…” Joster choked out. “I...I’m sorry.”

“What?”

“The wind...the wind spoke of this day. But...but I wasn’t willing to believe it.”

“Father, please. No more talk.” the young woman began to hoist him over her shoulder. “We need to go.”

“No. It’s too late. I see her.” Joster coughed. “I see your mother already.”

No...no! It couldn’t be! Not like this! “Father, please! Let’s just get outside! Then...then I can-”

“Riesz, get out. Get out, now.” the king breathed out. “Mana...the changes in Mana have brought this upon us.”

Mana? What of it? Whatever, that could wait! She...she needed to…”Father…” she choked out, biting down on her lip. No. No tears. Not yet. Not ever. “Father...Elliot...he-”

“He is far. I know.” Joster said softly. “Taken...but rest assured...he is alive.” 

“Wh-What?!” 

“Riesz...escape from here. Run.” 

“Father…”

“Your mother and I...we will meet again.” the king then grew silent and still. 

“Father? Father!” Riesz shouted, only to receive no answer. “Father…” suddenly, a beam from above fell, forcing her to jump back, separating her from the king. One last act of cruelty against her. 

“My, my…” a feminine voice suddenly said. “Such a young thing.” Riesz turned to see a young, beautiful woman with long red hair and forgien attire on her person, notably a hat with feathers in it and a shawl with stripes. “Do you rule this place?”

“Wh-What?” Riesz asked.

“Well, that is your father...oh, excuse me. WAS your father, yes?” the woman asked, pointing to the recently deceased king. “And since he is no longer with us, that would make you Queen, yes?”

Riesz was silent, yet still, the calmness of the woman...there was no mistaking it. She had something to do with this. “You…” she snarled. “This is your doing, isn’t it?!”

“My, my, such a presumptuous young lady!” the woman chortled. “But yes. This IS my operation, although…” she pointed to her. Or rather, behind her. “THEY are the ones that killed your father. I merely gave the order.” indeed, behind her stood the two ninjas that she had witnessed abduct Elliot. “I leave her to you. Only, make sure this one isn’t brought back alive.” with that, the woman made her exit from the flaming palace. 

“Wait!” Riesz bellowed, yet she was stopped by Bill stepping in her way, Ben behind her, essentially trapping her between them. “Bastards…” she hissed. “All of you…”

“Such a mouth for such a pretty lady.” Ben observed.

“Good thing your brother hasn’t picked up any of that language.” Bill added.

“Don’t you speak of my brother!!!” she roared, a pair of daggers being thrust in her direction. She blocked them, yet felt another pair slicing against her back. Riesz winced, yet continued, delivering a kick to Bill’s stomach and then turned to face Ben, only for the ninja to leap up and go to his partner. 

“Maybe we should show her a trick that we didn’t show her brother.” Ben suggested, Bill looking up at him, then to the princess.

“Oh yes, of course! Indeed, we should!” Before she could ask, Riesz witnessed the two lock hands with each other and run around in a circular motion, their movements so fast she couldn’t keep track. As if they blended in with each other. Yet during the whirling, she saw something happening. Two figures were becoming one? And indeed, when they stopped, in place of two, there was only one. 

“Wh-What is this?!” she questioned, raising her spear. 

“Our secret trick! And it’s just the beginning!” the figure replied, both Bill and Ben’s voices speaking as one. “And don’t worry, we’ll be sure to tell your brother that you saw it!” they rushed to her, she put up her spear to block them, only to be surprised at the amount of strength that met her. What the?! How did they grow so strong?! Then it hit her: she was now having to contend with the strength of two now! “First trick! Abyssal Slice!” their daggers sliced upwards, nearly knocking Riesz’s spear from her hands. Then, as they were up in the air, the fused ninja delivered a somersault kick to her abdomen, knocking the air from her and sending her back a good few feet. “Second trick! Spike Freeze!” they threw several pellets to the floor, all of them beginning to grow blue. Soon, spikes of ice protruded outward from the spots, Riesz just seconds away from being impaled before she rolled out of the way. “Third trick! Lucent Beam!” they clapped their hands together, a ball of light forming in between them. Then, several beams emitted from it, each striking Riesz. There was no time, let alone anything she could’ve done, the beams seemed to aim directly for her and track her movements. Finally, at last, on the last beam, the princess found herself falling to the ground on her stomach. She attempted to stand, but a foot pressed down hard on her back, keeping her in place, another on her hand that clutched her spear.

“No…” she weakly moaned. “Not like this…” she felt a sharpened piece of metal against her throat, knowing well what was intended for her. She had no more energy, let alone any way to fight against her far stronger opponent. “E-Elliot…” she moaned, finding everything, the flames, her aggressor, everything going black. 

Chapter Text

Flashback

Slice upward. Downward. Cross cut. Slice through. This was the basic kata he had come to call upon when he faced the torn up scarecrow in the yard. Though at the moment, his movements were rather sloppy, the consumption of an overwhelming amount of alcohol had that effect on a person. 

That crimson wizard...that damned crimson wizard!!! He ruined him! Everywhere Duran went, he saw eyes glancing at him. They were judging him, mocking him, he knew it! And the few whispers that he heard, all of them were about what happened that night.

‘Did you hear? That wizard guy infiltrated the castle!’

‘Yeah, who knows how many guards were injured or killed!’

‘And isn’t that the guy that won the tournament? Why couldn’t he do anything to stop him?’

‘Maybe he isn’t as good as they say. Maybe he’s still just a kid.’

Duran grit his teeth. ‘A silly little boy.’ the words of that blonde bastard echoed in his mind. With a mighty slash, he tore the scarecrow in half, the straw man falling to pieces before him as he cut and cut and cut until it was little more than pieces of straw and string and a sliced up hat and sweater. Lowering his sword, Duran fell to his knees and sighed. It did nothing. It never did anything. Everyone knew, everyone knew of his failure, everyone knew that he had failed in everything. Beating back the intruder, allowing so many to be slain, to protect the king...he bet that his father would have succeeded no problem. Indeed...he must’ve been ashamed of him too. 

“Big brother!” a young voice cried out, Wendy coming out of the house to see the damage he had wrought on the scarecrow. “You killed Mr. Crow!” she wailed, clearly upset. She had crafted the aforementioned Mr. Crow with old clothes that had been given to her by Aunt Stella and made him all by herself. It was her pride and joy, and now, her own brother had torn it to pieces. “Big brother, you can’t keep doing this!” she shouted. “Aunt Stella is worried, and I’m worried!” Duran didn’t answer, only sat there. “You...you’re just a big crybaby!” Wendy then shouted. “You’re not tough at all!” with that, she ran inside the house, slamming the door behind her. 

Duran scoffed. What did she know? She was just some foolish little kid. How could she possibly know how he felt? How could anyone know how he felt? One moment, he was the pride of the kingdom, the next, he was the greatest failure. Aunt Stella continuously told him that he was exaggerating, but he didn’t care. What did she know either? In fact, of anyone, she should’ve known better. She outright KNEW both his parents while they were still around! She knew what Loki’s accomplishments had been in the war with Pedda! And with the first encounter with the so-called Dragon Lord. 

Dragon Lord...even now, such a name brought a reaction from those in Valsena. Recoil, fear, yet also a sense of fascination. Truth be told, no one really knew too much of the rumored head of the dragons, at least, that was the title given to him, and even then, that was up for debate. All Duran knew of him was that he was involved in the war with Pedda nineteen years ago that both his father and King Richard were involved in, having lent his tribe’s forces to the advanced kingdom, no one involved actually had to do battle with him. Yet his creatures were indeed creatures to be handled with caution, several having fallen by just one using minimal strength. Why he did this, no one could say. Some said that he genuinely wished to ally himself and his tribe with Pedda in their conquest for the world, some said that he was simply waiting for Pedda to weaken the world, allowing him to step in and take its place as its conqueror. Some leaned more towards the latter option given how he once again began causing trouble afterward some years later. Which is where his father and King Richard came into the picture. Since then, no one had heard a word of the Dragon Lord. Again, rumors circulated that he was dead, or perhaps hiding away in some dark corner of the world, slowly recovering his strength to strike again. 

Duran refused to believe that latter. Whoever this Dragon Lord was, he was gone. His father saw to it that the best fell by his hand. A legacy that he’d never be able to live up to and honor. Not now.

“One person’s life is controlled ninety-nine percent by fate.” suddenly, an old woman’s voice was heard. “The other one percent, is by one’s own volition.” Duran turned to see an elderly woman supporting herself with a cane and garbed in a violet shirt and shawl, a long, yellow skirt, and simple, brown shoes. She wore a veil of yellow with a silver band with a single red jewel around her forehead, had pale, wrinkled skin, pointed ears (was she part elf?), and thick, white eyebrows, and silver hoop earrings. “So, young man, which part in it will you take?”

Duran rose up from the ground. “Who are you?”

The woman smiled. “Merely an old woman who witnessed one who is in need of direction. From all the trips to the bar you’ve been making, it looks like you need one.” 

Duran furrowed his brows. “I don’t believe in fortunes, lady.” he huffed. “Did you come to mock me too?”

“Far from it.” she hobbled forward and extended her hand. “Come to my shop. I shall point you in the right direction.”

Who was she trying to fool? He had no need for such shit! Still...he had to admit, he was feeling as low as he could possibly fathom anyone could feel. And really...what else did he have to lose? 

“Lead the way, lady.”

Snow Hamlet Alrant

Past

She remembered walking and walking and walking with no sense of direction or purpose. Nowhere to go, so much ground to cover, and no relief in sight. Was she still being chased? Whatever the case was, Angela knew that she wouldn’t last much longer. Her attire did nothing to shield her from the overwhelming cold, her fingers and toes having gone numb long ago, and the numbness was crawling up the rest of her limbs. Cold was all she could think. So, so cold. It was true what they said: your teeth really did chatter. She lost her footing and fell face first into the snow, the powder soft but stinging on her flesh. She gave a light gasp at the sensation, and found that she could barely move anymore. If she couldn’t walk, then she had to crawl. Get away, she told herself. The guards could’ve been right behind her, ready to be taken back. Get away....get away...get away...get…

She could take no more. Beyond her control, her body gave out and her green eyes rolled to the back of her head as she slumped over and everything went dark.


Nothing was what she registered at first, but as the cloud as thick as the mist outside began to lift, Angela became aware that she was in a different place than before. A far warmer, softer place. Slowly opening her eyes, she found herself placed in a warm, thick bed, her clothes laid out on a nearby chair, her boots and socks on the floor, and her crown atop of the folded attire. “What the…” she moaned, trying to get up, but she immediately found that she couldn’t register whether or not she was even moving her legs. 

“I wouldn’t do that.” a woman’s voice told her, the woman coming to be seen from around the corner. “If anything, you shouldn’t be going anywhere for awhile.” The woman had short, red hair and a white blouse with frilled ends on the sleeves. She wore a corset of purple and a lilac skirt with brown boots made for treading through snow on her feet. “You’ve got a nasty case of frostbite.”

“F-Frostbite?!” Angela exclaimed, panicking. Throwing the sheets off her, she saw her fingers and toes had become swollen and red. She felt a hand on her shoulder.

“Relax, it’s not that bad.” then what was that about it being nasty, Angela thought. “True, you’re going to be numb for a few days, but there’s no beginning stages of gangrene. You'll keep them all. But you probably are going to be getting a few blisters.” oh, that was great, Angela thought. Still, she tried to stand. The floor was chilled on her bare skin, and she could barely feel anything save for mild pressure, yet she still attempted to walk. Only to fall flat on her face. “I told you!” the red haired woman said, lifting her up. “You don’t need to be going anywhere!” her blue eyes then turned to the clothes on the table. “Speaking of, what were you thinking wearing that outside! It’s a wonder this level of frostbite was all you got!” Angela said nothing, only continued shaking. “I’m sorry.” the woman apologized. “You need rest, not a lecture.”

“Hey, is the lady up, mama?” a young girl came into the picture, her hair purple and she wore a pink dress with a long sleeved undershirt with frills at the ends similar to her mother. “Can I play with her?”

“No, Chichi.” the woman shook her head. “She doesn’t need to be doing anything for a few days.” the little girl looked disappointed. “Go ask Bella, she’ll play with you.”

“No, she’s cooking for Grandma.” Chichi grumbled.

“Again? Honestly, the woman’s memory can’t be that bad!” the woman exited the room, taking her daughter with her, leaving Angela alone. 

Well, it was clear that her mobility was severely compromised, so she would be best to remain in bed for a bit. Crawling back into bed, she sunk into the warmth created by the covers and unconsciousness took her again.

Present

Well, it was sort of nice that she was able to move again, but what the woman, of whom she learned to be named Anna, said was true: she had developed a couple of blisters, of which made walking somewhat difficult. A few of them, to Angela’s disgust, popped and exposed the raw skin underneath, she having to wrap parts of her hands and feet in gauze to lessen the pain. She had been housing with the small family in a place that she had come to know as the Hamlet of Alrant that consisted of a mother (Anna), a daughter around her age (Bella), a younger daughter (Chichi), and their grandmother (Gladys). Anna had mainly checked up on her and monitored her condition while Chichi kept wondering whether or not Angela would ever be in the right condition to play. Bella had hair the same color as her own and dressed very much like her mother, but her attire mostly consisted of brown. Gladys mainly wore a bonnet of blue and a dress of mauve and was almost always at the table. 

“Ah, there you are, Bella!” the old woman greeted Angela. Honestly, how many times had she mistaken her for her granddaughter. “When’s dinner?” 

“Grandma, it’s still a few hours away.” Bella answered from the living room, reading a book. She then looked to Angela, who was up and walking around. “What are you doing up. Mom said that you’re supposed to stay in bed.”

“I know, but I can’t stand being cooped up here anymore.” Angela moaned. “I’ve got to get out and at least take a walk.”

“Oooh, are you going to get some ingredients, Bella?” Gladys asked, Bella in turn sighing. Then, she just had a thought.

“Actually, grandma,” she got out of her chair and went to get a thick coat from the closet. She then threw it in Angela’s direction, catching it. “I am.”

Valsena

Flashback

Fortunate Shop

The room was adorned in purple curtains and tapestries decorated with star maps and artistic depictions of planets. Trinkets of all kinds hung from the ceiling, all of which the old woman probably would claim to ‘heighten’ her powers. Honestly, what was Duran doing here?

“Now, young man,” the old woman began, sitting on the other side of a cloth covered table, a shimmering ball in the center. “Be still and allow me to read you.” she lifted her hands and hovered them above the ball and while he believed this was all nonsense, Duran’s blue eyes widened when the ball began to glow. “Yes...hmm...yes, I see.” she moaned, slowly moving her hands over the sphere, long nails lightly touching the glass. “I can see...a distant land.” she began. “Beyond Valsena....past the city of Jadd...in Wendel.” Wendel? As in, the Holy City? “A man in robes of white...ah! The Priest of Light!” she exclaimed, but then, the crystal seemed to darken. “And...oh. Oh my…”

“What?” Duran asked, despite his previous disinterest, had become enticed now. “What is it?”

“There is...a great tree. A great, mighty tree. A land, the holiest in the world, yet cut off from the rest of the world. And…” the ball then began to glow green. “I see a sword resting in the roots of the mighty tree. A sword that holds the power to save...as well as the power to destroy.” 

“But what does that have to do with what sort of direction to go in?” Duran asked, but the woman went on. 

“Eight stones...eight spirits...and eight beasts.” the crystal turned black, the entire room darkening. “And three...three evils that wish to see them free…” it was what she said then that got his full attention. “A emperor amongst winged beasts…” Winged beasts...like dragons?! “A prince that has lost his light...and a former healer of broken spirits…”

“Hey, what about an emperor of winged beasts?” Duran asked, yet she continued on. “Hey!”

“Even now, their servants are at work, organizing for war, planning to acquire the stones of the other countries. Their goal is that holy land.”

“Hey!” Duran demanded, slamming his hands on the table. “What about the emperor?! Is it the Dragon Lord?! Tell me!” 

The woman released a sigh and slumped back in her chair, the crystal ball losing its light and becoming little more than a sphere of glass. “The vision has left me. There is no more. As to your question...whether one of these evils is the fabled Dragon Lord is unknown.”

“What good was any of that?” Duran asked. “How does this somehow point me in the right direction? That was just a bunch of bullshit you threw at me!”

The old woman was unfazed by the young man’s words and clearly peaking frustration. “Seek the Priest of Light. From there, you will find true strength.”

True strength…strength...to beat that wizard?

Present

He couldn’t believe he bought into that, even if it was just for the tiniest second. Definitely NOT worth the five hundred lurce the old bag asked for. And then when he rightfully called her out on her nonsense, she told him to scram! Stupid old bat. Was probably drunk anyway, he could've sworn he had seen her in the bar. 

Well, whatever. Her words were nothing more than that, and they sure as hell didn’t bring him any closer to lifting up his mood. He couldn’t continue like this...but...what could he do?

Currently, he kept silent, as there was a briefing going on as to what had occured a short time before. “From what both Duran and several others have reported, the magician was garbed in a cloak of red.” a high ranking soldier in golden armor said to the plethora of gathered troops. “And the dark knight appeared to be collaborating with him, as both of them entered and went with each other at the same time.”

“You don’t think,” another golden knight interjected. “That it’s the ‘Wizard of the Red Lotus’, do you?”

“The Crimson Wizard of Altena?” a soldier in the crowd asked, questions being passed around. Duran hadn’t even considered such a possibility before, yet for what reason would Altena wish to send someone like that here? And to cause such damage no less?

“We had an alliance with Altena, didn’t we?” a soldier asked.

“Yeah, during the war with Pedda. Queen Valda, the Queen of Reason, extended her help to King Richard and Sir Loki themselves.”

“Why would they risk it now?”

“Enough.” King Richard commanded, sitting in his throne, yet it was clear that he was in a good degree of pain. The doctor had reported that he had a few broken ribs, yet aside from that, nothing vital had been punctured or heavily damaged. Yet still, should that knight return, there was no way he could defend himself against such an attack again. Let alone against this Crimson Wizard. “If this is true, then I fear that this might be a preemptive strike. Next may well be a potential invasion.” he delivered this grim message with much sadness in his voice, as if the very prospect of it cut into a deep, personal aspect of himself.

“Then we should send spies over there ourselves!” a soldier suggested, one of the golden knights shaking their heads. 

“However,” King Richard continued. “We have no concrete evidence that this was a command by Queen Valda herself, or that this Crimson Wizard was acting on his own accord. Therefore, we cannot simply go and be an aggressor to Altena. Not to mention, assuming that Altena WAS where this Crimson Wizard came from, it is clear that, unfortunately, we are outmatched.”

“Then what do we do?” several among the various soldiers asked. Questions as to potential solutions to how proof would have potentially been gotten were thrown around everywhere, yet it was clear that they were getting nowhere.  Then, someone suggested,

“Perhaps the Priest of Light has answers.”

Duran’s eyes widened. Priest of Light…

“Hey, yeah! The Priest of Light in Wendel! He knows just about everything! Surely he can tell us what we should do!” This seemed to gain traction with all present, Duran remembering the old bat’s words and her supposed visions. 

“Your Majesty.” one of the golden knights then requested. “If I may be so bold, I believe that this is the best course of action. If anyone could provide assistance to us now, it would be His Emmenice.” 

Richard pondered this, trying his best not to lean over to bring pain to himself. “It...shall be considered.” he then turned to the gathered soldiers before him. “Until then, our top priority is strengthening the defenses of the kingdom! Make sure that no area is left uncovered!”

“Yes sir!” everyone said in unison.

“Good.” Richard nodded. “You are all dismissed.” 

The soldiers all began to make their leave, returning to their posts. All except one. 

Alrant

Going out and doing someone else’s work WASN’T what she had in mind! She had only known them for a couple of days, yet already, Angela decided that Bella was her least favorite person in the household. 

Still, she couldn’t deny that it was somewhat nice to get out, despite the freezing cold. It was lessened by the heavy coat, but some gusts of wind managed to get past its barrier and freeze up her legs. In her hand was a woven basket to be filled with an assortment of vegetables that Bella had instructed, or rather, simply TOLD her to get without her input. She just shoved it in her hands and pushed Angela out the door. Guess she did shopping just one too many times? Well, whatever, when she got back, the violet haired girl was going to give that girl a piece of her mind! 

“That’s even less than yesterday!” she heard a woman shout as she approached the market.

“The shipments are growing less and less each day.” a man then said. “Pretty soon, we won’t be having anything here. And thanks to the weather, we can only grow so much, if anything at all.”

“All the fish are disappearing too. What’s going on here?”

Angela kept walking, trying to find what Bella had said to get. She was still quite angry about it, yet she was out here already. Besides, Bella would probably just kick her out again if she didn’t come back with anything. 

“Excuse me.” she heard a voice not too far away, yet Angela couldn’t help but feel it sounded familiar. Looking in the direction it was coming from, her blood ran cold. “Have you seen this young lady?” A short distance away were a band of Altenian mages garbed in heavy coats and showing what appeared to be a piece of paper to a small group of passer bys. Observing it closer, Angela could tell that it was an illustration of herself. 

“The princess?” an old woman among them asked. “What of her?”

“She is a wanted criminal, and has committed a great sin against Her Highness.”

“Criminal? Oh my!”

“She had escaped the castle, but so far, there’s no trace of her in the Frostbite Fields. Have you seen anyone resembling her here recently?”

No, no, no, no, don’t you dare say a word, you old bat!

“Um...well, now that you mention it…”

Damn it, damn it, damn it! Angela scurried her way back to the house, to hell with Bella’s ingredients. Yet before she could open the door, she noticed that Anna was downstairs talking with someone. And the moment she saw who it was in the window, she knew well that she no longer had anywhere she could hide. 

“I had no idea that the princess was a wanted criminal.” Anna told the blonde wizard, clearly surprised. Angela could hear little of this conversation, yet from what she could get, they were talking about her. “This is quite shocking news to me.”

“It is to me as well.” Koren replied. “Her Highness is devastated...but justice must be executed. We cannot allow for any leniency, no matter one’s class or status.”

“I understand.” Anna answered him, catching the coated Angela outside. “But really, why would she come here? And from what you’ve said, if it’s always spring in the kingdom, her attire would be a bit...light, wouldn’t it?”

“I’ll admit, she doesn’t dress very...appropriate for one of her stature.” Koren admitted, lips tightening in anger at the thought of that brat prancing around in such clothing. “But understand, madam, that you all could be in danger. If you’re harboring a criminal, and a magician at that, you are all at her mercy. Surely you value the safety of your dear children, yes?” 

‘You…’ Angeal fumed. ‘You lying, no good sack of shit!’ 

“Yes, of course, sir.” Anna admitted. “But truly, I am unaware of anyone like that being here.”

“Are you certain?” Koren then began to turn to the staircase. “Would you care if I search?”

Anna froze. “Sir-” he didn’t wait for her input, going up anyway. “S-Sir! You can’t just-” she ran up after him. 

Angela backed up from the window, having dropped the basket and began looking all around, losing herself as panic took over. Where could she go? This place was so small, she would be found for sure! If she ran out into the fields, then she’d surely die! Oh Goddess...oh Spirits, what in the world was she going to do?!

“Mmph!” Suddenly, a hand placed itself over her mouth, a figure dragging her back in a shadowed area between a couple of the handful of houses around. She fought, finally able to turn around and face her would-be abductor. “I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m not in the mood for…” her words died in her throat upon seeing just who it was that grabbed her. “Victor?!”

Valsena

“Duran?” King Richard was puzzled as to why the youth had decided to stay. Yet there was a fire in his eyes. A very familiar fire.

“Majesty,” Duran began, kneeling before the king. “I ask your permission to embark on a journey.”

The golden knights looked to each other, King Richard clearly as confused as they were. “A journey? Of what kind?”

“One of harnessing and gaining true strength.” he explained. “I shall find the means to defeat the Crimson Wizard, even if it means my dying breath!”

All of them looked at each other. “Duran,” Richard began. “Your intentions are noble, and your strength cannot be questioned.”

A small bit of healing was dealt to his shattered pride. “Thank you, Majesty. I swear to you that I shall-”

“Yet I cannot allow for such a thing.” and just like that, it was dashed even further. 

“Wh-What?” Duran rose to his feet. “M-Majesty! Please, I must-”

“I understand, believe me, I do.” Richard interrupted. “A warrior’s pride is one of the most precious things that a man can possess. Yet I cannot give my blessing in where you recklessly endanger yourself on a journey such as this.” 

“Majesty…”

“I’m sorry, Duran.” Richard sighed. “But the answer is no.”

Duran stood silently, for how long, no one really knew. Yet by the time he did speak, it was clear that he was completely shattered. “I...I understand. Thank you, Majesty.”

“Duran-” King Richard began, but Duran had already turned away, walking before going into a full on sprint out through the throne room doors. 

Alrant

“Shh!” the blonde young man shushed the princess. “Not so loud!” he steadily uncovered Angela’s mouth.

“What are you-”

“SHHH!!!”

“What are you doing here?” Angela said again, her voice far more hushed. 

“Getting you out of here, what else?” Victor told her. “But…” he then threw his arms around her. “I’m so glad you’re safe. You nearly gave Jose a heart attack.”

“He knows too?” 

“Everybody knows!” Victor told her. “Why else are they here? And, believe me, you don’t want to know what Koren’s going to do if he catches either of us.”

“Then what do you suggest I do?” Angela questioned. “It’s not like I can just waltz around here like nothing’s going on now! They’ve got posters of me already!” It was then that Victor grew silent. “Victor.”

“Listen.” he told her, voice firm. “This is important.” he then pointed her to a place off to the north. “There’s a ship that’s docking with shipments.” she then felt a sack of coins being placed in her hand. “Get on, and get out of here. Then, go to Wendel.”

“Wendel?” Angela was puzzled. “What would be in Wendel?”

“Jose told me.” Victor clarified. “He also said that it’d be best for you to see the Priest of Light.”

“Priest of Light? Isn’t he some old man?” Angela asked. “What could someone possibly even older than Jose do for me?”

“I don’t know exactly...but if you make it to Wendel, you’ll at least be safe from here.” he then took her hands. “Angela, please. This is the only chance you have. You’re as good as dead if they catch you.” 

Angela saw the desperation in his eyes, averting her own to give herself some reprieve from the sheer intensity of them. Still, his words were true. She was little more than a mouse running from a group of cats all aiming to tear her apart. Still...her own mother? “Why?” she found herself asking aloud. “Why has mother-”

“I don’t know.” Victor admitted. “But you can’t stay here. Hell, you could miss your chance any moment. Go.”

Angela sighed. “Ok. All right.” she placed the sack she received in the coat’s pocket.

“Oh, also,” Victor pulled something from behind him, the curved, wooden wand from Jose’s class. “The old man thought you should have this.” Angela slowly took it. What would he give this to her for? After all, she had no skills in magic. But Victor’s hurried tone made it clear that this was no time for questions. “Ok, go. I have to cover for you, so make your way to the port.”

“Ok. I…” she then hugged him. “I’m going to miss you.”

“You can miss me later.” Victor told her, still, he embraced her. “Now go.” she nodded, making her way from in between the homes in a walk, then quickening her pace as she dashed off. “Go!” he shouted, running out and watching as she made her way out of here. 

“Victor?” he heard a voice, turning to see Koren himself. “I don’t suppose you’ve had any luck?”

“I…” Victor sighed. “I haven’t seen any sight of her.” 

“I see…” the red wizard nodded, though it was clear he wasn’t buying it. He then looked to the fresh steps made in the snow. “Well, go and join the others in the search. The future of Altena depends on finding her.”

“Yes sir.” with that, Koren left. Yet the trail Angela had left behind...oh no. Oh no!

Valsena

So, not even King Richard had faith in him. 

Well...fine then, he thought, packing the last of his stuff. He could do this all on his own. He would go to Wendel himself. Not that he was actually entertaining the old bat’s words, but...even still, the fact that the holy city was mentioned so soon after his fortune was a rather remarkable coincidence. And after all, the Priest himself was well known for his guidance all throughout the world.  

“Mm…” Duran heard Wendy moan in her sleep, turning over in her bed. 

“Wendy...Aunt Stella...I’m sorry.” he sighed. “But I have to do this.” with that, he hoisted the sack over his shoulder and, as quietly as he could, eased his way downstairs and through the front door. 

“And just where do you think you’re doing up at this hour?” Duran froze, turning to see a blonde woman with her arms crossed.

“Aunt Stella...I-”

“I know well what you’re up to.” she said. “And...I wish you luck.”

“Wait...what?”

“I know well you were going to do something like this. And despite whatever he said, the king probably knows too. After all, if he knew your father, then he very well knows you too.”

“Aunt Stella…”

“But before you go...at least take this.” She then held out a sword of bronze. “It was your father’s. He had this when he was your age. He even used it in the same tournament and took down Richard himself when he was still prince.”

Duran’s widened eyes looked down at the weapon, slowly reaching and taking it. Then, he proceeded to slash it and cut the air before stopping to look at it again. Despite himself, as well as his efforts to fight back against it, he felt himself begin to tremble. “Aunt...th-thank you…” he felt a pair of arms hug him from behind.

“I haven’t been raising you all these years for nothing.” she sighed. “Yet please...don’t lose yourself in this. Strength is a two way street, so please, don’t let yourself become consumed by the darker part.”

“I won’t.” Duran sniffed, having lost the battle to compose himself. “I promise. Thank you.” he then turned around and embraced her. How long they held each other, they both lost track, but by the time they had let go, even then, it was difficult for him to get going. 

Still, nonetheless, his feet eventually began to move away from his home, then from the collection of homes, then through the gates of Valsena itself.

Alrant

“Five-hundred lurce to board.”

Angela’s mouth hung agape. “What?!”

“That’s the going price. Don’t like it, wait for the next ship.” the skipper told her, folding his arms.

“Ok, fine.” she grumbled, counting and handing him the right amount of coins. She boarded the ship quickly and looked out at the sea.

“Didn’t you hear?” the bearded man suddenly asked.

“Hear what?”

“The princess has run away.”

Angela bit her lip. “Oh? Is that a fact?”

“Yep. And that’s not all. I heard she’s got a price on her head too.” 

“Huh. What a story…”

“I know.” he then boarded the ship as well. “Wonder what she could’ve done to get nearly the entire kingdom to go out and hunt her down.”

Indeed...Angela said nothing, only wrapped the coat around her body as she stared out to the vast ocean that she’d soon be traveling. A multitude of questions flooded her mind, having plagued her ever since she had left. Just what was her mother and Lord Koren thinking? If they were that desperate for the Mana Stone’s power, then wouldn’t there have been another way? How could she, her own mother, go along with this?! Yet also, how did she manage to escape in the first place? What was that light that emitted from her? Had she actually used magic? Real magic? These and many more raced through her head as she looked on at the lapping waves of the ocean. 

“Anchor’s away!” the skipper called out, the bridge raised back up and the anchor lifted, Angela feeling the ship begin to move. Yet just then, she saw someone looking from below at her. Victor looked around to see if he was alone, but when he was convinced he was, he gave her a small wave, she in turn responded in kind. 

Then, the ship began to sail away from the small hamlet. Away from the frozen landscape and to places unknown to either of them. 

Chapter Text

How many tears he had shed since it had happened, he had lost track, having lost the energy, let alone the ability to care long ago. The violet haired thief merely rested in the corner of his cell, head down and having little more than the silence around him for company. Useless...everything was useless. His fate had been decided, and there was no way out for him this time.

Flashback

“Damn it! Let me out of here!” he then pointed to Isabella. “She’s the guilty one! I saw her transform into a monster and bite his throat out!”

“Oh, Majesty!” Isabella wept into Flamekhan’s shoulder. “Even now, he tries to deny it. Please, I’m scared…”

The group that had drug him here to this cell merely looked upon him with a mixture of shock and anger, Flamekhan outright looking as if he wished to murder him. “He is to be executed in the morning.” the now King of Nevarl said, venom lacing his tone.

This took back several of those around him. “Sir?” Bill in particular asked. “What about a trial?”

“And a court hearing?” Ben added.

“He shall be executed in the morning!” the old man roared, shutting the twins up. With that, the old man turned away, his hand around Isabella’s waist as she faked limping away with him. 

“Guys…” Hawkeye stammered, they only looked at each other in uncertainty. “C’mon...you know me.” the thieves only continued to look back at him then to themselves before making off away from the cell. “Bill, Ben.” the tanned young man pleaded. “I would never. Please.”

“Hawkeye…” Bill sighed, staying for a moment more before going off, Ben following suit. 

“Guys…” Hawkeye slumped to the floor, now alone. How long he was there for, he didn’t know, but after what he gauged to be at least an half and hour, he heard someone coming, seeing that Isabella herself, all cleaned up, was standing in front of his cell. 

“Looks like no amount of guile or talking is going to get you out of trouble this time.” she smiled. Hawkeye snarled, standing and rushing at her, only to step back out of reach. 

“Bitch!” he hissed. “You murderer!”

“Last time I checked, YOU were the murderer.” the red haired woman answered. “And as far as I’m concerned, that’s how it’s going to stay.”

“You...you left something behind. You MUST’VE.” Hawkeye argued. 

“You could’ve very well stabbed me in the struggle to get you off Eagle, of which, might I add, YOU stabbed yourself.” he never thought that he could descend into such a state, yet he would give everything to get out of this cell with nothing to protect her. “And the blood on my mouth...well, when YOU stabbed him, I attempted to revive him.” she then drew closer. “You see, dear, I hold the aces here. They will believe what I want them to believe and see what I want them to see.”

“And what’s to stop me from simply saying what happened?” Hawkeye snarled. 

“You already saw what happened. Who would believe you? No one does anyway. Besides,” she smiled. “I don’t think you’re going to be singing any time soon.” Hawkeye raised a brow. Just what was this witch planning now? “I had the liberty in taking some of your blood from the fray and gave my little gift to Jessica a small, additional touch.”

“What. Did. You. Do?” Hawkeye’s knuckles were turning white from how hard they were gripping the bars. 

“I just gave that necklace she has a little ‘magical’ input. As in, I created a bond between you and it.” before he could ask, she went on. “The words of your mouth now control its actions. I call it a ‘choker of death’, if you will. And how does it relate to you? Well, let’s just say, the truth won’t exactly save you. In fact, you say a word of what really occurred tonight to ANYONE, then you’ll have another innocent’s blood on your hands.”

“Wh-What?” the young man backed up. “No. No, you...you’re lying.”

“And you’re in denial. You have no power here.” Isabella retorted. “So, what will you do? Will you take that risk?” she then heard small, subdued steps drawing closer. “I think it’s time I made myself scarce. Currently, me and the old fossil are deciding which fate suits you better: hanging or beheading.” with that, she made her way from him, putting on fake tears as the one she had passed slowly walked tentative, cautious steps towards the cell.

“Jessica…” Hawkeye softly said, the poor girl clearly nothing short of absolutely distraught, her eyes red and swollen, fresh tear streaks still wetting her cheeks, her makeup running down her face. Overall, she was a complete mess, yet despite the absolute devastation in her eyes, his own amber eyes focused on the necklace around her throat. “I...you know me.”

“I...I don’t…” she sighed. “I want to believe. Really, I do.” she drew closer and took his hand. “Then please, tell me.” she choked out. “Tell me that you didn’t kill Eagle. Tell me that it was someone else.”

“Of course I didn’t!” Just then, he saw something from the choker. It appeared to begin emitting a small glow from it. “I...I didn’t.”

“Then who?” Jessica questioned. “Who did it? Who did it? I’ll tell father, and we can get you out of here!”

The choker then to his shock, looked as if it began to slowly ‘tighten’ itself. “It…” his eyes never left it, yet when he stopped speaking, it appeared to subtly widen back to its original shape. It was compressed ever so slightly to where Jessica hadn’t even noticed. No...that witch couldn’t have…

“Tell me.” Jessica pleaded. “Tell me that you didn’t.”

“I....” 

‘You’ll have another innocent’s blood on your hands.’

He went silent. 

“Hawkeye?” Jessica asked, yet received no answer. Did...did this mean...no. “No…” she shook her head, steadily backing away from the cell. “But...but you...you were...you and Eagle…”

“Jessica-”

“You and Eagle were...no! No, no, no!” she screamed, running away in yet another bout of tears. Hawkeye reached out for her, but she was long gone, he once again left alone. 

Present

Alone in this cell, nothing that could be done. His fate was finalized by now, and the morning sun would be the final sign of his last day on Earth. 

Just then, he heard something. A crackling sound? “Get back, mew!” he heard a voice say, muffled, but still audible. 

“Niccolo?” Hawkeye asked, looking to see that, sure enough, there was a crack in the wall of his cell. “What are you-”

“Get back! It’s gonna blow, mew!”

Blow? It was then that it registered in the young man’s mind. The crackling, the cat’s desperation to get him away from the wall...no. No, he couldn’t have. Still, as the sound grew louder and louder, Hawkeye obeyed and positioned himself against the bars of the cell, the crackling getting louder and louder until…

BOOM!

The wall was completely blown to pieces, pieces of brick flying, Hawkeye covering himself in a feeble attempt to protect himself from any debris. Yet as the dust settled, he saw the visage of a small, furred creature, holding a stick of unused dynamite. “C’mon! We gotta mew outta here!”

“Niccolo, what in the world-”

“I know mew didn’t do it!” the cat told him. “That Isabella didn’t count on someone listening in! I was sneaking around to see mew, and I heard everything! The necklace, Eagle, everything! It was hard hiding from her, but I don’t have time to explain! We gotta get mew outta here!”

“R-Right!” everything was happening so fast, yet frankly, he wasn’t about to waste the opportunity staring him in the face. Joining Niccolo, the two ran through the tunnel that laid behind the wall. “Where’d you get that stuff?!” despite the cat saying there was no time for questions, Hawkeye simply couldn’t let that detail go.

“I’ve got a TON of stuff mew doesn’t know about!” the cat replied, the two continuing to run and run until they reached a bend in the tunnel. Going through it, they found themselves in the small shop that Niccolo had set up for himself. 

“Huh. How long has this path been here?”

“There was a draft that kept coming into the room, so I tried to patch it up.” Niccolo explained. “But I looked through the hole and discovered the tunnel! I left it open because I was itching to explore it, and lucky mew, there’s an exit out of here if mew keeps going up! But be careful, it’s pretty steep, so watch mew footing!”

“Hey, c’mon, this is me you’re talking to.” Hawkeye assured Niccolo, smiling. Even if it was too soon to tell, at least he was talking like Hawkeye again. 

“Go, hurry!” the cat told him. “And don’t worry. I’ll watch out for Jessica!”

Jessica...Eagle...two of his best friends...his mind was made up. This wasn’t over. He was going to set this right. “Thanks, buddy.” Hawkeye then wrapped his arms around the cat, surprising him at first, yet the feline returned the hug. 

“Now get outta here!” nodding, Hawkeye went back into the tunnel and noticed a pathway upward, wasting no time in following it, the steepness already making itself known. 

‘Looks like it’s going to be an uphill battle in more ways than one…’

Laurant

Flashback

She was being carried, that much she was aware. Where to, she was unsure, yet the arms holding her were strong, but were going to give out anytime. “Set her here.” a muffled voice said, her hearing having not returned to her entirely, along with her other senses. “Oh, thank you, Goddess.” the voice said, sighing.

“What is there to thank Her for?” another voice said. “Half of us are dead, our king is dead, and...and Laurant has fallen! Nevarlian bastards have destroyed everything!”

“Shut up, that’s enough, Gertrude!” another voice said, the one that had presumably been carrying her. “It doesn’t do us any good to talk like that now!”

“Oh, and who are you to order me around?!” the other voice snarled. “May I remind you, you’re not captain anymore!”

“Gertrude, Auntie, please!” That was Eliza. “Calm down!”

“What’s there to be calm about?! The Goddess has abandoned us!” just then, while she couldn’t see it, there was a shift, a change in the air that disrupted the tension. “Alma...Alma, what’s wrong?”

“Auntie? AUNTIE!”

Alma? What was wrong with Alma?! She wanted to rise, she really did, yet she held no strength in her anymore. The brief bout of semi-consciousness faded from her, plunging her even further into darkness. 

Present

“Princess?” Eliza again, Riesz noted. Her eyes finally had opened, and while the environment wasn’t the burning grounds of the formerly impenetrable kingdom, the interior of a cave that seemed to have already been furnished with several necessities that made it resemble a small home that had been transported to the inside of a cavern. “Princess!” the blue haired girl threw herself onto Riesz, losing herself and weeping uncontrollably. “Princess, princes, princess!”

“Eh...Eliza-”

“Oh, you’re ok! I was SOOOO worried! Did those nasty men hurt you too bad?” 

“Eliza...squeezing...chest hurts.”

“Oh! Oh yeah,” Eliza backed up. “Sorry.” she had yet to compose herself however, having lost herself entirely to her emotions. “Still...sniff, you’re ok. I’m so glad…”

Riesz surveyed her environment more, recognizing where he had been taken. “The secret mountain base?” she said aloud.

“Yep.” Eliza confirmed. “We didn’t know of anywhere else to go, so we came here. Good thing Alma and your mom thought of this some time ago, otherwise we would’ve been out of both a home AND basic necessities!” The cave had the objects inside taken to it some time ago and maintained overtime, the suggestion having been made by Alma and the then captain (soon to be crowned Queen) Minerva after the war with Pedda. Yet the fact that they were here at all, along with Eliza’s words, all Riesz could do was lower her head. “Oh.” Eliza realized that perhaps her choice of words hadn’t exactly been the best. “I’m sorry…I didn’t mean-”

“No, no. It’s fine.” the blonde assured. “At least…” she was about to say everyone, yet remembered the brief bits of dialogue she had heard prior. “At least those that are here made it.”

Eliza nodded, trying to find something positive to say. “Well...some of those guys followed up here. But they couldn’t get past the samosa field.” she said with a sense of comfort. “They’re still snoozing away in a cell.” 

Well, at least there was that. But from what she had heard…”Alma!” Riesz then exclaimed. “What happened to Alma?” it was then that Eliza’s features fell. “Eliza.” Riesz said again. “What happened?”


Before her rested a middle aged woman with hair as blue as Eliza’s, motionless and breathing, but ever so steadily. “By the time we all managed to get inside the citadel,” a blonde with her hair in a ponytail, Gertrude, said, “She had taken quite a beating from those two ninjas. If we hadn’t all gotten there in time…” she shuddered, not even wishing to think of such a possibility. 

Riesz looked down upon the former captain after her mother and now nursemaid. “Is she-”

“No, she’s perfectly healthy.” Gertrude assured her. “But she’s still in pretty bad shape. She’s not going to be picking up a spear anytime soon.”

Riesz lowered her head. “I see…” she bit her lip, rising from beside Alma’s bed and walking away.

“Princess?” Eliza called, but Riesz simply continued on, Eliza about to go after her, yet Gertrude held her back, shaking her head. 

Riesz continued on and on, through the exit of the cave that led to a field of four petaled flowers that swayed lightly in the wind, she noticed a small, circular monument with a crest of a shield and a pair of wings carved into it. The princess fell before the stone, clutching and ripping the picturesque flowers beneath her and she heaved and whispered through grinding teeth. “I’m sorry, mother.” she strained to stay, fighting with all she had to keep her eyes dry. “I’m so sorry…”

Nevarl

“He’s escaped!” he heard shouting from below as he looked down. “Hawkeye’s escaped!” several individuals down below rushed around and sounded the alarm that was a horn, alerting everyone that there was an emergency. 

“Search everywhere!” the young man heard Flamekhan’s voice. “Don’t let him leave the grounds!” 

A pang was delivered to Hawkeye’s heart, yet he pressed on along the mountainside he had just reached. The shadows still provided ample cover for him as he scooted along the narrow edge. Yet the shadows didn’t lie everywhere. And his speed wasn’t as quick as he would’ve liked. Still, careful steps were important now, no mistakes could’ve been made, otherwise he’d be going straight down. Unfortunately for him, he heard steps echoing from the section of cave he had just exited from. And sure enough, “There he is!” they caught up with him. “Stop right there!” an assassin leapt forward, daggers aiming right at him. Great, he was now going to have to be even more careful.

Waiting until he was at the right distance, Hawkeye leapt up and used the assassin's shoulders as a platform to leap over the others in the trio that had found him, drawing out his own daggers. The one closest to him charged, the violet haired youth ducking and aiming the blade at his abdomen. ‘Eagle.’ yet he stopped, all he could see being the blonde’s lifeless form in his mind. This left Hawkeye open for the assassin to elbow him in the mid back, the thief falling to the ground. Looking up, he saw a blade approaching him, he in turn rolled back, yet stumbled a bit as the edge was a few feet away. The assassin lunged again, and Hawkeye brought up his blades, only now, they were held backwards. Striking with the hilt in the gut, the assassin keeled over in pain, Hawkeye stepping up on him and taking care of the second one in line. Delivering a kick to the side of his head, the assassin lost his balance and fell off the edge to Hawkeye’s horror. 

“Are you ok?!” a voice called out from below, a few coming to see the fallen man. He began to twitch and steadily sat up, Hawkeye sighing in relief. “Hey, it’s him! Don’t let him get away!”

Well, so much for a ‘thank you.’. Still, he knew he couldn’t stay, stepping over the still downed assassin, he continued to run along the mountain’s edge, hearing more running his way. On and on he ran, legs burning as he climbed and climbed and climbed. Having reached a good enough altitude, Hawkeye saw the gates of the fortress but a short distance away. The bad news was that he would have to trek over the narrow ridges and quite literally make a leap of faith that may or may not lead to his freedom.

It was risky, and given his luck so far, he might’ve not made it. But he would try.

Laurent Secret Base

How long she had been there for, she had lost track of, along with the sense to even care. The samosa blossoms did little in their beauty to comfort or distract her, she lying on the ground next to the grave located by a small hill, quietly delivering apology after apology to the one buried there. 

“Princess?” Riesz lifted herself up to see Eliza, she in turn sighing and looking back down to the ground.

“Not now…” she murmured. 

“Princess,” Eliza began again, biting her lip. “Auntie’s awake.” 

Riesz then got to her feet in a flash. Before Eliza could say anymore, the blonde young woman rushed past her and through the entrance of the base, past everyone and received glances as if they were looking upon madman, but still, she went on. Finally, she reached Alma’s beside, the blue woman looking up at her. “Riesz…” 

“Alma.” Riesz knelt down and took the woman’s hand. “Don’t strain yourself. You need more rest than anyone.”

“Riesz...let me ask you something.” the blue haired woman asked. “What do you wish to do?”

The young woman was confused. “What do you mean?” 

“We’ve been discussing our next move.” Alma explained. “And...what shall be done regarding Prince Elliot.” Elliot...Riesz momentarily turned away. “There’s no need to say it. You want to go after him, don’t you?” Riesz was silent, yet still, after a small while, she nodded. “And that you wish to reclaim Laurent, as we all do, yes?” again, she nodded. “In that case...I have one thing to tell you.” Riesz leaned forward. “Go to Wendel.” 

“Wendel?” Riesz said aloud, wondering where Alma was going with this. 

“Yes, Wendel.” Alma repeated. “Seek an audience with the Priest of Light. He shall surely give us guidance as to what must be done.”

“But Alma,” Riesz said. “What about all of you? I mean…” she looked down guiltily. Yes, she wanted nothing more than to go immediately, but still. “I am your captain. To simply abandon you in a time such as this…”

“We shall be led by Alma.” Gertrude then said. “Physically impaired she may be, her mind hasn’t gone.”

“Gee, you make me sound like I’m an old woman.” Alma chuckled, Riesz joining in. It was somewhat ironic she could find any sense of humor in a time like this. 

“And even more, we have the samosa field protecting us.” a soldier with a green bob said, having quite a peculiar accent. “And if I can get it approved, we can even install a canon up here!”

“Again with the canon, Merci!” a red haired soldier rolled her eyes. “When will you take the hint?”

“When you all realize that it’s just what we need!”

A small exchange began between the two, Riesz paying them no mind and continuing to listen to Alma. “We had some go down to Palo to investigate. The Nevarlians have overtaken it, so you can’t simply waltz there to board a ship.” she then gestured to a nearby chair with her clothing folded on it. “Take these. Maybe you’ll have a better chance in getting by.” 

“Alma…” Riesz began, trying to find the words to say. “Th-Thank you.”

Alma only nodded. “You have mine, as well as everyone else’s blessing.” The princess needed no more, rising and rushing to get something to put her gear in as well as some provisions. For a moment, Alma could’ve sworn that she had seen Minerva herself in her.

Nevarl

He could make it! He could make it! He could make it! “YAAAAGH!” With one mighty leap, Hawkeye soared over the gates that led to the fortress below him, landing in the sand below. He was home free! Yet probably wasn’t out of trouble yet. After all, what was to stop them from simply opening the gates and coming after him. Yet that wasn’t the most important thing. The more distance he covered, the better. Run, was all he told himself. Run, run, run, run…


Run...run...he needed to stop for a moment. Sitting down on a rock he had found, Hawkeye allowed chilled night air to travel in and out of his lungs, sweat beading down his forehead despite the cold. So far, he had seen no one, so he could afford a rest, albeit just a short one. From his place atop the rock, he could see a small settlement nearby, and even closer, an oasis. He couldn’t tell at first, but there appeared to be a figure gathering something from the oasis, a small basket in her hand. A woman? Yes, it was. A woman with long, blonde hair and tanned skin, brown eyes, and a beige wrap around her chest that served as a top of sorts. She wore a long skirt split at her right hip, a pair of wide brimmed shorts that ended above her knees, and no shoes. There were a good number of fruit trees around the body of water, she went and taking some from them: plums, dates, pomegranates, all sorts. She was filling the basket quite full, yet Hawkeye noticed in the distance that she wasn’t alone. He couldn’t see it, yet there was another figure there. One that the young man couldn’t help but think looked very familiar.


There she was. She had been coming here gathering fruit at this particular spot for some time, having watched and memorized her routine. He had first discovered her since his acquisition of a young beauty that had come to gather water, the woman having run for her life then. Yet it seemed that, despite what transpired that night, she still came here. No that she had much choice, as her attire indicated she wasn’t one with an overabundance of money. She had to come. Still, she was always cautious when she came, gathering fruit or water as quickly as possible before making her way back to the settlement but a short distance away.

Tonight, however, she wouldn’t be quick enough. “Ack!” he suddenly cried out, feeling the tip of a blade against his throat. 

“Nice night for a bite, isn’t it?” Hawkeye said, the vampiric man grabbing the arm that secured his throat. 

“You.” Malaocchio hissed before smirking. “Isabella decided to wait with you? Or has she gotten careless?”

“Let’s just say I had a bit of help.” Hawkeye responded, the vampire throwing the youth off of him and dusted himself off, adjusting his cape. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Nothing that concerns you, boy.” Malaocchio answered. “But,” he then threw back the dark fabric that concealed his noble attire. “I shall make sure that you-” suddenly, he became aware that there was a light rising over the horizon. “Curses!” he hissed, ducking into the shadows. “You live this day.” he snarled as he sunk into the disappearing darkness, seemingly sinking into the shadows being cast by the morning light. “Yet rest assured, come night, then a maiden’s blood will NOT be the only thing I feast on!” The darkened shape ran and traveled along the shadows until it reached a nearby gorge, slipping in through the cracks and out of the area. 

“Who’s there?” the woman asked, having apparently heard what had taken place. “Show yourself!” she received no response, yet her eyes saw the shadow that had traveled with the ones that were being dissipated by the sun. Picking up a rock, she threw it.

“OW!”

She knew it! “Come on out!” she demanded, holding her pot up. “This…” oh yes, she thought. Throw fruit at them, that’d get them to go away. “This is heavy! I’ll throw it!” 

“Ok, ok, take it easy.” the thief answered, rising from his place. The woman was somewhat taken aback by his appearance, slowly approaching him. 

“Hm…” she circled him as if he were some morsel and she was a vulture, studying every aspect and part of him. Then, she stood back to look at him. “I thought you were...someone else.” she looked back to the not far off gorge. “Where’d you come from?”

“Eh...let’s just say, I’m kinda close but far.” Hawkeye answered, the woman looking to him, then to the gorge. “Look, I’m not wanting any trouble, so I’ll be out of your way-”

“Hold on.” she then said. “You...wouldn’t have happened to see anybody here, did you? Someone...well...I don’t know what they looked like, but…”

“Dark and tall, but not exactly handsome?”

Her brown eyes widened. “You’ve seen him?” 

Hawkeye rubbed the back of his head. “More than I would have liked to.” then, to his surprise, she gave him a smile. 

“You look like you’ve had a rough night.” she observed. She then reached in and picked out a date. “Here.” Hawkeye was somewhat taken aback by the gesture, and for a stranger no less. Still, he took it and eagerly ate it. After all, he could, quite literally, take off with her entire basket if he wanted. “I don’t know why…” she looked at the gorge again. “But I think I owe you.” she then turned, grabbing his wrist. “And I think dates are best when you wash them down with some water. Lucky for you, I picked some up earlier.”

Laurent Secret Base 

Morning had come. She lifted herself up and went through her morning routine, cleaning herself up for the journey ahead. Everyone looked to see their princess garbed in Alma’s attire with her weapon hidden in the dress and a sack containing her regular clothes over her shoulder. Still, she wore her ribbon, though, they wondered if it would even be possible to pry it from her cold, dead hands seeing she was THAT attached to it.

“Remember,” Alma said from her bed, Riesz beside her. “Be as discreet as you can. Don’t draw any unnecessary attention. And…” Alma paused. “Come back. Please, return in one piece and breathing.”

Riesz nodded. “Yes, I shall.” She then looked at everyone. “Thank you. All of you.” 

“Now, get going.” Alma commanded, Eliza coming forth and standing by the princess, having also dressed in a pair of spare clothes, a simple pink dress with a brown corset and boots on her. 

Riesz approached the entrance of the base, stopping for a moment. The wind was light today. Light, but pleasant. Standing in the samosa field, her blue eyes closed and allowed the breeze to toy and play with her hair, to lightly graze against her skin. Laurent winds...oh, it would be one the things she missed the most. 

“Princess?” Eliza asked, pondering whether or not she should even approach. Yet then, Riesz turned to her, a solemn expression on her face, yet it quickly dissolved into one of resolve.

“I...I’m fine.” she took one last look at the round gravestone, yet it was quick, unable to look for too long. “Let’s go.”

Oasis Village Diin

“You’re one of those thieves, aren’t you?” the woman asked, putting the last of her fruit on the table. 

Hawkeye immediately stiffened, but then gave a smile. “Sorry ma’am. But I’ve got a-”

“A job?” the woman asked, giving him a knowing glance. “A rather hazardous one. Especially given that you stole from my ex-husband in Sirhtan.” 

“Yeah.” a small boy with violet hair, a green vest with golden trimmings, beige, puffed out pants with violet linings and patterns, and violet slippers said. “Dad was super mad about it.” just looking at him, it was clear he was better dressed than the woman. And if her ex was that pompous jerk whose house they broke into, he put the pieces together as to what probably went down. Greed was a powerful and dangerous thing. 

Hawkeye chuckled. “Ok, fine. Ya got me.” he admitted. “But make no mistake. We don’t steal from anyone on hard times-”

“Oh, I know well what you do.” the woman told me. “And while I’d normally be appalled and any kind of theft...I gotta give you kudos.” it was her turn to chuckle. “Old fart finally got what was coming to him.” she then sat with him and her son, a piece of a mango in her hand. “I’m Sarafina by the way.” she extended her hand.

“Hawkeye, miss.” he took it.

“Miss, huh?” she giggled. “If you were a little older, I’d be tempted to keep you here.” he chuckled at that too. Hey, he couldn’t help if he was desirable. 

“And I’m Parth!” the boy exclaimed. “Is it true that you saved mom from the vampire?” 

“Parth, you know well that we don’t know WHAT that person is.” Sarafina told him.

“But mom, he only comes out at night and bites people! He’s gotta be a vampire!” the boy then looked to Hawkeye. “You believe me, right?”

“Sure, kid.” he answered. While he wasn’t exactly a believer in vampires...he had seen more than enough in the past few hours to make him believe nearly anything. “Speaking of, should I be so bold, what WERE you doing out all by yourself anyway? After all, pretty lady like you all alone…”

She smiled. “You're good at this.” he chuckled. “I wasn’t originally going to go out...but Parth needs his breakfast, and...well...I’m on a diet, so I wanted to get some fruit. Free pickings and all.” he saw through her lie, knowing well that she was on no diet. It seemed, from the sparse amounts of furniture in the home, they didn’t have much of anything, let alone a steady supply of lurce. “But I’ll admit, I was perhaps taking too big a risk, going out alone.” she then grew silent for a moment. “Friend of mine...I went with her. She...she didn’t come back.” Hawkeye was chilled. Had he not been there...his eyes fell on the young boy. “But enough about that.” she looked at him. “You look like you’ve had it rough too.”

“Well...I don’t know about that.” he rubbed the back of his head. Who was he kidding? Last night was terrible. But being surrounded by an environment like this...he felt that any complaints would be disrespectful. 

“Hey, we’re fine.” Sarafina assured. “But you’re clearly not.” she sighed. “Still...I do sometimes wonder.”

“But mom,” Parth then spoke up. “I thought you said that’s why you wanted to go to Wendel.”

Hawkeye’s eyes lit up. “Wendel?”

“Yeah, to see the Priest of Light.” the boy confirmed. “Mom’s been wondering what to do, so she wants some advice. Only thing is, boats aren’t free to take.” Wendel...he had heard of that name before, but really, he had given it no mind. “They say he knows everything.” Eh, Hawkeye wasn’t too sure about that. Still, the mention of it brought something to mind. 

Flashback

“I just don’t know what to do.” Eagle confessed, having wanted to meet Hawkeye in his room, away from potentially listening ears. Especially those of Isabella. “Father...he’s, well, NOT acting like father.” the blonde slumped in his chair.

“Indeed.” Hawkeye agreed. “Either she’s got a REALLY sweet mouth on her, or she’s pulling something.”

“Hey, if the former’s the case, she might be a better smooth talker than you.”

“Heh, yeah. Not possible.” Both young men smiled at each other. “In all seriousness, what are you gonna do about it?”

“I don’t know, mainly because I don’t know what she’s doing.” Eagle admitted. “If she’s just smooth talking to him, that’s one thing. But...if it’s something else...then, frankly, we’re out of our league.”

“Like...magic or something?” the violet haired thief questioned. “No offense, but isn’t that a little far fetched?”

“Maybe.” the blonde answered. “But if she is...then...I don’t know.” just then, he brought out a sack of lurce, looking at it.

“What’s that for?” Hawkeye asked. 

“I’ve been thinking of making a trip.” Eagle confessed.

“A trip where?”

“To Wendel.” 

The holy city? “Why there?” Hawkeye asked, wondering where Eagle was going with this. 

“Because I feel that I'm running out of options.” the blonde sighed. “Hate to say it, but I’m getting a little desperate. And if no one around here has any advice or some sort of direction I can go in, then maybe somebody who’s surely heard worse than ours can say something.” he then looked to Hawkeye. “And...don’t take it as a sure plan yet, but should I go,” he stood up and placed his hand on the thief’s shoulder. “I’d want you to come with me.”

Present

That did it. It was perhaps too soon, and perhaps he was grasping at straws...but at the moment, he wasn’t exactly someone to be picking and choosing. “Miss?” he piped up. “Is...there a ship heading out anytime soon?”

“Um, I think so.” Sarafina answered him. “In fact, me and Parth here are taking a trip to Sirhtan soon.” she then began loading a sack with what he saw to be beautiful clothing, clearly different than what she had on. “Got to clear some stuff out.” aka, sell it to make a buck or two. “However,” she winked. “There’s room in the back of the cart.”

Port Town of Palo

They had already made their way in the town. Granted, there weren’t as numerous as those that had attacked the castle, but still, the fact these fiends were even here at all was yet another reminder of what had occurred but a day prior. 

“You ok, princess?” Eliza questioned, adjusting her hair. 

Riesz nodded, the ship before her. “Let’s go.” She approached the ship and went to the skipper. “This ship wouldn’t happen to be going by Jadd anytime soon, would it?” she asked.

“Actually, it’s one of our first stops,” he confirmed. “Wanting to take a ride? Five-hundred lurce.”

“Five-hundred?!” Eliza exclaimed. “Don’t you know she’s-” she was quickly shushed by Riesz, the blonde immediately handing the money to the man. 

“Thank you, sir.” she thanked him, wasting no time getting on board. 

“Hey, wait.” a voice said from behind. Turning around, two Nevarlian ninjas stood, arms crossed. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Going on a trip, good sirs.” Riesz answered, practically having to strain the latter part. “And you?”

“Looking for any potential, shady characters.” one of them responded. “Characters like you.” Riesz was about to speak, but Eliza stepped in. 

“Oh, you’re being silly!” she said with a smile, playfully slapping one of them on the back. “I’m just seeing my sister off! We’ve got family in Jadd, you know!”

“Do you now?” the skipper looked to Riesz, then to the men. He began to board as well. “Who exactly?”

“Uh...that’s kinda private, isn’t it?” one of them drew closer. 

“Who?”

“Um…” not exactly befitting for an Amazon, yet still, her princess’ escape was vital. “Parents.” Eliza answered. “Mom and dad, they’ve kinda been anxious to see her.”

“And what about you? You ARE her sister, after all.” Eliza shifted her eyes, silently begging for the ship to get going. “Family just don’t get along?”

“Uh, you could say that.” she couldn’t think of anything else to do, save for one thing. “Uh, I think I hear mom calling! See ya!” she dashed away. It was then that the two Nevarlians realized what she had just said. “Hey, get back here!” 

Riesz looked on as Eliza was chased, about to go after them, yet stopped herself. ‘Eliza...forgive me.’ 

“Here.” the skipper handed a key to her. “I don’t know what kind of trouble you’re in, but…” he sighed. “You look like you need some time to yourself.” 

Riesz was silent for a moment before taking the key. “Thank you, sir.” with that, she ducked through the door that led to the rooms, disappearing from sight.

Sirhtan

“So, these are made from silk?” a woman asked, holding the dress up to survey it.

“Only the best in all of Nevarl!” Sarafina assured. “Interested? Only one-hundred lurce!”

“Whoa, that’s cheap!” the two women continued to make their exchange, Parth then looking to a box on the cart. 

“Ok, no one’s looking!” he whispered, the box suddenly growing legs and hopping off, then made its way towards the docked ship. The skipper was off conversing with some passenger that wasn’t exactly happy with the price it cost to board, allowing Hawkeye to slip by. True, he’d have to stay in the box for some time, yet hey, what could the guy do? It wasn’t like he could just toss him overboard when they got far enough. 

Yet perhaps he wouldn’t get the chance at all. “Hey,” he suddenly heard, seeing two assassins approaching Sarafina. “You.”

“Um, yes, me.” Sarafina said. “What can I do for you fine gentlemen?” 

“Well, you see, good woman,” a woman with long, red hair answered, Hawkeye’s eyes widening at whom it was. “We’re looking for a wanted criminal.” Parth looked up at the woman, quickly hiding behind her. Sure, she was pretty, yet there was definitely something off about her, he knew it. 

“Criminal? Oh my!” Sarafina gasped. Hawkeye could tell that she was acting, yet whether or not Isabella knew that was yet to be seen. “Well, I hope you find such a terrible person. But I haven’t seen anyone like that around here.”

“Oh really?” Isabella questioned. “Madam,” she continued. “It’s of utmost importance that we find him.” she urged. “He attacked his own friend but a short time ago, and nearly killed me when I tried to protect said friend.” Hawkeye was boiling from inside his hiding place, having slightly lifted the top to watch the scene taking place below. “Please,” she then looked to Parth. “You dear son could be at risk.”

Sarafina’s brows then narrowed. “I can take care of my son fine, thank you.” she told Isabella plainly. “If anything, madam, you should perhaps be concerned for yourself, if you have been injured as you say.” she tried to hide the skepticism in her voice. “You would need to tend to that wound after all, lest it become infected.”

Isabella was somewhat taken aback by her directness, noticing then that, to her shock, that the ship was already pulling out of the harbor. She could go on and turn it upside down, no problem...if she wasn’t currently surrounded by a bunch of people, one of whom wasn’t particularly buying her story. 

“Yes, well, I am medicating it. I’m just eager to see him brought to justice. The father of the one he killed is a dear friend of mine. He's absolutely devastated.”

Sarafina nodded. “You have my deepest condolences. But if you excuse me,” she then gestured to the people gathering behind Isabella. “I have customers wishing to see my wares.”

“Yes, of course. Thank you for your time.” With that, Isabella went with the two assassins, though not before looking to the ship. ‘You win this round, little birdie.’ despite her frustration, she smiled. ‘But don’t count on your luck bringing you too far. After all,’ her eyes flashed yellow for a moment. ‘You have to come back sometime. And I’ll be planning a surprise...just for you.’

Palo

It was still seen from a short distance away, but there was no way that the ship would be turning back now. 

Emerging from her room in her green dress and headdress, Riesz stood and placed her hands on the edge, the winds of her homeland seemingly seeing her off, the light scent of salt meeting her nose. She closed her eyes and felt them grow moist...but no. She wouldn’t cry. She couldn’t. Not yet...and until this was over, not ever. 

“Mother…” she quietly said to herself, undoing her ribbon, letting her blonde mane dance in the wind. “I leave father and the fallen in your care.” she whispered, the wind continuing to lightly caress and touch her. “Yet leave Elliot to me.” she opened her eyes and viewed the mountainous region of her kingdom, for one last time.

Chapter Text

His eyes fluttered open, his body sore and as he tried to stand, his footing lost and he fell to the ground again. Where was he? His amber eyes shifted to see a stick embedded in the ground, surrounded by blooming flowers. 

Karl…

He remembered everything now…

Flashback

“Back already, prince?” a beastman with blonde hair questioned, Kevin not responding. “Hey, I asked you a question.” he roughly placed a hand on the younger’s shoulder, yet still got no response. “Hey! I-” the beastman stopped upon seeing his clothes, more notably, the reddened spots splashed on them.

“Molar...not now.” Kevin murmured, taking the other beastman’s hand off of him and continuing his way down the hall. 

He passed through, already hearing questions of what had taken him so long, that his trip out was longer than his usual ones, and even more, from the mouth of one unsuspecting child ‘How was Karl today?’

Kevin balled his fists up and dashed away from everyone, not paying a bit of attention to the confused looks that he was gaining. What did it matter? What did anything matter? Karl...all he could see were the tear filled eyes of the pup, how he whimpered and moaned, and how, ironically enough, how sweet he still looked. He appeared to bear no animosity towards the one that had just slain him, as if he had just woken up from a terrible dream and was relieved to see Kevin right there to assure him that was all it was. Maybe that was all he could comprehend in that moment: it was a bad dream, and that he was just going back to sleep. And the aches and pains in his body...a good night’s rest would ease them all away.

Kevin howled. And howled, and howled. How long, he had lost track, and when it did eventually end, his throat was ragged and burning, yet he could not find it in himself to go and find some source to wetten his throat. No, Karl had to be tended to first. He had tried to revive him already, yet even when he did so, he knew well that the pup was already gone. A small patch with white flowers was the perfect place, Kevin kneeling down and digging furiously at the ground. It was far from deep, having only gone down a few feet, yet it was enough to place the pup’s limp form in. Once he had covered him up after one last, final look at him, the young man covered him up and set up a marker that consisted of a torn off tree limb that was stuck in the ground. Even when the deed was done, Kevin found himself unable to move from that spot, falling to the ground and weeping on the shallow grave. It was only when he realized that he might’ve been sought after and that others might have come looking for him did he go back to the castle. Yet he immediately regretted that decision, as it seemed no one was leaving him alone. 

“Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

“Hey, watch it!”

“Take care to mind your way, prince!”

“What a crybaby!”

Some of these weren’t said aloud, and they would be denied if he confronted them about it, but Kevin knew well they meant every word. His title and his relations to Gauser meant nothing to the inhabitants of the kingdom. Even since he was young and had, at least according to his father, been more stalwart in his training, he always felt that everyone’s eyes cast down upon him. They paid him little to no mind, and when they did, it was only to acknowledge his presence enough and then went about their business. He was ‘prince’ in name only, and to some, even less. 

“Hey, princeling!” Ludgar’s voice said in his mind, remembering the sneer the beastman had. “How does it feel that the king’s placed ME in charge of the invasion on Wendel and not you?” Kevin didn’t respond to that, which seemed to only anger Ludger, he then once again demanded a match between the two, of which he won. Which led to more ridicule from him and the disappointment of his father. 

What was the point of this so-called invasion anyway? True, it was common knowledge that their people weren’t exactly well received, let alone well treated from the other countries of the world. Their kind were, simply put, regarded as beasts. Dumb animals that were little better than the creatures that roamed the wilds. In the past, Kevin had to admit, what was done to his people made him both shudder and angered. Beaten, bruised, hunted, hung up and put on display, hell, sometimes they were kept as attractions in traveling circus’ and carnivals being marketed as some freakish mistake of nature. Before the formation of the Kingdom of Ferolia, they were subjected to a slew of tortures and hunted for sport. It was only due to the efforts of his ancestors that the humans were driven out (many of which were reported to be killed) that the beastmen as a whole were able to finally live in peace, yet still remain under the scrutiny of the image placed upon them. 

Yet that didn’t stop some beastmen from making contact with humans. Let alone taking some as their mates. It was a rarity, but it had happened before, and in some secret parts of the world, it was perhaps still happening. And maybe...that was part of, or maybe the whole reason that the people here looked at him the way they did.

Whatever the case, history of his people, the invasion, Kevin cared not for any of these things. He didn’t care much for anything at this moment. All that dwelt on his mind was the sight of the grave he had just dug, and the flowers that seemed to catch and reflect the pale moonlight above. 


The lesser light shone down on him as if to offer him some form of comfort, yet it did him no good. There was nothing that could offer any semblance of comfort now. 

Having taken the clothes he was wearing and put them in the fire burning in his room, Kevin stood upon one of the balconies of the castle and simply looked out to the Duskmoon Forest. Where Karl’s grave was nestled in. He had hidden himself away in his room for a good few hours, lest he actually be caught shedding tears of any kind, yet even now, it seemed that tears refused to leave his eyes. Kevin still had little comprehension as to what had happened in the forest. All he remembered was heat: boiling, flaring heat traveling all through him. Then something, some...creature had attacked the visage of the mutated, twisted form of Karl. And next, the creature was gone, Kevin having taken his place, the wolfish monster also leaving and allowing Karl to take its place as well. 

It was known that, while they were not the dumb animals that many thought them to be, beastmen were very much alike to the dangerous creatures that surrounded them in these woods, especially when it came to satisfying their primal urges. Whilst they were technically omnivores, they were in high need of a steady supply of protein, lest their muscles wither up. Their metabolisms were always burning, thus, a large supply of food was almost always welcome, and while Kevin and several others knew not entirely why, whether it be chemicals in their body, ancestral traits that had passed down the generations, or simply how the Goddess designed them, beastmen always were itching for some form of combat and a means to display their skills. Whether it be hunting, sparing, or even a battle for supremacy (that sometimes led to the death), nothing was more satisfying than to produce blood, sweat, and tears. If one could produce all three, then that beastman was a true warrior. His father, Gauser, had belonged to a royal lineage, yes, but he did not simply become king by this alone. He had several rivals that wished for his spot, and in turn, he beat them all down. The beastmen lived, breathed, and worshiped the mantra ‘survival of the fittest’, they being at the top. 

This was also evident in their most known skill: transformation. Due to the ever lingering presence of the moon, they could do it at will, but in any area outside of their own, when the moon’s light hits them, a beastman’s body undergoes metamorphosis into a far more primitive state resembling that of an upright canine, a werewolf. While they still retained conscious thought, their already beastial nature grew even more so, and unless it was acted upon or worked out, violence and bloodshed was always a guarantee. Usually this would include sparring amongst themselves, yet sometimes, unfortunately, humans would be used as means to curb these urges. Less and less deaths occurred over the years, yet still, there was no guarantee that they didn’t happen at all. 

And Kevin was a stranger to all of this. He was born into it, raised with it, surrounded by it, and yet...found himself unable to fully integrate into what was decreed as natural. The forest allowed for reprieve from all this. As did Karl. The prince slumped down and lowered his head. Goddess help him if his father saw him like this. Or even worse, Ludgar. He had already shown vulnerability tonight that garnered attention, even if many weren’t openly saying it, yet he knew that they noticed. They noticed and judged. And now, they were surely talking. 

“...so, was it to your liking?”

Hm? What the-

“It was unexpected, I shall admit.” that voice...his father? Yet the other was unfamiliar. They sounded close. Kevin leaned against a stone barrier that separated that part of the balcony from where he was currently, listening in on the conversation. “I didn’t believe you were capable.”

“Hee hee! As I said, my magic is yours!” the mysterious voice said cheerily, though it only served to give Kevin the chills. “And my Master’s is even more powerful!”

“Hm.” Gauser said. “To turn such a young pup into a killing machine…” wait a moment. Pup, Kevin thought. Did he mean Karl? 

“Yes indeed!” the figure giggled. “It was great fun! And now, that child has finally unlocked that potential of his! His very first transformation!” he then sighed. Shame that he couldn’t go and make his move when the pup was slain. Such a pure, delicious soul…

“Which ends your time here.” Gauser suddenly said, Kevin hearing the figure gasp.

“Wh-What?” steps were heard. “M-Majesty! Wait! Master insists that he seek an audience with you!” the rest of the conversation was lost, Kevin having heard enough.

Karl...he knew that wasn’t him attacking him. He KNEW it! And...and that creature...no. Him...they were both transformed into monsters. All at the request of...he fell to the ground, a howl building up in his throat. Though unlike before, this bore no semblance of sadness in it. No, this was of pure, unfiltered rage. 


“Then tell your ‘master’ that there was, nor will there be a relation with him.” Gauser told Goremand plainly, turning away from him. “This invasion is ours and ours alone. And should we consider the power of the Mana Stones, then that shall be for us to consider. Begone.”

Goremand wished nothing more than to cut him down then and there, yet once again, he had to relent. “Majesty, please!” he begged (reluctantly). “M-Master insists! He has sent me here to request an audience with you personally!” 

“Then I shall send you from here, personally!” The king roared, losing his patience. “You are no longer needed! My son has finally become what he is to be. Now that said obstacle is no more, then there is no need for any sort of your magic here.” Gauser took another step, yet paused. There was a change in the air. A familiar scent, and yet there was something different about it. 

It was then that he realized. “BEAST KING!!!!” and he smiled.

Seeing a shadowy figure leap over the section that separated their part of the balcony, the figure landed and rose, nothing short of bloodlust in his eyes. 

“Aiie!” Goremand put on the frightened act. Gauser only looked on at Kevin with pride.

“Yes…” he nodded in approval. “Finally, at long last. I see one that is worthy of my throne.”

“Bastard!” Kevin hollered. “You killed Karl!”

“Indeed.” Gauser didn’t deny it. “The pup was holding you back, boy. Your true nature couldn’t be truly harnessed. Now, there is nothing that serves as a distraction. Your true strength can finally be realized.”

“YOU KILLED KARL!!!”

Gauser frowned. “The fact you cannot see this only proves that the creature needed to be dealt with sooner.”

Kevin was seeing red, feeling his muscles begin to tense. The creature he had turned into was beginning to emerge again. “SHUT UP!!!” with a mighty howl, he lunged forward, losing any human features save for standing upright and slashed at the larger beastman. 

Gauser smirked, catching youth’s wrist in his grasp. “Your power may have been unleashed.” it was then that he too began to transform. “Yet you’ve only just begun to truly experience it!” he then leapt forward, fangs biting into the boy’s shoulder. Kevin howled in agony, it stopped by a direct punch to his abdomen, sending him back and colliding with the edge of the balcony. Kevin rose up and, despite his arm now feeling limp by his side, rushed at the king yet again, the even more beastly monarch seizing him by the throat and with the other hand, performed various slashes, practically carving in the boy’s flesh. This, along with the even increasing grip on his throat made his vision begin to blur. “Learn your place, boy.” Gauser snarled, tightening his grip. Kevin’s form began to transition back into one far more human, his eyes fluttering as he finally lost consciousness. Gauser dropped him to the ground, shifting back to his own more humanoid form. He then turned to Goremand. “I have no need for your master’s help.” he repeated. “But...consider this a parting gift. I leave my son to you.”

Present

At least, that’s what he thought the king told the strange, jester looking figure. Getting up, Kevin saw that he was indeed covered in slashes on his chest and abdomen, his beastman blood allowing for them to already be healing up, yet still, the pain remained. He tried to stand, but found himself struggling to do that, as that required that he bend his body, thus, he remained on his back. Right next to Karl’s grave. 

“K-Karl…” he moaned, trying to rise. He turned over on his stomach and tried to prop himself up that way. He managed to at least get to his hands and knees, and finally, got up to his feet. Though he stumbled, he at least was walking again.

RUSTLE

Kevin’s ears twitched, hearing movement in the brush. As much as he now cursed and damned the being to hell, the young man remembered his father’s constant lectures of showing any weakness. Show it, and you’re no better than the prey you hunt, he said. Kevin steeled himself, listening in and tracing the noises. Just then, he caught something. A leg. Thin and with paleish flesh. “There you are!” he hissed, feeling some of his strength returning to him. He had no idea of how long he had been unconscious for, yet it seemed that the pain was beginning to subside. Sure, there were aches, yet that would eventually go away too. For now, all that mattered was catching that jester!


And to think, he had such an easy meal on his hands. He had waited too long, and now his ‘meal’ was after him. No matter...he could simply take him if he so wished. Yet his Master’s orders…’Take no life save for those you are permitted to. Yet this doesn’t include the beastmen. Should they join me, their numbers will be vital.’ 

Damned restrictions. It was torture for a creature like himself. But still...even for one such as himself, Master’s orders were NOT to be broken. Yet now, Goremand was in a dilemma. He had just been given permission to take care of Gauser’s son, and yet his Master told him to not take any of their lives. What to do?

“There you are!” he heard a voice from behind, yet got no time to turn around as he felt a body plow into his, sending him to the ground. “You killed Karl!” Kevin roared, wrapping his hands around the fiend’s throat.

Damned restrictions. “W-Wait! Wait!” Goremand hollered, making sure to sound desperate. “You misunderstand! Your father, the king, he ordered me to cast dark magic on the pup! He organized the whole operation-ACK!”

“You’re to blame too!” Kevin snarled, continuing to choke harder.

Goremand laughed to himself. Did he really think his efforts did anything to him? Still, he kept up the act. “Wait, wait!” he pleaded. “I-I know a way to bring Karl back! ACK! Back from the dead!”

It was a lie. He knew deep down it was a lie. But...but the moment he heard those words, whether from shock or something else, Kevin released his grip on the jester’s throat. “Too good to be true.” he said plainly, half tempted to go back to choking him. Yet the images of Karl’s body and his father’s satisfaction...he backed off, if not for his own reasons. 

“Not for the Priest of Light.” Goremand said. “He resides in Wendel. He has connections to extraordinary powers from what I hear. Some that can rival the Goddess Herself, if the rumors are to be believed.”

Impossible. No one could rival the Goddess. Yet still, Kevin had heard of the man, even though human dealings were rarely discussed here. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

Now Goremand could finally indulge himself a bit. “Truth is, you don’t.” Kevin growled. “But,” the jester continued. “If you don’t hurry now, you won’t be able to find out. Didn’t your father and that delightful fellow, Ludger I think his name was, say that their first target in their conquest was Wendel itself?” Kevin stared at the ground, conflicted. “Either go and at least have some semblance of a chance to bring Karl back into your life...or do nothing and find your chance taken from you. The choice is yours.”

Kevin was silent, taking in and pondering all that the jester had told him. Indeed, there was a good portion of him that believed he had just spouted utter nonsense to him. Yet another...another that brought forth Karl’s large, wide eyes, the licks he delivered to his cheek, the way the two tussled with each other...he took in a steady breath. “Which way?”

Goremand smiled, pointing eastward. “Go this way, and you’ll find Mintas. From there, you can follow the coastline. In just a few days, you shall reach Jadd, and from there, head to Wendel through the Cascade Cavern.”

Kevin still looked at him with skepticism, yet still, after a few tentative moments, began to walk the way the jester directed him in. He looked back several times, only to see that the jester hadn’t moved from his spot. He still couldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t try something, but he sprinted off. Truth or not, surely one called the Priest of Light could be trusted. And while he surely couldn’t rival the Goddess...he still sounded like someone with great power. Goremand simply looked on, a grin coming to his face. Yes, go. Go on, little prince, he thought. Perhaps, should he be so fortunate, they would meet again soon. For the Master required that he take a little trip himself.

But first...perhaps he could have a little talk with the king again. Or...perhaps that nice fellow that always gave the little prince a hard time.

Wendel

“Ow!” Charlotte winced, the needle piercing her skin again, several other reddened dots on it. 

“Geez, you suck at this.” Mick observed, earning a glare from the blonde. 

The two were currently huddled up in a closet, a sole candle being the only source of light, everyone else in the temple asleep. They weren’t alone in the closet, a strange, yellow creature with them with comically big, blue, toeless feet and wide, black eyes that observed the two with intrigue. Currently, the two were sewing together bedsheets, said bedsheets nearly overtaking the entire closet. 

“Just hewp me do this!” she hissed, pricking herself yet again. What they were doing was risky, especially if they were caught. But still...what other option was there? Heath was all set to go, and while he would be leaving come morning, she had to at least get where he was going before or at least around the same time. 

“But this isn’t gonna work.” Mick complained. “If that’s what he said, then the Light Stone’s all the way up above the caves, and there’s no way you can reach there!”

Charlotte then huffed. “You said youw pet couwd get me anywhewe, wight?”

Mick turned and gave the creature a pet on the head. “Well, yeah, he can. But-”

“Then suwely it can do this too!” she began to sew even more furiously, and thus, sticking herself several times. It had been fortunate that she had discovered Mick’s little secret, otherwise she’d have no way to follow Heath.

Flashback

Think, think, think! There HAD to be a way to keep Heath from leaving! “Charlotte?” the blonde half elf heard Mick call, the green haired boy coming into her room, she having received a firm but fair talking to about her role in stealing the priest’s belongings. “Charlotte, don’t you think you’re kinda taking this too far.”

Charlotte sniffed. “No.” she replied. “And...and I just don’t know what to do!” she wept. “Heath’s in dangew, I know it! But no one bewieves me! I’ve gotta stop him! I gotta!” she slumped over on her bed. “But now, no one’s awwowed to weave Wendew because of what Gwandpa said!” the old man had placed strict orders that, unless absolutely necessary, it would be wise to stay in the city and not travel abroad. And given both his position and power, no one in the city questioned him. Yet this only made things infinitely more difficult for his granddaughter. 

Mick pondered this, then looked to the closet near his bed. Would it be safe showing her ‘him’? Still...she was crying. “Hey, Charlotte?” the boy then said, the girl stopping her tears for a moment. “I think I know something you can do.”

“Sniff...you do?” 

“Yeah. But before I show it, you have to promise not to tell ANYONE. Ok?”

Charlotte tilted her head. “What is it?”

“Just promise.”

“Ok, ok, I pwomise.”

Mick went over and opened the closet, beckoning Charlotte inside. He felt around for where he had placed the matches and lit a candle inside. It was then that she saw it and let out a yelp. 

“YIKES!” Charlotte fell backwards at the sight of a small, round thing of yellow and blue, two large, black eyes looking at her. Getting a better look at it, her fear died down. “Hee hee, you look silly!” She then looked at Mick. “What is it?”

“It’s a springstepper.” Mick told her, sitting down to give it a pet, it purring as a result. “I found it outside the city. I call him Springy. But I can only take him out at night, otherwise they’ll make me put him back where I found him.”

Charlotte smiled. “He’s cute! But...how is he gonna get me out of the tempwe?” 

Mick then smiled. “Come see me later. But…”

“But what?”

“You might need a little something extra before you go.”

“Like what?”

“Well…” Mick paused. “I don’t suppose we have any spare parachutes around here, do we?”

Present

Mintas

The large, yellow bird trotted along, occasionally picking at the ground for some spare worms she might’ve found. Her rider bore tan skin and wild, blue hair, amber eyes, pointed ears, long nails and toenails of black that resembled claws, and attire that consisted of a top with two pieces of cloth tied around her chest, one sandy brown and the other yellow with blue stripes, her bottom half consisting of the same sort of style, only it was a short wrap and a torn up, skirt on the bottom. She wore silver braces on her wrists and ankles, and pink pearls around her neck and right arm. On her ride’s person was a basket filled with an assortment of foraged berries and other items, freshly picked and ready to be taken and made into dinner. 

BOOM!

Though perhaps that would wait, as a sudden force knocked over both her and her mount, what she had collected in the basket tumbling over and falling to the ground. “OW! Oww…” she moaned, looking up. “You ok, Coco?” she asked the large, yellow bird, she only squawked in pain. Her blue brows furrowed as she peered over the bird’s body. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?! How about you watch where you’re going!?” 

“Ow…” the figure moaned. “S-Sorry.” he said meekly, though mainly due to the pain. The young beast woman lifted herself up and saw Kevin on the ground and rubbing his temple, though what drew her eyes were the marks on his chest and abdomen, as well as the mark on his shoulder. 

“Whoa…” she began, hopping over Coco to get a better look. “Eugh.” she grimaced. “What happened to you?”

Kevin winced. “Not a pretty story.” 

“Here.” she extended her hand, hoisting him up, surveying his wounds. True, they had long since stopped bleeding, and the beastman’s rapid healing would eventually take care of it, yet she couldn’t deny that it was pretty severe looking. “That...looks pretty bad.” 

Kevin bit his lip. He then noticed the large bird that she had previously been riding. “A chocobo?”

“Yeah, she’s mine.” the young woman told him. “Say hello, Coco.” the bird squawked and nodded to greet the boy. It was then that she realized. “Hey!” she cried out. “You’re the prince! Kevin, right?” Kevin didn’t get the chance to either confirm or deny her exclamation. “What are you doing all the way out here?” 

“It...don’t want to say.” the young man sighed, clenching his fists. “And I’m not going back.”

She was about to ask, but thought better of it. His eyes were red and swollen, clearing having been crying for some time. That, and the wounds still healing indicated that he must’ve been through something rough just a short time ago. “Hey, seeing as you don’t have anywhere to go,” she didn’t exactly know that, but she had her mind made up. “Why don’t you swing by my place? I’m bringing some stuff back, so I’ve got food.” she grinned at seeing the young man’s expression lighten up, if not just a bit. She couldn’t blame him. Food was one of the best things one could offer a beastman, and such an offer was one of the highest forms of friendship and affection one could make. He still seemed somewhat reluctant, but he ultimately took her hand. “Name’s Anati by the way, and you’ve already met Coco.” she gestured to the chocobo. The three then began the trek to Mintas, and in turn, her home.

Wendel

“And...done!” Charlotte held up the sewn together bedsheets with pride. Mick only sighed. 

“My fingers are gonna hurt for weeks…” he whined, Springy only looking at the boy’s fingers that were littered with red dots. 

“But we did it, wight?” the blonde said with pride. “Now, I can fowwow Heath for suwe!” 

“Don’t you think we should, you know, do a test run?” Mick suggested, Charlotte in turn shaking her head. 

“No time.” she said. “We’d be caught fow suwe.” she explained. “Besides, we can’t afowd to mess this up. Evewything has to be pewfect.” indeed, she had come this far, there was no way that she could scew this up. And getting a firm scolding was the least of her worries. 

She could only hope that this plan would work. Otherwise, there’s be more than just a Charlotte sized imprint in the ground that she’d have to worry about.

Mintas

Though they were still beastmen, the residents of this farming town were far more mellow than those that resided near the castle grounds. Simple homes and fields resided in the quaint town bathed in the same moonlight as the rest of the land, beastmen and women, along with children going about their business and while there were some rough treatment, it was all in good fun and brotherly affection. Heck, coming in, Kevin up and saw a husband and wife give themselves a punch on each shoulder before laughing about it. Immediately, despite having just arrived, Kevin found this place infinitely more pleasant than the castle. He had tried to mainly keep himself hidden, least he needed was someone pointing out that the prince had been outside the castle for some strange reason, and had rather nautical wounds on him. Though, through his eating, he noticed that, despite being at least a few years older or younger than him, there was no sign of any parents or anyone else in the home save for Anati herself and Coco. He didn’t ask.

Still, the main preoccupation was filling his stomach, of which was shared by both Anati and Coco, so by the time they entered her home near the river and dumped everything out, they immediately started digging in.

“You like?” Anati asked through mouthfuls of food, Kevin only nodding in response as his mouth was so full that he couldn’t even give a response. Coco only watched as she ate her birdseed. Though she had seen it many times throughout her years, she never understood why beastmen were such sloppy, voracious eaters. Surely pigs had better manners. Culture, she supposed. “So, anyway,” Anati began, though only after swallowing a huge handful of berries. “You said you’re going to Wendel? What for?” 

“For…” Kevin suddenly stopped eating, this immediately garnering Anati and Coco’s attention. “For a friend.”

She wanted to pry further, yet if her question managed to distract a beastman from his food, then that said something. “Well, how do you plan to get there?”

“Someone…” Kevin said tentatively. “Someone told me. He...he said go along the coastline. Then I’ll reach it.”

“The coastline?” Anati questioned. “Sounds like he doesn’t have that good of direction.” Kevin was puzzled. “You can just travel a bit away from here and you’ll be at Lake Astoria.”

“Lake Astoria?”

“Yeah. And hey, lucky for you, I’ve got a boat that you can take.”

“Um...couldn’t I just swim?” Kevin asked, Anati laughing at this.

“Sorry, but I don’t think even you can swim that far. Lake Astoria’s got a good few miles on it.” she explained. So much for his initial plan. “It’s just southeast of here. Yeah, you have to go through a bit of woods, but you’ll reach it from there. And the boat ride might take a bit, but at least you won’t drown.” 

Kevin was silent for a bit. “You...do that for me?”

“Sure.” the blue haired young woman confirmed, swallowing another portion of food. “I don’t know what’s going on with you...but it looks like you need a friend right now.” she placed her hand on the shoulder that wasn’t wounded, Kevin somewhat taken aback by her forwardness, yet nonetheless, appreciated the gesture. Hell, he actually had his cheeks growing warm at her touch. She giggled. “Anyone tell you you’re cute when you blush?”

Oh geez, had she seen that?! At his embarrassment, she giggled again. 

Wendel

“All right,” the Priest of Light began, standing outside of the temple, everyone gathered to see the young Heath off. “Be careful. There are strange happenings going on, and once you leave Wendel, I can no longer help you.”

“I’m well aware.” Heath answered, adjusting the sack on his back, tightening the straps. “But I shall return.”

“I pray for that to be true.” the old man nodded. “Be careful, Heath.”

Suddenly, sniffing was heard, the source hiding behind the leg of another temple resident to conceal her tears. “Now, now.” Heath said, beckoning Charlotte out. “What’s all this now?” Charlotte said nothing, just throwing herself into the lilac haired priest and weeping into his chest. “Hey, listen.” Heath told her, wiping away a few stray tears. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back.”

“But…” the girl sniffled. “But…”

“I’m doing this for everyone, Charlotte.” Heath explained. “Even you. It’s to make sure that everyone is safe.” he then gently pulled her away. “I’ll be back.”

“You...you had better pwomise.” the girl demanded, though her tone was anything but firm.

“Promise.” Heath answered, rising up from kneeling down to her level and giving everyone a nod before turning and leaving the temple grounds, Charlotte only looking on.

‘I pwomise too.’ Charlotte said to herself, nothing short of pure determination in her inner voice. ‘I pwomise that I’ll save you.’

Chapter Text

Ferolia

The matter had been dealt with. Only thing was, it was a pity that it had to end this way. And yet still...he found he couldn't stop thinking about the brat.

Finally, after all these years, he FINALLY reached the pinnacle of evolution, the hallmark of their race...and for him to cast away such an opportunity for a meger pup! Gauser growled. Ever since that damned animal came into his son's life, he ruined everything!

'Really?' a voice inside him said, the visage of a humanoid figure coming to mind. 'Then what of the one who bore him?' A humanoid figure of soft flesh and long, blonde hair. In no way a beastman. 'Did she ruin everything for you?'

'She has nothing to do with this.' Gauser huffed mentally.

'Yet she managed to creep by you. Creep inside. Render everything you knew asunder, if not just for a brief time.' Her eyes...there were his son's eyes. The softness of her features...her smile...they echoed in him. But no. No. She...she had nothing to do with this. He had grown past that, past her. Such a thing distressed him no longer. 'Then what would she believe of your son?'

It was beastmen culture. The victor lived, and should the defeated die, then they died. Son or not. Son or not...his...and her son. She came to his mind and was determined to not leave. And coupled with her was the image of his son. The looks that he received when it was revealed that she was pregnant. A human birthing a beastman's child? Very few knew of it, and he would see to it that no one told. Once she left his life, he would center everything on building an image of pure strength. Nothing more or less. And that would include his son.

And yet...still, thoughts of her came up. As well as feelings relating to the disposal of his child. It was all so confusing.

"Aw…" a familiar voice suddenly spoke. "His Majesty thinking about his wittle prince?"

Gauser sat up from his throne, Fang and Thorn growling in response. From behind a pillar, Goremand emerged, a grin on his unnaturally shaped face.

"I thought I told you that your role here was over." Gauser said. "Unless you've come to report your success in-"

"Unfortunately, no." Goremand chuckled. "But...something tells me that you didn't want that. Not really."

The king stiffened. "You...you know nothing."

"Oh, but I do!" the jester chortled, finally free to be himself. "I know that your son is the product of a...shall we say...not common union?" Gauser got chills as he heard that. "Looks an AWFUL lot like his mother in some areas, doesn't he?"

"Thron, Fang," Gauser commanded the two wolves. "He's all yours!" with that, the two leapt at the jester, only to be struck down by a massive scythe that was drawn from seemingly nothing. Two misty, hazy, orb-like objects rose from the slain hounds, of which were swallowed up by the jester, smacking his lips in satisfaction. Suffice to say, despite himself, Gauser found a very forgien, but well known sensation overcoming him. Fear. "What manner of being ARE you?"

Goremand simply smiled, Gauser then seeing another figure manifest behind him. "Someone that you should've been nicer to." the figure outstretched his hand towards the king. "And also, when I say my Master insists, he doesn't take kindly to being told 'no'."

Sometime Later

Wendel

"Your Eminence!" the young man fell to the ground, face down, and clearly ragged and out of breath.

The Priest of Light looked upon the young man that had up and burst through the doors to the worship chamber, leaving the pulpit and kneeling down to help him up. His clothes were torn and he was covered in several cuts and bruises, as if he had just gotten himself quite banged up. "What is it? What is wrong, dear boy?"

"Beastmen!" the boy choked out. "Beastmen have invaded Jadd!"

The Priest's eyes widened in horror. "What?!"

"It's true!" he shouted. "They just came in the night! On large birds!" he exclaimed. "I only escaped because I was outside the city to visit family in Astoria! But they saw me and sent their hounds to chase me off! And then, I had no way to go but the Cascade Cavern! And even there, I barely made it!"

"Barely made it?" The Priest was flabbergasted. "What of the safe passage that leads here?"

"It's blocked off!" the boy answered. "Surely you've felt the quakes that've been plaguing that area lately!" indeed, the Priest had. Seismic movement was definitely occurring in that cave as of late, so much so that he advised Heath to only go check on the Light Stone when there was a period when the quakes had stopped. Yet if it was blocked off...what if he was...he shook off the thought. Possibility it may be, the old man didn't wish to entertain such an awful thought. "And…" the boy continued. "And there's something in there beside goblins and batmos."

"What do you mean, dear boy?"

"It's huge." the boy shivered. "I only saw a glimpse of it, but it was enormous. Its eyes...its eyes were huge and glowing. It had several legs and a hide of spiked material. I would've assumed that it would've been as tough as iron!" he continued. "It walked and looked like a giant crab. A crab with rows and rows of gnashing teeth! I swear, it had something in its mouth! Whatever it was, I couldn't tell, but...but…" he fell down again. "Please, your Eminence!" he wept. "You must do something! Put a barrier around this place! Protect those here!"

"But what of those in Astoria?" the Priest questioned.

"They didn't believe me!" the boy cried out. "I tried telling everyone, but they said that I was just making things up! No one else is coming!" He grabbed the old man's robes. "Please, your Eminence! You must protect those here, both from the beastmen and...and that thing!"

The Priest of Light looked down at the desperate boy with conflicted eyes. It was too soon to make a decision, but still, it was clear that something needed to be done. Yet for a young girl listening in, she knew exactly what she needed to do. It had to be done tonight.

That Night

"You sure about this?" Mick questioned, Charlotte paying him no mind as she wound up the parachute she and he had sewn from the bedsheets, fastening it to her back with belt straps.

"Positive!" the blonde confirmed. "Thewe's no mistaking it now! I gotta go now, ow Heath's gonna be in WEAW twouble!"

Mick sighed, Springy only looking at the two, puzzled as to what was even going on. "Ok. If that's what you want." he sighed. He knew the moment she had said she was loading Heath's clothes into the wardrobe, he knew that she was both crazy and determined to go through with it. Of which, was crazy in itself. 'She's nuts.' he thought, though knew better than to say so openly, lest she threaten him with a 'spanking'. Heh, like she could even catch him to try. "All right," the green haired boy said. "Here's what you do." he pointed to Springy. "Stand on top of him, and he'll take care of the rest. But he might need to take a few moments. He's never bounced anybody that high before."

"Ok." Charlotte said, giving Springy a pat on the head. "Thank you for this, Spwingy." the Springstepper cooed, yet groaned when the girl stepped on top of him. It was small at first, yet Charlotte felt a pressure beginning to develop beneath her. "Uh, Mick?" she said nervously, beginning to wonder whether or not she had jumped into this too quickly. "Just HOW faw can Spwingy bounce somebody?"

"Um…" the green haired boy bit his lip. "Well...about that-"

BOING!

He got no more as Springy sprung up, revealing his namesake spring that resided in between his lower and upper half. Charlotte was sent flying, immediately regretting not simply sneaking out or something else as she flew far, far away from view. "Uh…" Mick nervously said, looking to Springy, then the still flying Charlotte who became little more than a far off dot in the horizon. "Not my fault!"


"YAAAAAAHH!" she screamed, the world beneath her little more than a series of colored blurs. The top of the large cavern that connected Wendel to the Rabite Forest lay beneath her, as well as the ground that was steadily approaching closer and closer. "Time to deploy pawachute!" she cried out, loosening the straps she had fastened around herself, the sewn bedsheets popping out from their restrains and getting caught in the air. Charlotte had the air knocked out of her from the sudden force of the pull that resulted from releasing the makeshift parachute, yet her descent had slowed down. At least she got that part done right.

Unfortunately, she didn't account for the wind, catching and carrying her forward. Right in the midst of a collection of trees.

"Gah!" she cried out, kicking her legs and pulling on the sheets, trying in vain to change her direction. "No, no, no, no, no!" she cried out, crashing right through the foliage, her parachute becoming all twisted and caught in the branches. "Ow, ow! Ow! No!" she cried out. "Not my-ow!" she tumbled downward. "Ow! Eek! Gah!" that twig went up somewhere. She wasn't sure she wanted to know where. "Owww!" Finally, at long last, she stopped. Though it was with a resounding THUD! "Oooh…" Charlotte sighed, then everything went dark.

Morning

"Mmm…" she murmured, finding that something felt strange.

Munch munch…

And that something was eating her hat.

Steadily opening her eyes, Charlotte found that the world was turned upside down, and that she was staring right into a pair of large, blue eyes that bore into her own. "AHHHH!" she hollered, the creature that had been munching on her hat squeaking in horror as well, it bouncing off and ducking in behind a nearby bush. "A wabite?" the blonde girl moaned, trying to move, but found herself stuck. She huffed and struggled, kicking and pulling at the parachute she hung from. "C'mon...c'mon-OOF!" she fell from the tree right on her head, rolling over and laying flat on her face. "Owww…." steadily getting to her feet, she surveyed her surroundings. From the looks of it, it was a semi-hillous area with an abundance of trees everywhere, and, judging from the little critter that had been munching on her hat, and several other of the creatures hopping around or snoozing still, filled with rabites. Yep. The Rabite forest, no doubt. "Weww...I'm outta Wendew at weast." Charlotte said aloud. "But whewe's…" she looked around and saw little else but hills and trees.

Well, that was great. Already out of Wendel, and she had gotten herself lost first thing! Tears began to come to her eyes. What was she going to do now?! Just then, she heard buzzing above her. What the-AH! From the tree she was in, a swarm of assasiants flew out, their large, beady eyes looking down at her with fury for disturbing them. Charlotte let out a hollar as she ran, the bugs giving chase. A flurry of stingers were shot in her direction, they just missed by mere inches. This wouldn't end in their deaths like regular bees though, as their stingers simply grew back. She had to get away! She had to-

"OOF!"

SPLASH!

A large splash momentarily blinded the raging insects, then looking to see that the one that had distrubed them was long gone, nothing but ripples in a small pond before them. Taking off, Charlotte rose from the pond, the tails of her hat over her face and her bangs plastered to her forehead. Great! Now not only was she lost, she had just and ruined her clothes! Now not bothering to hold it in anymore, she released a fresh stream of tears and loud wails, a few animals that were nearby covering their ears and hightailing it out of there from the shrieking girl. What was she gonna do now?!

"Hey, where do you think you're going?!" Huh? Who was that? Didn't sound very friendly…

"I'm merely going my own way." Wait...that voice. Heath! "Please, let me pass through."

Charlotte wasted no time in following where the voices were coming from, her small feet carrying her (though they only allowed her to go so far and at a particular pace) forward until she came across the young priest himself, surrounded by a group of rather unsavory looking characters. Rather hairy, unsavory looking characters.

"Hey, you're from Wendel, aren't you?" one of the men questioned, folding his muscled arms as he surveyed the young priest. "You're here to warn others of our invasion!"

"Invasion?!" Heath exclaimed, shocked. "What?!"

"Don't try denying it now!" one of the beastmen shouted. "We've got you, red-handed!" he stepped closer to the priest.

"Please, sir. I'm a man of peace." Heath assured. "I mean nothing for or against you."

"Ha! As if!" the beastman then grabbed the priest's arm. "You're coming with us, buster!"

"Hey!" a high pitched voice roared, its owner running forward, arms flailing. "You weave him awone!"

"Charlotte?!" Heath cried out, the beastman restraining him looking on at the girl about to charge into him.

The beastman raised a brow, stopping the charging girl with the heel of his foot. "Who's kid is this?"

"I'm no kid!" Charlotte yelled, continuing to flail her arms, wildly punching the air. "Wet Heath go!" her threat proved useless, as she was given a light kick and sent rolling back wildly into a nearby bush. "Oww…" seriously, she was getting a little sick of being pushed around.

"Charlotte!" Heath exclaimed, looking to the beastman restraining him, as well as the others surrounding him. He looked around and focused. To have to resort to something such as this wasn't exactly becoming of him, especially after his declaration as a 'man of peace'. Still...if he didn't…"Your Eminence, please forgive me."

"What the?" a beastman shouted, noticing a light forming in the palm of the young priest's hand.

"HOLY BOLT!" from his hand, a beam of pure light shot out, striking the beastman, and then Heath turned and blasted his two companions. "Charlotte, let's go!" the young priest said, retrieving the girl from the bush and running. Where they were going, Charlotte had no idea. And she had soon lost track of how long they had been running for. But eventually, they stopped, no one around save for the few rabites that perpetuated and gave this area its namesake. "Charlotte…" Heath sighed, needing breath. "All right…" he huffed. "I suppose I don't need to ask, but what in the world are you doing here? You have no place being all the way out here! How did you even manage to get out of the city? The pathway's closed!"

"I...I just…"

"Please tell me you didn't go that way! You could've been crushed! I barely made it out myself!"

"Heath, I-"

"And now with beastmen about...and now they say they're invading?! Charlotte, how did you-"

"WHAAAA!" the girl let out a wail as tears fell from her eyes like waterfalls, blocking out anything else Heath was saying, though upon seeing her in such a state, he found he didn't have much else to say anyway.

"Charlotte! Charlotte, calm down-"

"WHAAA!" she continued to cry, then hugging the priest. "You...you'we in twouble! I don't cawe if you don't bewieve me! But something bad's gonna happen if I don't watch you!"

"Charlotte…"

"Aw...isn't that nice?" Both Heath and Charlotte looked to a nearby tree, a figure concealed in the shade. "Helping a lost little girl...really," the figure stepped out, his yellow eyes locking with Heath's own blue. "You ARE too good to be true. Then again, you ARE one of the Priest of Light's favorites."

Charlotte immediately felt her entire body freeze up upon seeing him, despite his attire and general appearance being that of a jester. Heath quickly ushered the girl behind him. "Who…" he found his breath catching in his throat. Such foul energy...it was radiating off this being! "Who are you?"

The jester smiled. "Oh, come on! You're not going to introduce yourself first? So much for you being a nice guy." he said disappointedly, though it was clear he didn't mean it. "Course, I doubt it matters, seeing as we're going to be getting to know each other JUST fine in a little bit."

"Hey!" Charlotte suddenly shouted, grabbing the leg of Heath's pants. "You...you weave Heath alone!" she immediately regretted saying anything, as the jester turned his attention to her. With a few long, seemingly impossible steps, the being was right in front of her face, staring her down.

"Get away from her-" Heath began to protest, but was shoved to the side, the girl's protection taken from her, leaving her to face this stranger alone.

"Hmmm…" the jester snarled, though he didn't appear angry. Rather, he stared at Charlotte with intrigue. As if he were studying some strange new finding and wished to know everything about it. Or...perhaps, Charlotte found herself thinking, he was staring at her as if she were some piece of savory food. She stepped back when he smiled. "What have we here?" his grin spread even wider. "You look like a sweet little thing." he sneered.

Charlotte felt conflicted whether to be terrified or disgusted, perhaps both. Still, she stood tall. "I...I'm not scawed of you." she affirmed, despite the fact she was shaking like a leaf.

"Hmmm...yes." the jester chuckled. "I bet you're as sweet as sugar…" Before either Charlotte or Heath could react, the jester seized the blonde girl by the throat and thrust her to the ground. Lifting his arm up, they both watched in horror as a massive scythe was seemingly produced from thin air, its blade reflecting Charlotte's own, horrified features back at her.

"W-Wait!" Heath cried out. "Don't hurt her!"

"Oh yes…." the jester chuckled, leaning down closer. "Oooh yes, indeed!" he opened his mouth wide, Charlotte's eyes widening in terror. There was no inside to his mouth, at least not what would usually lie in a mouth. A swirling, blackened vortex that swirled down, down, down into seemingly nothing was before her. Yet from the darkness, something appeared to be coming...no. Slithering out. From the maw extended an impossible long tongue, though it bore no resemblance to any tongue she had seen. It resembled more of a tentacle with several, pulsing veins, it covered in mucus, its color a dark violet with the veins seemingly having green liquid traveling through them. The large tongue swerved this way and that. Charlotte's eyes followed it in fear, wincing as it made contact with her cheek, it wet and cold against her skin. "Ahhh…" the jester sighed in satisfaction. "Yess….sweet as sugar." he then rose the scythe in his other hand. "You'll be the best I've had in a LOOONG time!"

"STOP!" Heath cried out, preparing to cast Holy Bolt on the unnatural monster. Yet the jester directed his gaze at him.

"Want to test who's faster, Priesty? I bet she'd be DYING to play that game!" Charlotte was clawing at the jester's gloved hand in desperation, yet despite her struggles, she knew it was useless. The being was incredibly strong. Unnaturally so. In fact, nothing about him was natural.

"Please, please, don't harm her." Heath begged. "She...she's just a young soul. If you must kill, then take me."

"Heath-" Charlotte called out in protest, but her answer was cut off by a squeeze to her throat.

"Kill you, you say?" the jester questioned, tiling his head. "Well...that's a bit of a problem." he rose up, though still kept Charlotte in his grasp. "You see, I can't exactly do that. The Master wouldn't be too happy if I did that. Oh no, no, no, he would NOT." Heath was about to ask about this 'Master', but the jester continued. "But...there is something you can do."

"What?"

He then held Charlotte out, as if handing him a prize. "You can come with me."

Heath felt his blood run cold. "Come? Come with you where?"

"Oh, nowhere special." the jester giggled. "Just somewhere where you and I can get to know each other. Oh! And the Master...yeah. You see, he's been wanting a word with you. And...well, I can't hurt you TOO bad and all. But…" his golden eyes turned to Charlotte staring at her hungrily. "He didn't say anything about a light snack along the way…"

"Stop! Please!" Heath begged, reaching out for the girl, only for the jester to pull her back. "...all right." the priest said breathlessly. "I...I'll do it."

"Hm?" the jester put a hand to his nonexistent ear. "Come again?"

"I'll go with you. Just let her go. Please."

The jester smiled, immediately dropping Charlotte to the ground. "Oooh, goody!" he proclaimed happily, the scythe disappearing from his other hand as he clapped. "See? No need for this to get ugly!" Heath then, albeit with hesitant steps, began making his way towards the jester.

"Heath! No! You can't-" Charlotte got out no more words as a brutal slap was delivered to her, sending her flying a good few feet away and landing hard on the ground.

"Charlotte!" Heath shouted, only to feel a lanky, yet surprisingly strong arm grab him from behind.

"Ah, ah, ah!" the jester lectured, shaking a finger. "Remember our agreement!" He then looked at the girl struggling to get up. "Now, don't forget to wave goodbye!"

"H-Heath…" Charlotte's vision became less hazy as she witnessed the jester holding Heath in a headlock, a dark mass of energy beginning to form around them. "HEATH!" she hollered, rising to her feet, and subsequently falling again, but rising again and running towards the priest.

Yet it was in vain, the energy having formed into a large, dark sphere that dissipated by the time she arrived, leaving nothing but barren ground in its wake.

"H-Heath…" the dream. The dream. Him standing there...and the dark figure. It had happened. She hadn't prevented it. She...she had…"H-Hewp!" Charlotte hollered, completely having lost any sense of direction or logic. "Hewp me!" she screamed, rushing in a direction she didn't know led to what, yet right now, she found herself unable to care, let alone contemplate such a thing. "HEWP! HEWP ME! PWEASE!"

Stronghold City Jadd

Weapons Shop

"What do you mean that you don't have anything for sale?!" Duran shouted, slamming his hands down on the counter.

"It's just as I said." the man behind the counter sighed, said a man bearing a white turban with a red stone in it, an orange, low hanging tunic with a white undershirt and pants, and a pair of brown shoes, waving his hands wildly. "The beastmen have confiscated everything. All the armor and all the weapons."

"That can't be!" Duran argued. "There HAS to be something that they haven't swiped!" there had to be! Otherwise, he was screwed!

Flashback

"What the?" he remarked as he felt the ship come to a grinding halt. The skipper and several of the other passengers had come out as well to see what was going on. From what could be seen, men with more than healthy supply of body hair and muscles came out from the entrance to the city, walking to it and looking up. Suddenly, one among them leapt up and landed right up on the ship itself. "Dock here!" he ordered through bared teeth. "Whatever you're carrying, it belongs to us now, as well as all of you fine folks." The beastman bore long, blonde hair and a red coat with yellow and blue striped pants. "Make quiet and you MAY live." everyone was silently muttering to each other. This was far from what anyone had in mind. The Skipper had up and taken this ship several different places already, having gone to several different ports in several different lands, and now here they were, getting raided on what was supposed to simply be a routine stop!

"Hey!" a voice suddenly called out, a young man approaching out from the crowd. "Who do you think you are?!"

Everyone was silent as the blonde beastman approached the wild, auburn haired young man. "Well, well, well." the beastman gave a toothy smirk. "Look who thinks he's all big and bad."

Duran's violet eyes widened a bit as the beastman approached him. Well...he was taller than he initially thought. Still...that didn't matter. "Yeah. That'd be me." the young man proclaimed. "Who do you think you are? You don't own this ship, let alone this harbor!"

"You don't think?" the beastman barked a laugh. "Ha! A little look in town will say otherwise! And soon, that won't be the only thing we'll own!" he then placed a hand on Duran's shoulder, of which he quickly thrust off.

"Don't touch me!" the young man demanded, leaping back, very nearly stepping on one young lady's foot. Particular young lady had rather striking, violet hair.

"Watch it!" she hissed, though he ignored her, his gaze on the beastman.

"Oh, ho, ho! It's a fight you want, is that it?" the animalistic humanoid got into a fighting stance, Duran in turn drawing his sword. "And look here, boys!" he called out to his comrades down below. "He's brought a little toy to share with all of us!"

Little toy...little toy?! He dare insult his father's blade in such a way?! That was it! Duran leapt forward with a slash-"ULK!" only to find a fist thrust right into his abdomen, knocking the wind out of him.

SPLASH!

Then he was flipped over and tossed from the ship, falling head first into the water. He rose quickly to hear the guffaws and laughter of the beastmen, and the jeers of the crowd that had just watched his defeat. "Oooh." he heard someone say, looking up to see a violet haired young man around his age say, clearly wincing at what he had just seen. "That's gotta hurt."

The violet haired girl nodded, having rushed up to the edge to see the floating Duran as well. "Little lower, then he'd probably be begging them to kill him." she whispered to the young man beside her. He tried to retain his composure, but couldn't stop the chuckle that came out of his throat. Duran only glared daggers at both of them.

"Hey, boys! Look!" the blonde beastman called out, holding an object that made Duran recoil in horror. His father's sword! "Look what he's left us as a gift!" he then tossed the sword to the other beastmen on the dock.

"Hey, wait!" Duran called out, swimming over and trying to hoist himself up on the wooden platform. "Get back with that! That's-" he was cut off by someone grabbing him by the scruff of his shirt, the blonde beastman looking him in the eye.

"You're funny, kid, but don't push it. We're not here for comedy acts." he then threw the soaking Duran to the ground, the young man coughing up water, yet he didn't rise. "Get going, kid." the beastman ordered, lifting him up again and giving him a solid kick to push him forward. Duran only glared daggers at him, yet ultimately, what could he do? Swallowing hard, he was left with little choice but to enter Jadd empty handed.

'Just a silly little boy…'

Present

"Sorry, but you yelling and saying that there has to be something isn't going to make something magically appear." the shopkeeper plainly told Duran. "Besides, even if I did have something to give you, the beastmen would burst down the door and raid everything to see what else I had. Or light the place on fire. Hell, maybe both."

Duran huffed, folding his arms and pacing around the shop's interior. "My father's sword…" he growled.

"Hey, kid. I get it, I do." the shopkeeper told him. "But even if you DID have your sword, what would you do? It's not like you could take them all on yourself."

True. Though it only served to infuriate Duran more. What a headache…

The Inn

Finally, no more seasickness. Solid ground and a bed on solid ground too. "Want to stay?" the turban wearing, bearded man behind the counter asked. Angela only nodded, circles that were nearly pitch black under her eyes. "Rough time at sea, huh?"

"Roughest time of my life." the young woman groaned. True, that probably wasn't true, yet she wasn't in the mood to go over technicalities. "Spent most of my time on deck…" she slurred her words.

"Go ahead and help yourself to a bed." the keeper told her. "With the beastmen here, I can't get any business anyway."

"Th-Thanks." Angela staggered forward. For the past few days, it had been hell. Couldn't sleep, and what she had eaten was thrown right back into the sea. Her stomach clenched, needing food, but her need for sleep won out. She set her wand down by her bed, she was able to get it past the beastmen as they had just up and called it a useless stick and decided that it wouldn't even be worth giving any attention to. It would never occur to them that their words held more truth to them than they could've ever imagined.

But right now, all that mattered was sleep. Stripping herself of her shoes, gloves, and crown, nestling right into the sheets and immediately shutting her eyes, lost in a world of haziness and darkness.

Grocery

Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no, no!

How could they have been here so quickly!? And here, he thought he had the perfect route to go via Lake Astoria! He should've known though, that when he saw the dark birds perched on the walls of the city, that something was amiss. And even more, how could he have mistaken this place for Wendel?!

'Go down, and once you reach the shore, you've reached the Rabite Forest.' he remembered Anati telling him as he was about to leave the boat when they were a few yards from said shore. 'That's as far as I've gone, but I think that there's a cave system somewhere around there. Through there, I think you'll reach Wendel. Though, truth be told, you'd probably be better off asking someone for directions.'

And that was what Kevin had intended to do. He had intended to go through the entrance, yet saw that a few of familiar hounds resided outside of the sealed up entrance to the city. Was this Wendel? There was no cave system. Maybe Anati had taken him past it? After all, she said that she didn't know the area too well. He had to know. Climbing up a wall via a few bricks that protruded outward in the formation, Kevin was able to get himself into Jadd, only to see that the entire city was swarming with beastmen. Some were merely patrolling the streets, some were going in and out of a larger building that resided at the top of a large staircase that ran through the middle of the square, and some were beating down civilians that dared try and fight them.

"Grandpa!" he heard from below when he first entered, a young woman tending to an old man that had been tossed to the ground. "You...you barbarians!" she shouted at the beastman that had just assaulted the old man.

Oh no...they were here?! He...he couldn't be seen! By either them OR the civilians here! He ducked into the nearest building he could, the owner looking to him and immediately noting his clothing. "Hey, you!" Kevin looked behind him to hear a man from behind the counter, he looked rather displeased. "It's bad enough that you lot have to invade this place, but you come in and decide to try and raid my store too?"

"No!" Kevin protested. "Not with them! I-"

"What are you playing at?" the man interrupted. "It might be different for everyone else, but I won't let you simply waltz in and do as you please! Get out!"

"No, please. I'm not-" Kevin got no other words out as a pot was thrown in his direction.

"Get out!" more things were thrown at him, Kevin having little choice but to duck under them and head out the door.

"Yipe!" only to almost run right into Ludger himself. He was here too?! Ducking in between a couple of buildings, Kevin sighed and slumped to the ground. It looked like he would have to wait this out until he thought of something else.

If he could think of something else.

Bar

"So, no one knows how long those brutes are staying for?" a man asked, guzzling down that last of his beer.

"Nope." the one he was sitting with sighed. "They did arrive just a short time ago, and I doubt they'll be leaving anytime soon."

"You see those birds they got? They're huge!" someone else said. "Perched on the walls like a bunch of gargoyles!"

"You don't think they...eat people, do you?"

"Um...I don't know about that…"

Hawkeye leaned against the counter, taking in the various conversations around him. Well...that was quite a show when he had first arrived. Poor guy...though really, picking a fight with those guys? Still, got his sword taken away and everything. Who knew where it went too. He had managed to get lucky in concealing his daggers. Albeit...it wasn't exactly something he'd wish to try again. He had hidden his weapons in the one place that the beastmen probably wouldn't dare to touch.

"Ok," he remembered them saying. "Whatcha got on you?"

"Search me?" Hawkeye asked, knowing well that he wouldn't get out of the pat down. And pat down they did, yet when they felt nothing, they began in more frequent movements. "You want to search a little lower? Or are you guys all business before pleasure?"

"Wh-What?"

"Hey, I'm not judging."

He received a harsh push. "Get outta here."

Again, not exactly a direction he'd usually take, but it worked. Concealed, quite literally in his pants, the thief managed to get his daggers through the borders. And as long as he kept them in his pants, he'd at least be able to keep them until he got out of here. Just then, the door flew open, the same young man from earlier coming into the bar and immediately taking a seat at the counter. "What'll it be?" the bartender asked, not exactly happy with the situation happening in the area either.

"Nothing." Duran sighed. For once, he wasn't in the mood for a good buzz, especially after his time in Valsena. He had vowed to himself that his focus wouldn't be broken or inhibited for anything. He then pounded his fist on the counter. "Damned animals…" he sighed. "How dare they…"

"Looks like you're not doing so hot." Hawkeye observed, Duran only giving the thief a passing glance.

"Yeah, and what's it to you?" Duran sighed, really not caring.

"Just observing. Meant nothing by it."

"...sorry." the soldier breathed out. "It's just...they took my sword. My father's sword…" the latter part was said quieter, yet Hawkeye heard it. He then looked to the bartender. "You wouldn't happen to know anything, would you? Any weapons here? Any at all?"

"There were." the man sighed. "Though they're probably down in some dark crevice by now. I can't be sure, but I think someone said that the beastmen are planning on melting everything down and making various tools and weapons for themselves."

"What use would weapons be for them?" Duran questioned. "They ARE a weapon!"

The man nodded. "True. But still...they still need steel and iron for some things." he then looked around. "But," Duran and Hawkeye leaned in, not noticing that a young woman was coming downstairs and also heard what was being said. "I heard that, and it's just a rumor, but they've got them all piled up somewhere in some sort of area down below some shop. Between you and me, I think it's that weapons guy."

"I KNEW it!" Duran proclaimed. "I KNEW he was playing me!"

"Don't be so hard on him." the bartender told him. "Poor guy's probably been threatened to keep quiet." Duran calmed down a bit, thinking over the man's words. "But...I also know something else." he leaned in even closer. "The beastmen have been here for a few days...and I've studied their patterns. They transform at night, and need to work out their pent up energy with each other, so they go out of the city to brawl. The birds also go out to hunt. If you want to get outta here, that'd be the opportune time."

"Excuse me?"

The bartender, Duran, and Hawkeye looked to see a young woman with long, blonde hair with the lower portion of her hair tied in a loose ponytail with a green ribbon. "Sorry to interrupt, but...you wouldn't have happened to have seen a young boy around, have you?"

"Young boy?" the bartender questioned.

"Yes." Riesz nodded. "This high," she positioned her hand to just around her knee. "Blonde hair, blue eyes, has a blue cape." she paused. "Then again...who knows if they took those things off of him…" she muttered to herself, then shifting her attention back to the boys. "I don't suppose you've seen anyone like that?"

"Hey, lady!" someone shouted. "You hang with me, I think I can show you a kid like that!"

Her eyes narrowed, not even paying him mind. "Thanks anyway." she made her way to the door "I think I can find him myself, thank you." she sternly said before leaving.

"Tease." the man huffed, going back to his drink.

Astoria

The last quake really rattled everyone. The middle aged, red haired woman sighed as the last of her dishes were washed. She knelt down to the oven, watching the pie that was inside. So far, it looked just about right to set out and let cool. She could only hope that there wasn't another quake, lest the entirety of her cabinet be shattered into bits. Still...she couldn't deny that things were beginning to feel a little more...uneasy.

First, it began with the whole business involving the quakes that seemed to be coming from Cascade Cavern. Then, that youth came here from Jadd, going on about beastmen. And now, there had been those that had said not only was the safe passage to Wendel blocked off, but the regular route was blocked off entirely! Just what was going on?

"Hewp...hewp…" her attention was drawn away from her pie and dishes to outside.

"Mom!" her son came in, his brown hair that she had meticulously combed all messy now. "There's a girl outside!"

Not exactly specific, but from what she had heard earlier, she sensed that something was amiss. Wasting no time, she moved outside, coming upon a blonde girl with a pink, two tailed had and a blue jumpsuit. "Hewp…" she moaned, voice choked and dry sounding, having clearly cried for some time.

"There, there, now." the woman cooed, kneeling down and lightly rubbing the girl's back. "What's wrong?"

"He...he's gone." she whimpered. "Heath...he...he's gone."

"Gone where?" she asked, not knowing what the girl was talking about, yet comforting her all the same.

"Some...some bad man. He...he…" the girl collapsed into tears again.

"Hey, c'mon!" the boy then said. "Pull yourself together!"

"Ralph, take her inside." the woman said, the boy somewhat puzzled at this.

"But mom, isn't she a stranger?"

"I say it's ok this time. Please, take her in." with that, the boy obeyed and took the blonde by the arm, hoisting her up. "I'm Elisa, by the way." the woman greeted. "And this is my son, Ralph."

"Ch-Chawwotte." the girl responded.

"Chawwotte?" the woman questioned. "Oh! You mean 'Charlotte'."

"Yeah, that's what I said. Chawwotte."

Little bit of a speech impediment, she saw. Well, no matter. The poor thing was in distress and clearly needed somebody to talk to. And from the looks of it, also judging how she had never seen the girl, Elisa assumed that she wasn't a resident of the town. "Here." She went and opened the door to her home. "How does some cherry pie sound?" she smiled when she saw Charlotte's expression lighten up somewhat at that, yet it was clear that baked goods would far from solve whatever problem she was having.

Chapter Text

"Mmm...mmm!" Charlotte moaned through mouthfuls of cherry pie, her face covered in thick, baked cherries and the syrupy sugar.

Both Elisa and Ralph were somewhat surprised. For such a small girl, she was quite the voracious eater. "So...I take it that you enjoy it?" the red haired mother questioned.

"Mm hm!" Charlotte nodded, red staining her mouth. True, she and Ralph had their fill, yet Charlotte and up and nearly consumed two-thirds of the baked good already. Big eyes meant a bigger stomach it seemed. "Well, if I may be a little bold...and you don't have to answer if you don't want to-"

"What were you doing, screaming and running around for?" Ralph asked, only to receive a light knock on the head. "What? It's true!" though he too began to feel guilty upon seeing the girl's features grow solemn.

"...my fwiend." Charlotte muttered.

"Yes, you mentioned that." Elisa said, going over to the blonde. "What about him?" Charlotte was silent for a moment. "It's ok. You don't have to talk if you don't want to." and indeed, it seemed that Charlotte wasn't going to answer.

"But, where are your parents?" Ralph asked, despite the look he got from his mother. Again, Charlotte didn't say anything. "Well...y'know, dad...he's-"

"Ralph, please." Elisa sighed, directing her attention back to Charlotte. "But, I am curious. Where do you live, sweetie?"

"W-Wendew." the blonde sighed. "But...but I can't get back!" tears began to form again. "I twied, but...but it was wike I hit a waww!"

"So the barrier is true." Elisa murmured to herself. Poor thing. She was essentially stuck here. "Hey, listen." she then said. "I don't know your situation...but if you need a place to stay for the night, we're more than happy to open our home to you."

"W-Weawwy?"

"Sure." Elisa answered. "Now...how about some more-" she was about to ask 'more pie', but realized that the entire thing was completely empty.

Later

Jadd

The violet haired beastman looked upward, the moon hanging high in the dark abyss above. He could feel the changes occurring already. The others could feel it as well, their bodies begging to undergo the metamorphosis. Muscles expanded and fur sprang forth form various places. Clothing was removed to prevent any damage to them, though some garments remained, mainly because they could withstand the adjustments of the body under the pale moon's light. Snouts grew and teeth sharpened. The gates of the city were lowered, and a slew of furred beasts exited through, adrenaline and testosterone at maximums and ready to be released, lest they exert it out on this particular city.

The entrance to the inn was opened, Duran coming out with Riesz following behind. The violet haired young woman had still been snoozing away. "All right." the soldier said to the young amazon, though she had told him of no such thing. Though, from her appearance, she had to have at least some experience with a weapon. "Coast is clear. Let's beat it."

"I agree." The blonde nodded.

Unknownst to them though, a pair of eyes was observing them.

"Still…" Duran huffed. "What good is escaping if there's nothing you can defend yourself with-"

CLANG!

Both Duran and Riesz looked down, seeing a sword and spear on the ground. His sword and her spear. They looked up from where they had fallen, only to see no one or nothing. They didn't even draw near them at first, but after a few tentative moments, they reached forward and took them in their hands. From the looks of it, they didn't appear to have any damage, yet still...how did they...well, at the moment, such things would have to come later. For now, the opportunity to finally reach Wendel was here, and they weren't going to waste it. "I suppose this is where we part." Riesz said. "From what I heard, the Rabite Forest is rather large, so finding the entrance will take some time."

"Well, it's not like it's going anywhere anyway." Duran agreed, looking to his sword. Finally, at long last, he was back on track. Riesz looked upon her weapon as well, yet then turned her eyes up to where they had fallen. She knew not why, but a certain individual came to mind.

"Well, with that, I bid you goodbye for now, should we not meet again soon." with that, the young woman dashed out of the gates.

"Hey, no fair!" Duran protested, running out as well.

"Would whoever's out here shut up?" a groggy voice asked, the owner coming out from the inn. "I'm finally getting a good night's sleep, and-" Angela paused, looking to see no one here. Not one soul was out tonight. As well as no beastmen. And the gates were wide open.

And from further up, Kevin emerged from his hiding place. Eager to leave, he leapt out, yet waited until Angela was through the gates herself.

Rabite Forest

With a mighty throw, Ludgar threw Fureddie down to the ground, the other transformed beastman roaring and howling with excitement at the brawl taking place. Another, Molar, rushed forward towards the blonde werewolf, but he was intercepted and caught. He was seized by the throat and picked up, then tossed into a small part of the crowd of spectators. After this, those that were knocked down had become consumed with the same fighting spirit and leapt unto each other, biting, scratching, kicking, punching, any means that the body could be used against the other was done. Ludgar looked on at the spectacle, a smile coming to his snout. Such ferocity...it was their utmost quality. And this was a celebration of what made them what they were.

The fact that the princeling could not even grasp such a simple, fundamental thing...Ludgar took it upon himself to leap upon Fureddie again, wrestling the beastman and pinning him down, both clawing and biting at each other. Oooh, the first few days of this operation were going GREAT! Jadd was secured, and next, would be Wendel! And then the Light Stone itself! King Gauser had issued the decree that the Mana Stones had been an addition to their operation, and to most, it made sense. Yet to Ludgar...he couldn't say, but such a sudden addition, it didn't sit right with him. Nor did the jester that just so happened to show up in his throne room either. Was it the same jester that had been seen in the forest a short time prior? The beastman knew not. Yet at the moment, such things would be worked out and sorted in battle, the acceleration of blood and frustration in musing them being exerted in a series of blows delivered to anyone that tried to make a move on him.

Still...perhaps this wasn't enough. This land was forgien and yet to fully be explored. The hellriders were out hunting, and the hounds were patrolling the city. Still...there was always a chance that some could slip through the cracks. Yet even if so, the hounds would catch them. Their sense of smell was unsurpassed and unmatched. And yet, this security wasn't enough to dissolve this knot in his chest. He needed more. More exertion, more release for all this adrenaline.

It was then that he remembered: was there not a town nearby?


He wasn't certain, yet from his place behind the tree, Duran clenched his teeth as the light footfalls were heard, a snarl sounding just as close. Those damned, golden hounds had caught sight of him and that young woman and directed the both of them in opposite directions. Now, for all he knew, he was completely off track again running from these things! Now beastmen were yet another thing he hated just about as much as Altenian mages!

'Sh-Shit!' Duran cursed to himself, that blasted hound had swerved its head around, just missing him by mere inches. The hound snarled, eyes shifting left and right, looking for the source of the scent it had caught.

"Bite! Bite, bite!" The hound turned its head, Duran also seeing that a small, yellow creature had up and jumped into the scene to get at some pink flowers, not even realizing that it had quite literally jumped into the jaws of a predator. The rabite yelped and hopped away, the hound chasing after it, more interested in food than tracking what its nose caught.

Well, that took care of that. 'Sorry.' Duran thought as he looked at the hound going after the rabite. 'Run as fast as you can, little guy. Hope you make it.' still, he couldn't afford any more interruptions. He had to continue on. Though, he hoped that the young woman that came out with him had made it out ok too.

Astoria

Charlotte tossed and turned, moaning and whimpering. Sweat developed on her head and stained the pillow. She tossed and turned and made noise until "HEATH!" she yelled, only to find the young man nowhere to be seen. The half elf lowered her head and sighed, her blue eyes looking to the sleeping individuals in the beds next to hers. Elisa and Ralph were snoozing away, unaware of her outburst. Perhaps that was for the best, as she sort of felt bad for eating most of the pie earlier. Yet...yet she was both so tired and hungry. A heavy crying spell always made her hungry. And yet, the pie did little more than give her a stomach ache, along with the continued heaviness in her chest.

It was clear she wasn't going to get anymore sleep for now, so she steadily got up and put on her clothes, then she went downstairs and opened the door. Perhaps a small stroll around town would do her some good.

It was then though, that she saw it.

It was from a great distance at first, but as it drew closer, there was no mistaking it. There was a light. A spherical light that hung over the water. Charlotte took small, tentative steps, the light drew closer. It appeared to have a mostly blue color, yet light shades of pink and green appeared in the light as well. The light's pace was slow and steady, dipping up and down. The girl watched as it went over the homes and fields, then through the entrance to the town. There was something radiating from the light. An energy of sorts. An energy that radiated an otherworldly aura, but also one of weakness and desperation. An energy that practically beckoned, begged her to follow. Yet before she could do so, Charlotte saw some distant figures approaching Astoria. Figures that appeared to be covered head to toe in body hair, and with rather sizable teeth. And all with malicious intent in their eyes.


"What the…" Kevin murmured, having taken to perching on a hill to better gauge the land. A light had just up and flown over his head, its flying somewhat erratic. There was an unusual quality to it, and he was about to go after to investigate, yet a shrill, high pitched shriek drew his attention, along with the familiar sounds of howls and roars that were occurring but a short distance away.


The trees provided more than enough cover from those hounds, yet Hawkeye had to admit, he had more than enough tree climbing for now. Yet from his place in the branches, whizzing by his head, a strange light was seen flying off, his eyes immediately drawn to it. Leaping down from where he had once called sanctuary, the thief looked on as it went on further and further away.


At least there were plentiful hills to climb up, albeit, small ones. Still, they provided her some high ground. The hounds had long since gotten off her trail, probably to hunt, and for the most part, those massive birds hadn't been seen in the skies either. Perhaps they were hunting closer to the ocean? Or maybe in the deeper parts of the forest? Whatever the case, the further away she was from any of them, the better.

Yet then, it seemed that something else was coming this way. Just above her head, a light flew over, Riesz's eyes widening as she saw it.


She had only caught a glimpse of it, and was overcome with the sudden urge to follow and investigate, yet Angela hid herself when she saw a wild haired, young man, presumably a soldier, looking around. Wait a moment...wasn't he the same one from the ship?

She got little time to mull over this, as she saw the light again, only now, it seemed he had seen it too.


"What the?" Duran said aloud, the strange light's pace slowing as it flew over a few, small raises in the earth before it fell to the ground. Instinctively drawing his sword and shield, the young man approached the glowing light, seeing it begin to steadily dissipate and reveal something that already surprised him further.

On the ground rested a small, miniature humanoid that resembled a young woman with long, blonde hair, said hair fanning and flipping outward at the bangs, the tips seemingly have a pinkish tone to them, part of her hair tied up on her head with a pair of violet flowers. A 'dress' of sorts that seemed to consist of various, small blue flowers and a larger flower as the 'dress' covered her upper half, she had golden anklets and no footwear to be seen. Her size wasn't all that indicated she was in no way human, as her ears were pointed and there was a pair of insect-like wings affixed to her back. The small woman moaned and breathed in heavy breaths, Duran kneeling down to better observe her. Her blue eyes opened, and upon seeing the far larger human, she let out a shriek and began to scramble away, trying to use her wings, yet found herself barely able to get a few inches off the ground. "Whoa, hey, hey!" Duran said, going over to where she had fallen again, putting his hands up. "It's ok. I'm not going to hurt you." her posture was closed in and defensive, even more so when knelt down. "Hey, hang in there." The little woman tried to stand, but her legs shook and were wobbly, she falling instantly. Duran lowered his hand, she seeing the gesture. It took her some moments, but steadily, she climbed onto it, the calloused portions of it rough on her skin, yet it provided a firm foundation to support herself. "You ok?"

"I…" the woman sighed, clearly exhausted. "I'm all right." she looked at him. "Who...who are you, human?"

Human? Clearly she wasn't from around here. "Duran." the young man answered her. "Of Valsena." he pondered why he bothered to mention that, she probably would have no idea what he was talking about.

"Valsena…" she seemed to ponder this for a moment. "Oh! You mean the Kingdom of the Plains?" Duran nodded, somewhat surprised that she knew of such a place. "And...where is this?"

"Well, we're NEAR Jadd." Duran told her. "And I think a few miles from here is another town."

"Jadd?" the woman seemed to get excited at that. "Then...then please-oof!" she tried to stand, but fell to a sitting position. "Please. I need to go to Wendel?"

"Wendel? What for?"

"I...I need to speak with His Eminence. The Priest of Light."

Duran knew not why, yet that old bat that had invited him into her shop came to his mind. "What for?" he questioned.

"I don't have time to explain." she sighed. "But something...something terrible is going to happen, if I don't...ah!" she tried to stand again, but fell yet again as well. She then looked to Duran, contemplative. "Please...I...I need help."

"Well, if it does help, I'm heading there myself." the young man said, the woman's eyes widening, the first signs of hope in them. Though the way she seemed to survey and study him put him on edge.

"Well...I don't have any other choice." she sighed. "You'll have to do."

"Have to do what?" Duran questioned, yet got no further, the woman suddenly glowing the same light as before. "What the?!"

"Shh, just remain calm. Focus though. Focus on my eyes." what in the world was she talking about? Suddenly, her blue eyes began to shimmer, Duran finding himself caught off guard by the sudden change. Yet when he looked, he found himself ensnared by them. They were piercing into his own, he felt his arm begin to bring the woman closer up to him.

'What is this?' he pondered, she continued to look into his eyes, and he in hers. 'What are you doing?'

"Calm down." she muttered soothingly. "You're aware, but this is just part of the bonding process. Our minds must link in order for it to work."

'L-Link?! What the-'

"Relax." she urged, reaching up to touch his face, her forehead touching his own. Suddenly, she began to dematerialize, her corporal form dissolving into nothingness, some stray, bright orbs of light left in her wake.

Duran found himself able to move again, the mild trance broken. "What in the world…"

'Don't delay!' he nearly up and shrieked when he heard her. Heard her from...inside? 'We must head to Wendel, now!'

"The hell?!" the soldier shouted, holding his head. "What are you...get out!" he demanded. "What have you done to me?!"

'I did nothing!' the woman answered. 'Well...sort of. I've merely formed a bond with you. As of now, you are my host.'

"You're what?!"

'I'm sorry, but I had no other choice!' she explained. 'Now, we need to get to-'

"I didn't agree to this! Get out!" Duran demanded, pounding his head.

'That's only hurting you, you know.'

"Sh-Shut up! Get out!"

'Hey, I'm sorry, but I can't do anything now! The bond's been finalized!'

"You did it, so undo it!"

'I can't!' she exclaimed. 'I need you! If you hadn't have come, then-'

"You tricked me!"

'I did not!'

"You didn't say anything about you coming into my head!"

'Well...I...there's no time! We have to go to Wendel!'

"Not until you get out of my head!"

'I told you, I can't do that!'

"Bullshit you can't! You-"

"Uh...am I interrupting anything here?" Duran turned to see a violet haired, young woman garbed in a red leotard like top with hanging sections, dark gloves and boots and a crown, and a necklace of a ribbon and red, diamond earrings. Her green eyes surveyed him, his cheeks flushing upon realizing she had heard everything. She looked around to see no one. "So, where's your friend?"

"Friend?" he questioned, inwardly cursing the winged woman that had just up and done this to him. But if she had been here, then surely she must've…"There's a woman here." he explained. "A...a small woman."

"Small woman?"

"Yeah, this high," he made a measurement with his hands. "Blonde hair, covered in flowers." he then made a scowl. "Asks for favors but doesn't exactly explain what said favor means."

The young woman quirked a brow. "Oh, I see." she turned, chuckling to herself.

"What's so funny?" Duran asked.

"It's just...I'd think someone your age would've grown out of the imaginary friend phase."

"What? No! No, it's nothing like that!" Duran insisted. "She's real!" he gave his head a small knock. "C'mon, say something!"

Silence. The young woman only laughed. "Yeah, I think I'm gonna go." she turned, folding her arms. "I sort of know you should stay away from crazy people."

"What?!" the soldier huffed. "I am NOT crazy!" he gave his head another knock. "You have BETTER say something real soon! Or…" he stammered, realizing he was sort of stuck. "Or...I'm gonna…"

"Yeah, definitely leaving." the young woman said, though she was tempted to watch. "Have fun with your little friend."

All right, the small woman thought. That's enough. "I don't know if I'd go as far as 'friend'." suddenly, the young woman's eyes saw a small, flying woman in front of her face. "But he is telling the truth."

"GAH!" she fell to the ground, shocked at what was before her. "You...you're a…" she then surveyed her closer, despite her alarm. "Why…" an image from one of Jose's books came to her mind. "You're a faerie!"

"Uh huh." the small woman confirmed. "And, well, you've already met my...accommodating host." Duran only huffed in response. But then, he realized.

"Hey, how come you could barely stand before, but now, you're just up and flying around?"

"Oh, well, I'm drawing off your energy."

"What?!"

"No, no, it's ok. You won't even notice!" the faerie assured. "I only take what I need."

"Still…" the soldier was not liking this at all. Helping her was one thing, but this? This was NOT what he had in mind.

"Anyway, we've wasted too much time already! We've got to get going to Wendel!"

"Wendel?" the violet haired, young woman interjected. "What for?"

"It's personal." Duran responded.

"He wants to know how to become the strongest soldier to beat the Wizard of the Red Lotus." the faerie answered, Duran's mouth hanging agape in shock.

"What the hell?! You can look in my head too?!"

"Um...yeah. It kinda comes with the 'host' thing." He was about to spout yet another complaint, but didn't get the chance to.

"Wizard of the Red Lotus?" the young woman questioned. "As in...the Crimson Wizard?"

"Yeah, him." Duran raised a brow. "How do you know him?"

She was somewhat taken aback by the look in his eye. Not from the suspicion, yet there was a sense of anger in them. "I…" she began, thinking of what to say. "I just so happen to have heard of him. He's rather famous where I come from."

"And where would that be?" Duran questioned, she inwardly groaning, having now stepped into an interrogation.

"In...Alrant." she said. "I'm actually a magician. But," she clarified. "I DON'T have any relation to him." she then grew angry. "Dare say, I HATE him."

Duran wasn't certain about her...but her animosity seemed genuine. "That makes two of us." he remarked. "Well, nice to chat, but I need to go."

"You mean, WE need to go." the faerie corrected, only gaining a grumble form him.

"Well, you've picked a fine time to go." the young woman said. "There's a barrier blocking the way."

Duran turned. "What?"

"Go ahead and see for yourself if you don't believe me." she said. "To the entrance of the cavern, I tried, but it's impossible to break. Not even with MY magic."

"Then, if you're so great, why haven't you?" Duran questioned. "Maybe you just can't do it."

"Hey, DON'T test me!" the young woman said, bringing out her wand. "I can send you flying halfway across the country should I see fit to!"

"Ok, ok!" the faerie interjected, coming in between the two. "Look, I can get us through the barrier, seeing as I now have more energy to draw on." she ignored the look Duran gave her. "And then, we can make our way through to Wendel."

"Well, it just so happens that I was on the way there myself." the young woman said. "And seeing as you've got a sword there, I'm tagging along."

"Huh?!" Duran exclaimed. "You can't just invite yourself along!"

"She did." she pointed to the faerie. "And besides, who knows? You might need me." Duran was about to speak. "It doesn't matter what you say. I'm going, and that's that. And besides," she puckered up her face and widened her eyes. "You wouldn't leave a defenseless lady like me out here on her own, would you? Not with those horrible beastmen and those hounds and birds out, right?" to put emphasis on this, she even batted her eyelashes too.

"You...you can't…" he protested, but ultimately sighed. Damn it all. And here he was just trying to do a good deed. But still...she was right. With all things considered, to simply leave her on her lonesome would be dishonorable. And, while he still wasn't happy with it, the faerie wouldn't have probably survived out here on her own either. "Fine."

"Great! Knew you were a gentleman!" the young woman proclaimed. "Well...maybe just a little bit of one." she then gestured to herself. "I'm Angela."

"Duran." He extended his hand, she then looked at it somewhat confused. Somewhat a little forward. Still, she took it and shook it lightly.

"Ok, now that that's settled," the faerie interjected. "How about we be on our way?"

Astoria

"RUN! RUN!" Ralph and Elisa rose from their beds, completely flabbergasted at the sudden volume of the girl's voice, let alone how her entrance into their room was.

"What?" Ralph groaned. "What is it-"

"SHH!" Charlotte shushed. "Be quiet, they might heaw you!"

"What's going on-" Elisa began to ask, but remained silent, hearing the commotion going on outside. Going to the window, she looked and saw with horrified eyes what was happening.

Men, women, and children ran for what could've been their very lives as the feral, transformed creatures tore through the small lake town, panic rising all throughout the area. Left and right, werewolves uprooted fields, barreled through the doors of shops and homes, and essentially destroyed whatever they could get their hands on. A man tried to fight back with a hoe, only to be picked up by the collar and tossed into a shed, the shed being hollowed out as the man went right through it, hitting the ground and his head on a rock.

Elisa quickly clothed herself and Ralph and grabbed both him and Charlotte. She opened the window nearest to the town's entrance, and held Ralph out. "Ok, get ready, honey!" she shouted, holding the boy until half of her was hanging out the window. It didn't cover much, yet at least he wouldn't be at as great a height when he hit the ground. She let him go, he landed on his rear, yet aside from that, was unharmed. "Ok, here comes Charlotte!" Elisa shouted, Ralph readying himself to catch her.

"OOF!"

Though it was more like she fell on top of him instead.

Elisa was next, hopping out, but when she landed, she fell over, doubling over in pain. "Mom!" Ralph rushed to her, Charlotte noticing that she was holding her leg.

"I-I'm fine." she said, wincing as she tried to stand. "L-Let's go!" taking both of them by the hand, she went as fast as she could to the entrance-

ROAR!

Only to be stopped right ahead of it.

The brown haired werewolf gazed down at the trio, wasting no time in taking a swipe at them. Its claws missed, as if it didn't even see them as worth its time and simply wished to scare them, but Elisa's sleeve was torn cleanly down, clearly indicating real damage could be done. She made a run for it, but was seized and thrown to the ground, the werewolf towering over her and her son.

PLONK!

The transformed beastman felt a rock hit the back of its head, Charlotte standing there with another in her hand. Though it was then that she had made quite the mistake, the beast's attention was on her now. She backed up, blue eyes shifting towards the entrance to the town that everyone was flooding out through. She didn't get the chance though, as the werewolf made a dive right for her.

Only, it never made it.

A sudden blur came in front of her and tackled the beast, Charlotte, Elisa, and Ralph registering that, to their surprise, was another beastman, though this particular werewolf bore fanned out, blonde hair and a frame that was somewhat smaller and more lean than the others. Nevertheless, it leapt up and engaged with the other werewolf, slashing and biting at the other, all in an effort to get it to back away from the younger girl. Charlotte only looked on in awe and horror at the spectacle, the blonde werewolf taking a glance at her, only there was a different look in its eyes in comparison to the rest. It was as if it were telling her to leave, to escape as soon as she could.

Taking the hint, Charlotte rose to her feet, Elisa took her hand, and they made their way to the entrance. Only, now there was the issue of several people pushing and shoving against each other all at once. Elisa tried, she really had tried, but she found her grip on Charlotte slipping, having come to carry Ralph in her arm, only able to hold Charlotte by the hand. Hands soon became little more than fingers clasping together, and then contact was lost, the blonde crying out for the mother to wait as she was lost in a swarm of panicked people desperate to escape. The blonde girl fell flat on her face, and barely managed to avoid being trampled by rolling off to the side, though she soon had to roll out of the way again as her protector was slammed down to the ground, Charlotte looking up to see another werewolf looking down at both of them. This one appeared to be different from the one her protector had attacked before, having a blonde mane and a red robe. It leered down at the fallen werewolf and bore a toothy grin, crossing its arms. The werewolf that was down by Charlotte looked to her again, gesturing to the gate with its head.

"But…" Charlotte protested, yet the red robed werewolf lunged down, her protector leaping up at it. It was clear she had little choice. Getting to her feet, she ran, the sounds of brutal struggle growing more and more distant.

Chapter Text

"So...what's your name?"

"Hm? What do you mean?" the winged woman questioned Duran.

"Well, I mena, a name. You have one, right?"

"Oh! A name!" the faerie proclaimed. "Well...it's kind of a trick question."

"How is having a name a trick question?" Angela chimed in.

"Well, it's kind of like this." The faerie began. "You call certain plants different things, like flowers, trees, and you call animals different things, like dogs or cats. But...well, you do name dogs and cats, but you don't go naming flowers things like 'Annalise' or 'Maya'."

"No idea what you're getting at." Duran said, clearly confused.

"I mean, we don't really have a need for such things, beings like me. We all have our own...well, how do I put this...wavelength, if you will. Our own individual energies that we identify ourselves with. So, in a way, we have a way to distinguish ourselves, but it's not with a name."

Both Duran and Angela looked to each other. "Well, sorry, but that's not gonna work for us." the young woman said plainly. "So...guess we're just going to have to 'assign' you a name."

"Assign?" the faerie questioned. "I'm not a pet."

"Well, then you come up with one."

The faerie pondered this. True, while such things meant little to her, mortal creatures...they lived by such things. "All right. I was thinking maybe…" she rested her finger on her chin. "Ah, I got it. Call me, Faerie."

"Faerie?" Angela questioned. "Isn't that like naming a dog 'Dog'?"

"Well, it's what I am, right?" the winged woman asked. "And it's easy to remember because of that. And besides, you said I was the one that could come up with something."

Angela pondered this, then looked to Duran. "Thoughts?"

"I...really don't care." he told both of them. 'She's already invaded my head, she can probably do whatever she wants.'

"No, I can't." the faerie responded, Duran widening his eyes. She heard that?! "Yes I did." she confirmed. "But I'll take your indecision as a yes."

"Fine, fine." Angela answered, shrugging. "It's your name."

"Then it's settled." the winged woman straightened out her flower dress. "For now on, I shall be known as 'Faerie', the...faerie." huh. Maybe Angela was right about it being a little...redundant. Still, whatever. Right now, such things mattered little. What mattered most was getting to Wendel as soon as possible.


The sound of the waterfalls rang in their ears, the raised land above them protecting them from being drenched, though moisture collected and the small section felt somewhat chilled and misty.

"There." Angela then said, pointing to the opening to a cavern ahead.

"Ok," Duran began, surveying the area. "So, where IS this barrier-" he felt as if he just ran head first into a brick wall. A brick wall with a punch, as he was sent a few feet back, landing on his back. "What the?!"

"Hm mm, I see." the recently dubbed 'Faerie' fluttered forward, placing out her hand and making contact with a hidden, transparent wall. "Ah, I understand now. Please stand back." Angela and Duran obeyed, Faerie beginning to glow. Yet when the light reached its maximum, it suddenly died down again.

"What's wrong?" Duran asked.

"I...was just thinking." Faerie began. "This barrier...was it just made recently?"

"No idea." Angela answered, Duran shrugging in response as well. "Why does that matter?"

"I'm just saying," Faerie continued. "Maybe it was put up here for a reason."

"Well, can't you just make another one?" Duran asked. "If you're so worried about it, just seal it back up when we get through."

"I don't have that kind of power." Faerie answered, sensing the confusion from her host. "Look...I'll break through, and we'll just make it through here as quick as possible." she looked at the invisible wall before her. This whole thing now made her feel uneasy, yet she had come here specifically to go to Wendel, as did these two. And now, one of them was her only lifeline, so she had essentially made the decision already. Focusing, her body was engulfed in light, momentarily blinding the two humans behind her. Placing her hand on the wall, it suddenly became visible, a wall of bright, hot light, before it dissipated from view. "All right. It's down." the winged woman said. She could only hope that this wouldn't lead to something horrible.

Without a word, all three went though the entrance to the cavern, disappearing into the darkness of the small opening in the hill's side.


Her legs burnt and her cheeks felt hot, yet she couldn't stop. Not for anything, lest those things get her. She ran and ran and ran, until she tripped and fell face first onto the ground. She whimpered as she lifted her head up, face covered in dirt along with the rest of her, but then she saw the cave opening that was shielded from the waterfalls above. Her ticket out of here! But the barrier…

Getting herself up, Charlotte tentatively made her way up and scooted slowly towards where she felt the wall send her back. Nothing. Maybe she wasn't close enough? Or maybe...maybe she could break through? Like when someone broke through a door by running into it really hard? Hey, it wasn't as if she couldn't do anything that regular sized people could do too. Stepping back, the blonde readied herself, getting into a charging position. And with one last step back, "YAH!" she dashed forward, ready to feel a force against her, but she was determined to push through to the other side. And indeed, she did "OOF!" in the form of a rock that she had run face first into. "OW! Ow…." she fell over and rolled around in pain, holding her nose. Her eyes began to produce tears, yet it was then realized that not only was she in, it seemed that the barrier was completely gone. What happened?

Charlotte took a moment to look around her. True, she was just at the entrance, yet it wasn't exactly well lit in this place. Let alone dry, her hand touching a rock that was slick with wetness. A good degree of moss coated the rock as well, Charlotte feeling along the wall, both to guide herself until her vision adjusted, and to make sure she didn't slip, not trusting walking full on just yet. But surely she could make it through here fine. After all, she knew where she was going.

Hopefully.

Outside

The light had long gone, yet from what she could see, there was a cavern nearby. 'Go into the Rabite Forest, and forward until you see a bridge. Cross it, then go west. Reach a bend, then go south until you come across some waterfalls. Go east, and through that cave there should be the way to Wendel.' Riesz made well to remember these directions, the bartender seeing fit to deliver directions to her and the two other young men there. 'You can take the left bend, but if what I'm hearing is true, that way is blocked off. There've been some really strong quakes, so you might have to take the lower passage. Be careful though, that place is teeming with nasty little critters.'

Riesz stood and saw the mouth of the cave but a few yards away, seemingly beckoning for her to enter. She approached, yet then stopped. Hair was rising on the back of her neck, and her breathing grew quiet. Drawing out her spear, she looked around, she wasn't alone. And yet there was no one around from what she could see.

"Boo."

She whirled around, frightened but more ready to attack than ever, but before she could strike, she had seen what had just spooked her. "You…" she surveyed the violet haired young man before her. "You're the one from the bar."

"Got me." he said. "Sorry, but tonight's been so dull. Couldn't resist." She in turn was silent, continuing to observe him. Just how did he- "Climbed up and swung down. Waterfalls don't touch everywhere, so no risk of getting soaked." Still, she said nothing. "No 'hello' or 'hiya' Nothing?"

"...what are you doing here?" Riesz finally said, posture easing up, but the hold on her weapon remained firm.

"Same as you are." he told her. "Going to Wendel. I'd assume you wouldn't be here if you weren't." he then pointed to her weapon. "Also, turns out that weapons guy WAS hiding your stuff for those furry jerks. Course, a little haggling got those two out of storage."

Her spear when it seemingly fell from out of nowhere. That was him? "How did you-"

"I saw you on the boat with it." he explained. "I also saw how those guys swiped it from you."

Riesz saw the two daggers he had on his person. "And how'd you get those by security?"

It was then that he gained a rather uncomfortable expression. "That's...kinda private."

'Just as your intentions may be.' the amazon thought. "Who are you?"

"Sort of thought you'd ask that first." the young man chuckled, then holding out his hand. "Name's Hawkeye." she didn't take it, her hands occupied with holding her weapon. "Ok...well," he drew his hand back. "Your name?"

"Riesz." the young woman stated. She observed him again, noting his attire. There was a familiarity to it, and it was from one she wanted to be reminded of. "Your attire…" she narrowed her eyes. "You're from Nevarl, aren't you?" Once she saw him stiffen somewhat, her suspicions were confirmed. Her spear was thrust forward, just mere inches from Hawkeye's throat.

"Whoa, hey! Hey there!" he exclaimed, holding up hands in surrender. "You'll poke someone's eye out with that thing!"

"I'm tempted to poke out yours." Riesz growled. "Have they sent their agents here too?"

"No, no! You've got me all wrong!" the thief told her. "Yes, I'm from Nevarl. But I've got nothing to do with the Thieves Guild or, as it's called now, the Kingdom of Nevarl." the latter part was delivered with a good deal of contempt. "Bah. Some kingdom. First act they do is go and invade somewhere else."

"Laurant." Riesz said firmly. "The kingdom is called Laurant. My-" she paused, biting her lip. Perhaps it wouldn't be good to reveal that part of 'princess' and 'captain'. Last thing she wanted was to be held for ransom. Not that there was much more to take...and she'd die before such a thing would happen. "It's my home." she bit her lip. "WAS my home. That was, until your lot came along."

Hawkeye's eyes softened. "...I'm sorry. Really, I am." he assured. "But please understand, we thieves of Nevarl weren't like that. It's our vow to never take a life. The fact that they have…" Riesz observed that, to her curiosity, he appeared to grow angry at that fact. "Damned Isabella. This is her fault. All of it…" Isabella...she hadn't heard that name before, but for some reason, images of that demoness she had seen in the burning throne room came to mind. "You don't have to believe me, but I swear, I'm a guy with honor."

"I don't. Thief and honor have no correlation with each other." Riesz told him.

"Hey, what reason do I have to lie?" he asked. "If I wanted to, that part about the thief was the first thing I would've lied about." he then pointed to her spear. "And why would I go through the trouble with getting that back for you?" Despite herself, the blonde found herself lowering her weapon. Her eyes didn't leave him, yet she found herself, to her surprise, feeling conflicted. Why?! He had just admitted to belonging to the enemy faction! Why not challenge him now and be done with it?! It was then that his expression grew serious. "Sorry, I am." he told her. "But I'm not letting anyone stop me. Not now." with that, at a high speed, he dashed into the cave, leaving a flabbergasted Riesz alone, a million unwanted thoughts swimming in her head.

Cascade Cavern

And the entrance to it looked so small by comparison.

Before, above and below, all around was a deep, expansive chamber of rock, the remains of an old, dirt trail beneath their feet, yet a good portion of that was covered up due to years and years of erosion. Massive stalactites and stalagmites placed themselves everywhere, moisture present both above and below, those above providing both shelter and a place to rest for the few that could manage to fly up and hang from their structures. Fungus of all kinds made their home here, moss lined the trails and stones that composed of just this portion of the cave's interior, who knew how much more lied inside? Despite the lack of light, the three found that there wasn't as much of a lack of light as they initially thought, as iridescent, blue flowers appeared to take root in here as well, serving to provide some reprieve from the darkness. The sound of running water echoed throughout the whole space, said water clean and blue, yet its beauty was not an invitation to go in, as several, dangerously sharp formations lay underneath the surface.

Yet another step in order to reach Wendel. Only question was, where to take the first step?

"Ok…" Faerie began, looking at Duran and Angela. "Don't suppose you guys got directions for this place?" she paused for a moment, looking at the young soldier. "You didn't...I can tell."

"Hey!" Duran shouted, covering his head. Like it'd do any good. "Well, no. But the bartender said that it's mainly a straightforward pathway." he then knelt down, seeing the small bits and pieces of collected bricks put together. "He said that there was an old trail here that led the way."

"Looks like it'd be little use." Angela observed. "You can barely see it."

"Well, it's something, isn't it?" Duran answered. "Besides, it's not like there's much other choice."

"Wait." Faerie suddenly said. "What about the river?" she then gestured to the ever flowing water nearby. "Surely if it leads to the lake, then it must be some form of water source for the city." Hm, both humans thought. Perhaps. And really, both of them had gotten this far, so there was no going back now.

"All right. We'll try that." Duran said, taking the first step, taking the mantle as leader of the group.

"So," Angela began, getting up right beside him, not too keen on being in the back. "Is it true what you say? That you're a soldier?"

"Yep." Duran puffed out his chest and beat it with a single fist. "The youngest in all of Valsena, if you want to know." he was about to say 'best', yet held it back. No, he couldn't claim that. Not yet anyway. Soon though.

How much of that was truthful, Angela was skeptical. Nevertheless, he was the one with the weapon. "So, I can just hang back and leave all the fighting to you, right?"

Deeper in the Cavern

The collection of small, humanoid figures huddled together as a waterfall ran in front of them, they being shielded by the cave's ceiling, an open section allowing them to see the ever pouring water outside of the chamber. They were mostly concealed by shadows, yet from the brief bits of light cast by the iridescent flowers that sprouted, one could see, if they should be fortunate (or rather, unfortunate) to come across them, that they weren't human. One of them got up on a platform, standing tall above the rest. "All right, guys!" he said, voice gruff and raucous. "This is it! This time, we're taking this cave, and spirits help those dirty Hobgoblins and anyone else who dares get in our way!"

"Yeah!" The crowd cheered, roaring and holding up a collection of varying weapons, from axes to swords to spears.

On the opposite side of the cave in a similarly fashioned chamber, another set of creatures alike to them was holding the same sort of gathering. "Onward, troops!" their leader proclaimed, voice far lower and husky. "We shall claim victory this day!" the troops cheered, more than pumped enough to go to war with their opponents.

They were completely unaware that the cavern had a few peculiar new arrivals.


Oooh, where was she going?! Charlotte looked left and right, completely lost. She hadn't even been in here for five...well, she wasn't aware of how long she had been in here, but still, it couldn't have been that long, could it! Either way, cave or not, it couldn't have been THAT hard to get through! It wasn't THAT big! Was it? It was only beginning to dawn on her that not just entering here, but this whole operation regarding her handling in stopping Heath from leaving, to being sent how many miles over with little more than a makeshift parachute that just so happened to work (which served to get her to spend the night in a tree), yet when she found Heath...everything then went even more wrong. Even worse...if she hadn't been there...then maybe, just maybe, that horrible jester wouldn't have had a bargaining chip to use.

Charlotte sat herself down, wiping her eyes at the tears that began to come down. What was she doing now? Heath was gone, that nice lady and her son were chased out of town by beastmen, and here she was crying as if she had bigger problems? 'You'we such a baby, Chawwotte.' she thought. 'Just a stupid, wittwe baby.' she didn't even feel like getting up and continuing her journey. What was the point? Poor Elisa and Ralph...and especially Heath.

Just then, she heard something. Or multiple somethings. Footsteps? Footsteps that were coming closer and closer.

Immediately lifting herself up and looking around in panic, Charlotte spotted a group of stalagmites with enough open space behind them to serve as cover, she practically leaping behind them. And just in time too, as a group of short, humanoid figures passed her by, marching as if they were off to war. Still, the girl found herself not exactly able to entirely take them seriously. Dare say, to her, they looked kinda silly. Though the weapons they carried definitely not.


Despite the uphill sections that seemed to mainly compose of this place, the trio couldn't deny that this place was sort of peaceful. "So, what's your reason for wanting to go to Wendel?" Duran questioned Angela.

"He wants to be the strongest swordsman in the world." Faerie said aloud, Duran looking at her for speaking what was literally on his mind. Again.

"Oh, um…" the young woman paused. "Well...kinda the same reason you are." she tightened her grip on her wand. "I want to…" she paused again, thinking how to exactly frame her words. "I want to become a powerful sorceress. Powerful enough to…"

"Enough to?" Duran pressed on.

"Well, just powerful." Angela finished. "And...I guess you could say that I want to know how to better harness my skills." she was laying it on thick, but he couldn't know. No one could ever know. She didn't ask that question earlier regarding his sword for nothing. "I mean, I AM the pride of Alrant after all. Known throughout the WHOLE town!" well, it was more of a village...or hell, even a hamlet, but still.

"Wait." Duran then asked. "You've mentioned this Alrant before. Just were exactly IS this place?"

"Um…" Angela shifted her eyes. "It's just a town, why?"

"A town where?"

"It's...it's quite a bit aways from here."

"From where?" Duran pressed, noting how she was avoiding answering him. Though, neither of them would have time to speak further, as Faerie noticed that something in the distance was watching them. Said something lifted an axe and drew back its arm.

"LOOK OUT!"

Duran looked to see the glimmer of the weapon, wasting no time in tackling Angela and sending both of them to the ground, the axe flying over their heads in a circular fashion until it landed right in a nearby stalagmite. "The hell?!" Duran cried out, looking up yet not rising.

"Whatcha think you're doing?!" a gruff voice shouted, clearly not happy that the trio were here. Well, duo, as Faerie saw fit to go back into her host.

"What do you think YOU'RE doing?!" Duran shouted back, getting himself and Angela back up. "What are you trying to do?! Take someone's head off?!"

"Yep!" the figure shouted, jumping out from his hiding place. Before the two (three) stood a short, somewhat stout creature with a green breastplate, red pauldrons, a red scarf, and puffy violet sleeves and pant legs, a bronze codpiece on its belt, and pointed, green shoes.. Its face was hidden, concealed by what appeared to be a rabite hat, though the lower part was present, showing a pair of fangs. "You've got some kind of nerve coming in on OUR turf!"

"Your turf?" Angela huffed, dusting herself off. "I don't see your name on anything here!"

"These are goblin grounds!" another voice suddenly said, popping up and bearing a similar appearance to the other goblin, only this one had a yellow scarf. "You're not welcome here!"

"Oh really?" Duran asked.

"Really!" a chorus of voices suddenly said, several heads popping up. Goblins all around with the generally same look, but different colored scarves. Well...so much for that, Duran thought. Suddenly, one amongst the gathering crowd stepped in front of everyone else, this one a goblin as well, yet his pauldrons bore spikes on them and his cap bore jagged stripes.

"What are you doing here?" the goblin, assumedly the leader of the small troop (small it might've been, it was still huge for just the two (three) of them.), questioned, an axe swung over his shoulder.

Duran was about to open his mouth, but never got the chance to. "Please...sir." Faerie emerged. "We're just passing through. We're on our way to Wendel."

The leader scoffed. "Hear that, guys? They're on their way to Wendel!" a chorus of chortles erupted throughout the area. "Like we believe that!" he huffed. "You're allies of those damned Hobgoblins, aren't you?"

"Hobgoblins?" Faerie questioned.

"Hm. They already sound more pleasant than you." Angela remarked, folding her arms.

"Ah ha! You admit it!" the leader shouted, pointing his axe right at the young woman.

"What?! No, you idiot!" she retorted.

"And even if you're not, you're not with us! Therefore, you're against us!" he then turned to those around him. "Get 'em!"

A flurry of axes and spears were sent their way, Faerie retreating into Duran whilst the young man and Angela were forced to duck to avoid the incoming barrage. 'Oh sure, go hide where it's safe.' he thought.

'Hey, I'm not getting cut in half!' she retorted. 'Speaking of, you better roll out of the way.'

Indeed, another spear was coming their way, Duran and Angela rolling out of the way to avoid the incoming weapon. "All right!" the soldier rose. "That's it!" he then drew out his sword and shield. "You want some?! Come and get it!"

The goblins responded in kind, charging at the young man. Duran waited until one came forward and brought up his shield, using the force of the block that momentarily stunned the goblin to deliver a swift slice of his sword. The goblin found the ears of its hat cut clean off, another swing of the sword causing it to take off. Two more goblins threw spears in his direction, Duran in turn blocking them and running forward, bashing one with his shield and the other with his sword. It ducked and tried to tackle him physically, only to find itself pushed back via the shield and tossed into the water, a resounding splash sounding through the cave.

Angela found herself mainly regulated to staying on the ground and trying to not get hit by either Duran or any of the incoming weapons of the goblins. She had gotten stepped on how many times, and frankly, she had gotten sick of it since the first time it happened. Rising up, the young woman swung her staff upward, slamming the underside of one goblin's chin and knocking him back. She then rose her staff and swung downward in an arch, knocking a goblin back which he rolled back into another, and another, and another, essentially creating a domino line of each other until there were no more to fall. But her streak wasn't to last, as she felt a punch to the back of her head. She was sent to the ground, and had she not grabbed her staff, the spear that her current attacker was holding would've skewered her right then and there.

Duran looked back, contending with the slew of goblins coming his way. 'What is she waiting for?!' he thought, going back and forth between the incoming barrage of axes and spears. Angela continued to struggle against her attacker, keeping the spear away from her throat, but only by mere inches. 'She's a sorceress isn't she?!'

'That's what she said.' Faerie responded in his head. She gasped when the spear came but an inch closer.

Duran could do nothing, already contending with the goblins on his side. "I can't just stop what I'm doing here!" he said aloud. "Do something!"

This wasn't good. Any further, and she was a goner! No, not like this! She came all this way, it couldn't end now! Not now! Suddenly, the goblin stumbled back, Angela seeing the winged woman pulling at the creature's scarf, forcibly holding him back until the young woman had enough room to roll out of the way of danger. Getting up, Faerie released her hold, Angela then bashing the goblin on the head. Though the two had to duck under one last axe that came their way.

"Come on!" Faerie then said. "We can't stay here! These guys are just a distraction!" she then began flying over the scene taking place.

"Don't need to tell me twice!" Angela agreed, running forward and knocking away any goblin in her way, most of them unarmed due to them throwing their weapons at her.

"Wait, what?!" Duran protested, beating back yet another goblin. "We're nearly halfway done here!"

"As if!" Angela responded, gesturing to the other goblins that still had their weapons with them. "I'm not sticking around and getting something chopped off! I came here to see the Priest!"

"So do I!" Faerie answered, going over to then seize Duran by the ear, causing the goblins around to momentarily pause, surprised by what they were seeing. "Now c'mon! We've got places to be!"

"H-Hey! What do you think you're doing?! Ow! Stop!"

The leader and his troops only looked on at first, yet then, the leader realized what they were doing. "What do you all think you're doing?! Get them!" The goblins roared together and gathered up what they could, chasing the trio further into the cave, all the while Faerie kept her grip on her host's ear.

Elsewhere

It looked like he was nowhere to be found. Riesz continued on the path set out below her, from the bits and pieces she could see. It was silent aside from the echoes of dripping water and the continuous melody of the river that traveled through the cavern. Still, since she entered, the amazon princess found that she couldn't shake the feeling that she wasn't alone. True, she wasn't the only inhabitant of this place, having spotted more than a few batmos and mushbooms along the trail, but still, she found that she couldn't help but sense that she would need to draw out her spear for something that was coming.

And indeed, in a few short moments after her mind conjured such up, she did.

A spear was thrown in her direction, she turned to the side as it rushed forward and stuck itself in the wall. "Halt, intruder!" a voice suddenly said, a short being gesturing to the young woman. "What business do you have here?!"

Riesz looked in the direction that the weapon was thrown and saw a stout creature with a pink hat that concealed most of its face, a yellow scarf around its neck, and a steel chassis. Should she have witnessed the skirmish that took place with Duran and Angela, she would've noticed the striking resemblance of this creature to those, albeit with differences in attire. "I'm merely passing through." the princess told him, still somewhat rattled by the deadly weapon thrown at her, yet she still had to maintain some semblance of composure. "I'm wishing to make my way to Wendel."

The creature folded his arms, huffing. "Likely story. And if that's so, we aren't too fond of those who decide to come onto OUR land!"

"Well, I apologize for the inconvenience, but I really must be on my way." Suddenly, the young woman ducked, a spear being thrown over her head.

"You're not going anywhere!" another one of the creatures called out. "In the name of the hobgoblins, no one comes onto our land and leaves alive!"

"Besides, you might just go and tell those uncouth goblins of our whereabouts!" another creature said, bearing spikes on its pauldrons and stripes on its hat. It was just a hunch, yet the blonde sensed that their vocabulary wasn't really anything more than superficial. Dare say, whoever these goblins were, they all probably shared the same level of intelligence, not to mention temperament.

"I know of no such thing!" Riesz exclaimed. "And I will NOT simply let whatever conflict you have with intruders or these goblins get in my way!" she drew out her spear as more and more hobgoblins emerged with weapons of their own.

A group of the creatures rushed her, Riesz blocking an incoming axe with her spear and kicking him back, then using her spear to swipe around in a circular fashion low to the ground, taking several hobgoblins off their feet. A sword was sliced down, Riesz leaping back and readying herself. Though when she did so, she realized that she had, quite literally, put herself between a rock and a hard place. Her back was to the wall, and there were several other hobgoblins trapping her. Sure, she could block what they threw at her, yet how long could she keep that up for? The adrenaline pumping through her roared that she could, that her duty to Laurant would surpass all obstacles, yet the portion of her that hadn't lost reason knew well that all these foes couldn't be contended with all at once. She was bound to make an error somewhere. She was alone, no troops with her. Not that she couldn't fight alone, yet she was on the other side of the conflict now: several going against one. What to do?

Wait a moment...what the-

From above, a shadowed figure leapt downward, making contact with the head of a hobgoblin and using it and several other of the creatures' heads as stepping stones and made his way beside her, Riesz immediately recognizing him. "Y-You?!"

Hawkeye chuckled. "Uh, yeah. Me."

"Who's this fool?!" one of the hobgoblins asked, rubbing his sore head.

"Who cares?!" the leader with the striped hat proclaimed. "They're both the enemy! Execute them both!"

Riesz looked to the violet haired thief, perplexed at his sudden appearance, though more concerned with the situation that they both now found themselves in. "Well, you picked a fine time to invite yourself in this." she said. Now it was likely that he'd up and get himself killed. "This isn't going favorably for us."

"Don't worry." Hawkeye whispered. "I've got a plan."

Riesz raised her brow. "Do you now?"

"Indeed!" he proclaimed. "It's an ancient, secret technique passed down the generations of the greatest thieves in Nevarl!" he sounded so pumped up as he went discussing this, Riesz, despite herself, actually becoming intrigued.

"Which is?"

Suddenly, he took her hand and leapt up, stomping on a hobgoblin's head, then another, then another. "Run away!"

"Huh?!" Riesz cried out, being forced to use the heads of the monsters as stepping stones as they went on and on until they were on the other side of the crowd. The hobgoblins were half rubbing their sore heads and half watching in disbelief as to what just happened. The leader himself was standing there, mouth agape. Though he then regained his senses upon seeing the two humans. "Get them!"

Well, despite herself, and her still strong opinion on this particular individual and his people as a whole, Riesz found that perhaps following him as he made a beeline forward wasn't a bad idea at all.


"Ow, ow, ow! Let go!" Duran complained, Faerie still pulling on his ear.

"They're still coming!" she shouted. "Faster!" she pulled even more, causing the soldier to wince in pain. What a position to find himself in: being pulled and led around by someone who could fit in the palm of his hand! It was completely humiliating!

"Hey, how much longer until your ears look like mine?" Angela asked, albeit through a series of giggles, finding the sight more than a little hilarious.

"Hey, I'd be more than eager to switch places with you!" Duran winced, yet nonetheless, continuing to run.

Looking back, Faerie gave a loud "Yipe!" as she saw the crowd of monsters behind them. "They're getting closer!

"You won' get away so easy!" the goblins shouted, continuing to hurl weapons in their direction.

"You shall not escape!" wait a minute...who was that?

From behind the wall in the hall that the trio ran, there were sounds coming from behind it, the wall growing thinner and thinner until they saw two figures running just as fast as they were: a blonde in green armor and a violet haired youth with thinner clothing, seemingly being chased as they were. Soon enough, what or who they were being chased by came to be seen. A hoard of pink hatted creatures similar to their yellow hatted ones, throwing weapons their way in the same manner as their aggressors had been. It was only when they came together in an incoming chamber did everything stop. The goblins and hobgoblins stopped their pursuits, becoming aware of the others' existence.

"You!" the leader of the goblins roared. "I KNEW you were with them!" he then gestured to Duran, Angela, and Faerie. "You led us into this trap!"

"Trap?!" the leader of the hobgoblins retorted, then pointing to Hawkeye and Riesz. "Who's to say THESE two didn't lead you right to us?!"

"Don't bother denying it now! You're capable of anything!" the goblin leader shouted.

"Me?! You're worse that the slipperiest of serpents!" the two then began going back and forth with each other, completely ignoring the four humans that were previously on the run from them.

"Uh, don't we get a say in this-" Angela began to ask, only to not get any further than that.

"QUIET!" they both shouted in unison, the princess huffing in response. The two groups then looked to each other, raising their weapons.

"Whatever the case, this ends here and now!" the goblin leader growled. "Today, you guys fall to us! The cavern will be ours!"

"That's what you think, primitive, snaggletoothed fools!" the hobgoblin leader retorted. "It is US who shall take ownership of this place!"

"Stop using fancy-shmancy words and fight already!"

"I'd be more than happy to oblige!"

With that, the two groups ran into each other, a mass of creatures beating and fighting each other with swords, axes, spears, and literal teeth and nails taking place in front of the four.

"C'mon!" Faerie called out, coming out of Duran. "This is our chance!"

"Whoa!" Hawkeye suddenly yelped. "What the-"

"Explain it later!" Angela answered. "For now, let's amscray!"

"Lead the way!" the thief agreed, Riesz silent throughout the whole exchange, yet she too had little intention on staying here any longer. All four of them made their way from the scene, leaving the two groups of monsters to duke it out with each other, completely oblivious of their escape.

Chapter Text

Flashback

Jadd

"And keep quiet!" the cell door slammed, trapping the well dressed man in the small, enclosed space. The violet haired beastman was on guard duty. Again. It's not as if there was any way that the stout man could escape, let alone come up with an excuse to wager his way out. Nope! Fureddie was too intelligent for some cheap tactic such as that! No sir!

Above the holding cells, patrolling the halls of the expansive manor, Ludgar walked with a peculiar figure, arms folded and contemplating what said figure was telling him. "That human is laying it on thick, isn't he?"

The blonde beastman huffed. "As if his money would do him any good." Ludgar growled. It was humans like him that especially pissed him off. The luxury that this pig was living in...he grabbed a nearby pot and smashed it on the floor, glass flying everything, the water and flowers that had been resting in it splayed out and ran into the tiles that composed of the flooring. The jester only smiled at the display of anger.

"This whole takeover is therapeutic for you all, isn't it?" Goremand questioned, Ludgar saying nothing, but he stopped his pace upon hearing the jester say that. Seeing he had the opportunity, Goremand made his move. "You know what has to be done soon."

Ludgar raised a brow. "Hm?"

"You must decide, of course!" the jester proclaimed. "Jadd is in your possession, and soon, Wendel will be as well."

"Assuming that the barrier will be broken." the beastman answered.

"Oh, trust me. It will." Goremand assured. "I feel it. Something from afar is coming."

Ludgar was puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"Something not of this world." the jester explained. "As of now, she is alone. The others have left her. I felt their presence in your land."

"What of them? How will they break the barrier?"

"They seek to go to Wendel as well." Goremand smiled. "The old man's infamy is well known in all corners of the world...and beyond." Ludgar noticed the emphasis the jester put on the latter part of his statement. "But when that happens, and you DO seize Wendel...you must make a decision." he drew closer to the beastman. "The Mana Stone will not simply release its energy willingly. The beast inside...it craves blood."

"I know well what releasing the energy from the stone entails." Ludgar answered, folding his arms. "And such a thing will be dealt with in time. Once the city is conquered and occupied."

"Or maybe you're just putting it off." the jester suggested, grinning upon seeing the beastman seize up. "You heard the orders of your king. Someone MUST be chosen to partake in the ritual."

"I'm MORE than aware of the king's orders." the blonde, muscled man said gruffly, then turning to face the jester. "And I'm MORE than aware of just how strange it is that he's so receptive to the help of your so-called 'Master' all of the sudden. Speaking of, neither he, let alone you, have said one word about our now sudden ally."

"Master is a very private individual." the jester explained in a low voice. "And at the moment, he's tending to some...personal matters." it was clear that Ludgar wasn't convinced. "But that's besides the point." the lanky being got back on track. "Orders or not, Master or not, the Mana Stones are key to your kingdom's dominion over the other nations. And in order to achieve this...sacrifices must be made. So to speak."

The beastman was silent for some time, the air rife with tension. And when he finally spoke, his voice was oddly soft. "As I said...that will be dealt with later."

Goremand sighed. This was getting nowhere. Master was placated now, yet if this operation failed, then the fact he had succeeded so far may not be accounted for. Thus, he had to push just a LITTLE bit further. "Perhaps you should consider Fureddie." Ludgar stopped at that, having been making his way from the jester. "After all, is he not always complaining about getting guard duty? And so far, it's only over one person. It's not as if he's Molar, who has to oversee the whole city-ACK!" the jester found a clawed hand wrapped around his throat and himself lifted off the ground.

"Listen, and listen good, you twig-limbed clown." Ludgar snarled, bearing his sharpened teeth. "You may be a part of our cause now, along with your 'Master', but make no mistake. YOU are not in charge of this operation. I am. And MY king has organized this long before you or your 'Master' came into the picture. This whole thing is for the benefit of OUR people, to pay those humans back for the years and years that they have looked down their noses at us and considered us less than human. To be no more intelligent, perhaps even less so than wild beasts." he brought Goremand closer, his golden eyes boring into the jester's darkened ones. "And when the time comes, the stone WILL be ours, but make no mistake. NONE of my men, let alone anyone of our kind will be offered as some sort of lamb to a floating rock, no matter what sort of power it has. Understand?!"

Time to put on his acting mask again. "Y-Yes!" Goremand choked out, Ludgar holding him for another few moments before releasing him, the jester coughing out as if he had finally been able to breathe again. Oh please. As if he needed such things. Yet anything to provide the image of meekness, the better.

"Good." Ludgar growled, turning away from the jester. "We will move for Wendel tomorrow." he began to walk away, but stopped to face the jester again. "Don't you dare suggest such a thing again, lest your 'Master' be in need of another servant." with that, he moved away further down the hall, leaving Goremand alone and on the floor.

The jester looked on as the beastman went away, a crooked smile coming to his face. "You know, you're cute, when you're all indigent like that." whatever, he thought. Let him and the other beastmen think they were in control. They would see in time. And by then, he and the Master would be too far in for anyone to do anything about it. And if the stupid brute wasn't willing to offer one of his own, fine. Besides, Goremand had someone in mind as it was.

And given that this area held the Mana Stone of Light...it would be all the more fitting.

Present

Cascade Cavern

"So, how'd she get to be here?" Hawkeye questioned, gesturing to Faerie.

"Duran here found me." she said. "And I was low on energy, so-"

"She invaded my head and won't leave." Faerie huffed, folding her arms.

Riesz stepped in, rather eager to ease the tension after the fiasco that happened previously. "So...you're from Valsena?" she questioned, Duran nodding in response.

"Yep." he then pushed a bit of hair from his face, flipping it confidently. "Youngest in the whole guard."

"And you're from, where did you say, Alrant?" Angela nodded. "Isn't that in the vicinity of Altena?" Duran glanced at the purple haired 'sorceress' (though from what he was seen, he was beginning to have doubts).

"Well...yeah. But...it's kinda its own separate thing." Angela said, though truthfully, she had no idea. "But hey, I'm sure there's towns where you all are from that kind of do their own thing and don't really have anything to do with the ruling kingdom aside from paying taxes and following their laws, right?"

"Totally." Hawkeye answered. "Hell, where I'm from, we live OUTSIDE the law entirely."

"That I can believe." Riesz stated. "Well, truth be told, there's a town near where I'm from. Port town called Palo. They're mainly just a fishing and shipping stop for most."

"There's also Maia and Beiser in Valsena." Duran mentioned, though he still kept his eyes on Angela. "They're pretty much night and day from each other. Especially in their business practices."

She was becoming more and more uncomfortable under his suspicious eye, the sorceress looking for anything to get his attention off her. "Hey, look! Light!"

Indeed, the warrior noted, as well as the faerie. Heading towards the light, all four (five) of them broke their way through and outside the cave, the sun rising over Lake Astoria that lay in the distance, presenting to the group a sight of a collection of buildings and structures not too far away, the hallmark of it being a large, white temple that towered above all else.

Finally, they had reached it. The City of Wendel.

Cascade Cavern

Hm? Had she fallen asleep?

The haziness began to leave her, she sitting up and stretching her body. "Oooh…" Charlotte moaned, sighing. The cave wall didn't provide the same comfort a mattress did, yet at least, in a way, she got some sleep. She must've drifted off when hiding from those creatures.

Well, seeing that there was nothing else around, the girl got herself up and began her trek back to Wendel. Wherever that was.

She was only beginning to realize just how big of a mistake she had made simply going in here. Sure, she had known that this cavern had a path to the city, but much of it had been worn and torn up, both from age and the other denizens of this place, all of which she had no wish to meet. Going down another hall, the girl looked around, the only main sources of light around being the iridescent flowers that sprouted in various places. Odd that such things could grow in an environment like this. One of the few pleasant things that had been seen on this trip. That and the cherry pie. She could only hope that Elisa and Ralph were ok. And what of that one werewolf that tackled the one attacking her? True, it bore the same attire and general appearance of the other transformed beastmen (then again, she didn't know if there could be too much of a difference between them, seeing as they all seemed to wear the same thing and all have loads of hair), but its actions spoke of a different story. It also appeared somewhat smaller than the others, muscled, but leaner. And not to mention, younger.

Well, whatever the case, they were probably long gone by now. And she had somewhere to be. The main thing that should've concerned her now was what in the world she was going to tell her grandfather when she got back. Very scarcely had she seen the old man legitimately angry, but if there were ever a time for her to see it, it'd be now. Still, he would at least know about what happened to Heath. Then they could get a search party going and go save him! Yeah, that was it! And, well, she probably would be grounded for the rest of her life, but at least Heath would be ok!

Wherever he was.

'Pwease be ok, Heath.' Charlotte thought as she continued down the darkened corridor. 'Pwease, pwease be ok.'

Wendel

Despite the title of 'city', the whole area was rather closed in and smaller than any of the four imagined. Simple, small homes were constructed and laid out in a ring-like formation, all surrounding a collection of blooming, fertile flowers. The homes held individual qualities such as differently colored tiling, exteriors, the general aesthetics, yet each held the theme that it was just enough. Not too extravagant, nor too minimal, only what one truly needed. The establishments, such as restaurants and inns held the same thing as well, giving the feel of a humble, tight knit community and people that put their focus on the more important things in life that didn't revolve around sole materialism. The citizens that were out and about gave such a vibe from their clothing as well, many wearing simple shirts, trousers, dresses, again, just what they needed. There seemed to be little differences between the 'haves' and the 'have nots', the four pondering whether or not such a thing even existed here. All in all, the feel of the place was both calm and reassuring, as if to soothe and assure that their journey was over.

Though when they entered through the gates that led to the city, the four found themselves immediately becoming the center of attention, everyone stopping what they were doing and looking on at the group in complete shock.

"Who...who are you?" a young man questioned, having garnered the bravery to approach them. He was dressed in white robes, clearly belonging to the holy order of this place. "How did you get past the barrier?" the latter part of the question was dripping with alarm.

Despite having finally reached their destination, Duran and Angela, as well as Faerie, couldn't deny that a part of them was regretting going the route they did. "We're here to see the Priest." Angela spoke up, more or less to distract herself from the clearly present tension in the air. "He's in that big building over there, right?"

"You...you…" the holy man stammered, shaking his head and immediately making a beeline for the temple.

"What's got him all worked up?" Hawkeye questioned, noticing how uncomfortable Duran and Angela were looking. Faerie didn't emerge from her hiding place, but the soldier felt her shared unease.

"Perhaps...we made a mistake."

Cascade Cavern

"AHHH!" Charlotte hollered as she covered her head, pulling her hat down to block the incoming, swooping flying creatures that were on her tail. She didn't mean to get in this situation! All she did was throw just one rock to let off some steam! She didn't mean to disturb all these batmos! Let alone make them so angry! Now they were, quite literally, out for her blood!

And wouldn't you know it, she got her foot caught on a rock and tripped.

The batmos swooped down and surrounded the girl, a dark blue swarm encompassing her, and clouding everything else around her. Charlotte struggled to get up, all the while trying to avoid being bitten, yet whenever she managed to move a few feet or so, the swarm would latch onto her again and keep up their assault. It was then that she heard running water ahead, and in the small spaces that she could see amidst the number of batmos, it appeared that it was a more open portion of the cavern. Whether that'd be the key to getting these things off her, she didn't know, but she was willing to try anything at the moment.

Getting to her feet, she stood up, albeit hunched over due to the batmos, and raced forward, keeping her head low and her feet running fast. She could make it! Nearly there! Just nearly there…

Wendel

The towering, white structure was before them, a testament to how far they had come, and that, hopefully, their prayers would be answered. Still, despite the general setting, there was an unease in the air, not at all helped by the stares and chattering that went on between everyone as they passed by. Suddenly, the robed man that had rushed away from them had come to them again, going down a multitude of stairs to reach them. "I don't know how you managed to get here," he said, tone serious and a little frightened. "But...his Eminence is ready to see you."

Well...that was good. Sort of? Honestly, the calm that had perpetuated the area was slowly eroding when their presence had come to be known. Going up the numerous stairs and through the massive entrance that led to the temple, the four made their way down the red carpet that led through another large door, a large chamber complete with pews and large, stained glass windows greeting them as they entered. A silver, polished statue of a human's interpretation of the Mana Goddess stood behind an elderly man garbed in white robes.

"That must be him." Faerie said from inside Duran, the soldier, as well as everyone else not exactly rushing up and openly proclaiming their reasons in coming here. "Well?" she asked. "Go on, say hello."

"Easy for you to say." Duran whispered. He had been waiting for this, having left home for this. Yet now that it was right in front of him...he found himself struck with cold feet, much to his shame. Just what was he so antsy for? He looked to the other three, all of them nodding in agreement. With one step at a time, all four of them steadily approached the podium, the old man greeting them with warm, yet knowledgeable eyes.

Outside Cascade Cavern

"There it is." Fureddie gestured to the entrance of the cave nestled behind the waterfalls. Ludgar nodded, looking to the party he had brought with him.

"You sure that it's no longer there?" the blonde commander questioned.

"That's what some of the others said." the violet haired beastman confirmed. "They were able to pass right through. Either it's weakened, or it's no longer there."

"How?" Ludgar questioned.

"That...I don't know." Fureddie admitted. "But it's gone. That's what matters, right?"

He supposed. Still...Ludgar couldn't help but remember what that jester said. As he predicted, the barrier was lifted. He only wondered if that other part he said about the barrier was true. And if so, who was this 'she' that lifted it? Either way, if the barrier was lifted, then the invasion could begin as scheduled. "We'll go and see if the entrance to Wendel is also open." the head beastman said, then turning to Fureddie. "I'll send a messenger to Jadd to report if it's a go. If it is, then prepare the hellriders."

"Will do." Fureddie answered, turning, but he stopped. "...am I on guard duty again?"

"What do you think?" Ludgar answered, clearly seeing the other beastman's disappointment. Yet as he did so, involuntarily, the jester's words came back to him.

"Ludgar?" the other beastman questioned, puzzled and somewhat unnerved by how his commander was looking at him. "Is...something wrong?"

"...no. Nothing." Ludgar answered. "Go back to Jadd. We shall report if the operation can continue. Now, off with you!"

Fureddie obeyed, he and several other beastmen that had come going back the way they came. As they went, Ludgar watched. No, he thought. That jester could find someone else. And while it was perhaps too soon to tell, he could've sworn that, since their last conversation, that creature had been pondering a potential candidate. A candidate that, from the smile he briefly saw trace his features in passing, he was most pleased with.

Temple of Light

"May the Goddess bless you this day." the Priest of Light greeted, bowing. "What brings you here?"

Who to start? "Go on!" Faerie said to Duran. "Say something!"

'Ok, fine!' "Sir, er, Priest?"

"I believe it's 'His Eminence'." Riesz spoke up, but the old man shook his head.

"Titles are but mere pleasantry." the Priest said. "We are all clothed in the same skin and bear the same blood."

Flowery language aside, Duran was the first to speak. "Well, Priest, my name's Duran. I'm a soldier from Valsena." the young man introduced. "And I'm here to ask you about how I can get stronger."

The old man raised a thick brow. "Forgive me, my son, but I don't entirely understand what you mean."

"I mean, I need to become stronger." Duran emphasized. "Strong enough to defeat that Crimson Wizard!"

"Crimson Wizard?" the Priest of Light's eyes widened. "As in, the Wizard of the Red Lotus of Altena?"

"You know about him?" Duran was surprised.

"Indeed." the Priest confirmed. "I have had dealings with Altena in the past. The famed head wizard is known to me. Once upon a time, during the Peddan War, I came to meet those from several nations. Yet tell me, for what reason do you wish to defeat this man?"

"Because…" Duran stammered, fists shaking. "Because…he…" he found himself unable to speak. 'Because he humiliated me. Because he disgraced my name to everyone. Because he also disgraced my father's name.'

"Ok, seeing as you're done," Angela butted in, pushing the soldier to the side, observing the old man before her. "You don't look all that extraordinary to me." Riesz nearly had a heart attack. Where was this young woman's respect?! "But seeing as I'm here," she continued. "I need your help."

"Hey!" Duran exclaimed. "I was here first-mph!" Angela covered his mouth.

"I need to learn ma-" she stopped herself. "I mean, I need to learn how to become more powerful in magic."

"So, your quest is the same as this young man, yes?" the Priest asked, looking to Duran.

"Well...kinda, sorta. I guess?" Angela said, not exactly sure what to say. Suddenly, both of them were shoved out of the way, Hawkeye now at the podium.

"You Eminence." the thief breathed out. "Boy, I'm glad to see you. I need your help."

'Indeed.' the old man thought, though he kept silent. "Speak, my son. What ails you?"

"There's…" Hawkeye paused. Isabella's words...he had to tread carefully around this. "I have a friend. She...she's in danger. Do you…" he bit his lip. "Do you know anything about a curse that can be placed on a necklace?"

The Priest of Light was startled upon hearing this. "You sound like you speak of the Choker of Death." he said.

"Choker of Death?"

"It's an ancient tool, used in ancient torture methods. One's blood was applied to the stone, and an incantation and specific words were used as a trigger for it to activate. Should these words be spoken by the one whose blood was used to curse it, then the necklace shall strangle the wearer until death."

Hawkeye's blood ran cold. "Then...then what can be done about it? What can break a curse like that?"

The Priest sighed, knowing well that the young man wouldn't like the answer he would hear. "Its methods in creating one were forbidden, so whomever created the one you speak of has unearthed or knows knowledge that is no longer recorded in any earthly texts. So, a counter to it is lost as well."

"What?" Hawkeye said, flabbergasted. "But...but…"

"If I may," Riesz asked, having grown impatient, but was determined to at least show some semblance of control in front of such a renowned figure. "Your Eminence, I hail from Laurant."

"Laurant?" The old man was surprised to hear this. "My, to have traveled so far! What brings you here?"

"It…" she tried not to do so, yet she shot a glance in the thief's direction. "Nevarlian fiends have invaded. The kingdom...has fallen."

"Laurant?! Fallen?!" the Priest exclaimed, losing his former composure. "If this is true...then this is surely yet another sign!"

'Sorry,' Faerie said from inside her host. 'But I can't wait anymore!' the old man nearly had a heart attack upon seeing the winged woman manifest from seemingly nowhere. "Please, your Eminence!"

"A...a faerie?" the old man stared, mouth agape.

"Yes." Faerie nodded. "I'm from the Mana Holyland! I need your help! The Mana Tree...it's withering!"

Now he had nearly had a heart attack. "This…" the old man trembled, despite himself. "These are dark times indeed. A faerie from the Holyland...this is a terrible portent! If the Tree withers, then Mana shall disappear from the world! And the seals on the Mana Stones...the Beasts! They shall be released!"

All four of them were confused, but the words of the old fortune teller came to Duran's mind. 'Eight spirts, eight stones, eight beasts…'

"Benevo-what?" Angela asked.

"The Benevodons!" Faerie then exclaimed. "Surely you know of them! The ancient beasts that were once thought to be gods themselves!" she stopped. "Or has knowledge like that been lost too?" she only received puzzled looks from everyone. "Well...either way, this can't happen! The tree MUST be saved!"

The Priest sighed, finally calming down, though it was clear that he was far from at ease. "Then...perhaps it is time."

Everyone was again puzzled. "Time for what?" Hawkeye questioned.

"Who is the one that this faerie has bonded to?" Everyone looked to Duran. "Then it is you, my son."

"For what?"

"It is you. It seems that you have been selected out of so many." the Priest sighed. "You are to be the wielder of the Sword."

Cascade Cavern

One moment, she was pounding her boots on the ground, the next, she felt nothing under her feet.

Then, she fell.

Charlotte wailed and flailed her entire body as she plummeted, only grabbing the edge of a naturally formed bridge mere seconds before she would've fallen right down into the falls below. The blonde girl wriggled and tried to hoist herself up, yet found that the already slick stone made her grip all the more difficult to maintain.

"AAH!" she hollered involuntarily. "HEWP ME!" She screamed to no one, knowing subconsciously that no one was coming, yet still, she couldn't help herself. "PWEASE! HUWWY!" she slipped, though not enough to fall. Yet it would only be a matter of time now. She tried fruitlessly to pull herself up, yet any progress she made was set back as her small body was sent down. She couldn't hold on! "N-NOOO!" Charlotte scrambled and moved her fingers to get a grip.

Yet for naught, as it wasn't enough. Her hold was gone, and she found herself plummeting downward.

Wendel

"The Sword?" Duran questioned. "What sword?" he then looked to Faerie. "What is he talking about?"

"The Sword of Mana." The Priest of Light said. "The Holiest of Weapons. Embodiment of the power of Mana. And the vessel of great power." he continued. "It is an alternate form of the Golden Wand that the Goddess Herself used to create the world from chaos and darkness." no one knew why, yet as the old man spoke, an image came to be seen. A towering, massive tree that rested in a lake of pure, clean water. The cleanest of water, sparkling in the rays of the sun. Roots that were unrivaled by all trees and flora in the world, covered in moss, welcoming of all life forms to take nourishment and protection in its shade and on its mighty wood. And nestled in the roots of this tree was a single blade. A blade that couldn't exactly be visualized entirely, yet there was no mistaking its significance. "It is told, that in times of crisis, that one shall draw it from its place and with it, save the world from disaster. And it seems," he gestured to Duran. "That one is you."

The entirety of the temple grew silent, the calm ambiance speckled with tension washing over everyone. No one said a word for the longest time, they absorbed what was just said to them, until finally, Duran spoke up. "No." he shook his head. "I...I didn't come here for this!" he then looked to Faerie. "You never said ANYTHING about ANY of this!"

"I...I'm sorry." the winged woman sighed. "But please, you must understand! I didn't have a choice! I need help! The Tree...the Goddess Herself needs help!"

"Then why can't She help Herself is she's so called 'all powerful'?" Angela asked, Faerie gasping.

"Don't insult Her in such a way!" She then turned to Hawkeye and Riesz. "Please, this is no time to argue! The world is at stake here!"

"I...this...sorry little lady, but this is a little too much." the thief sighed, still taken aback by what was said.

"This...this has nothing to do with what I came here for." the princess shook her head.

"You all act like this doesn't affect you!" the Priest suddenly said, voice firm, moving from the gentle tone he had before. "This faerie is right! If she has come from the Mana Holyland, then this is a time of crisis! The world is in peril! If Mana is depleted from the world and the Benevodons are awakened, then the world will be destroyed!"

"You...you're saying this to just a bunch of people that came to you for help!" Duran exclaimed. "I didn't come here for this! I didn't come here for any of this!" he slammed his hand on the podium, flabbergasted and enraged at what was being told to him. "This...this is just nuts."

"Duran, please-" Faerie began, but was cut off.

"No!" he shouted. "You and you," he pointed to the Priest. "You're not dragging me or anyone else into this! No." he sighed, clearly fuming. "Just no." With that, he turned and made his leave from the chamber, leaving the three alone with the priest, the Faerie following her host and sadly fading into him.

Angela looked to the Priest, then to the exit of the chamber, she too then left. Hawkeye clenched his fist and looked to the ground before he left as well. Riesz was left along with the old man, clearly disappointed, but still, she bowed. "Thank you for your time, your Eminence. But…" she looked to the exit. "I believe I should be going too." the amazon then made her leave, the Priest left alone in the chamber, a heavy sigh exiting him.

'I'm sorry, dear children.' he inwardly lamented. 'Yet it seems that you've been chosen. Like it or not.'

Cascade Cavern

At least, she would've plummeted.

"Gotcha!" had not a hand seized her wrist. Charlotte found herself being pulled up, looking upon her rescuer with widened blue eyes. "You ok?" he asked, the girl still shivering.

"Y-Yeah." she stammered, shaking and clutching onto the leg of her rescuer. Then, it was when she noticed the particular style of his pants, as well as the rest of his appearance and attire. "You...you'we one of the beastmen!"

"No, wait!" the young beastman pleaded. "Y-Yes. I'm...one of them. But I'm not with them! Honest!"

Charlotte stopped for a moment, further surveying the tan skinned, blonde haired young man. His eyes, in comparison to the other beastmen she had seen, were wide and, despite his size in comparison to hers, rather innocent looking. He also bore a leaner build and shorter stature. She didn't know why, but her mind turned to the werewolf that had, to her surprise, even now, threw itself into the fray to protect her. "Ok." she said. "I bewieve you." she said, hugging him again. "Th-Thanks. If you hadn't been hewe, it wouwd've been bye bye Chawwotte!"

"Charlotte? That your name?" the young beastman asked.

"Yeah." Charlotte confirmed. "And you?"

"Kevin." he responded, Charlotte giggling.

"Kevin? Hee hee! That's a funny name!" she then covered her mouth. "Oh, sowwy."

"It's ok." he admitted. "Yeah. Kinda funny for a beastman. Sorta."

"Anyway, whatcha doing hewe?" the girl questioned.

"On my way to Wendel." Kevin confessed. "To see the Priest of Light."

"Oh! You mean Gwandpa?" Charlotte asked. "Weww, wucky for you, you'we wooking at the Maiden of Wendew wight hewe!" she flipped her hair and gave a small curtsey.

"The Priest is your grandfather?" Kevin questioned, Charlotte nodding.

"Yeah! And twitch be towd, I was twying to get back mysewf." she then looked around anxiously. "But...it's kinda scawy in hewe…" she was puzzled when she saw Kevin kneel down to her.

"Then I'll go with you." he told her. Such innocent eyes...Karl's eyes...there was no second guessing it. He couldn't simply leave this girl on her own. "Little girls shouldn't be on their own."

"Wittwe?!" Charlotte huffed. "I'ww have you know I'm fifteen yeaws owd! I'm pwaticawwy an aduwt!"

"Fi-Fifteen?!" Kevin exclaimed, taken aback. There was no WAY that this girl was around his age.

"Yes indeedie!" the blonde girl proclaimed. "I'm hawf ewf! So I might wook a wittwe smaww. But I heawd that I'm wucky, because winkwes won't come for a wong time."

Well, that was kinda true. Really though, Kevin kind of wondered why women cared about such things. Perhaps it was simply because there weren't all that many women in the castle or on the grounds, yet the whole area was forgien to him. Nevertheless, this girl, fifteen or not, was far too small and vulnerable for him to simply leave her alone. He gestured to his back, she curiously looking to him to make sure it was ok. With a nod of his head, she wasted no time in hopping on, he then hoisting her up and standing. "Ok!" she cheered, pointing forward. "Onwawd, wecwuit!"

Wait. "Recruit?"

Chapter Text

In contrast to their earlier mood, Duran sat sulking in a chair in the check in at the city’s inn, the keeper (who suspiciously looked very much like the shopkeeper in Jadd, same turban and everything) making erratic movements to try and garner attention. This whole trip was for nothing. Absolutely nothing. ‘Shit.’ he mentally hissed. ‘The hell am I supposed to do now?!’ he slammed a fist down on the table before resting his head in his hands. He couldn’t go back! He swore to not return until he gained the necessary strength to defeat that wizard, and not to mention, he had up and left without notifying the king! Had he succeeded in the former, the sting of the latter would be far less. Yet now, was he just supposed to go back with nothing?! Had he been handed his father’s sword for nothing?! To hell with all of this! 

How was he supposed to respond to any of this? ‘Oh yeah, you now have a faerie inside your head that somehow means that you have to go get this sword, otherwise Mana will fade from the world and horrible monsters will break out and kill everything and everyone!’. Honestly, what sort of choice was he given in that matter?! Hell, he didn’t even know if the Priest of Light was either exaggerating or outright lying? Duran dismissed the latter: angry as he was, he knew better than to declare such a man a liar. But to hear such a thing and have it thrown on him...this...he didn’t know what to think. He didn’t even believe, even now, that any of this was real. 

Since the whole scene in the temple, Faerie had kept herself quiet, yet she clearly sensed everything he was feeling. As of now, as far as he was concerned, for the time being, she didn’t exist. It was all he could do to keep himself from blowing up entirely. He found his thoughts interrupted by a yawn, realizing then and there that he hadn’t slept for a good day or so. He had no intention of staying here long, yet he couldn’t deny that, at the moment, he needed sleep.

A Few Hours Later

‘Help me…’ the young man turned. ‘Help me...please…’ despite the need for sleep, Duran couldn’t help but flutter his eyelids as he rose up in bed, his chest bare, having taken off his armor and top. ‘Help me…’ 

“What the…” the soldier moaned, rubbing his eyes. “Who...what…”

‘Ah, good!’ Duran nearly leapt out of his skin. He was about to chastise Faerie for startling him, but he realized soon that the voice was nothing like hers. This one bore an ememinette quality to it, not to mention a flamboyance, but it was clearly male. ‘You’re awake! Sorry about the wake up call, but I’m in a bit of a tight spot here!’

“Who...who are you?” Duran asked aloud, looking around. “Where are you?”

‘In the cave!’ the voice said. ‘You know, the cave you just went through!’

“Wait.” Duran paused. “You were watching us?” he was about to address the voice again, but was cut off.

‘Yeah, sorta. But I’m not a creep! Honest!’ the voice assured. ‘Look, it was me watching...but not exactly.’

“What does that mean? That makes no sense? Who are you, anyway?”

‘Sorry, but I’m kinda pressed for time! And so are you, if you can hear me like this!’ before Duran could even ask further, he was rattled and forced from his bed by a sudden, monstrous tremor that shook the entire inn, and from the panicked cries outside, everywhere in all of the city. Cries of how it was happening again, that this was a sign of impending doom, and how, most strikingly, that the Goddess perhaps had abandoned them. ‘Hear, or rather, feel that?’ the voice asked. ‘THAT’S what was watching you. It’s been giving the poor folks here a lot of grief too.’

“The hell?” Duran got to his feet, he only garbed in his pants for sleepwear, armor, boots, and socks on the other side of the bed in his room. “What WAS that?!”

‘A real meanie, that’s what!’ the voice said. ‘And it’s got me! Ate me, just like that!’

“Ate you?!” Faerie suddenly spoke, having been quiet for so long, it startled Duran. “But shouldn’t you be...wait.”  she paused. “Mana...there’s Mana radiating off of you!”

‘Yeah! You’ve got it!’ the voice cheerily declared, despite its formerly despondent tone. ‘Now, sorry to ask, but I’m kinda in a pickle here, and I REALLY need your help! I, quite literally, need a hero!’ 

Duran bit his lip. Yet again, something else was being thrust on him that he didn’t even quite understand. “Faerie?” he asked, despite his vow to not talk to her before. “Who is this guy? You know him?”

“He...I can’t tell for sure, but he’s directly tied to Mana, like I am.” she explained. “Only...only it’s slowly being drained from him.” she then gasped. “Oh no!”

“Oh no what?”

“If he remains like this, he’ll die!” she panicked. “Quick, please! I-I know you’re still mad at me, but-” Faerie found herself stopping dead in her tracks as she saw Duran putting his gear on right away. “What are you doing?”

“What’s it look like?” Duran said. “You said it yourself, if he isn’t rescued, he’s going to die! We can’t just let that happen!” 

Faerie was left speechless, eyes widening as he completed putting everything on. “Duran…” she found herself smiling. 

Exit to Cascade Cavern

“Ah, hewe we awe!”

The sky was painted with an assortment of oranges, violets, and pinks, the sun setting over the horizon. The city was but a short distance away, Kevin looking on in awe. “Wow…” he said aloud. He then noticed the large temple. “Priest of Light there?”

“Uh huh!” Charlotte confirmed. “Gwandpa’s the most impowtant pewson in the city!” 

“And...you think he can help me?”

“Suwe!” the girl answered. “He can do anything! Mostly.” she was then set down, Kevin beginning to move towards the city. “Oh, wait!” Charlotte grabbed his hand. “Um...somebody came hewe to wawn Gwandpa of the beastmen. So…” she noticed Kevin’s features falling. “Oh no! He WIWW see you! But the peopwe hewe...weww...maybe you shouwd hide.”

“Hm, yeah. Maybe.” it wasn’t exactly a situation he wished to find himself in, but given the treatment he received in Jadd, perhaps that would be for the best.

“I’ww hide too!” Charlotte declared. “Because...weww, I kinda weft without tewwing anybody. Gwandpa’s pwobabwy mad…” Hearing footsteps, Kevin outright tossed Charlotte in the bushes, he leaping in not long after, hiding themselves completely from the person walking their way. “Hey!” she growled, spitting out a few leaves.

“Sorry.” the beastman sheepishly said, then noticing a small, yellow creature not too far from them. “What’s that?” he crawled over and noticed a small sign around its ‘neck’. “This is Springy, please don’t take him. He’s my pet, but I can’t keep him inside. He likes candy, but beware, if you tease him, he bites.”

“Spwingy!” Charlotte crawled over to the creature as well, giving the springstepper a pat on the head, it cooing in response. “So, Mick had to put you outside aftew all…”

“Mick?”

“He’s a fwiend.” Charlotte explained. “Though…” she rubbed the still sore spot on her back. “I’m still gonna give him a piece of my mind.”

Cascade Cavern

He could’ve sworn that he had seen a couple of people as he made his way back into the cave. Well, whatever. At the moment, there were more important things going on. “Ok, I’m here.” Duran said. “Where are you?”

‘Ah, yippie!’ the voice exclaimed happily. ‘I KNEW you wouldn’t just leave me!’

“I still have no idea what’s going on, but...no. I couldn’t.” Duran answered, looking around the familiar environment. “I’m STILL not going to be involved in this whole ‘get the Mana Sword’ thing, but…” he trailed off, sighing. “I can’t just let a defenseless person die.”

“Duran…” Faerie began. “Thank you.” the two began going further into the cave, though their trek had only just begun. “You know...if you hadn’t come along...I don’t think I would’ve made it.”

“What?” the soldier exclaimed, shocked. “You mean you would’ve…” Faerie nodded. “Why didn’t you say so?!”

“Huh?”

“I mean, yeah, the whole ‘being inside me’ is weird, but I wouldn’t have just let you up and die! If that was the case, you should’ve said something sooner!” Faerie found tears beginning to well up in her eyes.

“Well, isn’t that touching?” Duran heard, yelping upon feeling a hand on his shoulder. Angela only giggled. “Pfft! And to think, I thought that sword made you look sorta cool!”

“What are you doing here?” Duran asked, not in the mood for her comments, yet he also saw Hawkeye and Riesz with her. 

“Same reason you are.” Angela answered. “We’re going back to Jadd.” she then huffed. “Trip here was an enormous waste of time.”

“Wait!” Faerie then said. “I...don’t think you should do that!” 

“Give me one good reason-” Angela was cut off by yet another tremor, knocking Angela right off her feet and nearly everyone else. 

“That.” Faerie explained, the self-proclaimed magician massaging her sore buttocks. 

‘Oooh, the little missy ok?’ the voice asked, Duran smirking. 

“She’s fine.” he said. “But where are you?”

“Huh?” Riesz questioned. “Who are you talking to?”

“Oh, he has people living in his head.” Angela responded, looking to Faerie. “Looks like he just gained another.” Duran fumed, even more so when Hawkeye chuckled at what she said.

“This is no time to joke around!” Faerie responded. “There’s someone in trouble!” 

“Trouble?” that seemed to get everyone’s attention, even Angela’s. “Who?” Riesz asked.

“I don’t exactly know who,” Faerie answered. “But he has Mana practically radiating off of him!” she paused, then gasped. “Oh, by the Goddess Herself! We can’t delay! He must be saved!” 

“Whoa, where’s the fire, little lady?” Hawkeye questioned. 

“I knew it! I KNEW there was something more about him!” the winged woman cried out. “Hurry! We have to hurry, or he’ll die!”

This seemed to get everyone’s attention, even Angela’s. “I get that, though where is he?”

‘I’m up here!’ the voice said, unheard by all but Duran and Faerie. ‘Go up! You’ll find me there!” 

“Ok!” the soldier nodded, looking back to the three. “Sorry, but I’ve got to go.” 

“Wait!” Angela then said. “That’s it? You’re just gonna go off like that?” she then scoffed. “Geez, you’re more thick headed thank I thought.”

Duran turned around. “Excuse me?!”

“She's kinda right, you know.” Hawkeye added. “Aren’t you just following a blind lead here? Let’s just say from experience, that’s the LAST thing you want to do.”

‘Yes, because your line of work is SO honorable.’ Riesz thought, giving a light scowl. She hated to admit it, yet the thief had a point. “Do you know for sure if this…’person’ is genuine or not? After all, how do you know that this isn’t some sort of trap?”

“No way!” Faerie shook her head. “He’s telling the truth. I...I can feel it. And if we don’t do something soon…”

“Look, Faerie, it’s not worth it.” Duran said, looking to the other three. “I don’t get it either, but…” his mind wandered back to that night at the castle...all the fallen soldiers. “But I can’t just stand idly by and let someone…” he then turned away. “My mind’s made up. I’m going.” he then dashed off, Faerie close by.

Angela, Hawkeye, and Riesz only looked on as the wild haired soldier went on his way. “Well...he’s a goner.” Angela sighed. “Seriously, what’s he thinking?”

“...you think it’s true though?” Hawkeye suddenly asked, the two young women looking at him. “I mean, none of us thought him having a faerie with him was possible until we saw it. And, well, even if it wasn’t any help, all that the Priest of Light said…” both young women observed that he seemed to be pondering something. And whatever it was, it seemed to be rather distressing to him. Then, he began going the same way Duran had gone. 

“Whoa, hey! Where are YOU going?” Angela questioned.

“Well...it’s like he said. You can’t really just stand by and watch someone…” he bit his lip. Despite the effort to push them back, a certain individual with blonde hair came to mind. As well as his sister. Hawkeye said no more before he took off.

“Oh, not you too.” the violet haired ‘sorceress’ huffed. “Men. Am I right?” she then looked to Riesz, of whom also seemed to be deep in thought. “Oh no, not YOU too!”

“Make no mistake. I think he might be being foolish.” the amazon looked in the direction the thief and soldier had gone in. “Yet...even if he is being tricked...I can’t simply allow him to go in without anyone backing him.” she then sighed. “Even that Nevarlian thief…” her pace was slower, but she too headed in the direction of the other two.

“H-Hey! You can’t be serious! Wait!” Angela called out. Yet it seemed Riesz was undeterred by her words. “Well...fine! You’ll be sorry though!” she huffed and folded her arms. Then she realized. Just she was here. No one else. And yet not. All the creatures in this cave were her company now. All those creepy, nasty creatures. “H-Hey! Wait!” she shouted rushing off. “Don’t leave me!”

Wendel

Both Kevin and Charlotte poked their heads out from the bushes, they being right next to the temple. Rather convenient that all of Wendel had a line of bushes all the way from the cave to the temple. Still, it seemed that such luck had run out, as there was still the door to the temple, of which had several other priests and nuns walking around it. The minute they saw Kevin, despite this place being a ‘holy place’, it’d probably not be good for either of them. “Gweat.” Charlotte sighed, though she realized what window was above them. “Howd on.” she told Kevin, grabbing a small rock and throwing it at the window. It bounced off, yet no one came. Then another, and another, and another, until finally, a green haired boy came to the window.

“Who’s-ow!” he shouted as a pebble met his head.

“Ooh! Sowwy!” 

“Wait…” Mick looked around before looking down. “Charlotte?” the blonde nodded, he then noticed that someone else was with her. “Who’s that?”

“Uh...a fwiend.” Charlotte said. “Wook, Mick, I need you to hewp me get him inside the tempwe. He needs to tawk to Gwandpa.”

“But...wait.” Mick squinted his eyes, then widened them in panic. “He’s a-” he was silenced by another small pebble being thrown his way, he ducking in turn. “Hey!”

“Quiet!” Charlotte hissed. “He’s a good guy!” she insisted. “Wook, he’s got a probwem, and needs to see Gwandpa about it!”

“What do you want me to do about it?” Mick asked.

“Howd open the window!” Charlotte said, turning to Kevin and gesturing to the ivy covering the side of the temple, of which were but a few inches away from the window Mick was at. She then, to Kevin’s surprise, leapt up on his back. “We’we coming up!”

Cascade Cavern

The rushing water of the waterfalls filled his and Faerie’s ears, going over a naturally formed bridge. “Wait!” Faerie then said, looking upward. “I feel it.” she said, fluttering upward. “The Mana energy, it’s coming from up there!” Suddenly, another tremor came, Duran just nearly losing balance before it finally stopped. Thank the Goddess that the bridge didn’t break. 

‘That’s him!’ the voice called out. ‘That’s the big fat meanie that ate me up! If he gets out, Wendel or Astora...heck, even Jadd are going to have a REAL bad time! Even worse than I am!’

“Ok! Don’t worry! We’re coming up now!” Faerie called up, Duran nodded and went across the bridge to another part of the cave. “This way!” In comparison to the trip beforehand, the soldier found that this trek through the cavern had much more direction, Faerie essentially serving as his guide. 

“Hey, one question though!” Duran asked, a few batmos disturbed by him as he ran by. “Why didn’t you say anything before when I went through here?”

‘I’m trying to conserve my energy the best I can!’ the voice answered, sounding a little winded. ‘It was only when I saw how you handled those goblins did I even think I might have a chance! By the way, thanks for putting those guys down a peg. I can’t begin to tell you just how ANNOYING they and those equally uncouth hobgoblins are! All they do around here is fight and disturb everybody else! I can barely get any sleep at all thanks to-’

“Um, maybe less talking, more leading?” Faerie suggested.

‘Huh, yeah. Right. Ok, uh, just a bit more up and you’ll find me!’ the voice paused. ‘Or rather...you’ll find ‘him’.’ the voice stopped, seemingly sensing the chill that coursed through Faerie and, while he tried to suppress it, Duran. ‘Look, just...follow my energy! I don’t know how much longer I have! Please!’ 

Their movements were tentative at first, yet ultimately, the two began moving yet again, their trek beginning to turn into a climb, several stone bridges helping in allowing their journey to continue more and more upward. As they continued, they both noted how it seemed that these tunnels and sections appeared rather ‘goblin-less’. Indeed, ever since they had entered, there hadn’t been one sign of any of them when they had been so prevalent before. While it was beneficial for them, both couldn’t help but wonder where exactly they were-

“RUN!!!” Huh? Before either Duran or Faerie could ask each other what was going on, a horde came running by them, they had to duck to the side to avoid being trampled by the swarm of both goblins and hobgoblins running by. “Pick up the pace!” some of them said, clearly afraid. “Don’t lag behind! It’ll get you!” On and on the swarm went, both human and faerie puzzled and confused. Even more so when the two leaders that had previously been accosting them before noticed them. “Do NOT…” the goblin leader said. 

“Go in there!” the hobgoblin leader finished, both of them running off with the rest of their troops.

Duran and Faerie moved away from the wall and then looked in the direction they all ran in from. Going through the opening to another stone bridge, the opening before them appeared to be a darkened hole, the light more sparse in that particular portion of the cave. Another quake came to pass, Duran and Faerie retreating in the archway until it passed, noting how close that particular one felt. ‘It’s in there, isn’t it?’ the soldier thought. ‘You’re in there.’

‘Yep.’ the voice said. ‘I-I’m sorry. I wish I didn’t have to ask for this. But...but please. If it means anything, be careful.’ 

Faerie looked at Duran. “You SURE you want to do this?”

The soldier nodded, slowly, but steadily, continuing forward.

Wendel

With one last pull up, Kevin and Charlotte made their way in through the window, entering one of the many rooms in the temple. “Ok, now,” Charlotte began, getting off of Kevin. “How many peopwe awe awound?” she asked Mick.

“Not too many.” he answered. “They’ve all been out looking for you. At least, they were.” he sighed. “I didn’t tell them about how you got out or anything, but…” he twiddled his thumbs. “They kinda found Springy and forced me to put him outside.”

“Oh!” Kevin exclaimed. “That thing was yours?”

“Yep.” Mick nodded. “Found him outside a few weeks ago! But they said that monsters don’t make good pets.” he looked at Charlotte. “But I think they might’ve thought I helped you out, seeing as they maybe forced me to give up Springy. And that I’m grounded. Forever.” 

Charlotte now was the one twiddling her thumbs. “I’ww go down with Kevin to see Gwandpa.” the young beastman was about to speak up, but the girl interrupted. “You don’t know youw way awound hewe, and you don’t wanna be caught now, do you?” Well, when she put it like that, she had a point. Then, she looked to Mick. “And...I’ww teww him I weft on my own. You didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“But Charlotte-”

“C’mon!” she tugged on Kevin’s hand. “We gotta get going! And fast! Peopwe are gonna be coming in soon!” With that, she practically dragged him out of the room, leaving Mick alone, he looking at a sewn up bed sheet underneath his bed. 

Cascade Cavern

“Well...we’re here.” Faerie quietly said, though her words echoed throughout the large, dark chamber. “Where are you?”

‘Shh!’ the voice said. ‘Not so loud! He’ll here you!’ 

“But, you WANT us to find you, right?” Duran questioned, noting to keep his voice down.

‘Well...yeah. But still...that doesn’t mean I-’ the voice was cut off, Duran and Faerie startled by another quake. Then another, and another. Wait a moment. Despite the force of them, these were quakes as before. No. These were lighter. And more frequent. ‘Too late.’ the voice uneasily said. ‘It’s coming! Hide!’

“Where are you though?” Duran questioned, all the while stepping near a large stalagmite to conceal himself. 

‘...inside.’ was all the voice could say, the shaking coming more and more close. 

While the chamber wasn’t well lit, it wasn’t completely lightless, allowing Duran and Faerie to see the general shape and objects that resided in it, that small bit of relief unable to totally be discerned as good or bad when the presumed source of the loud ‘thumps’ they had felt when they entered. Neither looked, but it sounded big, very big. Big and curious. Whether or not it could ‘smell’ them was unknown, yet it was clearly looking. Something had entered its domain. Small, but there was something about them. An energy. A similar energy that it had encountered before. 

Duran and Faerie had little time to do anything other than roll out of the way as a large claw came down on the rock formation they were hiding behind, forcing them out into the open and in the line of sight of the massive creature that had taken to dwelling here. Their assumptions were right: it WAS big. Enormous, massive even. Before them stood a beast with six legs and a large central body, all of which were coated in what appeared to be a hardened shell with spiked sections, notably near the eyes and on the back, as well as around the joints of the legs. The shell color differed between the sections, the central body a orangish brown while the legs were a turquoise blue. It bore large, white eyes with slit pupils, and a large mouth with several snaggletoothed fangs, all around the size of Duran’s forearm at most. Yet even while being in awe of its size, both of them found themselves searching for possibilities as to what exactly it could’ve been. Spider? No, there was no second segment, plus, not the right amount of legs. A crab? Hmm, perhaps, especially considering the shell, though there were no claws. Whatever it was, however, it seemed that it didn’t take too kindly to them being in its territory. However...the way that it was looking at Faerie...needless to say, the winged woman didn’t exactly like it. Dare say, it looked like what it might’ve possibly been when it found something it wanted to eat. 

And when it opened its mouth and lunged, the winged woman’s suspicions were confirmed. 

Hiding in Duran, the soldier leapt out of the way and drew out his sword. The creature thrust down one of its legs, the young man leaping out of the way and slashing at the leg, only to have his blade bounce off of the hard surface. Damn, this thing’s shell was harder than even thought it was! Nevertheless, this move got its attention and it whirled around to face him, opening its mouth and thrusting itself forward, Duran rolling out of the way again. 

“The hell?!” Duran cried out. “Why’s it trying to EAT me? Or rather, eat you?”

“It’s the Mana!” Faerie cried out. “LOOK OUT!” the creature lunged, Duran leaping out of the way. “It’s the Mana energy I have!” she explained. “Just like how it ate that other person, er, whatever, it wants to consume me and get MY Mana!” another lunge, another dodge. 

‘Exactly!’ the voice suddenly said. ‘You’ve gotta get me outta here, please!’ 

“A little hard to do that-” Duran was interrupted on having to move out of the way again. “When you’re constantly having to get out of the way-GAH!” a leg extended outward, the pointed edge of the ligament striking the young man right in the center of his chest, sending him flying against a stalagmite and bouncing off of it, landing in a pain riddled heap. His sword was dislodged from its grip, landing right on the other side of the creature. “Damn it to hell!” Duran cursed, getting up again, but he found a leg slamming down on him, pinning him to the ground on his stomach. Not hard enough to pierce him, yet with just a little more pressure, the creature very well could’ve torn right through him. He felt himself being dragged closer, then he felt another leg place itself on him, this time on his lower half. 

Then, it began to pull. 

Duran gasped in shock and Faerie shrieked, the former realizing what the creature was trying to do. He tried to struggle, Faerie emerging to try and fruitlessly beat against the legs, but the pulling continued. Further, further, further-

PLONK!

The creature was momentarily distracted from its task and turned to see just what had hit it. 

STAB!

The monster roared in agony, Riesz’s spear having up and pierced one of its eyes. Drawing back, the amazon, despite her rank and past experiences with combat, winced as clear fluid drained from the slice she had delivered, the entire eyeball deflating like a popped balloon. There was no blood or anything of the sort, it simply deflated and became little more than a soggy, flat piece of flesh, the socket completely empty and revealing a blackened spot. 

“Eugh…” Hawkeye grimaced, then looked to Riesz. “Little extreme, isn’t it?” 

“Hey, you’re not the one that was about to get torn apart!” Duran shot back, thankful to get back up on his feet, yet the problem of his sword still remained. 

Angela was the last to come in through the entrance, clearly irritated. “THERE you are! How dare you leave me...behind…” her words faltered upon realizing just what she and everyone else had walked into. She immediately shrieked and gestured to the creature. “That’s a Hugger!!!”

Everyone was puzzled. “A what?” Hawkeye asked, but no one was able to get in an answer as it lunged forward, its large mouth open and teeth ready to catch one of them and chomp them in half. Riesz rolled out of the way while the thief took hold of Angela’s wrist and ducked, sending both of them to the ground. Usually, the young woman would’ve issued quite the complaint about such rough treatment, but the massive creature they were with sort of put all that on the backburner. 

“A Hugger!” the ‘magician’ repeated. She remembered well the image of the creature that she had been reading in one of Jose’s books that she was to study. Along with various magical abilities, elemental differences, effectiveness, and general incantations, she was also to study the various creatures that could make use of such skills, which, unfortunately for her, covered quite a range of various flora and fauna. “It’s a creature that usually resides in cave systems and underground tunnels!” she cried out, she separated from Riesz and Hawkeye from the next slam with its leg. “But they NEVER get this big!”

“Is it some sort of mutant?!” Duran asked, still trying to get back the creature to get to his sword. 

‘Sorta!’ the voice said. ‘It’s because it ate me that it’s so gigantic! And it gets your faerie friend, then it’s just gonna get even bigger!’ Oh, wasn’t that lovely? ‘Listen, you can’t attack the outside! It’s hopeless! But,’ the voice then said. ‘I’ll give you a hint, try underneath!’

Underneath? As in...WHAM! “AHH!” Duran was drawn from his thoughts as he saw Angela lying on the ground, doubled over in pain with Riesz and Hawkeye on the other side of the creature. The amazon rushed forward to try and attack the other eye, yet a hardened lid that closed vertically than horizontally prevented her spear from piercing it, her weapon bouncing off of it, yet due to the longer handle, she was able to keep it in her grasp, albeit, it did nearly slip. Angela began to stand, seeing that the creature had centered its attention onto her, it inching closer to her, one of its legs raising up, aiming right for the center of her chest.

It never met though.

A form stepped in front of her fallen form, his shield blocking what was aimed towards her. Her green eyes widened as Duran struggled against the monster, he standing and keeping its leg away, yet the struggle could only go on so far, the young man clearly on the losing end. Hawkeye and Riesz looked on, struggling on what to do. The hide was seemingly impenetrable, and its only vulnerable spot, its eyes, were a good ways away from them. Not to mention, it could just kick them back, as it had more than a few legs to spare to keep itself balanced. Just then, it seemed that the thief got an idea. To Riesz’s surprise, the violet haired young man rushed forward and slid underneath the creature, daggers drawn out and scraped along the underside of the creature. The Hugger yowled as Hawkeye came in on the other side, Duran having been forced to his knees fighting against the creature’s force, yet now he was free, he and Angela were able to move away. All four of them looked on and, to their surprise, saw what appeared to be light emanating from underneath it. 

“What the…” Angela moaned, still clenching her teeth in pain, yet it was clear that something was happening.

‘Yes! Almost free!’ Duran heard the voice say, clearly ecstatic. ‘Just a little more, and you’ve got it!’

“Wait…” Faerie began, Duran feeling her growing realization, as well as her shock. “You! You...you’re a-”

‘We can go over the details later, hun! Right now, could you get me out of this little pinch?’

“Little?!” Duran shouted aloud. “This, let alone THIS thing here, is ANYTHING but little!” He was cut off from complaining further by the Hugger opening its mouth, yet instead of lunging forward, what appeared to be bubbles poured out from it, spewing them all over the three. Confusion was shared by them, yet it soon became clear that they were far from harmless, they popping and sending waves of pain all over where they touched, skin turning red and swollen where they popped. 

Riesz found herself unable to simply accept that she was out of reach any longer, and, despite her still lingering opinion on the thief, took a note from his book and slid under the creature, being momentarily blinded by the light. Though she saw something in the slits created by Hawkeye that made her gasp, she was still in shock when she came out on the other side. With a kick, she moved all three of them, the three falling over like dominos as the creature raised up on its hind legs, exposing its underside. Yet there was no time to strike, as it opened its mouth yet again, but instead of bubbles, a white, hot light began to form, shooting out and leaving a large crater where the four once stood, they had managed to get out of the way. Its assault wasn’t over though, a hot beam from its single eye shooting out, everyone just barely ducking out of its way as it tore through the stalagmites that were littered all throughout the chamber, getting to the cave walls and leaving deep gashes in the rock. 

“I...I saw something.” Riesz breathed out when she got the chance. “There was a face.”

“Face?” Angela asked. 

“Yes.” Riesz nodded. “A face...or something along those lines. I saw it through the gashes made. Something...I think something’s inside there!”

“What? That doesn’t make any sense!” Angela shot back.

“Well, neither does this thing being so big, but here we are!” Hawkeye mentioned, their eyes on the light pouring out from the delivered wounds as the Hugger then lowered itself. 

“Hurry!” Faerie pleaded. “I feel it weakening! But so is the one inside! His energy is nearly spent! Hurry, or he won’t make it!” 

Suddenly, the creature leapt up into the air, going higher and higher to everyone’s surprise. The light disappeared from view, everyone wondering where exactly it could’ve gone. Did it run away? Their answer was soon delivered to them as the light soon became visible again, seeing it quickly approaching them, its intentions to crush them all becoming known. And even more, there was nowhere to run. 

“HURRY!” Faerie hollered. “HURRY! NOW’S YOUR CHANCE!”

It was then that Duran understood. But...could it reach that far? Well, if he didn’t try, then they’d all be doomed. “Wait, what are you doing?!” Angela shouted, he rushed out in the center of the chamber while the rest of them were huddled in the farthest corner they could. Holding out his sword, he aimed and waited. Not exactly how the weapon was supposed to be used, but nevertheless, if it was the only thing that would work…

When it had reached just a few yards away, the soldier threw his sword upward, striking the Hugger in where one of the gashes were made, the Hugger howling in pain as Duran then rolled out of the way to join the others. The Hugger began to writhe and swing its legs wildly, it roaring as bubbly foam poured from its mouth. Then, the outer shell began to break, streams of bright light pouring out of it just like the gashes. Then more and more chincks were formed until several holes were created, this going on until eventually, the creature was consumed completely in light, blinding everyone from seeing anything more. 

Then, when everything had cleared, the creature was gone. And in its place was a far smaller, and presumably, far friendlier soul that had floated in their direction. 

“Ah, finally!” he said, voice chipper and relieved. “I thought I was NEVER going to get out of there!” it then noticed the bewildered humans. “Oh, so sorry! How rude of me! Name’s Lumina, Elemental of Light, Mana Spirit, and overall nice guy! Nice to meetcha! A pleasure!” the being was small around the same size of Faerie, it appeared to be an ever changing wisp of light and smoke, the ends of it dancing like a flickering flame, yet it also bore something of the look of a cloud, puffy and soft. The center of the wisp was a golden color with two, white eyes. On the outside of its form, light shone off of it, creating a rainbow spectrum to fade in and out.

Faerie emerged from Duran with widened eyes. “I KNEW it! I KNEW I felt something about you!” She then smiled. “You’re an Elemental!”

“Yessire, little lady!” Lumina giggled. Rather cheery for something that was presumably on death’s door before. “And thank you ALL for releasing me from the belly of that Full Metal Meanie! That guy was such a brute! Went and gobbled me RIGHT up and didn’t even bother to ask me how I felt about it! Am I right? I swear!” 

“Uh...yeah.” Angela said.

“You’re...most welcome?” Riesz said after.

“Yeah. What she said.” Hawkeye answered.

“I think.” Duran finished. 

“Lumina,” Faerie took charge of the conversation. “It’s good that we found you. The-”

“Tree is withering.” Lumina finished, then looked at the humans. “And Mana itself is fading from the world.” His pleasantness died, grim foreboding taking its place, he looking upward to seemingly the ceiling. Or rather, something above it. “The Seal is weakening too. The emenisions off it just reek with the energy of what’s sealed inside it.” it then sighed. “I don’t think it’ll be long now…”

Chapter Text

There he was. Finally, he had finally reached him. Yet...what would the old man's reaction be? True, perhaps he was being overly cautious, yet given the treatment he had received in Jadd, he supposed that following Charlotte's lead was probably for the best. It got him this far, didn't it? "Weww, whatcha waiting for?" he heard the girl whisper, he then felt a push on his backside. "Go on! Tawk to him!"

Kevin began to move his foot, but he stopped himself from moving. Just what would he say? Priest of Light or not, would he have any hang ups on what he was? After all, as Charlotte said, a barrier had previously been put up by him to keep his kind out. Though...just what had dismantled it?

"My son," an old voice suddenly said. "Come out. I know that something ails you." Kevin's voice nearly died in his throat. How did he know he was here?! Either he hadn't been making himself all that scarce or the old man's perception was better than he imagined. "It's all right. And you can bring my granddaughter with you." it was Charlotte's turn to be shocked. Great she thought, her plan to form her statement had up and been ruined.

Well...there was no use putting it off any further, the two emerged from their hiding place and entered the worship area of the temple, the man in white robes locking eyes with both of them as they approached the podium.

Cascade Cavern

"Sure you fine folks have been feeling some rather nasty quakes, am I right?" Lumina asked. "Well, you have Mr. Meanie to thank for that, but that's not all," he looked up to the ceiling. "The even MEANER Benevodon is probably the one that called that guy over here! I've never officially met them, but that Stone's ALWAYS given me bad vibes! It's like they've had beef with me since the day I was created!" the Light Elemental huffed.

Everyone was silent for a moment. "Lumina," Faerie asked. "Where exactly IS the Light Stone?"

"Oh, yeah, about that…" the Elemental began. "It's just above here. Nestled in the heart of the old ruins up above."

"Wait," Hawkeye interjected. "There's a series of ruins in this cave?"

"Righty-o!" Lumina chirped. "Right at the very top! Only, you can't exactly get there."

"Why?" Riesz questioned.

"Oh, no, no, no! It's safe!" the Elemental assured. "For now at least. Last time I checked though, there were cracks showing up on it. That guy's REALLY eager to get out."

It was then that Angela remembered. "Speaking of," she began. "How do you release the energy from the stones?"

"Huh?" Lumina tilted his 'head'. "Don't think I read you on that, hun."

"I mean, let's just say...hypothetically, I wanted to receive power from the stone. Like, all its power. How would I go about doing that? Because…" she paused, biting her lip, bringing her hand up to her cheek. She could still feel the sting of her mother's hand. "Because I heard of a spell that can let you do that."

"And I hope you're nice enough of a lady to not even THINK of using it." Lumina said grimly, heavily contrasting with his attitude before. "Granted, there IS a way that you can utilize the energy from the Mana Stones...just, it's not the whole thing. You only get just ENOUGH of the power, but none of you guys could handle it the way you are now! No way!" He noticed that Duran seemed to be frustrated at this point. "But if you wanted to release all the energy totally...then you would need to perform a specific ceremony for it." Lumina seemed to shudder, his already spectral form wavering. "It's an ancient spell that, if performed right, could harness ALL the energy in the stone and bend it to the user's will. But there was a catch."

"That the caster would die, right?" Angela said through gritted teeth.

"...yeah. But they found a way around this." Lumina continued. "If those that wanted to release the energy to stay alive, then they could make a...wager." the wisp shuddered, clearly uncomfortable with this. "If they brought somebody, then, using their blood, they could make a 'pact' of sorts with the beast inside. If the life of the one who's blood stained the stone is forfeit, then it will be accepted, and thus, the energy will be unlocked."

"So...so that's how it is." Angela hissed, hands clenched into fists. "They...they were gonna…" the other three looked to each other, not exactly certain why she was having such a reaction, yet the young woman was clearly upset. "Koren, you bastard…" she lowered her voice for that part, the others unable to hear it. Still, it seemed Duran had the beginnings of a suspicious eye on her.

"Yeah. It's not a pretty thing." Lumina confessed. "In fact, the entire world went to war once over it. Everyone wanted to acquire the other Mana Stones that were elsewhere, so both fighting amongst neighbors and using their own people as sacrifices went on. It got so bad that now, at least, from what I was last aware by the last group of humans that I knew, such a procedure was banned throughout the entire world." he then sighed. "Though, I guess some things are destined to repeat themselves…" then, as if a switch had been turned, his tone was back to being chipper and pleasant. "That's why it's a good thing you're getting us all together!"

"Wait, what?" all four of them asked in unison. Then, it seemed Faerie understood.

"Yes! Of course! Why didn't I think of it before?!"

"Think of what? What are you talking about?" Duran asked, eager to know what else they were potentially being pulled into.

"The Elementals!" the winged woman exclaimed. "The Elementals are Mana incarnate!"

"That we are!" Lumina confirmed.

"We don't even NEED the stones to open the way! We can just harness the powers of the Elementals and combine them with what little power I have left to open the way! Then the Mana Sword is as good as ours!"

"Yep!" Lumina agreed. "Now, from what I'm aware, last time I saw Gnome was in-"

"Hey, hey, whoa! Stop!" Duran suddenly spoke up. "I told you, I...we are NOT getting involved with all of this!"

Wendel

"My, so many visitors today." The Priest noted quietly, neither Charlotte or Kevin able to hear him.

"Gwandpa?" the girl asked. "What happened to the bawwiew?"

The old man sighed. "That, I do not know entirely. But...I have a suspicion." yet before either of them could ask, he continued. "Yet in due time. For now, who is this young man, Charlotte? Better yet, where have you been?" his tone grew more firm. "Do you know how rattled everyone's been since you've gone? You've had a lot of people very scared."

Charlotte lowered her head. "I'm sowwy. But...but you don't undewstand!" she explained. "I had to do it! Heath's in dangew!"

It wasn't exactly the most polite thing to do, yet he sensed that if he didn't get this in, he wouldn't ever get his chance at all. He didn't come all this way just to have the very reason he came at all pushed to the side. "Priest!" Kevin exclaimed, interrupted Charlotte. "Bring Karl back!"

The old man was both bewildered and befuddled. Indeed, it seemed that there was more significance attached to this day and the subsequent visitors than he could've imagined. "Karl?"

"My...friend." Kevin answered, lowering his head, the sight of the marker of his grave still in his mind. "My friend...killed." he continued. "I...I didn't mean…" he stopped himself. No, he didn't need to know that part. The blood on his hands...he COULDN'T know that part! "He's...gone." Kevin went on. He knew well what Karl was, and he was NOT just 'gone'. But 'dead'...even now, he couldn't let the word come in, a good portion of him still resisting even acknowledging it. "But...but you can bring him back!" his tone raised up, clinging to the bit of hope that brought him all this way. "Please. I...I can't go on without him. Karl...Karl is everything." Charlotte could've sworn that, despite his attempts to keep himself together, the development of tears were beginning in the corners of his eyes. "You're the only one that can help me. Please...Karl…"

The Priest stiffened. This was nothing new to him, he had received similar pleas before. Yet there was only one answer he could give, painful as it was. "My son, such things are beyond my power. Despite however far word may reach about me, I am not a god."

"Wh-What?" Kevin stammered. "But...but…"

"Dear boy, I am deeply sorry for your grievous loss, but please remember, we are all tied to the cycle of life and death. We cannot escape it, yet that does not mean it has to be reviled or hated. Yes, we may hate the results, and even shout curses against these very forces, but they cannot be changed. They are the very foundations in which life functions. Your friend, Karl, has met his end, yet this does not mean that this is the end for him, let alone the end for you."

"But…" Kevin continued, shaking his head in disbelief in what he was hearing. "But Karl-"

"Karl's spirit lives on, both in places out of reach, and in you." The Priest continued. "Try to remember what you two shared, and keep those times in your heart and mind. In that, he shall always be with you, and in that, you will never be apart, for you shall be a part of each other."

Kevin went silent and merely looked to the ground, trembling. Then, he turned and made a beeline for the door, barging through the doors that led to the worship area. "Kevin!" Charlotte called out, about to go after him, only to feel a hand seize her wrist.

"You can go comfort him in due time." Her grandfather told her. "First thing's first though." he narrowed his brows. "Just what were you doing outside of the city?"

Cascade Cavern

Both Faerie and Lumina's elation took a nosedive. "Uh...heh heh," Lumina laughed nervously. "What do you mean?"

Duran folded his arms. "Like I told that Priest, I didn't sign up for this, and neither did they!" he gestured to Angela, Hawkeye, and Riesz. "So no, we're NOT going to go on some crazy quest to open this Holyland and get some sword or whatever the hell you want us to do."

Lumina and Faerie went silent. "But…" the Elemental began to stammer. "But you're here. And with a faerie no less...so, I thought…"

"Well, sorry, but you thought wrong." it was Angela's turn to speak, folding her arms. "I came here to learn-" she stopped herself "To...learn how to better my magic."

"And I don't suppose you know anything about a 'choker of death', do you?" Hawkeye added in."

"And all this won't get me any closer to what I need." Riesz sighed. 'Elliot…'

"Aw, that's too bad." all of them froze up, looking towards the entrance to the chamber, a group of beastmen, the head of the group garbed in a red robe and had blonde, long hair atop of his head. "You guys look like you could make a pretty good team."

Everyone tensed up, the beastman at the front bearing a toothy grin. "And you are?" Angela asked, raising a brow.

"We'll be taking the Light Stone from you all, thank you!" Ludgar laughed, then directed his eyes to Lumina. "And maybe your new little friend too!"

"As if!" Lumina barked. "I'm not up for grabs!" then, to everyone's surprise, he disappeared.

"Where'd he go?!" one of the other beastmen questioned, he and the other one with him looking around.

"Hey, you!" the blonde rushed up, taking the nearest of the four, that being Angela, and seizing her by the shoulders. "Where'd that Spirit go?!"

"I don't know, why not ask him yourself?" the young woman asked. "Then again, he might not exactly be interested in conversing with somebody who's missing a few brain cells."

Ludgar snarled, showing his developed canines. "Then maybe I should make said brain cells even." he then raised his fist.

Hey, watch it!" Angela shouted, grabbing her staff. "I'm a trained magician and HIGHLY dangerous! So you better back off before-"

WHAM!

The fist made direct contact with the underside of her jaw, Angela went flying back and bounced off the ground before coming to a stop, her form silent and unmoving.

"Hey!" Hawkeye shouted, everyone rushing over to the young woman's side, seeing she was totally unconscious. "Hitting on a pretty lady, you guys have got no class!"

"Class doesn't get you ahead in war!" Ludgar chuckled, then looked at the two beastmen with him. "Get them!"

"Yes sir!" the two said in unison, charging towards the remaining, conscious three readying themselves. They held up their weapons and set forth to beat down their opponents, yet as they ran forward, they realized that, to their horror, the battle with the Full Metal Hugger had taken more out of them than they realized.

Duran drew out his recovered sword and shield, one beastman's fist stopped by the shield yet his backside was left open, a blow upside his head being delivered and forcing the soldier to the ground. He attempted to get up, yet Ludgar seized him in a headlock, keeping him from both moving and from making use of either of his weapons. In fact, a knee to his mid back caused the young man to loosen his grip just enough for them to drop to the ground. Riesz spun her spear and jabbed forward, the beastman moving out of the way and dashing forward. She put up the hilt of her spear to keep him from drawing closer, yet a strike to her back made her lose focus, the beastman in front of her headbutting her and sending her right to the ground. They then directed their attention on Hawkeye, one beastman leaping towards him and the thief leaping up and using his shoulders as a means to get over him, yet his plan was destroyed as even more beastmen came into the chamber, one shoving himself right into the young man, then another, and another. A whole group of them were now in the chamber, Ludgar looking down to Duran.

"I suppose I have you to thank for lowering the barrier." the commander sneered. "Thanks a lot, kid! Now the invasion can get underway!"

"B-Bastard…" Duran hissed, feeling his air being cut off.

"Yeah, yeah. Love you too." Ludgar continued his hold until the young man stopped struggling and went limp. Then, seeing he was now unconscious, he let him drop to the ground alongside his weapons, the beastman looking upon the now downed forms of the four. "Take them back to Jadd. And fling their weapons in the sea!" he then folded his arms, Goremand coming to stand beside him.

"Ah...such fine specimens." he giggled. "Would you like to use any of these as an offering for the Stone?"

Ludgar shook his head. "No." he said plainly. "Once the stone's acquired, then that issue can be dealt with."

He didn't show it, but the jester was becoming frustrated. Still, in a little bit, perhaps it wouldn't matter. After all, the rest of the forces had been alerted that the barrier was obsolete, and had gone to prepare. And, as before, if he couldn't get Ludgar to act, then he would take it upon himself to gather an offering himself. And, as before, he already had someone perfect in mind.

Wendel

"...and that's what happened." Charlotte sniffed, simply recounting the whole ordeal more than a little much for her to bear. Her grandfather soothingly rubbed the top of the girl's head. Despite the severe amount of trouble she was in, he wouldn't deny her such a thing. "I...I don't know why that bad man wanted Heath, but I afwaid that he...he's…" she then burst into tears again. "What if he comes back for me now?! Or wowse, what if he comes for you?! With the bawwiew down…oh, Gwandpa!" she wailed, burying her face into his robes.

"Now, now." he told her, being as soothing as he could. "Nothing will happen to you Charlotte. That I promise."

"But...but…" she stammered out.

"I swear to the Goddess Herself." he assured her. "Nothing will happen. Not if I can help it."

"PRIEST!" a young man's voice shouted, echoing throughout the worship area.

"Calm yourself, son!" the old man urged, going to him while Charlotte followed behind. "Now, what is going on?"

The young man that had come from Astoria only panicked further, looking back from where he had come from. "They….here!"

"What?" The Priest asked, though a part of him wished he hadn't.

"They're here! The beastmen! They're here!"

Outside

When Kevin had made his exit, he had remembered that he wasn't exactly supposed to be seen, so he tried to make himself scarce by sneaking by the priests that were standing nearby the door, though he soon found that such a tactic wasn't necessary, as they seemed to be distracted by something further ahead. And indeed, it didn't take long for Kevin to notice either.

From over the mountainside, large winged birds flew, the passengers aboard them very clearly figures he was familiar with. And in the city, it seemed that not all of the incoming invaders even came by hellrider, a good portion of beastmen had emerged from the mouth of the cave and began storming the area.

And the sun was startling to lower completely, allowing the moon to take complete dominion over the sky.


"GAH!" The two men couldn't get out an entire scream as the scythe sliced clean through them, but surprisingly, it didn't draw any blood, let alone did it cleave them in two. Rather, the blade of the scythe was glowing a ghostly white when it had done the deed, two spherical orbs rising from the now still forms of the unfortunate priests. Their attacker sprang forward and caught both of them in his gloved hand, opening his mouth unnaturally wide and shoveling them, and his entire forearm, down his throat.

"Ahh…" the jester moaned in pleasure, drawing out his arm and then rubbing his still lean stomach. "I haven't tasted such purity in quite a while." his beady, yellow eyes surveyed around him, noting the abundance of panicked souls running around, particularly a small, pigtailed girl that had just tripped. Pity that he didn't actually take a bite out of that young child he had seen earlier. Still, perhaps it was good that he waited until later. After all, what good was dinner without dessert?

"Mommy!" she wailed, the brick tiling below her having skinned her knees. "Daddy! Where are you?!" she lifted herself up, looking around desperately for any sign of her parents.

"Dear!?" a female voice suddenly was heard. "Dear, where are you!?"

"Mommy?" she reached out, hearing someone coming, unable to see well through the crowd of scurrying people.

"There now…" the voice continued, though upon feeling the hand clasp hers, as well as seeing the owner of said hand, she saw it was the furthest thing from her mother. "See? Everything's ok now!" Goremand chortled, holding the girl tight as she screamed and pulled, desperate to get away.

"Not for you!" the jester suddenly found himself grabbed from behind, his grip loosening on the girl and allowing her to escape. Though he couldn't turn his head, he recognized the voice all too well.

"Well, well, well, fancy meeting you here, little prince!" Goremand chuckled. "How was your trip here? Did you have fun? Was it nice seeing all your friends in Jadd?"

"Quiet you!" Kevin tightened his hold. "What are you doing here?!"

"Oh, not much!" Goremand answered. "Just on a little routine assignment! Speaking of, how did your visit to the old Priest go? Any news on Karl?" he noticed how the young beastman went silent. "Oh, I see. Well, isn't that just too bad? Guess my intel was a little off!"

"SHUT UP!" Kevin tossed him to the side, yet before he could hit the ground, the jester extended his hands and essentially flipped himself rightside up again. "You lied!" Kevin roared, not even noticing another figure coming behind him.

"Hmm, maybe I did. But hey, you're here, so c'mon! Join the party!" Goremand happily cheered. "Everyone's gonna have a big ol' get together at the old ruins atop of the mountain!"

"What?" Kevin questioned, though really, should he have even been indulging this creep?

"Yep! Just up there!" the jester pointed to the top of the hill that the cavern was nestled in. "Everyone's gonna come! But first we need the guest of honor…" he then turned to face the large temple.

Kevin didn't understand, yet a few moments are the jester dashed off, his eyes widened in terrible comprehension. Yet before he could go, he felt a hand seize his shoulder. "It's been some time, hasn't it princling?"

Temple

"Charlotte, stay here." the old man said firmly, moving down the hall.

"But Gwandpa-"

"Stay." he repeated, the girl ultimately obeying, though he wondered for how long. Seeing as she pulled something like what had happened before, who knew what else she'd try? He was about to open the doors when a massive blade punctured one of them, the blade appearing to belong to that of a large sickle or scythe, it just barely missed him by mere inches.

"Gwandpa!" Charlotte shrieked, about to run forward to assist her relative.

"Charlotte! Stay back!" The Priest ordered, readying himself, calling upon his power, two spherical lights forming in his hands. The youth that had come in to warn them of the incoming beastmen, both then and now, found his own feet moving to aid the old man.

Just then, the blade drew back, a yellow eye looking through the hole created directly at the old man. "Your Eminence! Look out!" the young man shouted, rushing and pushing the Priest back, just as a blade sliced clean through the doors, just barely missing the youth by mere inches. The doors fell down, revealing the intruder, weapon and all.

Charlotte found herself unable to breathe. "Y-You!" she cried out, pointing to the jester. "It's you! It's you!" She then looked to her grandfather. "That's him! That's the guy that took Heath!"

"Oooh, hey there, darling!" Goremand greeted, sneering at the girl's obvious terror. "Long time no see! Fancy seeing you here." he then began to approach, yet he was stopped by her grandfather getting in his way.

"Don't you dare lay one hand on her or anyone else in this temple!" he ordered, only getting a mad giggle from the jester.

"Ohohoho! And the Priest of Light himself! Ah, how do you do, good sir?" Goremand questioned, giving a small curtsey, his gaze fixed on the old man, predatory and longing.

"What are you doing here?" the old man asked firmly, clearly having none of it.

"Why dear Priest, where's the hospitality? I thought this was a place that welcomed all forms of life!"

"And to protect those from harm. Of which you wish to inflict on the innocent souls here."

"Heh heh heh...you got me." Goremand chuckled. "But lucky for you, I don't have any intention of striking you down here." he then smacked his lips. "Not yet anyway."

"What do you mean?"

"Your Eminence!" the young man shouted, having grabbed one of the torch posts. "I'll deal with him!" he then dashed forward towards the jester.

"Wait, no!" there was no time to warn him any further, the jester sliced clean through the young man's means of defense and with a push of his foot on his stomach, knocked him back several feet, sending him flying into the podium and knocking it over.

"Mistew!" Charlotte cried out, running over to the young man. From what she could see, he was unconscious, but breathing. She then noticed her grandfather still contending with the jester.

"Holy Bolt!" the old man shouted, beams of light shooting from his hands. Goremand leapt upward, out of the way of the blasts. Despite his insistence in making use of this man, the otherworldly being knew well that those beams wouldn't be good for him in the slightest. Again and again, the holy man sent blasts in the jester's direction, said jester only continuing to bounce and leap over them as the beams continued to damage and tear through the objects and areas he once stood.

"You're much too slow, old man!" Goremand laughed. "C'mon! C'mon! Give it your best shot! Hahaha! Is that all you've got?! You're out of your prime, grandpa!"

On and on and on he continued to use the elemental attack, yet indeed, despite him trying to block them out and continue, the Priest found his energy beginning to wane. Still, he had to keep standing. For that young man and those in Wendel. And Charlotte...oh, Charlotte. "Holy Bolt-AH!"

"GWANDPA!"

The Priest of Light fell to the floor, then attempting to get up, yet was held firmly down by a pointed shoe. "Perhaps I should fill you in on something." Goremand said. "Me and my new 'friends' are gonna have a big ol' party up at the old ruins nearby! The Light Stone, at least from what I hear, is a super eye catching attraction!"

The old man's eyes widened in horror. "You...you wouldn't. You know what'll happen if you-"

"Oh, trust me! It's gonna be AWESOME! And," the jester grinned wide. "It's gonna be even MORE awesome when the little guy inside, along with the rest of his friends, come out to play when we FINALLY break them out! But in order to do that, we need to get a LITTLE, itty bitty thing called the Mana Sword." Charlotte began to get herself together. "And to do that, we need to open a LITTLE place called the Mana Holyland! And to do THAT, we need to harness the energy of these LITTLE things called Mana Stones. And," Goremand leaned in closer. "As I'm sure you know, you can't exactly do that without performing a little...ritual first." his smile widened as the old man's hazel eyes widened in terror. "And guess what? We were considering maybe inviting YOU as a guest of honor."

"GET AWAY FWOM HIM!"

Goremand whirled his head around and clasped the head of the young girl, lifting her up off the floor, the rest of her body wriggling as she wildly punched the air in an attempt to hit him. He tightened his fingers around her head, causing her to emit a pained whine. "Then again," the jester looked to the girl he now held in his hand. "Maybe the Benevodon LIKES the taste of younger blood…"

"N-No!" the old man began to plead. "Spare her!" Goremand's foot pressed down harder on his chest. "Sh-She's still so young!"

"Not as young as she looks, isn't that right?" the jester questioned, bringing Charlotte just mere inches away from his mask-like face. "Your granddaughter here has a rather peculiar bloodline, doesn't she? And I bet an even more delicious soul…"

"You...you'we sick! You cweep! Wet go of me!" Charlotte demanded, kicking her legs fruitlessly.

"So...what will it be, old man?" Goremand questioned. "Either you or her, the Benevadon is surely growing impatient after being trapped after all this time. Surely, if you champion kindness and good will, you can spare a part of yourself for others in need."

"I...all right! All right!" the Priest barked out, the pressure on his chest growing unbearable. "Take and do with me as you wish! But don't lay a hand on my granddaughter! Please!"

"Gwandpa, no!" Charlotte shouted. She looked to him with tear filled eyes, his old form transforming into that of Heath. The same situation, she, again, only made things worse. "G-Get away fwom him!" she felt 'something' beginning to stir inside her. What it was, she was unsure, yet her focus was on the creature that held both her and her grandfather down. The half elf balled up her fist, feeling a strange wave of energy rush to it. Just what WAS this? Whatever the case, she felt the power, and by the Goddess, she was going to make use of it. "I said…" she then opened her palm and thrust it in the jester's face. "Get away fwom him!"

A beam of hot, white light shot out from her palm and made direct contact with Goremand, the light momentarily blinding her from just how close it was, yet Charlotte could hear a yowl of pain come from the jester, he letting her go and stepping back off of her grandfather. Upon being dropped, the attack stopped, Charlotte stumbling over when she tried to get back on her feet. Just what had that been?

"You...you little…" Goremand hissed, cupping his face. She couldn't see much, yet from what little she got to notice, it seemed that part of his face had begun...peeling? "You DARE-"

He never got to finish as a form was tossed right into him, knocking him to the side as a blonde, familiarly dressed werewolf was thrown inside of the chamber, his attacker, a larger werewolf dressed in red, came forward, the smaller of the two stationed right in the center of the moonlight coming from the circular, stained glass window above. Charlotte was staring at the creature with widened eyes, and when it gazed at her, she backed up, yet seeing how he was dressed, as well as his hair, she realized who it was. And who it was she had also met in Astoria. "Kevin…"

The larger werewolf approached the two, the smaller, Kevin, standing, though he had clearly been through quite a tussle. Slashes and several scratches had covered most of his body, one eye was blackened, and a cheek appeared to be swollen. Having stepped into the shaded portion that stood over the door frame, Ludgar revealed himself, folding his arms over his chest. "One would've thought that time outside of your world of comfort would've done you some good." Kevin only said nothing. "Guess some things never change, no matter where you go." he then turned his attention to the Priest of Light. "Get up, old man. You're coming with us." he went to reach for him, yet, to his surprise, a burst of light emitted from him, blowing the beastman back to join Goremand on the floor, both of them both blinded and blown back by it, though it seemed the jester was the only one to actually be experiencing any pain from it.

"Come! Quickly!" The Priest said, gesturing to Charlotte and Kevin. "Both of you!" After giving himself a good shake, Kevin was about to take Charlotte's hand, only to have her take his first. Nevertheless, the two followed the old man, surprised that he could run at such a speed in his old age. Up the stairs they went, and around several corners until they reached what appeared to be a simple bedroom, the Priest opening and digging through a chest at the foot of the bed. "Ah, here!" he then pulled out what appeared to be a silver flail with star-shaped objects on the ends of the chains, the hilt taking the appearance of a 'cup' at the upper portion. "Here, Charlotte." the Priest said, handing the weapon to her. "I was hoping to have to never give you this...but it seems that I've been in denial for too long."

"What?" though she didn't understand, Charlotte found herself taking the weapon. "What is this?"

"This was your father's when he was younger. Around your age."

"My age?"

"Well...more or less." he answered. Things such as that were probably things that she'd always be delayed in, even if she had lived for fifteen years. "Your father always fashioned himself as something of one who would see the world one day." he sighed. "And indeed...he saw more than that in his travels." the image of a man and woman came to mind. By the Goddess, seeing her, she looked JUST like her mother...the mother that he had only scarcely met.

"Gwandpa?"

What was he doing, getting sidetracked like this?! He had a job to do! "This is now yours, Charlotte. You will need it."

"What? Why?" Charlotte questioned.

"Because you can no longer stay here." The holy man said.

"Wh-What?"

"I've been denying the signs for too long. The danger to Mana and the world are too great. Your ability to perceive and sense these changes...I cannot express how much I wish for this not to be, as even with your true age, you're still so young." he then glanced to Kevin. "Both of you are. But…" he sighed.

"Gwandpa?" Charlotte bit her lip. He was clearly wishing to say something, yet appeared to be having difficulty wording it.

"Truth be told...I suspected that this day would come. Both this, and your departure from Wendel." before she could ask what he meant, he continued. "I had a vision. Some time ago, yet for nights, it has come to me." he cupped his granddaughter's cheek. "You stood at the base of a great, mighty tree with five others, in a land far from this world. And in the roots of that tree rested a sword. The champion of all swords. And…" he sighed, his breath hitching. "And that's when I realized where you were. And what you are called to do."

"Gwandpa. I...I don't undewstand…"

"I'm so sorry, dear Charlotte. But it must be this way." he then turned to Kevin. "Take her from here and keep her by her side. If luck is with you, then they shouldn't have gone too far by now. If Jadd is being held, then there won't be much elsewhere for them to go."

"What are you talking about?" Kevin questioned, but the old man continued.

"Seek the one with the faerie."

"Faewie?"

"You won't be able to see her, yet the young man she has bonded with is garbed in the attire of a Valsenian soldier and has hot blood with the mane of a lion to match. He carries a sword and shield, and with him are four other youths. A young woman from Altena, a young man from Nevarl, and a young woman from Laurant. Find them, and you'll be safe, as well as where you're being called to be."

"But...but Gwandpa…" Charlotte began, shaking her head. She had been so sure of herself before when she began her trek from here, yet now? Now, everything was happening too fast. "I...I don't wanna…"

"Charlotte...oh, Charlotte." he then embraced her. "I'm sorry, but this is out of my hands. You...you must go. And if anything, you cannot stay here, either way. If what you said about Heath was true, then I doubt that jester will be so merciful on you now."

"Jester?" Kevin questioned. "Was he thin? Purple clothes?"

"And a weiwd face?" Charlotte finished, both of their eyes widening in shock. "...what did he do to you?"

"Please, such things can be talked over later." the Priest urged. "Please, my son." he addressed Kevin. "I beg you. Take my granddaughter and leave this place. Find the soldier of Valsena and the other three. There, you shall find what you are looking for." he then went on. "You may find a way to bring back your friend."

Kevin's eyes brightened. "K-Karl?" he asked. "Bring back Karl?!"

"Perhaps." the old man said. "But please, protect her." he took Kevin's hand. "I'm begging you." he then leaned in closer, whispering in the beastman's ear. "I don't know whether or not I'll survive this night. So, should these be my last words, please give me the assurance that I can trust her in your care."

Kevin was silent at first, frankly at a loss on what to say. True, the task in coming here had been due to a death, yet to hear such a thing in such a short span of time from one another? "I...I'm not-"

"Please." the old man said again. "I can't protect her anymore, so I need someone else, if just for a short time. She's all that is left of my family."

Kevin was silent again, though, after a short while, he found an answer coming to him. Albeit, it was one said with a degree of uncertainty. "I...I will. Promise."

"Do not promise me this if you don't mean it, boy." the old man's voice was firm.

"I promise." Kevin repeated, voice firm (though lacking the parental edge) as well.

"Guys!" a voice said from behind the entrance to the room, everyone peering to see Mick. "They're coming! And there's more of them!"

"We have to hurry!" the Priest of Light said, everyone rushing out of the room ahead of him, yet he seized Kevin by the arm. "I know I'm asking much of you already, but-"

"Yep." Kevin finished for him. "Mick will go too." he then gave a thumbs up. "Gotta protect young ones." he saw the old man's face relax somewhat, clearly relieved.

"We can take Springy!" Mick said. "I've got an extra parachute we can take too!"


Ludgar roared, his transformed state making him, like other beastmen, lose their voice, yet another language of grunts, snarls, and roars was more than understandable. Several werewolves rushed in the temple, all with the goal of seizing the old man that had gone up the higher levels of the temple. He began to take off as well, "Wait." yet a voice stopped him. Turning, he saw Goremand had risen, his face finally having healed up, flesh rearranging itself as if it were wax. "I'm going with you." a puzzled growl came from the commander, the jester not exactly sounding all that jovial anymore. "That girl...she needs to be exterminated. Now." he gripped the handle of his weapon. "And if you know what's good for you, you'll exterminate that prince of yours as well."


"Ok, and...done!" The sewn bed sheets were tied to Kevin's back in the same manner they had been tied to Charlotte's some time ago. "Now, you saw where Springy is, right?" Kevin nodded in response. "Great! Now…" he looked to the Priest. "I guess….this is goodbye?"

"Gwandpa, no!" Charlotte wailed, holding her grandfather's robes. "I don't wanna! I don't wanna go! What'ww happen to you?! I don't wanna go! Not without you!"

"Charlotte, look at me." he gently, but firmly, took her chin. "I'm sorry about all this, but you need to be strong. Please. I would let you stay if I could...but I cannot be selfish. For your sake, for your life, and perhaps the lives of others, you must leave."

"But...but…"

"Ask yourself: what would Heath do?"

Charlotte was shocked by such a question, yet she remembered well the night he left. "He…" she began shakily. "He would do what he needed to."

The Priest then looked to Kevin. "I trust you with her life, as well as the life of this young boy. Please, do not fail me."

"I won't." Kevin assured, moving towards the window with both of them in tow.

"Gwandpa...good-" Charlotte began, but stopped herself. "I'ww see you water." and with a wave, she, Kevin, and Mick all exited through the open window, climbing the ivy down to the ground, yet when they were at a reasonable enough distance from the ground, they dropped and made a run for the springstepper.

The Priest of Light could only look on helplessly, seeing the three go off. Yet he couldn't stay. He had to get to the highest point of the temple, and fast, lest his plan for all the people here, Charlotte, that young man, and Mick included, come to nothing.

Outside

"There he is!" Mick shouted, the springstepper just ahead. The monster jumped slightly, happy to see his owner. "Hey, boy!" Mick gave a light pat to his head. "You miss me?" Springy nodded, the 'spring' in his middle causing his head to shake back and forth wildly. "Listen boy," Mick said. "I...I have to go." the springstepper tilted his head. "I don't know when...or if I'll be back." the monster seemed to be panicked at hearing this, his head shaking 'no'. "Hey, I'm sorry, I can't do anything about it! But...if I don't," he hugged the monster. "Keep yourself safe, ok?" Springy cooed, rubbing his head in the crook of Mick's neck. After a few moments of this, though both wished it could've been longer, Springy lowered himself, ready to be used.

At the top of the Temple

The sight of the city being overwhelmed shattered his old heart, the weight of it, as well as what Charlotte had delivered to him. Heath...taken by the same monster that now sided with these invaders. And yet, Charlotte didn't speak of him harming the young man. And indeed, a good portion of him doubted that the young priest was dead. But for what reason would the beastmen invade? Had not their king assisted the world in the Peddan War? Had this rage and feeling of not being treated as equals to their human brethren been under the surface all this time? And what of the ghoulish creature with them? He was certainly of no natural origin, the dark energy practically radiating off of him. Such darkness...he would put a stop to it.

"Ah ha!" he heard a voice from behind cry out. "So, THIS is where you are!" he didn't need to be told who the voice belonged to. "And here I was worried you were a poor sport and ran away!"

"Hardly." the Priest told Goremand, turning to face him, Ludgar also there the moonlight unable to touch him in the shadow of the doorframe. The three of them were the only ones on the high balcony. "This comes to an end, here and now."

"Oh, does it now?" Ludgar questioned. "Well, perhaps you're right. It WILL come to an end. You, and this city." he then stepped out, the moonlight shining down on him, allowing his hidden, bestial side to emerge forth.

"The only thing left is the Stone!" Goremand giggled. "The game's up, gramps! Come with us nice and quietly, and maybe, just maybe, a COUPLE of souls will survive this night!" he positioned his scythe to where the moon glimmered off its blade. The Priest of Light was silent. He only extended his arms outward and took in a heavy breath. Ludgar looked to Goremand, releasing a confused growl, the jester too had little idea what he was trying to do, but now, even he was ready to admit that it was high time for things to get done. "Come on, old man!" the jester shouted. "The Light Stone awaits!" he then seized the man by the wrist. "Of course...I could always make a small trip to show you to the Master!" the Priest said nothing, yet his eyes opened in response. "Oh, so THAT got something out of you!" the jester giggled. "Yeah, you might not recognize him now, but he and you...he said you go WAAAY back. Back even before the War." the Priest's features stiffened in comprehension. "Ah, so you DO know who I'm talking about." Goremand chortled before shaking his head. "Shame it ended so badly between you two. But hey, before our little rendezvous to the Stone, we can drop by! Heath's there too! They've both been curious about you!" he smiled. "Maybe we can bring that pretty granddaughter of yours too." he smacked his lips. "She tasted so sweet…"

That was it. The jester's chattering had given him time to prepare, but now, there was no holding it back any longer.

Goremand stepped back, the Priest's whole body becoming enveloped in light. Ludgar let out a shocked growl while the jester only stepped back. He knew well what sort of magic this was, already feeling his flesh growing hot. "RUN!" he shouted, yet it was too late.

Though they were high in the air now, Charlotte, Kevin, and Mick looked back, only to see a white, hot light emit near the top of the temple, then rush out to consume all of Wendel, they two being engulfed and feeling a tremendous force push them forward, everything turning white.

"I don't if I can deliver anything but a goodbye, Charlotte...please, forgive me."

 

Chapter Text

The Pure Land

The Holy Land

The Sanctuary

This land had been called many things by the worldly, mortal creatures that dwelt outside of its borders, but they all meant the same thing. A place untouched by the outside, by corruption, by any tainting influence. Pure, green, flowering flora was everywhere, covering up every portion of the land, from the largest of ferns to the smallest blades of grass. Plants of all kind could be found here, from every region of the world, all with their proper places and all sharing the same nutrients as their other floral siblings, yet they were all able to live together in complete harmony.

Though this land wasn't just a place for those of the wooded kind. Several specimens of flora also resided here, specifically a large colony of long legged birds whose feathers were a brilliant red. With long necks and large bills, they gently strained the numerous fresh water rivers that held several particles and small, microscopic things for them to feed on. Though these were plant based in nature, as they, along with the rivers, the nutrients in the ground, and the very foundation of this vast land itself came from a single source.

The mighty, thick trunked, fertile Mana Tree.

The pinnacle of majesty and longevity. The keeper of the world, providing nutrients and energy to all through its mighty roots. Said roots reached far and wide, despite the tree's separation from the rest of the world. From this tree emitted the source of all energy, all life, as the tree itself was the alternate form of the very creator of the world itself. The Mana Goddess Herself was this very tree, having gone and taken to slumbering since the world was created. And in the roots of her great roots rested a weapon unsurpassed and immaculate, whose blade shimmered in the rays of the sun.

The Mana Sword.

A scarce few held it in their hands, and even fewer had come upon the land it resided in. Yet, in the legends and tales of mortals, the one that shall hold the Mana Sword shall hold the world in their hands, as well as be granted whatever their heart desires. As well as hold the key to either release the world from, or plague it with terrible evil.

Yet now, in the holiest of lands, something was amiss.

"I knew it!" a feminine voice cried out. "I KNEW that something was up!" a fluttering, winged woman with a blue, flower dress and long, flowing, periwinkle hair tied into two long, loose, low pigtails.

"What's up?" another asked, bearing a flower of pink with green hair fashioned into tight buns with loose ringlets trailing down from them.

"The Tree!" the faerie from before said. "The Tree is getting worse!" several others gathered to view the tree itself, surveying and studying it. "There are no new leaves being produced, and those that are there are turning brown." the faerie that had originally issued the complaint said grimly.

"You're right! Look at the branches!" another faerie, the pink dressed one, stated. "They're looking so brittle!"

"And the bark…" another fairy, with red hair tied in a long ponytail with a 'dress' crafted from green leaves observed, flying over to touch it. "The bark feels like it could break off with just the smallest amount of pressure!"

"And that's not all." the periwinkle haired faerie stated, gesturing to the sword embedded in the roots. "The hilt is becoming rusted, and the blade looks like it's cracked!"

Concerned chattering fell over the whole collection of faeries, one amongst them, blonde and bearing a 'dress' of blue, only looking on at the tree with shocked, pleading eyes. "Goddess...what is happening to you?"

Present

Jadd

The texture beneath him steadily grew to be known, and he quickly identified that it wasn't that of a mattress. "Ugh…" he groaned, lifting himself up, only to find that his whole body was wracked with aches and pains. And when his sight returned to him, he saw that he was in a small, confined space with iron bars keeping him from leaving. "How...what the…" he began to moan, yet then it began coming back to him.

Imprisoned. He was imprisoned. And suffice to say, he didn't care much for that. And, to his horror, his sword was removed from its scabbard.

"Y-You…" Duran began, still groggy, yet he was determined to get to his feet. And when he did so, he gave the door of the cell firm shake, even if it did little. "Hey! Who did this?!" he received no answer, mentally kicking himself, as, duh, of COURSE it was obvious as to who had done this. "Let us out!"

"Would you shut up?" a low moaned emitted from the right of him, Angela lifting herself up, massaging the underside of her jaw. "As if my head wasn't hurting enough already…"

"Oh, you guys up?" they both heard Hawkeye say, looking to see that he and Riesz were in the cell parallel of them. He then suddenly winced, rubbing the back of his neck. "Geez...those guys can pack a punch…" Riesz said nothing, only giving a light moan as she held her stomach, yet still tried to stand on her feet. She was halfway successful, managing to get up, yet had to lean against a wall for support. "Hey, hey, whoa. Easy." he said, but she only huffed.

"I'll be fine." she said firmly.

The thief only sighed. "Still don't trust me, eh?"

"Forgive me if caution is a forigen thing to you." Riesz sighed, having allowed herself to sink down to the floor. She WOULD stand eventually, yet for now, even she wouldn't deny that her body needed rest.

"Nobody would happen to know where this is, would they?" Angela questioned, still massaging her jaw.

"It's just a hunch, but I believe that it's somewhere in Jadd." Riesz answered, then again, it was just a hunch.

"Well, whatever the case," Duran gave the door a shake. "We've gotta get out of here!" he then looked around. "Hey! Let us out of here!"

"That won't do you any good." Faerie sighed, emerging from the young man. "And considering that you already got yourself banged up, maybe picking fights isn't exactly the best idea."

"Then do YOU have any suggestions?" Duran questioned, still giving the door continuous shakes.

"Well little mister," Lumina suddenly emerged, giving a start to everyone there. "One, you don't exactly have anything to fend off those hairy meanies. Two, anyone tell you that you need to chill a bit? Relax! Things'll work out!"

"Work out? We're stuck in a cage! How is that supposed to 'work out'?!"

"Well, that brings us to 'three'." the Light Elemental said. "Me and Faerie can take it from here."

Everyone was puzzled. "How?" Angela questioned. "Like...unlock the doors or something?"

"Uh...no." Lumina said sheepishly.

"Why not?" Angela asked again. "Aren't you some all-powerful spirit or something?"

"Well, not really, but kinda. Thanks for the compliment, sweetie. But…"

"But what?"

In response, the wisp seemed to 'shrug'. "I've got no hands." then everyone looked to Faerie.

"Um...I can try?" slipping through the bars, the winged woman looked towards the lock. Hesitantly reaching in, she fiddled and fumbled, wincing as her hand was contorted in painful positions as she tried to find the mechanism, only to fumble around for a while before drawing out her hand, of which was red and swollen. "I can't get it. I'm sorry." she sighed. Well, now what was there to do?

"Well...we can try looking for where your stuff might be." Lumina suggested.

"Ah, yes! Of course!" Faerie stated. "We can search this place and see if they're here!"

"That's a little convenient, isn't it?" Riesz mentioned.

"There's nothing to lose from trying, right?" Hawkeye then said, everyone else seemed to be in agreement.

"Oh, but…" Faerie remembered. "We might only be able to go so far."

Angela was puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"Well, it kinda relates to mine and Duran's bond." the winged woman explained. "As well as Lumina's bond with you all."

"Wait, what?" they all asked in unison.

"Oh yeah. That...little...thing." Lumina said sheepishly. "Me and my memory…"

"Something ELSE you didn't mention?" Angela asked, looking at Faerie, Duran raising a brow. What was she complaining for? He was the one who had her resting in his head!

"Uh...sorta." Faerie admitted. "See, seeing as now you and I are one," she said, gesturing to Duran. "The Elemental Spirits will now be drawn to you too, as we are directly linked to Mana."

"Yep!" Lumina answered. "We Elementals NEED Mana to even stay tied to this world. So seeing as you're the one that'll be getting the Sword eventually, we need to hang around you guys."

"I told you, I get it's important, but none of us are going to-" Duran began, but was cut off.

"But with that, we can't be away from you for too long. Or, at least I can't be." Faerie explained. "So I can only go so far before I need to go back and charge up, in a way."

"Plus, while you guys can summon me and my powers, as, of course, who wouldn't want to summon me," Lumina explained. "As Mana is slowly being depleted from the world, each summon takes a little bit out of us. Like Faerie here, we'll also need to take a break to 'recharge' if you will."

"Ok, thanks for the tutorial and all, but what does that have to do with anything?" Angela questioned.

Both Lumina and Faerie looked at each other. "Let's just say, we both think that it'll be important for later." the winged woman said, her blue eyes centering on her host. Indeed, they would both know well when her limit was reached.

On a Higher Floor

The violet haired beastman folded his arms, sighing as he patrolled the empty halls of the manor. Seriously, guard duty again? Surely Ludgar could give him something OTHER than this every single day! Even back in Ferolia, all Ludgar ordered him to do was watch over things, he being known as the designated watchman. Though here, what was there to watch? It wasn't as if anyone could stand against them, and even if there were, they had confiscated everything from the people, robbing them of their means of defense, and not to mention, essentially had the entirety of Jadd under their control. Astoria was overturned in a mere night, and once Wendel was taken care of, then nothing could stand against them in their conquest. So why was Ludgar so uptight anyway? So far, everything was going great! Great enough that he could at least take guard duty once in a while…

"Fureddie?"

Fureddie looked to the side of him, a green haired beastman coming up to him. "Molar?" he began. "What's up?"

"Status report." Molar answered. "Ludgar's orders: get one every hour."

From behind a wall, Faerie and Lumina peeked around, seeing the two. They had to do this right. They wouldn't be able to physically bring the weapons to them (Faerie had nowhere near the amount of strength, and Lumina, well...no hands), but at least they could locate them. Assuming that they didn't get caught first.

"Nothing to report." Fureddie sighed. "As usual." he then lifted up his arms and placed his hands on the back of his head, as well as crossed his legs. "Seriously, what's the commander so uptight about? It's not like anything's gone wrong so far."

Molar shrugged. "I guess he's just antsy since the King formed an alliance with that 'Master' of that creepy jester's."

Hmm...while they were on the job, both of them couldn't deny that this conversation might've been worth listening to. Seeing an opening in a nearby door, both of them snuck in. "Keep watch." Faerie asked Lumina, the Elemental nodding as she searched. From what she saw, this appeared to be a bedroom of sorts, adorned in indigo and gold with darkened, walls and black, marble floors. Who lived here before? Some sort of king? She hated to think what perhaps happened to the one that did live here before.

"Oh, that guy." Fureddie sighed. "Yeah, I won't lie. He gives me a REAL bad vibe. Was looking at me funny, even before we got here. Like he wanted me for something…"

Molar grimaced. Being 'wanted' by that guy was a fate he didn't wish on anyone. "For what?"

"I don't know, and I don't WANT to know." the violet haired beastman shuddered. "Creep."

Faerie looked around, her eyes surveying the room. She was thankful for her small size as she could slip in and check various corners, checking under the nightstand, desk, over and in the unlit fireplace, all where she could think of. Yet still, she couldn't find any sign of the gear. While she looked, Lumina continued to listen in.

"Isn't it weird though, that the King just all of a sudden accepted this 'Master's' help?" Molar asked.

"And who is this 'Master' anyway?" Fureddie replied. "Creep never says anything about him other than him being 'the Master', but whoever he is, he must be just as crazy as that clown to even hire someone like him." he then had a thought. "Has Ludgar said anything about him?"

Molar shook his head. "Not from what I'm aware. He just said that we are to obey the King's orders, and I suppose that means, subsequently, the 'Master's', though," he leaned forward. "This is just between us, ok?" Fureddie nodded, eager to hear more. "I saw Ludgar trying to pry answers out of the King, seeing as how this whole thing is just bizarre, and though no one's saying anything, everyone thinks it's all off. All he got was a punch to the face and a warning to not question what his King's decision was, as the operation was too vital for questions to come in now. But as he was leaving, he noticed somebody was there. Guess who?"

"The jester?"

"Yep." Molar confirmed. "And Ludgar just so happened to then see yet ANOTHER individual come out from some sort of portal that just opened up in the wall." Fureddie's eyes widened in shock, Lumina too taking in all he was hearing. "Didn't get that good of a look at him, at least from what I know, but the King and he were having quite an extensive dialogue. Mentioned something about a 'sword' and a 'holyland'. Now tell me, does that sound like anything that has to do with what we're doing? Between you and me, I think this whole thing is a farce. The King had no interest in the Mana Stones BEFORE that jester showed up. I think that he and his 'Master' might be the ones that want them. And for some reason, they have to do with this 'sword' and 'holyland' too."

Lumina turned to Faerie. "Anything yet?" as much as he wished to listen more, perhaps it was time they made themselves scarce.

"I'm looking." the winged woman responded, her search still unsuccessful. Then again, what luck would they have searching just the first room they came upon?

"Speaking of, when did Ludgar say he was coming back?" Molar asked.

"Oh, he and the rest of the troops are in Wendel right now, probably laying waste to the place. And get this, they found these four kids in the cave with some fly and a ball of light." Both Lumina and Faerie stiffened. Fly?! Ball?! Ooohh, how dare they! "Course, the way up to the Light Stone was blocked off from what I heard. Something about a bunch of quakes happening recently. So that needs to be cleared out."

"Yet another thing to do." Molar sighed. "Those kids got anything on them?"

"Yeah, just a few things like a sword and spear. Though one of them was carrying some old walking stick." Fureddie scoffed. "Like they could do anything with them, even if they got them back."

"Ok, so, where are they? You put in the storage with the rest of the town's weapons?"

"I'm gonna do that."

Both Lumina and Faerie stopped.

"So...where are they now?"

"Oh, they're in the room right there. Under the bed."

Well...looks like they didn't have to look that hard after all. Lo and behold, under the best rested the four's weapons.

"What? You can't just make the trip to the weapon's shop?" Molar asked, Lumina and Faerie slipping by. Still...how were they going to get the four downstairs out of their prison?

"What for? It's not like they're going anywhere. And there's how many of us versus just four of them. It'll be fine." Fureddie let out a long sigh, clearly comfortable in his position and not planning on moving anytime soon. Seeing the opportunity, the winged woman and wisp maneuvered their way out of the room

"Wait a minute." Lumina then said. "I've got an idea."

Faerie tilted her head. "Like what?" though before she could ask anymore, the wisp turned to face the beastmen. "Wait, what are you-"

"Hey you!"

Holding Cells

"Shake it all you want, it's not gonna open." Angela sighed, having taken to reclining against the wall as the soldier continued to try and force his way out of the cell.

"Then how about YOU do something?" Duran answered. "Unlock the door or something!"

"Uh, hello?" the young woman raised up her arms, palms open. "Wand's missing. Just like your sword." Duran only gave a gruff sigh and continued to struggle against the bars.

"Um, I don't mean to insinuate anything," Riesz suddenly said. "Yet...what exactly is your skill as a magician?"

"What's that mean?" Angela asked, clearly getting defensive. "I'm totally a magician!" she stood up. "And a very powerful one! I...I…" she began to stammer. "I've just been having trouble with my staff! That's all! That's...that's why I came to Wendel! To have the Priest tell me where to get a better one!"

'Then why didn't you ask that when we were there?' Riesz kept the question to herself, though it seemed Angela knew what she was thinking, as she looked away. "I meant no offense-"

"Look, just...just drop it." Angela just slumped over again, pouting and looking away from the blonde, of whom was feeling quite guilty of even bringing the subject up. Hawkeye said nothing, he seemed particularly interested in the lock of the cell.

"Hm? Who's there?" a voice suddenly said, all four of them jumping at the sudden emergence of the voice, yet it continued to speak. "Someone else down here?" the voice was male and from the sound of it, middle aged. But where was it coming from? "Here!" the voice said, noticing that they had been noticed. "Over here! One cell ahead and to the right!" Looking in that direction, Duran and Angela, while Hawkeye and Riesz looked to the side, saw a stout man with a red beard and a pair of boxers with red hearts on them. "Ah, it's good to finally have someone to talk to!" he said. "I was getting tired of being hounded by those hairy brutes!"

"Who are you, sir?" Riesz questioned, adjusting her position to better see, Hawkeye in turn only giving a passing glance before he went back to surveying the lock.

"Arnoldus, of course!" the man stated, dusting himself off as he stood. "Mayor of Jadd!" he proclaimed.

"How long have you been in here?" The amazon asked, Arnoldus in turn huffing.

"Since those louts first stepped in town!" he answered. "They completely tore through security and stuck me down here! Said something about me being potential 'leverage'. Made me tell them about the passageway to Wendel and everything." he then rubbed his cheek, the swelling having gone down, but the ache was still there. "And when they found the passageway was sealed, they then demanded that I open it up! Like I would know how to do that!" he folded his arms angrily. "Kept me down here for weeks, haven't been able to get any clothes or shave...they probably went through my wardrobe, the fiends! I wouldn't be surprised if they took all the furniture and dumped it in the sea!" Perhaps it was too soon to say, but everyone sort of pondered whether or not Angela and this guy would have something of a kinship with each other. "Buy anyway, you've gotta get me outta here!" the nearly naked man pleaded. "I can't stand it in here anymore! You know what it's like having those guys coming in and pummel you every time you so much as sneeze or cough? I think they do it just because they need something to take their frustrations out on!"

"Sorry, but we're not exactly in any position to be leaving either." Angela sighed, gesturing to Duran, who was still struggling with the door. "Though if you wanna count how many minutes he keeps this up for, then by all means, join in."

"At least I'm doing something!" Duran growled. Damn it, this put a wrench in everything! He and everyone else were regretting even having the idea to come to Wendel in the first place! What good had it gotten them?! Possession for one, some jargon about a tree and sword for all, and now, imprisonment! Honestly! Was there ANYTHING else that saw fit to throw themselves at them?!

"Get back here!" Everyone's thoughts and actions were put on halt at the sound of the voices and pounding feet that were drawing closer and closer. Faerie and Lumina zipped around the corner, Fureddie and Molar following behind.

"Get ready! They're coming this way!" Faerie warned, slipping back into Duran, and Lumina in turn disappearing, the two beastmen coming downstairs.

"Where'd they…" Fureddie began, looking around before centering his eyes on Duran. "You!" reaching through the bars, he seized the young man by the hem of his top and dragged him forward, the bars being the only barrier between them. "Where'd that annoying fly go?!"

"Uh, what?" the young man asked, though this only got him pulled closer, his cheek pressed against the bars, he being lifted off his feet.

"That stupid faerie or whatever the hell she is!" the beastman snarled. "She's got quite a mouth on her! Called me some slobbering animal!"

"Technically, her 'friend' was the one that called you that." Molar answered. "She just said that your nails were dirty."

"Yeah, that's not all." Duran grimaced. "I thought it was you that was coming down. Please don't tell me that's just the way you guys naturally smell."

"Ok, that's it!" the muscled figure roared, bringing out the keys to unlock the door and promptly opened it. "Come on in, Molar! Time to teach this punk a lesson!"

"Fureddie!? What are you doing?! Don't go in-"

"Now!" Faerie shouted, Duran and Angela getting the idea. Running around the beastman, Fureddie found himself disoriented when a white, hot light suddenly materialized in front of his face, making him stumble over himself, he only became aware when he heard the door slam and the keys being used to lock the door.

"Hey!" Molar shouted, rushing up, only to find a cell door slamming in his face, knocking him to the ground.

"Ta da!" Hawekeye proclaimed, stepping out as if to a cheering crowd.

"What the…" Duran answered, he, Angela, Riesz, Arnoduls, and even Fureddie, surprised. "When'd you do that?!"

"Well, it was supposed to be a surprise, but you kinda sprung your own escape before I could." he answered, looking back to the cell door. "Did they really think a door like that could hold a master thief?"

"Well, 'master thief'," Riesz interjected. "Perhaps we can bask in your glory sometime later." she then looked down the hall. "The sooner we get out of here, the better."

"Hey, guys!" all four of them looked behind to see the semi-naked man in the cell near they. "You wouldn't just leave a guy hanging, would you?"


Molar shook his head, the world coming back to him. Ugh, his head was throbbing. Massaging his temple, he rose up from the stone floor and felt around...only to have his hands touch a row of iron bars. "The hell?!" the beastman suddenly cried out, looking to see Fureddie in the cell opposite of him. Molar couldn't even gather the energy to lecture him. He could only release an exasperated sigh. Yeah, sure. It'll be fine.

Upstairs

"Ok, which way?" Duran asked, the balding, bearded man suddenly, yet unintentionally, got close to him, the young man grimacing due to the invasion of personal space.

"The door's west of here" Arnoldus said. "But...you mind if we stop by and get me some clothes first?"

Grrrr…

Everyone stopped, looking in front of them. Around the corner, a golden furred hound stood in the hallway. "Uh...hey boy." Hawkeye greeted the hound, the creature responded by giving a low but loud howl that echoed throughout the manor.

There was no disagreement between anyone that now would be an opportune time to run for it.

The hound lunged for them, presenting jaws full of teeth meant to rip and tear, the group of five (technically seven) leaping out of the way and running down the darkly colored, sparsely lit hallway. "So, it's west?" Riesz asked, the middle-aged man nodded.

"Yeah, but we need to go to my bedroom first to-GAH!" Arnoldus shrieked, they saw a group of hounds before them, and from the sound of it, more were coming in from behind.

"Screw the clothes, we've gotta go!" Angela shouted, everyone about to make a break for it, but then,

"Wait!" Faerie suddenly said, emerging from Duran.

"WHOA! What IS that thing?!" the mayor asked, clearly frazzled.

"Listen to him!" the winged woman told the others. "His room is where your weapons are!" Everyone then turned to the man, of whom pointed down a nearby corridor. No one argued, following him, and in turn, Faerie as they went, passing several doors until finally reaching the end, they all practically charged through the door. "Under the bed!" the four youths dashed towards it, and while Faerie said 'under', they had essentially tipped it over and grabbed the items that were stored underneath, Arnoldus only watching in horror as they wrecked one of his most expensive pieces of furniture. Some of the few furniture the beastman probably DIDN'T tear through.

Though he didn't get much time to complain, for just as soon as they entered, they made their exit, going down the way they came, only to come across a congregation of large, voracious canines ready to tear them limb from limb. Only now, they were prepared.

Charging forward, Duran blocked an incoming hound with his shield and slashed down with his sword, sending it and several of its furred comrades back, along with a kick that sent one of them crashing into a stand holding a flower pot. Hawkeye leapt over one that was charging towards them, using it as a platform to flip over and deliver a kick to the underside of another hound's jaw. Taking out his reacquired daggers, he spun around with the blades, sending several of them back and taking a good portion of them off of their feet. Riesz made use of both the bladed and staff portions of her weapon, spinning it around and taking several of the hounds off their feet, as well as slashing at any that got too close. She even spun her lance to launch some of them into the rest of the pack, flattening several under the incoming hound that was converted into a projectile.

Angela, on the other hand, found herself struggling, the most she found herself able to do was smacking any incoming creature on the head and swinging her staff in an effort to keep the wolves away from her. "Ah!" she yelped, one managing to jump up and pin her down, several others piling onto her, biting and seizing whatever piece of flesh they could get with their claws and teeth.

"Angela!" Riesz cried out, though she, to the other young lady's misfortune, found herself too preoccupied with her own assaulters to assist the so-called sorceress. Duran and Hawkeye also attempted to make a move to help her, but found themselves in the same situation that the others did. Arnodulus did little more than cower in the corner, for after all, what good could a guy in his underwear do?

Angela found herself powerless against the continuous assault, crying out as the hounds continued to bite and claw at her skin, she only able to curl up in a ball in a futile attempt to protect herself. "Use me!" she suddenly saw in the corner of her eye, a light colored wisp amidst the swarm of hounds. "Hurry, hun! Unless you want to be dog food, you've got to use my power!"

"Wh-What?!" Angela coughed out, fighting between trying to get back on her feet and listening to whatever Lumina was saying to her. "I...I don't know how! I can't-" she was cut off by a hound lunging at her. "NOOOO!" she hollered, able to reach her wand and hold it out in front of her to try and protect herself. Suddenly, she felt the staff begin to grow warm in her grasp, lines of light traveling up the wooden spiral carved into it. Then, to her and everyone else's surprise, a large blast of light akin to the one the Full Metal Hugger had previously displayed shot from the tip of the carved stick, firing the dog halfway across the hallway and sending the other hounds back in a wave, knocking them back into the wall and into a few other rooms should a door be close. Once the light died down, several of the hounds locked their eyes with Angela and the others, some cowering while others still wished to continue the fight and take them down. Yet still, even if they were outnumbered, the hounds couldn't deny that they were dealing with some powerful opponents.

BOOM!

What the?! The sound had come from down below, yet it was unmistakably something being slammed. All five of the individuals looked in the direction the sound had come from, then hearing a couple of rather familiar voices.

"YOU'RE DEAD! ALL OF YOU ARE DEAD!"

Jadd Harbor

The white haired, bearded skipper was puzzled as to what all the commotion was about. For a good few days now, he had seen fire and smoke from Jadd for a good few miles now. But when he told the regular folks at the bar that he was going to be taking a quick stop there, everyone seemed to go quiet and advise him to steer clear of it. Apparently, the beastmen of Ferolia had up and decided to try and take Wendel, and had already succeeded in taking Jadd, and from the rumors he heard, it was likely that Astoria would be toppled within a day without the protection of either. He wouldn't lie that such news chilled him, and he had intended to pass the area by and make his way directly to Maia, yet just as he was drawing close to the place, he saw what he believed to be several fires from the city. And as he drew even closer, he saw that the fires didn't appear to be going wild or consumed the city. No, these appeared to be far smaller in size, and not to mention, were under control. From the rooftops, he could see several fires that were contailed, as if people had set campfires atop of their homes, burning and as he drew even closer, he could hear several shouts and calls for him to stop.

Help. They were calling for help.

Yet he had heard about Jadd from Palo, and if it was bad there, then it wouldn't be much better in Jadd either. At least the Nevarlian guild seemed to be interested in little more than hanging out in the recently acquired Laurent Citadel and finding wherever the rest of the survivors of the siege had gone. He wished he could do something, yet ultimately, he was left in quite a powerless situation. After all, it wasn't as if he knew how to use a weapon, let alone have an army backing him aside from a bunch or rag-tag youths that he wouldn't dare place in any danger. But seeing all those fires and hearing all those voices...he found that he couldn't control himself. All he could see was his own town of Palo, its protectors forced to go into hiding while the invaders saw fit to oversee and control all that they did in both their businesses and homes, coming in and invading their spaces, all in the service of their newfound 'kingdom'.

He was going to get in so much trouble for this...but ultimately, he found that he couldn't stop himself. He had a stop to make before he reached Maia.

Mayor's Manor

"Hurry! The entrance hall's just up ahead!" Arnoldus shouted, the hounds and further back, the recently escaped beastmen still out of view, on his and everyone else's heels. And indeed, it was there, along with a slew of hounds guarding the door.

The dogs leapt up and rushed at the group. Duran blocked several and slashed at just as many, as did Hawkeye and Riesz, Angela finding that, to her dismay, the energy that had coursed through her wand before wasn't showing up, thus she had to rely on smacking the ones that came her way. Yet throughout the struggle, the boxers wearing mayor looked back to hear the two escapees drawing closer and closer, shouts and threats seeming to devolve into animalistic snarls and roars. "Um, guys?"

"A little busy here!" Duran shouted, kicking back an incoming wolf.

"No, really! They're coming!" Arnoldus panicked, the four then also hearing Molar and Fureddie's voices.

"You...you're all dead!" that was Fureddie.

"Your meat...will be sweet!" and that was Molar...yet there was something different about them. They sounded more...bestial. Unhinged, perhaps. Despite the blood pumping through them all, they couldn't deny that a chill ran through them. Even the hounds seemed to detect that something was up, they looked in the direction the voices were coming from and slinked back, as if they were afraid. Or rather, showing their subservience.

From above, the moon was shining down from a single, large, circular window, its pale light serving to allow everyone to better see, yet the calming hue now bore a sense of dread to it. "I...believe that we should make ourselves scarce." Riesz suggested. "This might become unfavorable for us."

"What?" Duran answered. "And just abandon the fight?"

"Is that ALL you can think about?" Angela groaned. "The door's RIGHT there! I'd say we listen to the old fart and get out of here!"

"Yeah, you should listen to…" Arnoldus began, but then realized. "Hey!"

"Not exactly the way I'd put it...but I'm not arguing with the dear lady's proposal." Hawkeye answered, Riesz only rolling her eyes.

"Your attempts to gain my favor remain unimpressive." she responded.

"Can't knock me for trying, right?" he replied, she only rolled her eyes again.

Banter aside, they heard the two drawing closer, the hounds' reaction only serving as motivation to move forward. Duran didn't even get to protest as he found the other four rushing from behind, essentially forcing him out with them, they finally reached the outside world, only to see a rather peculiar sight. Atop the rooftops, what appeared to be fires were burning and several people were clamouring, all seemingly heading for one destination. And once they looked over the wall, they saw why.

"A ship!" they all shouted, wasting no time in going down the stone stairs and in the direction of the harbor, the shouting and threats behind them turning into howls and roars that belonged to nothing human. The temptation to look back was near unbearable, yet none of them dared to. On they went, their instincts and fear of potentially being left behind by their only means of escape from this place.

The only roadblock they met now was a swarm of people blocking the path. Duran and Angela saw fit to push by while Hawkeye made himself a little more 'gentle', but nonetheless, firm in his intentions. Riesz found herself staying behind, Arnoldus attempting to follow the other three. "Wait!" she urged. "There are too many! These people need to escape first!"

"Hell with that!" the mayor answered. "The ship will be long gone by the time half of these guys board!"

"But they're YOUR people, aren't they?" the princess questioned, shocked at what she heard.

"Every man for himself now!" he shouted, leaping over and about to dive bomb in the crowd, only for a furred hand to snatch him and pull him back, everyone else shouting in shock and fear as a transformed Fureddie seized the mayor and threw him back, flipping him over and letting him land painfully on the ground. Riesz leapt forward to defend him, yet found herself accosted by the transformed Molar, he beating her back with a sucker punch to her gut, sending her against several people that were now scrambling to get to the ship, they being only a few of the brave (or foolish) souls that dared to try and leave this place.


"C'mon! Almost there!" Duran shouted as he and Angela made their way through the crowd, Hawkeye following suit. Yet then, he heard something. Looking behind, while he couldn't see, he heard a struggle taking place, along with the grunts of a young woman.

"What the?" Angela said, seeing the tan skinned thief disappear back into the crowd. "Where's he going?" she didn't get any more as she felt a hand seize her by the wrist, both Duran and Angela boarding the ship. While it was more than enough to house them, the influx of people made trying to spot the other two difficult. And to their horror, they saw them nowhere.


"Gah!" Riesz choked out, the staff of her lance forced against her throat as Molar pressed her up against the wall, bringing her up off her feet. The staff became both a means to keep his sharpened teeth from her, but it was pressed so tight against her that it was beginning to cut off her air. Fureddie simply held Arnoldus in place, deciding on what to do with him, all the while watching what his comrade was doing to the one who had humiliated him. It was with that realization, however, that Molar was pushed out of the way, allowing Riesz to roll away and get on her feet, yet Fureddie now had his golden eyes centered on her.

This wasn't good. These beasts...true, the beastmen already were nothing to be taken lightly, yet such strength was beyond human. She wasn't even sure that any harpy was capable of such strength, save their leader. And even then, she had experience with her. Yet still, she steeled herself. She had to take them on, if not for the sake of the fleeing people and their mayor (as much as she disliked him at the moment), yet she couldn't deny that the battles before, as well as the beating that led to her and the others being imprisoned in the first place still weighed on her. But what else could she do? She couldn't just leave him. Sighing, she tightened her grip on her lance, awaiting to see which one of the two would make the first move. Only to see that the two werewolves had relaxed their shoulders, as if not prepared for a fight at all. In fact, it seemed that a smile of sorts came to their lips.

It was only when she heard the growling behind her did she figure out why.

"Hiya!" a cry sounded out, Molar feeling a weight pressed itself onto his shoulders, then leaping to Riesz's, and delivering a swift kick to the underside of the werewolf's jaw that was behind her, causing it to stumble over from the blow. It was clearly far from majorly hurt, but the suddenness of it left it completely unprepared.

Riesz had little time to process what happened, she felt Hawkeye seize her by the wrist and run, but then she stopped him, reaching and taking the mayor's as well. They ran through the entrance to the harbor, only to see the ship taking off. "No!" she cried, the three stopping at the edge of the dock, hearing the shouts of Angela and Duran from afar. One notable one was,

"Look out!"

And indeed, from behind, they heard the three werewolves coming, ready to deliver a world of pain onto all of them. There was nowhere to go, the entry to the city blocked off, as well as the entryway to the forest. Yet Hawkeye looked back, seeing the clear, blue water beneath them. "Hope that armor of yours isn't dry clean only."

"What-" Riesz got out no more as she was pushed back, swallowed up by the limitless depths of the ocean, three more splashes following.

The three werewolves eventually arrived at the dock, seeing the ship long out of their reach, and the water beneath still and lapping at the pillars of wood that held it up.

Chapter Text

Huh...that went well. If by well, one meant completely terrible, then yes. It couldn't have gone any better.

Duran had spent the last hour doing nothing but beating himself up over what happened back at the port.

"There was no way you could've known." Faerie told him in his mind, mainly because a slew of other people were here.

"I should've stayed though." Duran argued back. "I...I just assumed that they were with us. I should've gone back."

"And fight against all these people?" the winged woman told him. "I know, I wish they were here too, but you're not responsible for what happened."

"Still…." Duran slammed his fists against the railing of the ship, sitting on the wooden ground and resting his head on his arms. "Dammit." he mentally cursed. "Everything so far has been a complete disaster." Faerie found herself unable to respond. Sure, she could deliver more logical explanations and assurances to him, yet it was clear that he wouldn't be receptive of anything she or even Lumina could say, so both of them remained silent.

"What's up with you?" a voice suddenly said, Duran looking up to see Angela looking down at him.

"What's up with you?" he asked back. "Three people were left behind back there, and since we boarded, I haven't seen you give a care about it!"

"Who's to say I don't?" the young woman answered back. "I just know that there's nothing that can be done about it."

"Excuse me?!" Duran lifted himself up. "How can you be so blase about it?!"

"Well, one, we're out in the middle of the ocean, so unless we can swim however many miles, there's no way we can get back to them." Angela explained. "Two, there was no way that we could've made it through those people, they all essentially pushed us forward, and three," she folded her arms on the railing, watching the sea. "I don't think that they'll be in much trouble."

"What?!" the soldier shouted, not even realizing that several of the other escapees were looking at him, puzzled as to what was making him so riled up. "How can you say that?!"

"Well, think." the 'sorceress' explained. "How many times have they saved our asses since we met them?" she asked. "And how many asses have they kicked too?" Well...yeah, there was that. Though, if one were to ask him, Duran would insist he kicked the most. "Look, yes, it's terrible we can't do more." she sighed. "But still, you can't deny that they've proved that they're more than capable of handling themselves." Well, yes there was that. Still though...he didn't like it. And while her points made sense, he still felt that she was still being a little too cold for his liking. And while that might've been, could he have seen it, Angela had been doing nothing but nervously fidgeting and clenching her teeth, the tension near unbearable. It was only when she had managed to get herself somewhat mellowed out that she had seen him. And yes, perhaps she presented herself that way, yet Duran also seemed to forget that there were also other matters that needed to be addressed. "By the way…" she then said. "Thanks. For keeping that Hugger from getting to me and all." a slight grimace came to her upon thinking of the possibility if his shield hadn't been there. "I mean...I could've been skewered back there, so…" she trailed off. Truth be told, she had been meaning to say this for some time, but really, suffice to say, she wasn't exactly used to saying things like this.

Though thankfully, despite his surprise and seemingly slight skepticism, Duran was receptive to her words. "It was just right. It's a soldier's duty to protect those who can't protect themselves."

She nodded, looking down at her staff. What was up with it? It had done its job before, and despite the danger she was in, she was ecstatic about what had occurred. Yet when those hounds were on her again, nothing. What was so different? "So...are you still not going to go through with this whole 'Mana Sword' thing?"

"No." Duran shook his head, sensing Faerie and Lumina's unease, yet he continued. "My mind's made up. It's not something that I can take right now. None of us can."

"Well...no. No one feels like they can-" Faerie began, but Duran cut her off.

"It's not a feeling. It's a fact." he said.

Faerie sighed. "Well...sorry to say, but it's not like there's anything that can be done about it." she admitted. "I'm sorry it's so inconvenient, but you don't seem to understand what's at stake here!" she was beginning to grow frustrated.

"Sorry to say, but she's right." Lumina agreed. "Those nasty Benevodons aren't just going to wait until you're ready to try and burst out, nor is Mana just going to stop being drained from the world."

"I know that!" Duran shouted, then realizing the multitude of eyes he was drawing on himself. "I know that. And...it's not like I don't get what's at stake. Hell, even now, I still don't entirely believe it. But…" he clenched his fist. Then, as if it were an answer to a prayer, the young man's face lit up. "But I think I know someone who would be a better candidate."

Valsena

He knew it the moment Stella denied it. And in retrospect, the moment he told the young man 'no', he should've known that his answer would have mattered not to him.

Sitting upon his throne, King Richard could only sigh as the images of Loki's son flashed in his mind, the disappointment and dismay in his expression at the monarch's decision to not give his blessing to his quest, and with that, the sudden flash of determination that followed afterward. He should've KNOWN that the boy would do something like this. And the days after when he hadn't shown up on duty at all made his suspicions grow even more. He paid a visit to Stella's abode, of which she denied anything, and that Duran had simply 'gone off', but he could see it in her eyes that, in one way or another, she had assisted him in some way. This was especially damning when he noticed Loki's sword had been removed from the wall.

'Just like his father.' Richard inwardly sighed, shaking his head. So damned stubborn. The boy's skills couldn't be questioned, yet, like his father before him, neither of them were invincible, despite what they might've believed from time to time. A part of him was deeply ashamed of it, yet he found himself cursing that same quality of Loki repeatedly. Should he have known at least some degree of restraint or the knowledge to accept that he was in over his head, then perhaps he would've still been here. 'You tested your luck in the Peddan War with those dragons before. Maybe you should've taken that as a wake up call that the Golden Knight was still just a man.' "Ah!"

"Sire?" a high ranking soldier rushed to his side, Richard holding his upper abdomen.

"I-I'm all right." he assured. "Just a mild cramp is all."

"Are you sure?" the soldier asked again. "Really, if I may be so bold, sire, you shouldn't be out of bed, period."

"I'm sure I'm all right." Richard told him. "Focus on your duty, soldier. Altena still needs to be watched out for."

"Yes, of course. I'd best be on my way." With that, the soldier made his way from the throne, leaving Richard to his thoughts, of which there were many.

'Valda…' he mused, the picturesque features of the once young monarch of the sorcerer kingdom came to him, as well as her warm, lovely smile. 'For what reason has one from your nation come into our kingdom in such an aggressive manner?'

While he knew the woman from the days of Peddan War, she then a recently crowned queen as her mother tragically perished in a last ditch effort to protect her people and land, even before she joined Roget and Richard, along with Loki and the others that had composed of the party, she assisted Valsena against the Dragon Lord's forces, and subsequently, Pedda. He remembered well when he and the rest of them found her in Altena, near catatonic from the loss of her mother, Queen Aradia. True, he knew her little aside from her assistance to his country when he, like her, was a young heir to the throne, yet then, she released a catastrophic blast that took out several of the Dragon Lord's forces and forced their Peddan pursuers to flee. It was then that she had reached her limit, that she could no longer stand by and simply allow Roget and the rest of them to fight without her. With Roget's approval, Richard himself welcomed her, and he still remembered the moment that she flung herself into his arms, the sensation of her touch as she laid her head on his chest, the springtime scent of her hair, her vibrant, green eyes...he also remembered the growl that came from his throat when Loki gave him a thumbs up when she did so. And since she had joined them, the knight wasted no time in teasing and prodding at the then prince about his new 'girlfriend'.

It certainly didn't help matters when she outright gave him a rather passionate kiss when the war was officially declared over. Then it became constant questions on when he was going to 'get to the honeymoon phase'.

'You were one of the few that knew, old friend.' Richard thought. 'You were one of the few that knew…of us. Of our…'

He found Loki invading his mind more so than usual, especially ever since the fight that put him in this weakened state. The dark specter looked nothing like him, yet his movements...by the Goddess Herself, his movements were spot on. If he didn't know any better, it was like some horrid reflection of him had emerged from the spirit realm and encompassed his physical attributes, but removed any trace of his soul. And yet...and yet, Richard found himself unable to shake the familiarity that came when he faced the dark knight. Loki's words, his mannerisms, his way to get a rise out of the then prince (and even when he had officially been crowned king) all came back to him. And in some way, at least according to theories that he had heard, that knight was connected with the Wizard of the Red Lotus. And if that was true...then that simply made things even more confusing. Valda...the woman, even when she was young, let nothing get by her (especially his attempts to conceal his obvious attraction to her), so either the wizard had master discretion, or, distressingly, Valda had knowledge of it. Yet...that couldn't be. No, he refused to entertain such a thought. Richard would not shirk his duty to his people, but he couldn't accept such a thing. He wouldn't.

And yet he suspected, to his dismay, that this was only the tip of the iceberg that was coming their way. And it wouldn't just be Valsena that would be affected.

Altena

He couldn't do it.

Closing the tome detailing the exploits and findings of the Great White Mage Minwu, Jose sighed and rested his head in his hands. To think, in such a short time, things could go so wrong. The snow that hadn't been able to touch the castle ground was now steadily falling outside, their own country had decided to invade other countries for their respective Mana Stones, and even more, their own princess had been, for reasons that baffled him just as much as the previous grievance, declared an enemy of the state and was to be hunted down and brought back to the kingdom.

Suffice to say, he understood none of this. This was completely out of the Queen's character. Had she not outright fought against tyranny with that youth Roget and their (former) ally, Valsena, against Pedda and their subsequent supporters? Her very joining in the young rag tag group from various nations was to fight against the advanced kingdom that was threatening to become a global power. So why this sudden aggression against their ally country, and against Richard of all people.

Even if it was unspoken and unknown by many...Jose knew well of the two and their 'activities' that occurred sometime during and after the war. How close they were before they eventually had to go their separate ways to their respective kingdoms. It was very warm at first, their relationship, their duties keeping them preoccupied, but they saw each other from time to time when they could, each journeying to the others' country to visit, and, late in the night, give each other some more...intimate company. Jose said not a word of it, and no one was the wiser, for, after all, the Queen of Reason and the Hero King Richard to be involved in some sort of scandalous behavior? Absurd!

"Jose?" the old man heard a voice, looking to see a young man coming into the library.

"Ah, Victor." the aged sorcerer sighed. "How have you been? Anything occurring as of late?" he then thought better of it. "No, there wouldn't be. Nothing that would be told to you."

Victor nodded. "Everything here's been even more tense than what had become 'usual' since a short time ago." the trained magician confessed. "But the soldiers are still looking, so at least Angela hasn't been found yet."

"Some good news, at least." the teacher felt some ease in his old heart upon hearing that. "Hopefully she can make herself scarce for just a little longer…" he rose from his chair to place Minwu's Tome back in its proper place. It was then that Victor noticed something on the desk.

"What's this?" the young man saw what appeared to be a letter of sorts, a feather quill and ink pot nearby as well. Instinctually, he reached for it, only to have the old man snatch it away.

"That's private, young man." Jose sternly said. "Keep to yourself." Victor was taken aback by this, Jose's brows then softening. "I...apologize, dear boy." the teacher sighed. "It's...just very personal." he looked at the contents of the paper, his lips tightening. "And...truly, I would've never thought I would have to write it."

"What do you mean?" Victor asked.

Jose was quiet for some time, an uneasy silence hanging over the room. "I cannot say for certain, at least, not yet." the old man said. "But, from what I suspect," he looked down at the letter again. "I may have to have it delivered sooner than I would like."

Wendel

White. How, white light. That was all he knew as his and everyone else in the city were blinded by the brilliance of it, all of them sent to the ground by the enormous force that came from it. Yet when it ended, the young priest saw that their invaders were gone. The city was back to how it was, despite the damage that had been done, the people were saved.

And yet...it served to lead to a terrible discovery.

"Henry?" the robed man turned to see a sagely old woman, her habit draping her shoulders. "How is His Eminence?"

Henry could only sigh. "His condition is still dire." he told her. "He's stable at the moment, as in, his heart is still beating, but other than that…" he trailed off, for he dare not want to think of the possibilities.

"I see." the nun lowered her head and muttered a small prayer to the Goddess. "Forgive my badgering, it's just that some of the younger girls are getting antsy."

"No, no, it's all right." Henry assured. "Though...I need to be getting back to him, so…"

"Ah, yes, of course. Please, excuse me." With that, the old nun left the young man, he in turn went back to his duties.

Entering the Priest of Light's personal room, he was unnerved by the sight of the old, usually stalwart man now little more than a shriveled up, bedridden raisin. His skin was pale and he had broken out in yet another cold sweat, his eyes closed and brow seemingly cast in a forever furrow. "Ah, there you are, Henry." one of the several medics attending to him said. "His fever's up again."

"Hold on a moment." going over to his bedside, Henry opened his palm and placed it on the old man's forehead. A small light emitted from him and went inside the old man. The heat radiating from him seemed to die down a bit, yet Henry and everyone else knew that it'd only be a matter of time before it would rise again. "I...I'm sorry." the young priest apologized, unsure whether or not the head of Wendel could even hear him. "There's only so much I can do…"

"Nonsense." one of the medics said, writing out the towel that had also been used to lessen the heat of the old man. "It's because of you and the other young men here blessed with these holy powers that he was able to survive performing such strong magic."

"...survive, yes. But it won't guarantee he'll live." Henry sighed, taking a seat in a nearby chair as he watched the medics continued to perform their duty.

Indeed. Ever since the attack by the beastmen, the poor man's condition has seemed to get worse and worse, and Henry and the other priests' efforts to keep him stable only seemed to be a temporary reprieve. And with that, there was no guarantee of just how much LONGER that His Eminence would survive. There was perhaps one amongst them that could keep him lasting far longer, perhaps even provide enough of his energy that could maybe bring the old man out of his coma.

If that young priest was still with them. Henry didn't wish to dwell on such dark thoughts...but it couldn't be denied that, if the siege on the Holy City had caused so much damage...then perhaps it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that he had encountered trouble himself.

Ferolia

The moment that Coco stopped in her tracks, Anati sensed that something was wrong. "What's up, girl?" the female beastman questioned, the chocobo only released a quite trill. And as she looked in the distance, her companion saw it as well.

Was that...the King?

He looked in their direction, Anati maneuvering Coco to hide behind a thickened tree. Indeed, it was King Gauser himself, seemingly staring at a small mound of dirt, a stick protruding out from the ground, as if it were a marker. What was he doing here? The young woman and her bird stayed silent as they continued to observe the king. His eyes...there was something unusual about them. Though she hadn't seen him for her entire life, the sight of him was quite intimidating, it being no wonder that he was indeed the king of all her people, but what was he doing out here? After all, someone of his stature all the way out here? Then again, he WAS the king, so why wouldn't he do what he pleased? Anati shook these useless musings from her mind, then focusing on what had drawn her attention in the first place. His eyes...while there appeared to be nothing unusual about them at first, both she and Coco found that they didn't appear as...fierce as they should've. Dare say, they were lacking in any emotion at all. Even closer inspection showed that they seemed to lack any pupil, the iris a blank, gradient-like sphere of gold. Dare say, he almost looked like he were walking around in a half daze, only aware of so much of the world.

Just what was going on?

Anati and Coco continued to watch, Gauser touching the dirt that composed of the patch, seemingly interested in it. He sat kneeled by it for some time, both the young woman and bird puzzled by what was so interesting about it. Then, to their surprise, his eyes seemed to begin to change. A small, yet visible pupil seemed to materialize, and an awareness came to his eyes and general features once again. His eyes widened as he stood over the patch, his clawed hand running over the stick that served as a marker. Then, to the shock of Anati and Coco, they witnessed something both incredible and unbelievable.

Tears. Tears trailing down the cheek of the mighty king, the strongest of them all. Was he...crying?

Then, something even more incredible. From behind, some sort of 'shape' manifested behind him. A small, but presented, winged woman bathed in light appeared, clearly there, but her shape was not entirely visible, as if she were using energy to manifest into their world from another. Her shape wasn't entirely able to be distinguished, yet she seemed to have no legs and wings, along with a ring of light around her. The king seemed unaware of her presence, yet he clearly reacted to it, his shoulders shaking and his body heaving. "K-Kevin…" he muttered, both Anati and Coco's hearts nearly stopping. Kevin? As in, that young man they had met before? Was that...his son?! "Kevin…" he said again, now gripping on the stick. "Diana…" Diana? Who was that? Clearly someone important to him. Was it some relative? Or maybe...someone he loved? A wife or lover?

Just then, the haze that once plagued his eyes came over him again, the female figure that had come up behind him dissipating into nothing yet again. The king rose up and stared down at the patch of dirt for a good while before turning away, Anati and Coco waiting until he went off before they emerged from their hiding place. The two approached where the king had once stood, observing and surveying the patch. If she didn't know any better, the young woman would have assumed that it was a grave of some sort. Had someone died? It must've held some sort of importance, if the king had such a reaction to it. A chill then ran through Anati. Was Kevin buried here? No, no, that couldn't be. The mound was too small. Yet something was buried here...and Kevin himself was rather despondent when they had first ran into each other.

She knew little of what it meant to the king, let alone why Kevin was in such a similar state when they first met, but at the moment, despite herself, Anati found herself linking both of them to whoever or whatever lay in this mound. Seeing that it was surrounded by blooming flowers, she plucked a few and lay them on the mound, Coco doing the same with her beak, the two then staying by the small, assumed grave.

From behind the thickened bushes, a pair of golden, dark eyes studied the two, most notably Anati. Suffice to say, their observer was NOT in a good mood. The siege of Wendel had failed, and now, the king...or rather, his Master was NOT pleased. Yet still, other stones remained. As well as the opportunity to choose more candidates to 'assist' in channelling their power.

And while it might've been too soon to tell...he believed he found a possible one right in front of him.

Nevarl

The brick wall was cold against her back, her once lovely dress torn in various places and her cheek still stung, both from the tears she had shed and the blow delivered to her. It hadn't been but a short time since it all happened...so how could things go so wrong?

Flashback

She had seen him, just for a moment, yet she had seen him leap across the gate and to the outside world beyond the fortress. And while she wouldn't dare say it aloud, Jessica found nothing but relief in her heart upon seeing it.

Only...now what?

This was far from over. Hawkeye would surely be hunted, her father already having doubled down the forces and sent a good portion of the guild out to find him, and the invasion of Laurent would be underway soon. It seemed that the focus was strained between these two things. The daughter...well, now the 'princess' of the guild, or kingdom, was wishing to be anywhere rather than where she was. Hawkeye's words regarding the title still stung her, they repeated endlessly in her mind. Did he really believe that she wanted this to happen? That she WANTED for the guild to become a kingdom? That she had any part of play in her father's decision? Hell, she had no say in it, neither did Eagle! Their father outright came out and proclaimed this to everyone, and everyone was just as equally surprised and taken aback! Did she want to have a kingdom invaded? No! Did she want to take down Laurent! Absolutely not! 'Then why did you say that you trusted your father's judgement?' Jessica paused, becoming chilled. 'Well?' the inner voice asked an answer. "I...I don't know." she answered, knowing well she probably looked like some crazy person. "I...I just...I mean, Father was right in that the wells were drying up and things weren't as they used to be. And...and he seemed so concerned for us both." She remembered his words clearly.

'This is to ensure the future for your children. And your children's children, and theirs.' he told them both. 'I won't lie in saying that there will be some...dire things that will have to occur to ensure this, but it is for the best, I promise you. I'm doing this for all of us. Especially you both.' she remembered the way he stroked her cheek. 'Please...my dear princess. Understand. It's all for you.'

"All for me." she said. "All for us…" only now, there was no 'us'.

Eagle...the sight of his blood covered form lying limply on the floor...and Hawkeye standing there with his blood on the thief's body...Jessica clenched her fists and thrust her head down into her hands. Her brother. Her big brother...gone. And not just that, he was brutalized. Blood poured from his throat, a large, gaping wound in his neck...Jessica pushed back the bile rising in her throat, the sting of the acid irritating her esophagus. She remembered her words to Hawkeye...her begging him to confess that he didn't do it. Only to be met with nothing. Silence...or maybe, a silent admittance of guilt?

Thus, she found herself here: in her room, drowning herself in her own sorrow. How long she had been here, she didn't know, and frankly, had lost all will to care. To hell with everything, she thought. Things couldn't get any worse, they couldn't!

Suddenly, she heard the door to her room open, a purple cat entering. "Mew?" Niccolo spoke, the young, blue haired woman startled at the sudden intrusion. "Sorry if I scared mew."

"What….what are you-" Jessica began, but Niccolo stepped in and closed the door.

"Sorry to just come in like this...but I have to talk to mew."

"Niccolo, this isn't exactly a good time-"

"It might be the only time." the cat interrupted.

"He's right, you know." another voice said, a masked ninja coming in, followed by what appeared to be a twin duplicate.

"Bill!? Ben?! What are you-" Jessica began, yet both of them covered her mouth.

"Shh!" both said in unison. "We had to sneak all the way in here!" Bill said.

"So don't blow our cover now that we're in!" Ben finished, then taking their hands off her mouth.

"Well, seeing as you all just so 'humbly' invited yourself into a lady's room, what is so important that you decided to barge in here? Sorry to say, but I'm in no mood to just talk." she sighed, her distress clear.

"Not even about what happened?" Niccolo asked, Jessica's lip trembling.

"No. We're NOT discussing that. If that's what you're here for, then please leave. I...I can't deal with this now-"

"I know. I'm sorry. I really am." Bill chipped in, nodding to his brother.

"But this is important." Ben added. "Your father's life might be on the line. And yours."

"What?" Jessica stood from the chair in front of her vanity, she just about to take off her jewelry before the intrusion. "What are you talking about?"

"Please, Jessica." Niccolo asked. "Ask yourself, do you really believe that Hawkeye would do something like that?"

Jessica froze at what had just come from the cat's mouth. "Niccolo...please, all of you, just leave-"

"Do you?" the cat repeated. A tense, gripping silence fell over the young woman's chambers, Jessica turning away from him, Bill and Ben and staring down at her hands that were currently gripping her dress. "Do you?" Niccolo repeated, Jessica still remaining silent until finally, an answer.

"...no." she whispered. "No. I...I don't."

"Neither do we." Bill admitted. "But...we...we blew it back there."

Ben lowered his head. "It all happened so fast...but...but both of us made a terrible mistake."

"...so did I." Jessica whimpered, Niccolo gently nuzzling her arm.

"It's not mewr fault," he assured her. "It's not any of mewrs fault." he turned to Bill and Ben.

The next question on the young woman's mind was the expected 'If not him, who did?', yet before she could let it slip from her lips, a certain face immediately came to mind. "But...but how would she-"

"Shh!" Niccolo shushed Jessica, looking back to the door, then locking it. "I'm not sure." he confessed. "But I heard everything."

"You did?" Bill and Ben said together, the cat nodding.

"That's kinda why I came in here too." Niccolo confessed. "I...kinda busted him out."

Jessica was puzzled at first, yet then remembered. "That explosion...that was you?!"

"I couldn't think of anything else!" the purple cat exclaimed, but then remembered to keep it down, whispering then, "We need to get out of here." he then pointed to Jessica's necklace. "And you need to get that off of you!"

"What?" Jessica asked, both Bill and Ben equally confused.

"That's the reason Hawkeye couldn't tell you who did it! That witch, Isabella, cursed it!"

"Wh-What are you saying?" the blue haired young woman questioned. "I...I got this before all this happened! She...she said that it was a gift from someone!"

"Someone who?" Niccolo asked.

"I...I don't know." she confessed. "Isabella just said that it was from someone. She didn't say who. But…" she touched the ruby stone on it. "She said that Hawkeye would like it." a deep scowl came to the cat and behind the masks of the ninjas.

"Did she do anything to it recently?" Ben then asked.

"Well, no. Well, when Hawkeye was first put in prison, we ran into each other," the young woman reached up to her necklace, feeling quite uncomfortable with it now. "And I guess her hand slipped or something, because she accidentally got some blood on it. But I didn't see any...huh?" Jessica continued to speak, yet paused.

"What's wrong?" Bill asked.

"The...the necklace." Jessica began to pull, trying to separate the two halves that were once there. "It...ugh! It won't come off!"

"What?" Niccolo asked.

"I can't get it to undo itself!" the young woman pulled and pulled, yet still nothing. She then, while she knew that it wouldn't fit, tried to lift it higher up on her neck, yet, to her and everyone else's surprise, the necklace seemed to 'shrink' in diameter, a metal ring around her throat. Jessica was immediately taken back by the sudden cutting off of her air, staggering back and about to fall to the floor before Ben caught her. "I...ack! I...I can't breathe!" she choked out, grappling at the ever tightening death trap.

"Hold on!" Bill then drew out one of his trusty daggers. "Sorry, but it might nick you a bit." he then managed to squeeze the blade in between the necklace and Jessica's skin and pulled. Yet to his shock and dismay, the necklace only seemed to tighten, pressing the sharpened edge into the young woman's neck. More and more this went on, Bill now trying to pull back his dagger until-

CRACK!

The dagger's blade split in two, both halves falling and clattering to the floor, leaving everyone shocked at what had just happened. Jessica's gasps died down as it seemed that the magic was satisfied in knowing that there would be no more attempts to remove it, the necklace going back to its original diameter and allowing the young woman much needed air. "By the Goddess…" Ben gasped, clearly shaken by what he had just witnessed.

"Oh…" Jessica moaned, face contorting and developing tears filling her ducts. "Oh Hawkeye...forgive me. Forgive us...please…"

"Yes, indeed." a familiar, female voice said, all four of them turning to see that the door, despite it being previously locked, had been opened wide, revealing Isabella standing in the doorway. "Unfortunate that he isn't here to hear your apologies, princess." she smirked. "Nor yours, boys." She then centered her gaze on Niccolo. "I knew it was you. I found the tunnel, you diseased creature. Did you really think that it wouldn't be discovered?"

Niccolo paid no mind to this, immediately going on the defensive. "You witch! It's too late! They know everything!" he said, gesturing to Jessica, Bill and Ben. "And like hell mew'll get away with this! Flamekhan will-"

"Be out of commission for a time." Isabella interrupted.

"What do you mean?" Jessica got to her feet, drawing closer to Isabella. "What have you done to my father?!"

"Relax, princess. He's very much alive." Isabella answered. "Just a little...incapacitated at the moment. After Eagle's untimely passing, he needed sweet sleep." she then reached and took hold of Jessica's wrist. "Which brings us to you, dear."

"L-Let go!" the young woman protested, struggling to get out of the woman's grip. Then, Isabella snapped her fingers, the necklace once again tightening around Jessica's throat.

"Lovely thing, isn't it? The Choker of Death?" the red haired woman asked, Jessica unable to answer due to the aptly named choker cutting off her air. "The magic wasn't easy to find, but when you have connections like I do, you can pretty much get anything if you know where to look." she got no further, however, as a throwing knife was thrown her way, slicing against her side. The necklace expanded, allowing the young woman to breathe again, Isabella turning her angry gaze towards Ben.

"You dare?!" she hissed. "Come then! I'll deal with you all!"

"Niccolo!" Bill shouted. "Take Jessica and get outta here!" He then joined his brother, both of them pulling out their weapons. "We'll deal with this!"

"Bill!" the cat shouted in protest.

"Ben…" Jessica also said, but the two looked back to them.

"Go! Now!" they shouted in unison, both the cat and young woman taking in breath between their teeth, and they made their way to one of the 'windows' in the rocky wall. "Now…" Bill began. "Let's go, witch!"

Isabella chuckled, folding her arms. "Fine then." she then unfolded them, dark spheres forming in her palms. "Let us see what the 'Greatest Ninja Duo of Nevarl' can do!"

Outside

"How does Hawkeye do it?" Jessica quietly asked, she and Niccolo inching their way across a ledge, just one wrong slip meaning a good fall.

"It takes practice." Niccolo told her. "I can't tell mew all the slips I made when I first got in the game." he caught her, she just about to slip herself.

"Well, I hope that this is just a one time thing." the young woman answered, they continued to inch along. Many of the thieves were out, searching for the runaway Hawkeye still, leaving the outside grounds mainly empty. That said, the natural terrain wouldn't change its conditions for them, so they seemed to make themselves their main obstacle.

Finally getting onto some semi-flat ground, Niccolo and Jessica rushed forward, the young woman stopping upon seeing a large gap, the cat springing and leaping across it with no problem.

"Come on!" Niccolo urged her, Jessica clearly fearful. "Don't look down! You've gotta jump." well, of course she knew that! But… "I'll catch mew!"

"P-Promise?" she nervously uttered."

"Yeah! Sure! Just hurry!"

Taking a heavy breath, Jessica stepped back and, albeit with some hesitation, began to run forward, drawing closer and closer to the gap. "Ah!" only for a form to block her way.

Leaping seemingly from behind her, Bill stood in front of her, blocking her way. "Bill!" she shouted. "You made it!" Yet her relief was short lived, Bill not saying anything. "Bill?" she then turned behind her to see Ben, he too displayed the same odd behavior. "Ben?" her eyes widened in horrified realization. "Oh no…"

"Jessica!" Niccolo shouted, leaping over the gap to get to her. "Hey, guys! What's going on-"

"Niccolo, look out!" Jessica's warning was too late, however, as the cat was grabbed by his throat and promptly tossed from the high place. "NICCOLO!" she shouted, Ben seizing her and holding her arms behind her back while Bill jumped down.

"Huh?" the purple cat looked down to see himself standing. "Well...what do you know. Cats DO land on their-" before he could finish though, a kick to the back of his head sent him flying and landing right on his face. "Face." he murmured in pain. He was about to rise, yet felt a foot place itself on his back, the back of his head taken in a forceful grip and a dagger held by his throat.

"Hold!" a woman shouted, Isabella coming towards the fallen cat. "Keep this one alive too." she then looked up to the captured Jessica. "I have use for both of them."

A Short While Later

"Let us out!" Niccolo demanded, both he and Jessica by the bars of the cell.

"Bill! Ben!" the young woman cried out. "What's wrong with you?! Don't you recognize us?!"

"Oh, they do." Isabella answered, placing a hand on each of their shoulders as the ninjas stood motionless by the jail cell. "They just don't care. They don't care about anything that is outside me." she then ran a hand across Bill's cheek and cupped Ben's. "You should get ready, you two. We head for Laurent soon."

"Understood." they both said in unison, then going off.

"Wait!" Niccolo shouted. "Guys! You can't leave us here!" yet leave them they did, alone with the woman that had assumedly entranced them. "You...you witch!" the cat hissed, bearing his sharpened teeth. "You won't get away with this!"

"Enlighten me then, pet." Isabella scoffed, reaching in between the bars and mockingly petting the cat on the head. "Who? You? A sweet little thing like you?" she smirked. "Aw, who's a sweet little kitty? Who's a-OW!" her fingers got too close, Niccolo seizing a few in his mouth and biting down hard, the woman retracting her hand to see he had broken the skin, blood oozing freely from the bite. She glared daggers at him. "Fine. If that's the way you want it." she hissed back, oddly very similar to his own hiss. "I WAS going to allow you to keep the dear princess her company, but you lost that privilege." she then whistled, both Niccolo and Jessica hearing large, heavy steps coming their way. Then, to their horror, two large, blue humanoid creatures with fearsome features of large, sharpened teeth made their way towards them. They bore large, curved horns and flaps of skin around their jawline that looked similar to the fins of a fish. Large, bat-like wings were affixed to their backs, and their gazes only further cemented that they were not of this world. "Take him."

With that, the door was thrust open and the two beings went inside, one holding Jessica back while the other grabbed Niccolo and hoisted him up over its shoulder. "N-No!" Jessica cried out, desperately reaching out for the cat. "Niccolo!"

"Jessica!" Niccolo shouted in turn, also reaching out for her, yet only their fingertips made contact with each other. The cat was carried away as he called out her name, the demon disappearing from sight. The demon that had been holding her threw her to the ground and left the cell, Isabella shutting it again.

"Welcome to the dawn of the Kingdom of Nevarl, dear princess." Isabella told her with a smile on her red lips. "Soon to be the Kingdom of His Majesty. Along with the rest of the world."

Present

Sitting here in isolation had given her much time to think, as really, there was little else to do. Her father had been stationed in the cell left to her, yet it was useless to try and strike up a conversation with him. Every time she tried, he would only remain silent, no doubt enchanted like Bill and Ben had been. It was safe to assume that everyone here had been entranced by that witch. Just what was she? True, it was clear by now that she was no ordinary woman, but there was no way she was human. Not after what she had seen. Was she some sort of otherworldly creature? She certainly seemed to allow them to keep her company. The stockades were mostly empty of them, yet from time to time, Jessica could seem some of those foul, otherworldly beings pass by, some giving her a glance and staring at her hungrily, as if they wanted to take a bite out of her...or maybe worse. She shuddered at the thought, though despite it all, she found herself completely spent. She had shed all the tears she could muster, and by now, her face was sore and she was feeling numb. Her hand placed itself on her necklace, her other hand clenching into a fist.

'Damn you…' she cursed to herself, Isabella's image coming to mind. 'Turning us against Hawkeye...killing Eagle…' yet she dare not try to remove it, having tried fruitlessly again and again, only to end up choked until she nearly lost consciousness. She remembered what Isabella had told her regarding the choker's magic, how, despite a curse already being on her, the witch's magic would prove ineffective against her, as wishing to do so would mean neutralizing the necklace's power. And it was clear she had no intention of doing that anytime soon.

'Besides,' she remembered that accursed woman's voice in her head. 'It's only fitting for a princess to see the beginnings of her kingdom.'

Though she had no more tears to shed, Jessica brought her knees to her chest and lowered her head, releasing a heavy, exhausted sigh.

"Let go of me!" Huh? Who was that? "I'm warning you!" the source of the voice was drawing closer, a horrid shadow trailing along the wall. "When my sister gets here, you're not gonna like what she'll do!" a demon held a wriggling shape in its grasp, Jessica backing up against the northern wall of the cell, not wishing to be any closer to it. "She'll kick your butt for sure! She'll-" the young thing got no more out and the cell door was opened and he was thrown inside. "Ow…" he moaned, Jessica left speechless as to what was just tossed in with her.

A young, blonde haired boy garbed in little more than a raggy old tunic with a rope serving as a belt, worn out slippers, and quite the number of bruises on him. "A…" Jessica found herself saying aloud. "A boy?"

"Huh?" the child rubbed his sore cheek. "Who are you, lady?"

Laurent Secret Base

"Take it easy, Auntie." Eliza urged. "You're still not exactly in the best condition."

"I'm well enough to take a small stroll." Alma answered, holding firm to the walking stick in her hand. "Besides, I need the exercise anyway."

"Me too." Gertrude confessed. "We've been cooped up in here for forever, it seems." she moaned.

"Better we be in here than out there." Merci replied. "Speaking of, isn't it about time for your shift, Eliza?"

"Ah! Right!" the blue haired young woman made her way to where the resting quarters were and pulled out a carefully wrapped up set of clothes. And with that, she then pulled out a small collection of jewelry. Some small articles that she picked up from the other girls, as well as some of the shops in Palo. Given that Nevarl had decided to invite themselves into the town and citadel, they appeared to want to integrate some of their culture in with it. After a few moments, she had changed into the appropriate attire, yet took a thick cloak with her, as the nights on the mountain could get rather chilled. "All right, everyone. I'm off."

With a wave goodbye, Eliza exited the cave and entered the massive field of samosa flowers, carefully treading through them until she reached the path down to Palo. Alma, Merci, and Gertrude watched her go, their former captain releasing a heavy sigh.

"What is it?" Merci asked.

"Nothing. Just...musing over some things."

"Such as?"

Alma lowered her head, sighing. "I feel that this whole siege is just the beginning." she then looked up to the mountains, the highest of them all that towered over all others. She remembered her trip there with Joster and Minerva when the war was over. The sunlight that managed to pass through the small cracks in the stone haven that one of their allies had come to roost in. Now, the harpies had taken it as their roost, and the status of what lay there had been in her mind since when she first saw it.

"Alma?" Gertrude questioned, the blue haired nursemaid continuing to stare up at the mountain.

"A box without hinges, key or lid." she closed her eyes as the night breeze chilled her face. "Yet a priceless treasure is found within." she then opened her eyes. "I can only hope that it will be ready, should it indeed be needed again."

Chapter Text

 

The night was still and quiet, no sound of chirping crickets or croaking frogs. Not even the regular inhabitants such as rabites or molebears came out from their dwellings. Though it was night, sleep was not the only motivator in keeping them in their burrows.

His reddened cloak was caught on the breeze of the night wind, his golden hair dancing at a slow, steady pace with it, his violet eyes overlooking the dry, barren land before him. His brows furrowed in frustration. Just where WAS it?

Flashback

Dragons Maw

"You were expected some time ago." the shadowed figure said, clearly displeased. "Surely an invasion can't take that long to prepare for."

"The Queen wishes for no detail to be left out." Koren answered. "And let's just say, the woman is quite peculiar and particular of details as a whole."

The shadowed figure merely huffed at that. Strange that he could somewhat relate to a human of all things, even if the woman was (technically) the head of a country. It was even more odd that he would be comparing herself to 'her' of all people now. It wasn't as if that woman was formidable: take away her magic, and she was no more helpless than a newborn. Yet even still, he remembered well the dozens that were taken out by her magic when news of her country's queen dying hit her. That woman put up a fight too, yet she eventually fell. Why didn't her daughter? Why didn't any of those humans before that dare come against Pedda, and in turn, against him? And how...how could that damned prince and his arrogant, haughty company render him to the state he was now?

Ultimately, it mattered not. The princess (now Queen) was being led like a sheep. And according to one of his 'dear' allies, the sorcerer was planning a trip to visit the dear prince. Title mattered not, Richard would always be the 'little pathetic prince' in his eyes. Though one question remained. "Where is the Mana Stone?"

It was then that Koren averted his gaze. "That...has yet to be discovered."

"Yet to be discovered." the figure repeated. "You've already had an extended visit there, and all you can say is that it's 'yet to be discovered'?" his hands clenched the sides of his 'throne', sharpened nails tearing at the rock. "You do realize what you're sounding like, don't you?"

"My Lord, I intend to-"

"You sound like a weak little boy, Koren." The red magician froze at that, a wave of emotions assaulting him. A portion of him was enraged at hearing such a title be bestowed on him, yet there was a familiarity, as it wasn't new to him. There was a chill that ran through him, he found it difficult to look into his lord's eyes, golden with ruby red, dark irises that bore a reptilian look. Yet with that, above all, there was a stabbing helplessness that he tried to suppress, along with everything else, but still, it refused to be put away. "Is that what you are, Koren? A boy? A weak, pathetic boy?" he then hissed. "An...inable, talentless boy?" Koren was silent for a good while, the inner sanctum of the cavern deathly quiet. "Well? Tell me." the figure gestured to the only other presence in the room, the dark knight only being noticed because he was pointed out. "Well?"

Koren lowered his head. "...no. No, I am not, my Lord." he then clenched his fist. "I am no such thing." he firmly said.

The figure seemed unimpressed. Still, he humored him. "I would hope not, seeing as me extending my hand would've been worthless otherwise." well, if one could call it humoring. "Regardless, I can't afford to simply wait on you, performance being at its peak or not." he then turned to the knight. "Go back and continue your search and invasion." he ordered the magician. "Me and my old friend have some things to discuss."

Koren turned and made his exit, the figure's words still echoing in his head. 'Boy...weak little boy…' he tightened his already clenched fist. 'Never.' he swore. 'Never again.'

Once the Crimson Wizard was gone, the figure directed his reptilian gaze upon the knight. "It seems Koren ran into that boy." he began. "He should be...what, around seventeen now?" the knight remained silent, yet the figure could clearly feel the vibrations in his energy, his soul. He smiled. "Very valiant lad, he said. Kept keeping up the fight despite the ever intimate threat of death." then, the armor began shaking, as if the form inside it was trembling. "I was disappointed at first that he hadn't been executed, but then again, if he's anything like you, then he won't go down that easy. Who knows? Perhaps one day, he'll come here, and then we all can become better acquainted with each other-" the figure got out no more as an armor clad hand seized him by the throat, lifting him up from the throne and holding him high. The dark knight held the figure up, grip deathly tight. With the other, and dark blade was drawn out. And despite this all, the figure displayed no fear. His eyes bore no traces of alarm or concern. Dare say, he looked rather satisfied. "Getting bolder, are we?" he smirked. "Well? What are you waiting for? You drew your blade and everything. It'd be rather anticlimactic if you were to do nothing with it." the knight remained in his position, still as stone. "Just as I thought.''

The figure features, despite the near weightlessness of the cave, transformed and grew far more reptilian in nature. Extending his mouth to a length impossible for any man to do, a large blast of what appeared to be black fire struck the knight, causing him to be fired across the room and smash right into the cave wall, leaving a rather massive imprint there. The figure rose from his position and straightened himself out. "Yet again, we have to go over this lesson. And it's when I think you've gotten past this." the being walked to the knight now on his hands and knees, and roughly took him by the violet crest of his black helmet. "You have no will outside of my own. You do a I say, you KILL who I say." the being then smirked. "If Koren cannot deal with that boy, then perhaps I shall have an especially special errand for you." the knight lifted his head up, ghostly, purple eyes widening. Though emotion was near unreadable due to his concealed face, those eyes seemed, in that moment, unsettlingly human, a primal sense of terror echoing in them. "But," the figure released the knight. "Unfortunately, there is an assignment that holds precedent over that fantasy." he then sat back in his 'throne'. "I need you to go to the Laurent Mountains." he commanded. "There is a shrine there dedicated to one of the Goddess' little lackeys." his lips tightened with anger. "And where he may be, the stone can't be far behind." The knight stood still, resembling that of a shape forever frozen in place. Then, after some time, those damned, reptilian eyes bored into him, he turned to make his leave. "Oh, and while you're there," the figure added, the knight stopping in his tracks. "Search the Celestial Peak. Search high." his eyes narrowed into tight slits. "Search for the egg."

Present

"Lord Koren?" he was drawn from his musing by a voice, a young mage woman having approached him. "The Machine Golems are operational and ready for use."

Koren in turn nodded. "Good." he remarked. "They'll take down Valsena's security in no time."

"And sir?" the woman continued. "What of the Princess?"

"Just as I said before." the blonde wizard replied. "She is to be found, but is to be found alive. She must face justice and be returned to Altena to be formally charged and her sentence given by the Queen."

"And...that would be?"

Koren turned, eyes narrowing and growing dark, the mage shrinking back. "That is beyond your rank and title. Such matters concern you not, nor should you even try and insert yourself in them. Prepare the Golems and speak no more of this. Is that clear?"

"Y-Yes. Of course. Forgive me, my Lord." the mage wasted no time in getting out of his presence, leaving the red dressed wizard on his lonesome.

'Weak little boy…' he trembled as he recited his Lord's words in his mind. 'No. Never.' he swore to himself before saying aloud "Never, EVER again."

Flashback

Kingdom of Valsena

Beiser

Beiser. The city of trade, of the greatest and rarest wares that one could find in the entire Kingdom of Valsena...of the world! Yet he was not here for that. Oh no. He was here on a different matter. A matter that shouldn't have even been one at all, he had told that short-sighted woman.

"What do you mean you just 'gave him away'?!" he remembered Isabella shouting to the two ninjas that were under her thrall.

"Forgive us, please." one ninja, Bill, spoke.

"We didn't believe that the Majesty would have interest in him." the other, Ben, spoke.

"Well, you thought wrong!" she hollered at them, her eyes glaring both daggers and a furious gold at them. "You had a potential candidate in your very hands, and what do you do with him? Put him up for sale, of course!" she threw up her arms and turned away, before turning back to them. "He had BETTER still be there, or so help me, I shall give one of YOU to the stone when we find it!"


He had stood there, chuckling to himself the entire time. Honestly, this was too rich. And not to mention, His Majesty would no doubt be FURIOUS at her about this. But then, he remembered the way she looked at him, having clearly heard him find humor in her plight. And he didn't need to question how she'd pay him back. That, she claimed, would come later, but first, seeing as she had a meeting to attend with His Majesty, he would need to attend to the matter of retrieving the boy. A task he protested heavily against, yet she promised him something that...suffice to say, he couldn't refuse. Especially since it had been quite a bit since he last fed.

Making his way to the guarded entrance, two large, burly men stood in the way. "Five-hundred lucre to get in, pal." one of them said. It was then that he could truly study who was before him, and suffice to say, he didn't look like anybody that'd be coming here. "Hey, pal, I think you're in the wrong place."

"Oh no, good gentlemen. I'm well aware of this place." he then looked upon them both with his red eyes. "And I'm short of pocket change at the moment."

"Pff! Ha ha!" the other man guffawed. "You're funny! I like you!" he then placed his large hand on the finely dressed figure's shoulders. "But piss off the wrong guy, and comments like that'll get you killed!" he then lifted him in the air by his collar. "So beat, fancy pants! Or do you want an up close and personal lesson about choosing your words carefully?"

The figure merely huffed. Simpletons, he thought. Shame that he couldn't just do them in here and now. Always, restraint was a skill he had to learn throughout his existence, yet still, it didn't make it any easier. "No, I am where I need to be." he stated simply then making direct eye contact with the man that held him. "And I…" then, his eyes began to glow a shining red, the iris radiating and seemingly pulsing akin to a heart as both men found themselves terrified, yet intrigued by what they were seeing. "...shall be let inside."


Dusting himself off, the light skinned Malocchio straightened out his cape and gazed around at the expansive array of wares and goods all around, as well as the other, rather scandalous activities taking place beneath the hardworking, stingy but otherwise wholesome city. Here, it seemed, was where said city came to express and work out its more carnal desires.

All around him, people were partaking in whatever pleased them, the room smelt of sweetness as toxic, but nonetheless intoxicating fumes radiating from both the numerous incense pots being sold and from the expensive hookahs being smoked with just as expensive leaves and plants, creating a colorful haze that shrouded the area in a perpetual environment of pleasures. Pleasures that he would definitely partake in, just not the ones that most here would understand.

From upon a platform danced four women garbed in light attire, most of their form presented and seemingly having only the most intimate parts of themselves covered. Adorning them were ornate jewelry of precious stones, strapless tops that covered their breasts just enough, the pattern on the cloth stripped, this extending to the slim thong they wore. Nevarlian attire, he thought, noting the darkened skin of the four women. They wore golden belts with the same gemstones and dangling pieces of gold, pointed slippers on their feet, their jewelry creating a rhythmic jingle as they danced. He was immediately ensnared by the sight of them. Their hair was golden and tied in flowing ponytails, a hair ornament atop their head to hold the ponytail in place, it was also adorned with gems.

He had to have them. At least one.

"Hey! Let me out of here!" a voice broke Malocchio's concentration, his red eyes being drawn to the northern corner of the large, underground market, spotting a cage that housed a young, blonde boy dressed in rags. "I'm warning you! I'm a prince!"

"Yeah, yeah. They all say that they're someone important." the jailer, a stout man that looked rather well off and resembled a sultan rolled his eyes. "Now keep quiet!" he pushed the child back from behind the bars. "You'll scare away any potential buyers!"

"Oh, please, give the child some patience." the man turned to see the pale, caped man. "He is so young after all." he gave a look at the boy, the boy immediately shrinking back from him. He gave him worse vibes than the man that currently imprisoned him.

"And you are?" the jailer questioned.

"As of now, a buyer of your wares." Malocchio answered, gesturing to the boy. "I would like to take this child for myself."

"Do you now?" The jailer looked at the boy. "Fine. But it'll cost you."

"Unfortunately, I am out of pocket change."

The jailer then turned back to the pale man. "What are you playing at? No money equals no slave, pal!"

"Perhaps you didn't hear," Malocchio drew closer, eyes glowing. "I'm out of pocket change."

The boy shrunk back, unaware as to what he was doing, yet the man housing him in this cell was stiff and unmoving. Just what was going on? "S-Sure." the jailer suddenly said, opening the door. "He's all yours."

Later

"That's one-hundred lucre less than last week!" the dancer dressed in purple complained, each having counted the coins that had been thrown in their direction during their performance.

"It's still enough, Elaine." the blonde woman dressed in green answered. "And it's more than last week."

The woman dressed in blue sighed. "It'll be enough to keep us afloat for a little while. But still...we need to step up our game."

"Hey, speak for yourself, Oriana." the red dressed woman remarked. "I've been raking in big bucks."

"Yeah, yeah, whatever, Marisol." Elaine rolled her eyes. "Maybe I should go on that rabite diet everyone's been talking about."

"You mean just guzzling down carrots and lettuce?" Oriana questioned. "You know that all that's just some fad."

"Still, it's seemed to work for those that have tried it."

"Probably because they barely eat anything at all on that diet." Helen mentioned, then hoisting the bag over her shoulder. "Anyway, we need to be getting this home."

"And getting into some warmer clothes." Oriana mentioned, shivering. Even if it paid well, their line of work didn't allow for much protection from the night winds.

All four of them began to make their way towards the small home that lay near the port, but then, Marisol felt a shiver travel up her back, and not from the night wind. "Marisol?" Elaine called out, she and her other sisters were confused.

"Go on without me." she said. I...I'll be right there." she surveyed the dead quiet city all around her, feeling very much like a lone rabite about to be torn to shreds by whatever predator that was out there, watching her.

"Lost, my dear?" a silky smooth voice met her ears, her knees nearly giving out from under her, she turned to see a pale skinned, caped man before her. "You appear as if you could use a hand."

"Um…" her usual abrasiveness was seemingly subdued just by looking at him. Those eyes...they were beautiful. "I-I guess so. But…I need to be getting back home."

"Ah, I see," Malocchio said. "Well, shall I escort you there?"

"Oh, no, I-" Marisol was cut off, then noticing who he truly was. "Hey, you're the guy that was eyeing us in the market." she observed. "And...and you took that kid."

"Indeed." said 'kid' was slumped against a wall in between a few houses down, sleeping due to the thrall of the being's power. "I took him from what would've been a life of hardship and slavery," he then caressed her cheek. "Just as I shall do so for you from this life."

Present

Dark Castle

"So, the child is taken care of?" their dear Majesty questioned.

"Yes, dearest." Isabella answered leaning into his chest. "He's currently in the Nevarlian Fortress along with that old fool and his daughter."

The Majesty only nodded, seemingly indifferent to his close proximity to him. "And you're certain that he will serve?"

"Indeed." the woman answered, gently running her nails down to his upper stomach. "He is young and vibrant. Albeit, a bit mouthy. Not to mention, a prince-"

"Prince?" the Majesty shrouded in shadow had his interest peaked. "The boy is a royal?"

"Yes." Isabella confirmed. "And from what Bill and Ben have told me, the child has lived quite the carefree, comfortable life. Surrounded by those that cater to his whim, he has the protection of an entire army and subjects who dote and proclaim he is the pride of the kingdom." all these were completely unknown or an outright lie, yet still, the child must've had a relatively easy life. She saw her Majesty's features contort and twist, clearly holding back tremendous anger.

"Where does he hail from?" he questioned through grit teeth.

"Laurent." Isabella answered. "He's one of the few males in the kingdom as well. So him receiving special treatment would only be natural, as men are such a rarity among them."

Majesty needed to hear no more, the memories flooding his mind despite his attempts to keep them subdued. His golden eyes surveyed the interior of his throne room, a low, heavy sigh exiting from him. He remembered this place when it was pristine, pure white instead of the heavy shroud that it was now covered in. He remembered when this place was beautiful. Where the world outside housed normal, pleasant humans that he was to once care and tend to as their ruler. That this glorious, beautiful place was to be his to care for and see to it that he continued its glory amidst all kingdoms.

Ultimately, however, it wasn't meant to be. For those white walls and blossoming prosperity would only be seen by his eyes for a short time. Everything else was behind the enclosed, cell walls that lay deep beneath the beauty of the castle.

The thought of that young boy, living freely and going where he pleased, surely being catered to and pampered...to have his every whim and desire tended to...the Majesty's mind was made up. "Keep him locked up tight." he commanded. "And keep him unharmed." he was about to leave, but stopped. "Yet...should he step out of line...discipline him accordingly. He will live with a blow or two." with that, he went off, leaving Isabella and Malocchio alone.

"Well, that certainly got heavy." the vampiric man noticed, the woman with him nodding in agreement, though she was looking on with pity in her eyes. "Ah, what's this?" he noted. "Are those tears?"

"N-No." Isabella denied, wiping them away. "It's...it's just a little much to be reminded of at times."

"Indeed." the caped man agreed. "It says much that the inhabitants of Hell are far more preferable company than your fellow man." he then noticed Isabella shaking. "Shame that your sympathy will never be noticed."

She whirled to face him and delivered a stinging slap across his face, it echoing throughout the once silent chamber. "You know nothing." she hissed, then she too made her leave.

Malocchio only smirked, the sting on his cheek meaning nothing to him. "That young desert princess and you...you two could actually be excellent friends."

Mirage Palace

Suffice to say, the Master wasn't too pleased upon hearing the news that the siege on Wendel had been a failure. As if getting here from under Ludgar's watchful eyes wasn't hard enough. Still, the trip hadn't entirely been worthless. "The Mana Stone of the Moon is right in their backyard." Goremand told his Master, pondering as to why, though he dare not say, they didn't go for that one in the first place. And besides, how were they to know that the Priest would be that powerful? One could only gauge so much by just hearing. And after all, seeing is believing.

Nevertheless, regrettable as it was, there were other stones to get. And not to mention, after a spell like that, as the Master said, the old coot was probably on death's door by now. And when he croaked, the barrier would follow behind. Goremand huffed, he was bored. The only time he had any time to say anything to the Master ever since he brought that pale haired boy here to the palace. Honestly, what reason did he want him anyway? True, he was commanded to do so, yet he was also ordered not to be harmed. Pity, as the young man had such a lightful, strong soul. Ooooh, he was one that got away indeed! Maybe he should've slew that small child before he went off with the priest after all.

Still, the Master had yet to say as to why the young man was so special, let alone wanted alive. And for now, that was for the Master and the Master alone to know.


'Who are you?!' he remembered the boy asking when he had first been taken here. 'Why am I here?!' Now, here he was, upon a stone platform, still and motionless, mind locked in perpetual sleep willed by its caster. Said caster stared down at his slumbering form, eyes wide behind his mask.

He remembered how the boy, despite the brave stance he kept up, shuddered from him as he approached. 'That face…' he remembered muttering aloud. 'It must be you. There's no other who could have that face.' "And indeed, there is none but you." he said, brushing some hair from the sleeping young man's forehead.

'Must be who?' the young man asked, clearly confused. First, this man's presumed servant threatened a young child with death, and now, here he was, being spoken to as if he were someone beloved.

'It matters not. You're here now.' he told him, the young man backing up before he took the youth in a tight embrace. 'You've grown into such a beautiful soul.'

'E-Excuse me?' the young priest said, clearly confused. 'I-I don't understand.' but then, he got into a defensive stance. 'Who are you?' he questioned firmly. 'What do you want with me?'

'Nothing.' the Master responded. 'But you by my side.' his tone then grew more grim. 'And the subsequent fall of Wendel.'

'Wendel?!' the young man was clearly shocked. 'For what reason would you want the downfall of the Holy City?!'

'Oh, trust me. That city is 'holy' in name only.' he told him. 'And His Eminence is nothing more than a man. A man that can be disposed of as any other.'

'Don't you dare!' the young man shouted, extending his hands and producing spheres of light. 'I don't know who you are, yet it's clear that you have no good intentions for anyone!' the spheres only increased in intensity. He didn't know if he could, but he would try. 'I'll put a stop to your plans here and now-ah!' he was cut off by a hand placing itself firmly on his forehead, and he being lifted off the ground by it as if drawn by a powerful magnetism.

'Sorry, but I'm not willing to lose you now that you're finally here.' the Master answered, the young man struggling in his grasp. He then brought him to eye level. 'I bid you a fair sleep, my boy.' the young man struggled, yet those eventually died down, his entire form going stiff and silent, his eyes shutting and breathing growing steady.

Now, here he lay, looking so peaceful. The jester's Master gently graced his cheek. He had kept the young man in a state of perpetual sleep, both to keep him docile and to allow the man to better observe him. By the Goddess, he was lovely. Goddess...no. No, he offered no prayers to Her anymore. Soon, there would be no one that would. All things would be as they should be, as the world began. "And you, dear boy…" he held his head gently. "You and I will never be apart from each other again. For you and I…" he gently kissed his forehead. "We shall spread a new gospel to the world. A true gospel of peace." dark energy emitted from his palms, transmitting into the young man. "And you, dear boy," he said. "Shall be the head priest of this religion."

Chapter Text

"Faster!"

The trio had rushed out from the gate and into the Rabite Forest, the sound of the approaching werewolves close behind them,tearing through the trees and releasing loud, animalistic growls and roars that cemented that should they catch the three, the results wouldn't be pretty.

Only question was where could they go?

Winding through the more open areas of the forest, the sight of some buildings caught their eye. Wasting no time, they all made their way in that direction and saw that, to their collective horror, the entire area was rendered little more than a collection of burnt down homes, torn through shops, and complete wrecking of anything and everything that could've been gotten ahold of. No doubt the work of those that were currently pursuing them. And that put another issue on them. There were several places to hide, yet their scents had already surely been picked up on, and they could surely be found. Yet it was then that they noticed the massive lake before them.


Molar and Fureddie pounded the ground as they ran, arms scissoring through the air and their lungs taking in and pouring out oxygen. Those three only managed to get ahead of them due to the crowd disorentating them, some of the people left behind unintentionally blocking their way. Yet now, they had no protection. Such a domain as this was little different than their own home, so dominating this place would be of little difficulty. Now all that remained was finding where those three had gone!

Stopping, both of the transformed beastmen could see that they had reached the remains of Astoria, pausing for a moment to allow their noses to adjust to the still remaining scents of burnt wood and smoke and filter out the ones they were tailing. Steadily making their way to the lake platform located near the shore, Molar lifted his head and took in a long whif, yellowed eyes darting around. Somewhere...that much he knew. Somewhere close. Fureddie sniffed as well and agreed, the two then approached. There was no sound, yet the space underneath the platform...that could've been worth looking into.

Suddenly, an ear splitting roar tore the skies, catching the attention of both werewolves. Ludgar...he was clearly angry. Most likely at them. Had he figured out what occurred in the mansion so soon? Fureddie and Molar looked to each other, uncertain of what to do. They were so close...they could literally SMELL them! Yet another roar was heard, their ears lowering in response.

Regrettably, they would have to leave things the way they were. Should they take any longer...neither of them wished to think about it. Turning tail, quite literally, they went off in the direction of the roar, the three underneath the platform peeking out to see the two making their way out of the ruined village.

"I think it's safe." Riesz noted, Hawkeye nodding in agreement. All three of them made their way from the underside of the platform and to the shoreline. "But we can't stay here." the young woman said.

"Not for long." Hawkeye added. "We need a safer place for shelter."

"And…" the Mayor began, both of the youths looking back with horrified eyes. "What?" had it become a bit breezier? "Uh oh." looking down, he then understood. Hawkeye snickers whilst Riesz only looked away.

"Sir...please...cover yourself…" she said, wishing to banish the images that repeated in her mind's eye.

"With what?" the bearded man asked, hands over his more intimate area. I don't see anything around-"

"Hey, you!" a voice suddenly spoke up. "Yeah, you three! Over there!" all three of them turned to the ruined home that lay by the shore of the lake...only to see a door rise up from the wreckage and allow a balding, grey haired man with large glasses to pop out. "Whatcha kids doing out here?"

"What are you doing here?" she asked back. "If I may be so bold, this isn't exactly a very nice place to be."

"Hm?" the old man looked around, surveying the damage. "Huh...knew all that noise meant something was up." he then looked at them. "You kids look like you've had a rough time. How about you come on in?"

"In?" Hawkeye asked, not entirely understanding.

"Don't worry! There's plenty of room! I've got a whole bunch of food and stuff in here!" he then snickered looking at the Mayor. "And a pair of pants."

Ship

Flashback

The ship stood in the harbor like a massive symbol of hope to him. One step closer in his quest to obtain a higher level of strength. The trade city held the ever present scent of sea salt in the air, stands displaying an abundance of goods, ranging from the simple necessities as fruits and vegetables to the more indulgent food such as bon-bons and chocolates, to varying weapons and armor (which he perhaps could look at, but as for weapons, all he needed was his father's sword, thank you), and several other good that couldn't be counted. One stand in particular was selling wooden carvings of the Elemental Spirits, something that, despite not being one for such things, caught Duran's eye. From the intricately designed wings of Shade and Luna to the near photorealistic, twisting roots of Dryad managed to snag his fascination. Perhaps at the end of his journey, he'd stop back here and maybe take something like this to Aunt Stella, she having always had a flair for such things. And perhaps several bon-bons for Wendy. Knowing her, she'd never forgive him for taking off like he did. A small sting of guilt plagued the young soldier, his sister not the only one he had gone and left behind. But he had come this far now, there was no turning back.

And he had sworn to himself already that he wouldn't go home. Not until he had achieved what he set out to do.

"What do you mean that you don't have any nitromyte?!" Duran was drawn from his thinking from the sound of a clearly unhappy voice, looking in the direction to see a stand having to contend with a short, stout man with a large, brown beard and equally thick eyebrows with bright, blue eyes that, despite their color, were fiery and rage filled. That said, his size and attire didn't exactly make him intimidating. He wore a jumpsuit with green and yellow stripes and a hat that looked like a jester's with two, white tassels at the ends whose main portion followed the same pattern. His cheeks were rosy and his nose was large and red, and he wore a white undershirt with leather gloves and a pouch around his neck, and simple brown boots on his feet. "Honestly!" the little man shouted, clearly frustrated. "This is the third day in the row! What's going on here?!"

"Sorry, sir, but the trade routes to Beiser and wherever the dwarves live are cut off due to the recent attack by Altenian forces." the man behind the stand explained.

"I've only got enough supply for a one way trip, and I need more! There's still a lot of tests to be done!" the short man argued. "My masterpiece cannot wait any longer!"

"I'm sorry about that, but there's nothing I can do about it." the stand keeper sighed. It seemed that he and his current customer were very well acquainted with each other. More so than the keeper would've liked.

"Oh...fine!" the small man grumbled. "Have it your own way!" he then huffed off. "Nobody understands…" he then went off. "Probably have to make a trip all the way to Beiser now. If they'll let me in…" then, the small man noticed Duran, his eyes then lighting up. "Ah!" he then ran up to him, circling around him and seemingly studying every part of him. "Hm...hmm...hmm, yes. I see…"

"Uh, excuse me?" the young man was confused, even more so when the smaller man had pulled out a measuring tape from out of nowhere. "What the...what are you doing?"

"Ah! You're perfect!" the little man cheered, his formerly despondent mood seemingly having never existed. Then, he seized Duran by the arm and began dragging him to a rather large home by the edge of the city that separated it from the ocean. "Come with me, young man!"

"The hell-"

"Oh yes! You and I are gonna make history!"

Duran said no more before wrangling out of the man's grip and going off to the ship about to depart soon. He didn't even seem to notice, and frankly, all the better in the young man's mind. "Weirdo…" he muttered as he continued his way to the dock.

Present

"Hey, you up yet?" a female voice asked from inside his head, Duran shifting a bit. "Hey, c'mon now! Haven't you been sleeping enough?"

The young man groaned, turning over, yet nonetheless, opened his eyes. "What time is it?"

"Just around dawn from what I gather." Lumina answered before sighing in contentment. "The sun never fails to feel good…"

"And we've got to get up and find the rest of the Elementals." Faerie mentioned, ignoring the inner protest of her host.

Duran got up from his bed and dressed himself, stepping out from his room and went up to the deck, momentarily blinded by the light of the sun. Looking around, he saw Angela standing out amidst the slew of people that had also come out, the wind lightly playing with her hair. "You're up too?"

Angela turned to see the young soldier approaching her. "Nothing much else to do but watch." she answered. "From what I heard, this ship's just about to reach Maia."

"Is it?" Duran questioned. 'Valsena…' he thought, clenching his fist. His vow...his journey...so far, all of it had been a complete bust. And what he had done had little to nothing to do with what he had initially set out to do. So soon, he was going back...his grip tightened on the hilt of his sword, his hand instinctively reaching to it. His entire being felt dejected. He had failed his promise, and brought back little more than some task thrust on him by some strange chance of fate. Or was it simply bad luck? It wasn't as if he was completely lacking sympathy for Faerie, but the fact was, he simply couldn't take on something like this. Thus, he had set it in his mind to find another to take the mantle of acquiring this Mana Sword.

Only thing was, how was he going to approach him when the young man had sorta up and left without a word?

"Look!" Angela shouted, pointing forward, Duran and everyone else drawing towards the edge of the railing and looking in the same direction. From afar, the sight of a bustling city filled to the brim with multiple stands and the distant sound of clamouring could be seen and heard.

Well, thought Duran, time to go and try to actually sort of this crazy mess. All the while knowing that, in some way, he had failed.

Astoria

Underground Bunker

To the neutral observer, one would have found the sight of the torn up Astoria rather depressing and pitiful, yet if they were to look closer, they would've seen something else. A strange device that looked like some sort of pair of binoculars attached to a long pole that was mostly concealed underground. This was the only piece of evidence that someone, or in this case, someones, were still in this once inhabitable village.

"Called me crazy…" the old, balding man muttered as he looked through the spy glasses. "Called me an outright looney for investing years and hundreds of lucre into this here baby!" he then pulled away from it and pulled the device down, hiding it in the ground. "Well, the moment I heard that young feller spouting off about those beastmen in Jadd, I KNEW that it'd finally come in handy!" He seemed quite proud of himself. "Still…" his features then went sour. "Doesn't mean that I wanted something like this to happen…" Riesz and Hawkeye silently agreed, they and the Mayor of Jadd having come down into this small bunker like area (and the bearded man thankfully able to get a pair of pants on him), the area large enough for them all, yet it was clearly made for only one occupant, a single bed and various candles lit all around. Yet nonetheless, he seemed to have a good enough assortment of clothes and provisions on hand. "Well," the old man began talking again. "Since we're all here now, anybody hungry?"

The red haired, bearded man's arm immediately shot up, Riesz and Hawkeye rather taken aback by his forwardness. 'Surely he can't be THAT famished.' the thief thought, looking to the man's gut. 'From the looks of it, those beastmen were feeding him TOO well.'

The man had gotten out a fresh loaf and tore off a few pieces, handing one to each of them. "So...who wants to go first?" the old man asked, no one answering at first. "Ok, then. You!" he pointed to Riesz.

"M-Me?"

"Sure thing, little miss!" the spectacle wearing hermit answered. "What's your story?"

The blonde princess was somewhat taken aback by the old man's directness, yet nonetheless, what harm was there in telling it? Eccentric as he seemed, they, quite literally, had little else they could do. "Well, suffice to say, we're somewhat stuck here for the time being."

"Hey, no problem." the old man said. "Maybe I could work on some social skills anyway."

"No, that's...not what I mean." Riesz answered. "There was a ship that came by, but we were…" she then paused.

"What is it?" Hawkeye asked, she in turn shushed him.

"Do you hear that?" he didn't understand at first, yet listening more, he heard it too. Soon, everyone else did, and there was no mistaking it.

Something was going on outside. Something that was causing quite a commotion.

Free City Maia

The sun having come over the horizon, morning had officially begun, and, from the chorus of chattering and the ringing of bells in the bazaar, so had business. Everyone was overwhelmed at first by the sudden clash of culture in comparison to the tense quiet that had perpetuated Jadd, yet a few moments to adjust was all they needed, they more than thankful and ready to take this over the alternative. As the new arrivals filed out from the ship, Duran and Angela stepped out on the stone ground and looked around, the latter fascinated by all that was around her.

"Whoa…" she said, peridot eyes wide with wonder. "It's huge…"

"Yeah, I guess." Duran answered. Truthfully, he had been in such a hurry to make it to Jadd, he hadn't exactly stopped to get a good enough look at this place.

"It IS pretty big." Faerie observed, quite curious and fascinated by what she saw herself.

"Ahh…" Lumina sighed in contentment. "This is why I love it when I get to tag along with people! All the new sights! And it's handy to see how much the world's changed in a century or two!" or in his case, a mere nineteen years since the Peddan war. Still, even that was sometimes a long enough period for the world to radically be altered.

Well, he'd be able to do that soon, just not with the same person, Duran thought. "You know...that's not how that works." Faerie sighed, though from what she saw in the young man's mind, it was clear that he wasn't going to be convinced otherwise. How long it'd take for him to figure this out...well...only time would tell. Though they didn't have too much of it.

Making their way from the port, the two youths found that several of the residents of Jadd had begun to spread out, the residents of Maia bewildered at the amount of people that had come, yet nonetheless, if a profit was to be made, then they'd take the opportunity. With little else to go, Duran and Angela went to the main square and the shouts echoed and rang throughout the area, several wares and goods put on display. It seemed things hadn't changed at all since the young soldier had last been here. "Oooh!" he was drawn by Angela's cry, she clapped her hands together and went over to a nearby stand, an assortment of colorful clothing and feminine wear presented out in the open. "Wow…" her eyes widened as she gazed upon them. "These are gorgeous…"

"Like what you see, miss?" the stout woman behind the stand answered, clearly satisfied by the intrigue and wonder in the young woman's eyes.

"Oh yes!" Angela answered, taking one of the items and removing one of her gloves, feeling the cloth with her bare skin. "Ah! This...is this silk!?"

The woman smiled. Got her. "You bet!" she exclaimed. "Finest in all of Valsena!" Angela's eyes got even wider as she looked all around at the collection of beautiful clothing before her, from dresses to cloaks and veils, all of it was magnificent! Yet then, she looked to the left and immediately left the stand, sets of magnificent, sparkling jewelry set out, glistening in the sun. Though this fascination was soon caught by another stand, then another, then another. Duran could only watch as the self-proclaimed magician went all around the square like lightning, stopping at each and every one of the stands as if she were seeing all of this for the first time. One would think she had never even been outside before at all.

"Ah! You!" the soldier was interrupted from his thoughts when he felt a tug on his hand. Looking down, Duran's eyes widened in shock at who it was. "I KNEW I'd find you eventually!"

"What the!?" it was him! The same guy that was ranting about there not being any of that nitromyte or whatever it was. "Y-You! What are you-" Duran pulled his arm back, yet the smaller man pulled him closer, his grip surprisingly strong.

"I lost you there for a bit, yet I KNEW you couldn't have gone far!" the man in the jumpsuit and hat chuckled, completely oblivious to Duran's quite audible protests. "Now that I found you, we can get right onto testing!"

"Testing?! Testing what?!" the young man got out no more before he felt himself being drug off towards a large home on the eastern edge of town. "H-Hey! Take your hand off me! Let me go!" Duran struggled, surprisingly so, against the smaller man's grip. Just how strong was this guy?! Was he just not putting as much effort into his grip before?! Regardless, it seemed that there was no hope for him, Duran being helplessly dragged by the smaller man towards what was assumedly his home, protesting and trying to get himself out of the man's hold all the way there.

"Oh dear." the man behind the stand Angela was currently checking out shook his head. "Crackpot is at it again…poor kid."

Outside of Astoria

"It's one of them!" one of the several people shouted, pointing to Kevin. "And he's got two children with him!"

"No, wait!" the young beastmen protested. "It's not like that!"

"Liar!" another shouted. "You're just using them as leverage, aren't you!?"

"Your kind really have no morals, do you?!" a woman bellowed, grabbing a rock and hurling it at the blonde young man. Soon, others followed her example, throwing everything from small stones to those the size of a fist in his direction.

"Stop it!" Mick shouted, balling his fists. "He hasn't done anything wrong! He saved our lives!"

"Yeah!" Charlotte added. "You big meanies!"

Then, Mick felt a hand seize his wrist, a woman attempting to drag him away. "Hey, let me go! Let me go!"

"Mick!" Charlotte shouted, about to go over to him to release him from the woman's grip, yet saw in the corner of her eye a rather sizable rock coming Kevin's way. "Watch out!" she shouted, leaping up and in front of the larger young man.

WHACK!

The large stone made contact with the young girl's forehead, sending her head and the rest of her flying back, she landed on the ground in a heap several feet away from the crowd. "Charlotte!" Kevin hollered, going over to the small girl and scooping her up. He then narrowed his eyes, rage filling him as he then turned to the crowd, ready to bellow a roar in their direction.

"You there!" only, he never got the chance. Looking in the direction of the voice, everyone saw a young man and woman heading their way along with a bearded, nearly naked man, the former two clearly outraged by what they had just witnessed. "Would you care to explain yourselves?!" the green dressed blonde youth bellowed, rushing over in between the crowd and Kevin and Charlotte, the violet haired young man following and joining her, the older man having decided to stay behind. "What is this?!" she demanded to know, gasping when she saw a moaning Charlotte in Kevin's arms, blood trickling down her forehead. "Throwing rocks at children...all of you should be disgusted with yourselves!"

"But...but we were aiming for him!" a man shouted, pointing to Kevin, Mick still struggling to escape from the woman pulling him back.

"Well, your aim kinda sucks, pal." Hawkeye scoffed. "Besides," he then looked to Kevin. "What's the guy done that warrants him being pelted so badly?"

"He's one of them!" another man answered. "He's with those beastmen! He's got the same clothes as them and everything!"

"No! Not true!" said beastman protested. "We came from Wendel! These two...they don't have a home anymore!"

"Like us because of what YOUR kind did!" someone shouted, about to run up and strike him, yet Hawkeye seized him by the wrist.

"Hey!" a red haired woman then yelled, the one that had taken Mick. "I'm no fan of them either, yet don't you see that poor girl's hurt? And here you are, potentially going to hurt her more in a blind rage?"

"But...but he's-"

"I know well what he is." she interrupted. "But-" she then paused, looking at the girl more closely in Kevin's arms. "Wait a moment…" she paused, observing her, then gasping upon realizing who she was. "Charlotte?!" a young, brunette boy came up beside her, he equally shocked at the sight of blood on her forehead. She was awake and aware, yet holding her head in pain.

"Who threw that?!" Kevin finally roared, unable to take the sight of it anymore. The crowd went silent, no one moving. Just then, he saw shifting behind a few people, his golden eyes centering on the figure. Looking at the red haired woman, he put Charlotte in her arms and dashed through the crowd, the figure attempting to escape, yet no such luck, he felt the scruff of his shirt being grabbed and he being dragged back to face the beastman's angered face.

Riesz began to make her move, yet Hawkeye stopped her. "What are you-"

"Hold on a minute." he told her, clearly cautious, yet not exactly ready to make a move just yet.

"I don't intend to seriously damage him." she explained.

"Still, just wait." he in turn told her.

"Uh, yeah." the Mayor, having come closer to the crowd to see what was going on nervously stated. "What he said."

Everyone looked on in fear as Kevin held the rock thrower in his grasp, the man wriggling and struggling in his grip. "H-Hey, c'mon!" he stammered. "It was an accident! I didn't mean to hit her!"

"You could've hit me too!" Mick shouted. Despite himself and the teachings of the city and temple he had resided in, he was quite eager to see the one who had hit Charlotte get what he deserved.

"P-Please!" The man continued his struggles. "Look, I'm sorry! There, I said it! I'm sorry! Now you gotta let me go! Please?"

Kevin only looked at the human in his grip, everyone still and tense, awaiting what his next move would be. Then finally, after what felt like forever, to everyone's shock, the beastman let his 'prey' fall to the ground, he then went back over to the red haired woman and centering his attention on the girl that had been struck. "Charlotte?" he asked, the aforementioned girl looking up at him. "You ok?"

"Y-Yeah." she sighed, touching the spot, but wincing when she did so, making both Kevin and the woman holding her jump a bit. "I think so." then, the blonde girl realized who was holding her. "Hey," she began. "You'we that wady! Ewisa, wight?"

"Yes, that's me." the woman, Elisa, answered.

"I'm here too!" looking down, Charlotte then saw Ralph by his mother. "But…" he then looked to Kevin. "Who are you?"

"Indeed." Kevin turned to see Riesz approaching him, Hawkeye close behind.

"Y-Yes?" the beastman asked, feeling somewhat intimidated by the firmness in her gaze.

"It's all right." she assured him. "You've shown considerable restraint just now, so for the moment...I'll bestow you the benefit of the doubt. Still…" she directed her gaze to Charlotte and Mick. Hawkeye was somewhat disappointed, yet it was clear that there was no stopping her at this point. If anything, at least she seemed to have a clearer head than Duran. "What were you doing with these two children?"

"We…" Kevin began, pausing for a moment. "We came from Wendel." he then reworded his former statement. "We escaped Wendel."

"Escaped?" Riesz's blue eyes widened. "Why? What happened?"

Kevin, Charlotte, and Mick all shared looks with each other, all releasing a collective sigh. Everyone else seemed both shocked and equally curious about this as well. It wasn't exactly a subject that either of them wished to revisit, yet they had silently agreed with each other some time ago that would probably come up some time later.

Free City Maia

What.

In the world.

Had he just been dragged into?

"Isn't she lovely?" the small man chuckled, Duran still flabbergasted at what was before him. And what was before him was a massive, monolithic cannon of blackened material with golden lining stationed in what was ultimately the 'backyard' of the small man's home. "Took me MONTHS to finally get it all done, and a good amount of lucre, but it was worth every moment and coin!"

"Wait...months?!" Faerie exclaimed inside of Duran. "H-How did he…"

"I don't know." he replied in turn. "I don't even know if what I'm seeing is real."

"So far, the tests have been hit and miss." the man continued, completely oblivious to everything else but his 'masterpiece' before him. "And it certainly doesn't help that the nitromyte's been in low supply. Honestly, where are those dwarves when you need them?"

"Dwarves?" Duran questioned, words simply pouring from his mouth due to his mind still trying to process what was before him. It was then that he remembered. Oh, yes. He had heard of dwarves living in the nearby areas. In fact, around the gap he had crossed to get to Maia was rumored to be where the dwarves had lived. While she didn't say anything, Faerie was pondering all that she was hearing, Lumina in turn just fascinated by what he was seeing.

"Yeah, dwarves." the man responded. "They sometimes come here to sell stuff, but lately, no one's been here. Which means no nitromyte." he then sighed.

'You could just use gunpowder.' the young soldier thought.

"But gunpowder doesn't pack the 'punch' I need." the man answered, Duran flabbergasted. The hell?! If he didn't know better, he would've assumed that the guy could outright read minds! "And it's not just that! Everybody thinks this whole thing is a waste of time! Even my own sister says so! But let them talk! I'll show them! I'm going to revolutionize the world!" He then went into a diatribe of how he was going to go down in history and whatnot, Duran having stopped paying attention, Lumina now having something to say.

"You guys always can go so far in your technology!" He surveyed the cannon before him. "Last time I got out, you guys had airships and everything! Wonder where those went to."

"Airships?" Duran asked.

"Yeah. Though...there was a war going on. And from what I've seen, war kinda sets things back, so…"

"Did you say something?" the man suddenly asked.

"Uh, nope! Nothing! Nothing at all!" Duran assured.

"Oh. It sorta sounded like you were talking like you had a hundred voices in your head."

A growl came from Duran's throat, Faerie only giggling nervously. A hundred voices, really? Says the guy who went on a whole talking session to himself about how he was going to change history and all that jazz with this massive contraption that he outright ADMITTED to wasting time and money in building! Well, he didn't say 'wasting', yet Duran had made up his mind that it was all a waste of time, and either the man was too blind to see it, or he was in outright denial.

"BON VOYAGE!"

The small man and Duran whirled around to see a woman covered head to toe in blackened soot, a collection of fabric in her arm that looked like some sort of parachute of sorts. Needless to say, she didn't look the least bit happy. "Oh, Jean, you're back." the man, presumably Bon Voyage (weird name for an even weirder person, Duran thought), said nonchalantly, as if all of this was completely normal. "How was the trip?"

"How was the trip, HOW WAS THE TRIP?!" the woman bellowed, getting up in the smaller man's face and nearly sending him flying from the force of her voice alone. "Oh, I'll TELL you how the trip was!" she snarled. "After you go and send me flying halfway across the country, I land DEAD center in a place completely OPPOSITE of the kingdom!"

"Oh. Well…" Bon Voyage meekly shifted his feet. "Maybe the calculations were just a LITTLE bit off."

"A bit...a bit?!" she continued on with her tirade. "I nearly slammed my head into the side of the mountain! You could've nearly killed me!" she yelled. "And not only that, on the way back, I had to deal with a swarm of these annoying Chobin Hoods shooting darts at me! And after that, I had to prove that I wasn't some sort of spy at the gate!"

"Oh, this is fantastic!" Bon Voyage then cried out, once again, completely oblivious. "Then that means I only have to add a bit more nitromyte and reposition the cannon, and surely we can get you to land right at Valsena's front door-"

"Hey, are you even listening?!"

"Only thing is, we're nearly spent, so...oooh!" the small man groaned in frustration, stomping his foot as if he were some little kid. "By this point, I might as well go and try to find some of those dwarves myself!"

"You're not going anywhere!" Jean shouted. "I'm done with all this nonsense!"

"It's not nonsense! This is going to revolutionize the world! This is going to be even bigger than airships and….well...bigger than airships! Hell, it may be bigger than ANY of the technology Pedda had during the war!"

"Oh, get off your high horse!" the woman yelled. "You're chasing a blind dream, you crackpot!"

Duran only stood there, transfixed by the scene taking place. "Um, I THINK this might be our cue." Faerie then said.

"Oh! Y-Yeah. Right." he wasted no time in exiting from the 'yard' of the mad cannon builder, making his way back into the bazaar. "Now, where is…"

"And this too!" going in the direction of the voice, he saw Angela, an abundance of items in her arms ranging from clothing to jewelry. It looked as if she had taken nearly everything from nearly every stand in the whole place. "Ah, there you are!" she said to Duran nonchalantly. "So...uh," she looked to the items she held in her hands, then to him. "You wouldn't mind sparing some change, would you? Pretty please?"

Outside Astoria

"So...it's true." Elisa bit her lip to where, had she applied any more pressure, she would've bit right through it. "Wendel has fallen." Riesz found herself turning away for a moment, unpleasant memories resurfacing.

Kevin, Charlotte, and Mick all lowered their heads. "Well...not entirely sure." Kevin then spoke up. "We left when the attack happened. But...the Priest said he'd take care of things."

"But he's so old." Mick added, fidgeting. "I don't know what he could do…"

"Hey, quiet!" Charlotte then said. "He...he's fine! He'ww make everything be fine again! You…" her tone then grew softer. "You'ww see. He'ww be ok…" having been put down by Elisa, Kevin felt the blonde girl clutching tightly to his pants leg, the fabric tightly held in her hands. Kevin was unsure of what to do at first, yet nonetheless found his hand traveling to rest on the top of her head, gently tracing his palm in small circles and applying only the lightest amount of pressure needed.

"And...the ship's already left?" Kevin questioned Riesz and Hawkeye, the two sadly nodding.

"As of now, there's no way out of here." the blonde young woman sighed, looking out in the direction of the massive lake.

"Well...we can just hide out until another ship comes back." Hawkeye suggested.

"We can, but where will they go?" Riesz gestured to the crowd of people all around them. Hawkeye realized that indeed, that would be quite the issue. "And even if we all went and made boats to get across the lake, we'd be going right into the beastman's natural territory."

"A few of us tried to pass through the cavern to get to Wendel." one of the men in the crowd spoke up. "But the barrier's still up. Or from what these three said," he looked over to Kevin, Charlotte, and Mick. "Another one's been put up."

Despite the current situation, a wave of relief came over the aforementioned three, especially Charlotte. "So gwandpa did it aftew aww…"

"But," the man continued. "Someone his age...I don't know entirely, but creating that barrier in the first place must've taken a lot of energy to make in the first place. And if he had to make a new one…"

It was then that Charlotte's relief died, panic coming to her features. "What?!" she shouted, blue eyes widening in terror. "G-Gwandpa…" She looked around, seeing the small, man made steps that led to the entrance of the cavern. She then was about to dash in that direction, yet a firm yet gentle grip on her wrist held her back. "B-But…" she began to protest, yet Kevin shook his head. She then latched onto him, burying her face in his leg, he feeling the beginning of tears creeping into the fabric. A low sigh escaped him, he went back to lightly massaging her head. And while he wasn't going to make this about him, images of a certain wolf pup entered his mind, as well as the grave that the now dead friend resided in.

Riesz and Hawkeye found themselves at a loss, only able to gaze upon the weeping girl and crowd. Indeed, the single question on everyone's mind was unanimous.

What to do now?

They couldn't have in any way been aware of what was occurring but a short distance away, yet several small, tiny eyes watched what was taking place, taking in the conversations and statements being shared by everyone present.

"Well, this is great." one of the owners of the eyes said. "Now we've got a bunch of other humans to worry about."

"It's not like they can help it." another chided. "They don't have anywhere to go."

"Still...all of them being around here will make it harder for us. It's been bad enough with those stupid beastmen and their hounds and birds, but now we've got these guys." the one that previously spoke said. "And what if one of those kids happens to see us? Say hello to having a tiny little leash and a small bowl filled with leaves or whatever they think you may or may not even eat."

Several other of the small, hidden beings conversed with each other, some arguing that this many humans being out in the open would do them no good to those that sympathized with their plight. One though, remained silent, only looking on at the crowd. Specifically, four figures amongst the now homeless townspeople. He recognized where each of them hailed from, and knew well that their collective presence here could only mean that something was occurring in the world again.

Something that, even if it hadn't completely affected them due to their ability to hide deep in the forest, would come to affect them and the rest of the world beyond simply nations invading others.

Chapter Text

Outside of Maia rested the connection point that went through the entire realm of the kingdom, linking it the port town of Beiser and eventually, the heart of Valsena itself. The trade route was constructed and laid out with cobblestone since long before the Valsenan soldier could ever remember, it having origins long before maybe even the kingdom of Valsena was formed. Merchants and anyone that had goods to sell traveled down this linking road, taking things to and fro from every corner of the established area of the kingdom, so eventually, due to it leading to the exchange of items and thus, the exchange of money, the branching, linking walkway came to be known as The Golden Road.

The area in general, despite the trail being relatively easy to keep track of and travel on, the surrounding land was very mountainous and bore high places of rock and very little trees. It wasn't barren and dry, the area quite covered in greenery and had several small creeks and rivers scattered throughout. Still, if one wanted to go exploring, they would've needed to do quite a bit of climbing and some dangerous maneuvers to get higher.

Should one go southwest and follow the branching path that way, they would've come across the secondary main city of Beiser that served as the secondary entrance and exit out of the realm. It bore less space and no bazaar in comparison to that of Maia, yet should one make the trip and stay the night, they would find something that would far outclass that of any stand in all of Maia. Albeit, what they would find there was hidden from the light of day for a reason.

Yet for the two (technically three) traveling on said road, their destination was north. And one of them wasn't exactly, despite wishing to get this whole 'Mana Sword' business off his shoulders, eager to go.

He hadn't accomplished what he had set out to do. He hadn't yet received full strength to beat back against that damned wizard.

And now, here he was, ultimately going back with his tail between his legs. "I keep telling you, you're not going to simply be able to do this." yet it wasn't due to the reason that he would have foreseen.

"I still don't understand why you couldn't have just spared a few lucre." though that would only be if he survived the trip.

"A 'few lucre' would've been hundreds, hell, possibly thousands!" the soldier argued back. "And where were you going to keep all that stuff anyway?"

"You've got muscles, you could hold a thing or two!" Angela retorted.

"While you only held one or two. Or none at all."

The magician went silent at that. "Well...well, I could've just went with one thing!"

"Somehow, I doubt that."

"Yes I could've!" the young woman spat back. "You...you…" she then groaned and folded her arms. "You could've just lent me some cash to have something."

Duran let out a breath and turned away, having more on his mind than Angela simply wanting to empty his pockets of what little money was left that was mainly spent on the boat trip to Jadd. So much had happened since then, much of which was not what he or anyone else that he had met along the way had in mind. "You know…" a part of him groaned when he heard the winged woman inhabiting him speak up. "It isn't going to work."

"Look," Duran began. "It's simple. King Richard can simply take you. And even more, the Valsenan Guard can help accomplish what you need to do."

"But I can't bond with anyone else!" Faerie argued. "I can't just go into someone else's body! I keep telling you this!"

"And I keep telling you that I'm NOT going off on some quest like what you have in mind!" the young man was growing angry, clenching his fists. Then, he tried to simmer down, taking in air through clenched teeth. "Look, it's...it's going to be better this way. I get why you did what you did, and if you just said that you were dying, I would've taken you in. But this...no. I'm not taking this on. I'm sorry. I just can't." Just like he couldn't find the path to strength that he had set out to do. Indeed, since this whole trip started, things seemed to have been going wrong since day one. And it was all that Crimson Wizard's fault...where that bastard was now, Duran had no idea. Yet when King Richard would take care of this...when he was completely healed up of course, then he could resume his initial quest to better strengthen himself. After all, if the world had been going good so far, then surely a few weeks...maybe a month or two wouldn't hurt it. Despite what Faerie said, Mana couldn't deplete itself THAT fast. And when King Richard did take over, then...well...then he could continue with his own journey. 'I'll finish what I set out to do. This...this is just a mild setback.' Duran told himself, the fact he was going back despite his vow still tearing at his chest. He reached up and held the hilt of his father's sword tightly in his hand. 'I WILL get stronger. Come literal hell or high water. Or both. I WILL succeed.'

He said no more, Faerie having given up, once again, trying to talk to him. 'Lumina,' she groaned, conversing with the Light Spirit, keeping her thoughts to herself and speaking to him via a separate telepathy link. 'Are humans usually this stubborn?'

'Hate to tell ya, honey, but this is kinda par for the course with them.' he said with a nervous chuckle. 'But you've gotta understand. Their lives are infinitely shorter than ours, so their priorities usually don't involve things like saving the world.'

'Still...they could at least understand that Mana's depletion means that everyone in the world will be affected, including them.'

'Humans usually don't understand the depth of the relations between Mana and the world either.' Lumina continued. 'And they, unfortunately, have forgotten just what the Benevodons are capable of.' his usually chipper voice grew grim, Faerie feeling the dread radiating off of the representative of the Light that was tied to the universal life force of Mana. 'After all, any creature that were there to see the true destruction they wrought on the world are now dead. The entire world that was when they were free is dead.'

Faerie went silent at that. True, while her existence had, at least by mortal's standards, been long, she could never hope to compare with that of an Elemental Spirit. They were here since the beginning, or rather, at least near the beginning of the world. And how long that beginning was, no one but them knew. Yet now, should time pass on even further, the closer and closer the world drew to maybe seeing just what destruction had occurred in those days.

Angela was still huffing as they went along, crossing her arms and grumbling to herself. Just one thing, that was all! She wouldn't do any more than that, she promised! Well...ok, maybe adding another one or two, but still! And Duran was so insensitive about it either, going on about how she was wasting HIS time and how HE had to be somewhere and he didn't have time to WAIT on her, so either she was coming, or he would up and leave her there. The nerve of him! Didn't he know who she was?!

Well, perhaps that was still best left unsaid, remembering well the aggression in his eyes when he brought up the Crimson Wizard, of whom she was certain was Koren. She didn't bother to ask, but she assumed that, given that, Duran's general opinion on Altena as a whole wasn't too positive. Goddess only knew what he'd think if he found out what relation she had to them. Still, her mind wandered back to the expansive, noise filled bazaar she had been dragged away from. Despite being dragged from it so suddenly (and Duran going Goddess knew where, someone mentioned something about some 'crazy midget'), she found herself lamenting that she had to leave. Buy anything or not, it was invigorating to even be in such a place. And one could buy whatever they wanted? And have no eyes leering at them from well dressed, high ranking members of the staff and guard? Well, perhaps she would garner some eyes (especially given what a needle and thread and a pair of shears had gotten her in designing her own clothing), it would've been better to have their eyes upon her than those of her home.

Especially from a pair of cold, green eyes that rested in a mask of still beauty.

Angela looked down at her attire, the sun feeling good on her bare skin. Not exactly the attire of the heir to the throne (or rather, 'former' heir by now), as said by Jose, Victor, and essentially on the minds of everyone but they were too afraid to say it. Still though, what could they do? She had grown used to lectures and disapproval, having had many years of it to build up her tolerance. At least, that's what she told herself. She had crafted this piece of work from a rather ornate dress delivered to the castle all the way from Valsena itself, yet, like everything else that went through the gates, it was all the same: constricting, tight, and overall, suffocating. So, she made a few (ok, a lot of) adjustments. She still remembered the gasps of shock she received upon arriving at dinner. Of which she got none of, her mother practically seething when she laid eyes upon her.

Oh well. Food that night was too fattening anyway. At least, that's what she told herself.

"What's up with you?" Faerie asked, noticing the young woman deep in thought.

"Nothing." Angela responded. "Just...stuff."

"What kind of stuff?" the winged woman questioned.

"Just that. Stuff." Angela repeated. "Nothing you'd get." she continued on, passing the fluttering, tiny woman.

"Maybe I would…" she muttered to herself, retreating back into Duran.

RUSTLE RUSTLE

At least, she would've, had not something in one of the numerous bushes that lined the yellowed, aged pathway they traveled on caught her attention.

"What the-" Duran began, silencing himself as the noises continued. Rustling was heard all around, Angela drawing closer to him, gripping her staff. He grabbed his sword, ready to draw it out at any time. Whatever it was, it was drawing closer, just nearly here…

A head popped out, everyone's eyes widening at what was before them.

A small, rodent-like creature with large, brown eyes and small buck teeth looked upon the two humans, tilting its head in curiosity. Large, almost cat-like ears poked out from a large, orange hood and tilted, the creature approaching closer until it exited the bush altogether. It wore a green robe and had a long, bushy tail. It seemed to be an amalgamation of several animals, yet bore an overall babyish look.

"Aw, a Chobin Hood!" Angela cooed. "It's cute!"

Duran only lifted his brow. "What's a Chobin Hood doing all the way out here?" the creatures were more suited to forested or plain like areas. To see them be so close to such heavily populated areas seemed like rather bizarre behavior.

"Wait a minute…" Angela then said, the warmth brought by the creature's cute appearance dying down. Then, she began looking around.

"What is it?" Faerie asked, confused.

"Chobin Hoods rarely travel alone." the young woman answered quietly. "This guy's friends must be-"

RUSTLE

Just then, several heads popped out from the bushes, dozens of rodent-like creatures popping up and gazing upon the duo, Faerie having made herself scarce the moment they all came up.

"Nearby."

Indeed, they were. And from how they then raised their bows and arrows in their direction, it seemed they weren't too happy about intruders being in their newfound territory.

Ruins of Astoria

The duo of hellriders flew high above the charred remains of the once peaceful community by the lake, keen eyes surveying for any sign of their targets below. The language barrier between them and their handlers made communication difficult, yet some things were universal, such as what to look for and when ample potential prey was to be found. But their searches were more specific this time. They had four to look out for, four to hunt down. And, should they find them, four that they were to bring back.

Sometime Later

"Are they gone?" Ralph asked his mother, Elisa looking out to see no large, dark shapes in the sky. She nodded.

"It's all right!" she shouted, though only loud enough for everyone to hear. "They're gone!"

Everyone emerged from their hiding places, some in the bushes and trees, others from the ruined structures that still, somehow, miraculously stood. The people gave one last look at the sky to make sure, and while they were assured by the red haired woman's words, they still proceeded with caution. From another hiding place, ironically under the bridge that they had hidden under when they first retreated here, Riesz and Hawkeye looked out to see the residents of the once intact town mainly wandering around aimlessly and looking upon the torn down, ruined establishments and homes that they used to dwell in. Might as well, seeing as there was little else to do. There were some scrounging for potential items and food that hopefully didn't get destroyed, some salvaging a few unbroken pumpkins from the fields, but aside from that, everyone seemed to be at a standstill.

"Not a pretty picture, is it?" they looked back towards the old man that had owned the underground bunker.

"No, it isn't." Hawkeye sighed, the sight of all of this making his blood boil.

"Just what manner of creatures are those?" Riesz questioned, looking to the skies where the birds previously flew.

"Hellriders." Kevin answered, having emerged from his hiding spot. "Cousins of Helldivers. Only bred to be bigger."

"Well, yeah, they ARE that." the violet haired thief answered.

Kevin nodded. "Beastmen made them through selective breeding. And feeding them a lot of testosterone rich meat." since they had arrived in the ruined village, both the thief and princess noticed that the young beastman kept his eyes from looking too long at the damage, mainly staying by the edge of the lake. "You know," he began. "Maybe...we can go to Mintas." he suggested.

"Where's that?" Riesz questioned.

"It's in...Ferolia." Kevin realized just what he was suggesting, as well as how it'd definitely be a no go. "But...but it's just a farming village." he said, trying to find some sort of hope in what he had said. "And someone there knows me. She's got a Chocobo, and-"

"That's great and all," Hawkeye interrupted, then gesturing to the lake. "But just how far are you wanting us to swim?"

Oh, yeah. There was that. "Swimming's easy though!" Kevin then said. "Just kick and move your arms." he then did the motions.

"Oh no, it's super easy." Hawkeye agreed. "For a few feet. We're talking miles and miles of water."

"...oh. Y-Yeah…" the golden haired young man sighed. It only proved that he didn't entirely think this suggestion through. Sure, he could do it, but there was a vast difference between the endurance of his kind and that of a mere human. And even then, his transport outright told him to take a boat, he having technically only swam halfway across the lake. "Though…" he tried to think of something else. "Maybe...we can build rafts?"

Riesz sighed and shook her head. "Whatever condition or temperament of the…'people' of Mintas may be, it'd still be heading right into enemy territory. I'm sorry, but it's out of the question." Kevin lowered his head, mentally kicking himself for not thinking of any of the aforementioned things.

"Speaking of," Hawkeye suddenly spoke up. "What are you doing here anyway if you're not with the other guys?"

Kevin immediately stiffened, his sharpened teeth biting down hard on his lip. "I...I'm here for a friend."

"What kind of friend?" the thief questioned, yet Kevin began to back away a bit. "Oh. Sorry. I didn't mean anything by it." Kevin jumped a bit from suddenly feeling a hand on his shoulder. "Truth be told, I'm here for a friend too."

"Y-You are?" Kevin asked, still feeling the re-emergence of emotions he had been fighting to repress since he had come here.

"Yeah." Hawkeye replied, then turning to Riesz. "And she's here for a lot of friends."

"Rather bold to assume what I'm here for." the blonde young woman stated matter-of-factly. "But...yes. I'm here at the behest of Laurent." it was unintentional, yet she tightened her lips when she glanced at Hawkeye. True, it was clear he had nothing to do with any of what occurred there, yet she couldn't help but remain cautious. The same went for this 'Kevin' character, despite his rather contrary nature from what they had all seen from the other beastmen. Yet from what she had seen from his dealings with that rock thrower, his strength couldn't be questioned.

"Hey, you can drop the whole careful act." Hawkeye said aloud, Riesz, to her misfortune, unable to hide her true feelings. "Isn't it obvious that this guy isn't all bad?"

Riesz remained silent, staring at Kevin as if she were observing some strange new specimen. "I don't believe he is." she clarified. "Nor do I you."

"Watch." Hawkeye then whispered to Kevin. "She's gonna be all, but…"

"But,"

"Called it."

Riesz raised a brow. "But," she repeated. "I can't simply ignore all that's been done either. For now, you have my trust, yet bear in mind." she stated, tone smooth but firm. "I admit to being a discriminating sort in some matters."

Hawkeye was about to speak again, only to hear someone cry out. "Hey, you!" the old hermit shouted, having been keeping Charlotte and Mick down in the bunker and out of the open. "Get back here!"

The three looked back to see the nearly naked mayor running away with what appeared to be an apple in his mouth, being chased by the balding old timer that had greeted Riesz and Hawkeye when they first retreated here. "Heh." the thief chuckled. "Strip him, light a fire and put some honey on him, and he'd be good to put on a skewer."

"What is going on now?" Riesz sighed, turning to assess the situation, only to see the old man leap and actually catch the bearded official, causing him to plummet to the ground and releasing several fruit and vegetables from his overly stuffed pants.

"Finally caught you, thief!" the old man growled, the Mayor of Jadd looking back at him.

"I'm no thief!" he argued back. "You said anybody could help themselves to your stash!"

"Yeah, as in, help themselves to ONE helping! Not five! You've eaten enough for the whole day!"

"I've been down in that cell for days! I need to have something!"

"I thought you said that they actually fed you!"

"Well...yeah, they did! But it was-" the Mayor paused, realizing that three pairs of eyes were looking down at him. Two of which were heavily narrowed while one was mainly confused. Though it was the other two youths he was most concerned with. "Uh oh."

Outside Maia

Golden Road

"Eeee!"

"Don't just stand there! Move it!" Duran commanded, blocking a few incoming arrows with his shield.

"I'm going as fast as I can!" Angela shot back, letting out another yelp as a small, yet rapidly traveling arrow flew in her direction. The two were running forward, the party of small rodent-like archers pursuing them, firing at will and when they ran out of arrows, grabbing more that were on the ground from their fellow Chobin Hoods to fire back at the two humans. "What's their deal?!" Angela cried out, ducking as another projectile flew over her head.

"Hell if I know!" Duran answered, continuing to raise up his shield to deflect the arrows. "These guys aren't even supposed to be here this far!"

"I wonder what brought them down here then." Faerie answered from within her host, wincing when an arrow grazed the young man's cheek. "Oooh! Watch out!"

"It's not like you can't do something, you know!" Duran said, ducking.

"Uh, uh! No way!" Faerie said back. "I'm not going out there!"

"Can't you at least, I don't know, gah!" Duran was interrupted by yet another arrow just barely striking him in the head. "Fly around them, or teleport them away or something?!"

"I don't have that kind of power!" the winged woman answered. "Watch out!"

Just then, both he and Angela stopped, a large wall of rock in front of him, unable to stop himself before he ran right into it. The young woman with him couldn't help but release a snort, yet the humor was short lived as collective, high pitched snarls and chitters were heard, both of them turning around to see that they were surrounded.

"Then what about Lumina?!" Duran then asked, violet eyes surveying the mob before them and trying to find some sort of way out.

Angela said nothing, though she saw the Chobin Hoods beginning to grow confused, looking at each other as if pondering who the male human was talking to. Some scratched their heads and shrugged. She also believed she saw one make a swirling motion with its furry, clawed finger as if telling its friend that this guy was coo coo in the head.

"Can't exactly do that." Lumina then said, letting his voice be heard by both Duran and Angela. "But," though he was unseen, the young magician felt his eyes center on her. "The little lady here might be able to make use of me."

"What do you mean 'make use of you'?" Angela questioned. But then, she remembered. Back in Jadd when they were making their escape.

"Why can't you just do something on your own?" Duran asked, still looking for some sort of potential way they could deal with these rats.

"Well...thing is, we spirits kinda reside in a different dimension, where we go whenever you guys don't need us at the moment. In essence, you have to summon us once you get our permission to make use of our powers."

"Wait...what?" the young man raised a brow. "The hell kind of sense does that make?"

"You can't just expect us to stick around ALL the time!" Lumina told him plainly. "I mean, yeah, we're always kinda around, but we gotta go somewhere to have some downtime! If I've learned anything, serving humans can take a lot out of somebody. I'm still feeling a bit of the aches from the last time I had to tag along with a rag-tag group."

Duran groaned, Angela only raising a brow. "Ok, fine." she then said. "Then how do we…'make use of you'?"

Lumina then giggled. How he could've giggled at a time like this escaped both of them. At least when Duran ran into the rock wall, it was at least somewhat funny, Angela thought. "You, little lady, can utilize my power."

"How?"

"You must channel it."

"Yeah, I get that. How though?" she got little else out as she saw the tip of an arrow head dangerously close to her, the Chobin Hood aiming for right between her eyes.

"Hey, c'mon, work with me! How?!"

"Channel my power, hun!" Lumina said. "Feel my energy flowing through you!" Angela grabbed her staff and held it outward.

"Ok, back off, rats!" she bellowed. "Otherwise I'll destroy you all!" the Chobin Hoods only looked to each other, then back at her. They still held their bows and arrows, ready to fire, yet they were befuddled as to what she meant. "I mean it!" Angela began to concentrate, closing her eyes and straining.

"Feel my energy…" Lumina told her. "Channel it through your staff."

"I…" Angela strained. "I'm trying…" her grip on the staff grew tighter, her knuckles turning white from underneath her gloves. 'C'mon...c'mon.' she inwardly begged. 'Do something! Anything!' she strained and groaned, her arms and legs trembling. 'Please!'

"Feel it!" Lumina told her. "You're trying too hard!"

'What?! What do you mean I'm trying too hard?!'

"You're applying too much pressure!"

"I-I don't get it!" Angela said aloud. "You're not making any sense!" Just what was she doing wrong?!

"Oh, hell with this!" Duran shouted, having had enough. Lunging forward, he slashed his sword as several arrows were shot in their direction.

Rabite Forest

He couldn't help that he was hungry! He remembered well the faces he received when he had been found out, especially those of those three kids.

'Haven't you got enough in there, big guy?' that one kid said, the one with the purple hair. The urge to up and tackle him was strong, yet the Mayor (or rather, former Mayor) of Jadd found that it simply wasn't worth it. He wasn't afraid to admit that he'd get his ass whooped in a good minute or so, possibly a few seconds, but also because, frankly, all of this was too much.

Here he had been, going about the business of the town, collecting annual taxes (which may or may not have been just a LITTLE higher than last year's, his mind sort of slipped on that), and overall doing his job (of which he DID do, despite what anyone said otherwise). Then, out of nowhere, these furry freaks up and crash into the place and turn everything upside down! They tore though the city's defenses, invaded his manor, stripped him down (why they did that still escaped him), and then threw him in the cellar! What did that purple haired kid know? He had been down there for a good while! And...well, yeah, he was fed, but it was this nasty slop that they probably fed those large birds or hounds that they had with them. No, they probably fed those things better than they fed him. He refused to eat it, his palette FAR more refined than whatever they were giving him. Which only led to them only providing him with water, and even that was just enough. And even more, it was in a little bowl, as if he were some sort of dog! He remembered one of them making a jab at him that he'd look good with a collar around his neck.

'Like that damn kid would know anything. Kinda looks shady himself…' the bearded man thought, leaning back against a tree. He had taken to retreating outside of the ruined Astoria for some air, as well as to get away. He knew the townspeople hated him now...but what did they know? Did they even know who he was? He was the one that kept up their lives of comfort! All they had to do was just provide a reasonable amount of lucre (give or take a hundred or so), and he'd make sure that no outside threats came their way. Which….they did anyway, but how was he supposed to know that they would come from the air?! None of this was his fault, and here he was, being treated like a criminal!

It just wasn't fair…

"Hey." the Mayor turned to see a brown haired boy standing by there, looking up at him. "Whatcha doing out here?"

The bearded man sighed. "Just...thinking is all." he responded. "What are YOU doing out here, kid?"

"Just...kinda wanted to get out." the child said. "It's boring hiding all the time."

'Well, I can kinda relate to that, kid. Being all cooped up isn't any fun.' the bearded man only hummed. "But shouldn't you be getting back?"

"I just got here though." the child retorted.

"Your mom's probably gonna get worried." 'And then blame me for it.'

"Ralph!" both of them heard another voice, this one belonging to a blue haired boy coming their direction. "What do you think you're doing? Your mom's worried sick!"

'See?' the Mayor thought.

"I didn't go too far. See?" Ralph pointed to the sign that directed to Astoria one way and Wendel the other. "Sign's right there.

"Hey." the Mayor suddenly said. "You...you're one of those kids that beastman had with him."

"Yeah. Mick." Mick said, gesturing to himself.

"You should get back too." the bearded man said. He was not up for getting into even more trouble with anybody else.

"Hey, I only came out to find him." the blue haired boy said. "Why'd you come out here, anyway?"

"I don't know." Ralph shrugged his shoulders. "I was bored. And, well," he looked to the Mayor. "You looked kinda bummed out after, you know…"

Wait a minute, the bearded man thought. "You came out here...to check up on me?"

"Well...yeah. Guess so." the brown haired boy shrugged again. "I mean…"

"Wait." Mick suddenly said, eyes darting around. "You hear that?"

The bearded man and Ralph looked around, confused. "No. Why?" the Mayor said aloud.

"Exactly." Mick then said. Indeed, when they listened closer, neither the man nor the other boy could hear anything out in the woods, even if they hadn't gone too far from the town. No crickets chirping, no sign of any Rabites hopping around or chewing on grass, no sign of any of the natural fauna going around and about their business. They seemed to either go quiet or hide from sight, perhaps both.

Sensing danger as well, they all looked around, trying to spy something. Nothing seemed to be lurking on the ground or in the trees, or whatever was spooking everything was just good at hiding.

Though, unknown to them, the true danger lied in what was above. Said danger having spotted them and then swooped down, the two children in its piercing, golden eyes.

Astoria

"Maybe...you were too hard on him?" Kevin suggested, his sights still on the exit of the town. While he was still allowed to be amongst the residents here, it was only due to him being in the company of the two here, as well as the testimonies of Charlotte and Mick. Yet even then, he could tell that his presence here wasn't received warmly. Either he received passing glares or no looks at all, those people outright refusing to acknowledge him at all.

"Too hard? More like not hard enough." Hawkeye told the beastman directly, his usual ease and laid back demeanor completely gone. "Kevin, people like that have had everything handed to them throughout their whole lives. You think that he gives a second thought about taking all that food? Let alone anyone here?" the thief gestured to the crowd in the ruined lakeside village.

"But, still…" Kevin began, rather conflicted on the whole thing. If anything, he was more or less looking for a reason for the humans here to hate him less.

"I've seen people like him before." Hawkeye continued. "Guys like him have it good because they step on others to get there. They don't have any concern over anything but what's in their pockets and, in many cases, bellies. That's why all these kingdoms and monarchies function. Some fat cat's up at the top while they drain and sponge off the work of the little guys. And he might go under the label of 'Mayor', yet he's been living like a king, I guarantee it. It'd be different if he took just one apple, but several?" the thief huffed. "People like that make me love my job."

"So, you enjoy the art of thievery?" Both young men turned to see Riesz standing there, arms folded over her chest.

"When it's guys like that? Yeah, pretty much." Hawkeye admitted. Hey, he wasn't going to beat around the bush with it, seeing the looks on those classy rich folks when their undeserved riches got stolen was one of the most satisfying aspects of the job. Granted, ideally, that wasn't what was supposed to happen, yet whenever it did, he wouldn't lie in saying he reveled in it.

"And you wonder why I'm wary of you." the young woman shook her head and sighed. Yet that was as far as she went, turning back and walking away to the shoreline of the lake. She didn't appear to be angered, yet rather deep in thought. Simply put, Hawkeye couldn't help himself, inching closer towards her without drawing her attention. "Maybe we could...no, no. That wouldn't work." she was mumbling something to herself, half sentences and statements that somehow seemed to all relate to the same subject. What that subject was, he was unsure.

"Care to share?" he said, only to yelp when he got the edge of a lance mere inches from his neck.

Riesz groaned as she drew her weapon back. "Don't do that!" she chided. "I could've sliced your head clean off."

"Nah, I doubt you would've been that fast." Hawkeye shook his head, smiling. "Course, if you actually want to go for a spar, I'd be fine with that."

"That means something else in your mind and you know it."

"Ah!" Hawkeye gasped as if offended. "Dear me! What do you take me for? Some sort of deviant?"

"I'm not sure. Though given you've already admitted to enjoying your…'profession', you could perhaps be capable of anything." Riesz told him plainly.

"Aw, now you're just hurting my feelings." the thief whimpered, though he couldn't stop the smile on his face. Still, fun or not, it wasn't exactly why he approached her. "Anyway, you seemed rather deep in conversation with no one in particular."

It was then that, to his surprise (and subsequent delight), he saw a small blush come to the young woman's cheeks.

"Oh no, you heard that?" she asked, clearly embarrassed.

"You mind sharing, or is it private?"

Riesz was silent for a moment, pondering on her next move. Truthfully, she saw no harm in simply alerting him as to what she was thinking, even if she'd yet to come up with a sound solution to it. Though as she opened her mouth to speak-

"HELP!"

Everyone's attention was drawn to the entrance of the town, the Mayor running in and falling to his knees, clearly out of breath. People began to gather around, Kevin seeing Charlotte emerging from the bunker and running over to see what was going on. The beastman gently took her by the shoulder and held her back, sensing that something dire had happened. Riesz and Hawkeye approached the fallen man. "What's going on?" the amazon questioned. "What happened?"

"Those...those birds!" he choked out, trying to get in some air.

"What birds…" Elisa began, only to realize what he meant, eyes widening in horror. "Where is he? Whe're Ralph? Did you see him?!"

"And whewe's Mick?!" Charlotte shouted, able to hear everything and trying to fight Kevin to get closer.

The Mayor of Jadd was quiet, only lowering his head. No words were said, yet it was clear to everyone, to their collective horror, what had just happened.

The Golden Road

The swipe of the sword sent the lot of them back, knocking some of them off their feet. Nevertheless, this only allowed the Chobin Hoods near the back of the group to come forward and take off where their brethren started.

"C'mon!" Duran shouted, Angela and he climbed up one of the ridges that led to their destination. True, they would have followed the road there, yet given the circumstances, that was out of the question now.

Or rather, Duran climbed up, Angela had to be pulled up each time another ledge came up. "I'm going as fast as I can!" she said, hoisting herself up only to slip and he once again went over to keep her from falling. "Hey, give me a break!" she said, seeing his frustration. "I'm not used to stuff like this!"

"Probably not any physical activity." he said aloud. "How do you even manage to keep yourself at that weight?" it wasn't said out of maliciousness, yet just him saying his thoughts aloud. Still, it was only afterward did he realize that such a thing probably should've been kept to himself.

"How dare you!" Angela snarled, face turning red.

'Wow, don't you know to never mention a woman's weight?' Faerie told him. 'I've never been around humans, and even I know that!'

"Not exactly a good time!" Duran said, the Chobin Hoods coming closer and closer. He practically grabbed Angela by the collar of her necklace and dragged her up further, nearly at the top.

"Hey-ow! Ow, ow, ow! Cut it out! I can't breathe!" He let her go and seized her wrist instead, pulling her up. Just nearly there!

They ducked as another slew of arrows came their way, one grazing Duran's cheek, yet still, he persisted. Finally reaching the top, he and Angela made a dash for the entrance of the cavern before them. Though they didn't have to rest, hearing the hoard coming. And soon enough, a good few of them climbed up, their large eyes boring into theirs.

Only...they didn't move.

A few in the front took a small step, yet immediately drew back, looking around, caution coming to their rodent-like features. They turned back and chittered to themselves, then, to everyone's surprise, humans, faeries, and elementals alike, they all scurried off, not even trying to go through the entrance of the cavern. Soon, they all disappeared from sight, leaving everyone on their lonesome.

"Ok...what was that about?" Angela questioned, Duran having no answers.

Still, they were close now. Just a small distance away was the bridge. And from there, their passage into the kingdom.

A passage in where Duran had to swallow that...for now, he had failed.

Chapter Text

“Soooo...run by me again why you went to Wendel again.”

Duran sighed. “I went to see if I could find out how to become stronger.”

“That’s it?” Angela questioned, Duran turning to face her.

“What do you mean ‘that’s it’?” he asked in turn. “I’m dead serious.”

“No, I don’t doubt that.” the young, violet haired woman answered. “But...just how do you, y’know, do that? I mean, if I have to be honest,” she held her staff tightly in her hands. “Mine is a little more...tangible, you know?” 

“But you were seeking the same thing.” Duran told her. “How to improve and strengthen your ‘magic’.” he put an emphasis on magic, seeing as, well, he had yet to see much of any from her. True, she had displayed some feats of it, yet they were far and in between. And even more, they were rather unpredictable. “Though, didn’t you say that you were already a ‘skilled magician’?”

“And I am.” Angela huffed. “I just want to get stronger, that’s all. Same as you. And, as you’ve seen, I CAN do it.” she attested. “I just...need some more practice. In testing my skills and broadening my horizons, that’s all.” 

Duran wasn’t buying it, but still, whatever she had traveled to Wendel for was her own business. For now, the only thing he had control of was that of his own power. Of which, thus far, had been unsuccessful. And if not for his current situation, he wouldn't have even thought of returning to Valsena until he had completed his task. He heard Faerie sigh from inside him, he sighing in turn. They two were still in conflict with each other, yet there was no changing the others’ mind. 

And for Duran, little incentive to turn back, yet also to move forward. For once they stepped through the cavern’s exit, there it lay: a large, wooden bridge that served to allow those who wished to travel back and forth between the various points in the kingdom to do so safely. At least, it used to, given the group of Chobin Hoods the two humans escaped from. The area all around was canyonous and colored a deep red, a flowing, rushing river below. Given the clear division of land and abundance of rock, this place was aptly known as the Stonesplit Gap. 

“All right.” the young soldier began. “We cross this and after a little bit more, we’ll be right at the kingdom’s doorstep.”

“Good.” Angela groaned. “My whole body hurts…”

Really, how did she manage to keep that shape of hers? Well, whatever. There were other matters at hand. Approaching the bridge, the two stepped on, yet it was then that a twinge came to them, hair rising on the back of their necks and nerves on high alert. Something was amiss. Drawing out his sword and Angela holding out her wand, the two looked around, only to see nothing-

“My, my.” a familiar voice suddenly spoke, the two’s eyes widening upon seeing him emerge in a veil of red light. “What’s this? A roving pair of children?” the crimson cloaked wizard folded his arms, centering his gaze on Duran. “Still as ready and eager, I see. A little more muscle mass, perhaps, yet not much else.” he smirked. “Far from the appearance that I’d think of when I hear of a ‘mighty warrior’.” 

Duran grit his teeth. “A fine time to show yourself, you bastard.” he snarled. 

“Indeed.” then, several Altenan mages emerged from behind the large rocks that lined the path to and from the bridge, each with their staves at the ready to cast. 

“Lord Koren!” one amongst the mages shouted. “Shall we apprehend the princess?” 

Princess? Duran and Faerie centered their attention on Angela, whose eyes widened in horror. “Not at the moment.” the wizard, Koren, answered, waving his hand that signaled for them to lower their wands. He then allowed his violet eyes to fall onto the daughter of his ‘darling’ Queen. “Not until we give the dear a big congratulations for playing her part in this small, but nonetheless, important part of this operation.” 

Astoria

“What do you mean that they were taken?!” Hawkeye demanded, the bearded man before them recounting what he had previously said.

“Exactly that! Those birds just came down and swooped both of them up!” the Mayor huffed and heaved. 

Elisa’s hands came to her face, falling to her knees as she wailed. “Oh, my baby! My Ralphie! Oh Goddess, my Ralphie!”

Charlotte was no better, seemingly unable to process what she was being told. Just then, she sprinted off through the exit of the once thriving village. “Charlotte! Wait!” Kevin called out, yet she was long gone. “Charlotte!” Despite the protests from Hawkeye and Riesz to also wait, the beastman took off after her, both of them now gone from sight. 

‘Lovely.’ Riesz thought. A potential source of information was gone to who knew where, and it was clear that after news like this, no one was willing to go outside of Astoria’s borders. 

“Let go of me!” save for one woman. Looking in the direction of the voice, both the princess and thief could see Elisa being restrained by several townsfolk, though even with multiple people holding her, it was clear that they were having a difficult time.

“Are you crazy?!” a man among those holding her said. “You’re bound to get yourself caught, or even worse out there!”

“Then that’s a chance I’m willing to take!” she argued back, struggling to get out of their grip. “Get off! I-I’ll stomp on you if I have to!”

“All right, all right, calm yourselves!” Riesz suddenly commanded, sensing that this was getting out of hand. “There’s no need to get frantic!”

“And who are you, lady?” one of the men asked. “I don’t see any badge or symbol of authority on you!”

“At least that guy says he’s the Mayor!” another said, gesturing to the bearded man still on the ground. “Who are you?!”

It was perhaps unbecoming of her, yet even then, Riesz had to admit that there was only such much someone could take. “Enough!” she shouted, slamming her lance on the ground. “If you’re so curious, then I shall tell you who I am!” what was shouted next sent shockwaves throughout the crowd, everyone going silent and still. “Before you stands Riesz, Crown Princess of the Kingdom of Laurent and Captain of the Amazon Guard!” 

Hawkeye’s breath nearly caught in his throat, amber eyes wide in shock. A captain? And even more, a princess no less?! Yet...yet nothing he had seen from her indicated such a thing! True, if he had to admit, she did seem like she had a broom stuck up her ass at times, yet aside from that, from what he had seen from her, her behavior and demeanor...such bravery and stalwartness...it was nothing like all those upper class fat cats and rich folks that he had gleefully swiped from. Needless to say, he was just as shocked as everyone else. Sure, she had mentioned being here on behalf of Laurent, yet that didn’t exactly translate to being ‘oh yeah, I’m the princess of said country.’! 

“L-Laurent?” Elisa questioned, her struggles lessening. “Then...why are you here?”

Riesz tightened her lips. “I’m here on...official business.” She stated matter of factly, though Hawkeye could clearly see the discomfort, dare he say, shame in her features upon saying that. 

“Please!” a man said, practically throwing himself at her feet. “Save us!” 

“Yes! Save us!” another cried out.

“If anyone can, then the amazons can!”

Soon, everyone began crowding around her, Riesz beginning to regret speaking up at all. True, she had something in mind, something that would help everyone out of this predicament, but ultimately, she had yet to even begin planning such a thing out. And with all these voices and pleadings, she found herself rather swarmed. They were nothing like the soldiers under her command at all. 

“Ok, ok, break it up!” she suddenly heard a male voice say, seeing, to her surprise, Hawkeye urging people to back away. “Give the lady some room to breathe!” to her surprise, while it was slow at first, some did begin to back away, though one woman came forward.

“Is it true?” Elisa asked, steadily approaching the young woman. “You...you are who you say you are?”

Riesz averted her gaze for a moment, the intensity of the mother’s eyes a little too much to bear. “Yes. I have no reason to lie to you.”

“Then...then please!” the woman fell to her knees, clutching the ends of the blonde’s dress. “Please, help. Help my son.” she begged, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Help us.” 

Riesz was silent, looking upon all the villagers who all had their eyes on her. And, to her shock, found herself looking upon the violet haired thief, who, while seemingly surprised at the revelation of her identity, looked upon her with a sense of reassurance. Blind reassurance perhaps, but still, the support was clear. And despite her stance on him...she reciprocated it nonetheless.

Stonesplit Gap

Duran, despite himself, found the grip on his sword loosen a bit, directing his attention to Angela, of whom continued to look upon the wizard, apparently named ‘Koren’, with shocked eyes. “Wh-What are you talking about?” she asked.

“Oh come now.” Koren continued. “Don’t you remember? I told you of our future conquest of Valsena and the other kingdoms of the world.” he smirked, reveling in the fury that flared up in Duran’s eyes. “And how you so eagerly wished to accept the request to weed out any potential adversaries, great or small.”

The young soldier centered his gaze on Angela, of whom rapidly shook her head. “No! No, he’s lying!”

“The hell are you saying?!” Duran shouted at Koren, of whom folded his arms over his chest. 

“I’m saying that she’s been playing you for a fool, little boy.” the wizard chuckled. “She traveled to Wendel to find the Light Stone and the Elemental to secure it for our cause.”

“Hey!” Lumina suddenly emerged. “I’m not up for grabs of that kind!” 

“Which she seems to have succeeded in doing so.” Koren observed. “And now, she’s led you right into our clutches. Rather fortunate that you two happened to run into each other, isn’t it?”

Duran only looked to Angela. “You...you…” he stammered, steadily growing furious. “You dirty liar!”

“What?!” the young woman shouted, yet was cut off from continuing any further. 

“You dirty, good for nothing liar!” he continued. “I knew it! I KNEW that something was up with you the moment I saw you! How you beat around the bush whenever I asked you what you were doing in Jadd!”

“Hey, I have nothing to do with this-”

“It’d only make sense that you would be friends with that bastard there!” the soldier pointed to Koren, of whom wore a satisfied smile on his face. 

“Hey, he and I are NOT friends!” Angela retorted. “He’s the one who-”

“Oh, save it! No use trying to save face now! You’re all scum! Every single one of you, scum!”

It was then, however, that Duran noticed something in the young woman’s eyes. The beginning of tears. But no, he said. She was just acting. After all, that wizard, Koren, outright said it. ‘Then why are you having doubts about it?’ Faerie asked from inside him,though he brushed her question aside. He had heard it himself, Angela had helped set this whole thing up! She was a liar and a damned fiend just like all these other Altenan mages! ‘Look again.’ Despite his mind being made up, he saw Lumina wiping a tear from the young woman’s eye. How could he of all beings be fooled by such an act? ‘He’s not omniscient.’ Faerie agreed. ‘But I think being born near the beginning of time allows for someone to be a relatively good judge of character.’ 

‘But…’ Duran protested, unable to exactly argue against such statements, but what he had come to believe in still remained. ‘But she...he said…’

“Now then, dear princess,” Koren said, both Angela and Duran hearing the sound of far heavier footsteps from either side of the bridge. Then, a stout figure of chrome metal made its way in front of the wizard, its arms defined by thin but strong iron bars with rounded joints and what appeared to be golden boxing gloves. Its head was composed of a coned head with horns on both sides, this serving as something of a ‘hat’ for it as its actual head was a darker shade with large, white eyes. “It’s time to come home.

Rabite Forest

“Charlotte! Charlotte, wait!” Kevin called out, tailing the girl that, despite her size, was surprisingly fast. 

“Mick!” she shouted, looking all around desperately. “Walph!” 

“Charlotte!” Finally, he caught up to her, taking her in his hold and keeping her from running anywhere else. “Charlotte, don’t.”

“Wet go! I gotta-”

“Dangerous out here.” Kevin told her. “You could be snatched up too.”

“I don’t cawe!” the half elf proclaimed, distraught and clearly not thinking straight. “Wet me go! I...I gotta…” she struggled, kicked, and hit at the beastman’s tanned, strong arms. Yet ultimately, she realized that it was pointless, both trying to fight him and going after the two boys. Besides, what direction would she even go anyway? Those birds could’ve been anywhere at this point. With little else she could do, she found herself freely letting moisture fall down from her eyes. Kevin was somewhat taken aback, he essentially now having a wailing young girl on his hands. He averted his eyes from her for a moment, pondering on what to even do. 

“Um...it-it’s ok.” he uneasily said. True, he had seen to comfort her before, yet she wasn’t exactly exploding with tears then. 

“No!” she shouted. “No it’s not!”

“...you...you’re right.” Kevin sighed. “It’s not. It’s not ok.” she continued to weep audibly. “But…” he wished to say ‘it will be.’ to her, yet honestly, he found himself unable to say so with any sort of certainty. Thus, he found himself unable to say anything, Charlotte having taken from fighting him to clinging to him, burying her face in his chest. 

‘So much for trying to do any good.’ she thought to herself. ‘Not only did you manage to get Heath captured by that Jester, Mick and Ralph are now in trouble. Good job, pipsqueak.’ 

Unknown to both of them, however, a small pair of eyes saw the two, his form concealed in the bushes. ‘This has gone on long enough.’ he thought. He would still need to get some things together, yet as far as he was concerned, he couldn’t stand by and let things go on the way they had been. 

Stonesplit Gap

The golem ahead of the two, extended its arms and blasted the ends of them right towards them, boxing gloves glowing and flying at a rapid speed. Both Duran and Angela moved out of the way, yet they were then forced to duck as the gloves flew over their heads in an attempt to strike them before returning to their owner. 

‘Wait.’ Duran thought, looking at Angela, of whom was still kneeling. ‘Why are they attacking her?’

‘Indeed, why?’ Faerie responded. ‘You get it now?’

His error dawned on him, yet before he could say anything, the bridge creaked as a rather large amount of weight suddenly was placed on it, the golems having made their way onto it and inching ever closer towards them.

“Make sure the princess is accosted.” Koren told one of the mages. “I have business with his dear majesty.” 

Dear majesty?! The young, Valsenan soldier rushed towards the wizard. “Don’t you dare lay a hand on the king-” Duran got no change to finish as he received a punch to the face by the golem in front of them, sending him flying back several feet and landing, quite literally, against the other golem on the other side. He then felt a blow meet the back of his head, sending him falling face first into the boards that composed of the bridge. Angela began to run towards him, yet, to her shock, a small missile came and blew a rather large hole in a few boards, separating the two, yet the bridge still remained standing. Looking up, Duran became aware of both this and the fact that Koren was long gone. “Damn!!!” he shouted, slamming his fist on the boards beneath him. 

“Take your hands...gloves off me!” he suddenly heard someone shout. “Let me go! Help!” Duran looked to see Angela in the grip of one of the golems, she desperately struggling to get out of its grip. “Let go, let go, LET GO!” she demanded, raising her staff and banging it over the automaton’s head, yet all it did was bounce off, she mentally kicking herself for being so stupid. Of course wood would have no chance against metal! 

‘Now’s your chance!’ Lumina communicated to her. ‘Call to me! Use my power!’ Angela held her staff and tried to concentrate, she being slowly carried to the other side of the bridge to the mages waiting for her arrival. She held hard onto the crafted wand, clutching and gripping to where she could’ve sworn that her knuckles were going to burst through her skin, yet still, nothing happened. ‘You’re trying too hard again, hun!’ the Light Elemental told her. ‘Let it come to you naturally.’

“I-I’m trying!” Angela shouted aloud, despite it having no effect, she began to bang her wand on the golem’s cone-shaped head again. “I can’t do it!”

‘Yes you can!’ Lumina assured. ‘I feel it! You have the power to do so!’ 

A lot of good that was doing her right now! Just then, she saw Duran lunge forward and strike the backside of the golem, though his swings proved to be just as effective as her strikes with her staff. 

BZZT!

At least, until he hit one particular spot. 

A panel was positioned in the upper back of the automaton, and when the young soldier had struck it, it seemed that its movements hitched and it began to spasm and shake. ‘I think that might be a spot of interest.’ Faerie remarked, Duran agreed and he went to strike it again. 

WHAP!

Only to be sent back by the golem spinning around, its upper portion whirling around at a near blindingly fast pace while its lower portion remained still, the two sections separate from each other with the upper half able to perform actions independent of the other. 

SNAP!

Despite the nausea that she was experiencing and whiplash from the rapid spending, Angela heard something coming apart, and in the brief intervals she passed by it, she saw that some of the ropes that held the bridge up had been severed. They were in the relative middle of the bridge, so it only felt like a little bit of a dip, but the fact that just took a few cut ropes to make such a difference clearly meant trouble for all of them, golems included.

“What are they doing?!” one of the mages shouted, clearly bewildered by what they were seeing. “Don’t they realize that they’re destroying the bridge?!”

“Their sole objective is to seize the princess and take out any potential threats regardless of the danger that they themselves faced!” another declared, steadily realizing that there were notable flaws not accounted for in the construction of these machines. “They’re going to bring down the entire bridge at this rate!”

Duran’s head was sent for a spin as he watched the golem whirl around and around, trying to strike that particular area again. But then, he heard some sort of buzzing from behind him, looking back to see the other golem shoot its gloves out, yet they were spinning around to where they resembled drills heading right towards him. Ducking down, the rapidly spinning fists missed their target and struck its fellow automaton, the golem being flung back with its still spinning arms, slicing through several other ropes and dislodging several boards from their places. The bridge began to dip more downwards, a clear amount of support more evident on the side nearest the entrance to the cavern in comparison to the other. 

Rabite Forest

“Well, what should we do?” one of the hidden figures asked.

“You heard the boss!” another said. “We bring them here!”

“But...but we can’t let outsiders inside! You know that-”

“I know that!” the former shouted. “But I also know that this is bigger than just a bunch of furry freaks taking over a city! Boss feels that way too. And not to mention, you heard what that one girl said about being from Laurent.” the other that was with him was silent, contemplating what he had just said. 

“Well...I guess you’re right. But how do we get their attention?” 

The former puffed out his chest and put on a showman’s smile. “Leave that to me!” with that, he hopped out from their hiding place, ready to put their plan into action

Nearby

Though still sniffling, Charlotte had begun to finally calm down, much to Kevin’s relief, as frankly, being out here with a bunch of noise was a recipe for trouble. But it was then that, in the corner of his eye, he had seen something.

“H-Hey.” the blonde girl began, having apparently seen it too. “What’s that?” she gestured to a small shape on the ground. It was somewhat difficult to see at first, but after a few moments, both of them realized that what lay before them was what appeared to be a tiny humanoid creature seemingly waving at them and hopping up and down. As if it wished to gain their attention. “Hey...I know what that is.” she said, still upset, yet that was being consumed by a new sense of surprise. “It’s a...a…” she stammered, trying to remember what exactly the creature was called. “It’s a Kowopokkurw”

“Kowo...what?” Kevin asked, the word practically twisting his tongue.

“Kowopokkuw!” Charlotte repeated.

“Oh, you mean a...Koropokkur?”

“That’s what I said. Kowopokkuw.” she affirmed. 

Well...ok. Let her have it her own way, Kevin thought. Still, the main question on his mind was, “What IS it?”

“It’s a tiny wittwe pewson.” Charlotte explained. “Kinda.” she then thought a bit. “It’s a wittwe more wike a faewie or pixie. Kinda?” she thought again. “Weww...it’s more wike a tiny pewson with magic powews. At weast, that’s what I heawd.” 

“What you heard?” 

“Yeah. Evewybody awound hewe knows about Kowopokkuw. I heawd that they sometimes visit good boys and giwls and weave pwesents undew theiw piwwows.”

“Oh please!” the small humanoid then shouted, clearly offended. “What do you take us for?! Some sort of off brand Tooth Faeire!?”

“Um...sorry?” Kevin apologized, though it was then that it appeared the small creature had a realization, and then began to run off. 

“What the-” Kevin began, yet Charlotte leapt out of his arms and gave chase to the small creature.

“Hey, don’t wun off!” 

“Charlotte! Wait!” The beastman took off after the smaller girl, both completely unaware of the several eyes watching them as they made their way after the ‘lone’ Koropokkur, the one that had orchestrated this entire operation among them and watching with satisfaction. 

Indeed, after all these generations, humans (or human-like beings) displayed some of the most curious behaviors, no matter what age they were.

Stonesplit Gap

“They’re out of control!” one of the mages cried out, clearly horrified at what she was witnessing. 

“Lord Koren will murder us for this!” another replied, falling to her knees as she watched the spectacle take place. “He wants her back alive and intact!”

“By this rate, the princess will be killed by sheer accident!”

“Hell with that!” another then said. “I’m not going to end up as a sacrifice to the stone!” Just then, she and several others on either side began to move onto the bridge. 

“W-Wait! What are you doing?! Stop!” their fellow comrades begged, yet their pleas fell on deaf ears as those that went on the bridge charged forward. The mages that had gone for the automatons unfortunately were blown off their feet by the whirling motions of one of them, sending several of them off the bridge and those that managed to avoid its spinning immediately went back to more steady ground. 

Duran awaited for the automaton to stop spinning so that perhaps he could strike that particular place of weakness he had gotten a lucky strike on before. Slowly, but steadily, the golem stopped whirling around, Angela limp on its shoulder, looking as if she were mere seconds away from vomiting. Seizing his chance, the soldier lunged forward and struck the panel, the golem spasming and seizing up again, Duran kept striking the area, seeing that this portion of metal was far thinner than the rest of its body. But then, he heard something tearing through the air behind him. Ducking, one of the other golem’s fists unintentionally smashed into the back of its twin, sending it falling to the bridge and tearing through the board, yet was held up by one near its head and other by its lower half. Duran went forward and saw that the panel had been completely smashed, he worked at prying it off and once he succeeded, saw several winding gears and mechanics spinning and whirling around inside. He didn’t even entirely think it through, all that was in his mind was getting Angela out of her current predicament. He had to make this right. 

‘Who, hey! What are you doing?!’ Faerie proclaimed, yet it was too late. He rammed his sword into the winding gears and components, the golem rearing back and releasing its grip on Angela, flinging her behind him, she landed on her stomach, she groaned in both nausea and pain. Duran was about to turn to aid her, yet he found his sword stuck. ‘See? I told you!’ Faerie told him, Duran realizing his mistake in acting so rashly. The grip on his sword was difficult to maintain, said sword being turned this way and that. The wielder of the sword struggled with all his might to pull the weapon from inside of the android, yet, to his horror, he heard a telltale, heart stopping ‘CRACK!’ echo and when he finally was able to pull the sword out, he having fallen on his back when he did so, he looked to see that a good chunk of the upper half had been completely torn off. 

His father’s sword...completely ruined! And because of his idiot self! Could this get any worse?!

Angela looked up to see the other golem approaching her, its weight causing the bridge to dip downward, she feeling the boards below her accommodate for the added mass being applied. She knew by now that it’d be useless, yet from her position on the ground, she got to her knees and held out her staff, feeling, once again, nothing. Just what was she doing wrong?! Lumina’s advice wasn’t helping her at all! Just what was she supposed to do?! Just then, however, a beeping was heard from the fallen golem, its armor seemingly glowing red. 

“Its self-destruct feature is being activated!” one of the mages shouted in terror. “Run for it!” 

Self-destruct?! Duran rushed forward and took Angela by the wrist with the intent to make it off the bridge, yet the other golem was still there, inching its way towards them, completely oblivious to what its twin was about to do. Trying to maneuver to the side of it, Duran held onto one of the ropes holding up the bridge and ducked to the side, he and Angela actually able to move past it and make it to the other side of it.

Not that, as they found out, it would do any good.

BOOM!!!

The explosion was ear shattering and near deafening, the impact and force of it jostling everyone off their feet. The bridge was split in two, the halves falling apart from each other and only kept hanging by the pillars that kept the entire bridge together at all. Duran and Angela were sent swinging wildly until they hit the side of the canyon that their half of the bridge was attached to. Duran held onto the rope that held the boards up for dear life, Angela having no support by the hand of the soldier that clasped onto her wrist. She was left practically dangling, her legs kicking and swinging, vainly trying to move them to one of the boards to squeeze in between so at least she would have something semi-under her feet. Duran himself had little balance, only able to have one foot upon the side of a board, yet nonetheless, he tried to pull her up. His compromising position only allowed for him to use one arm, so he couldn’t travel upwards towards solid ground.

“You’re going to have to find something to support yourself!” he shouted down to Angela, she all the while panicking and lost in fear. “Grab the side of the bridge! Get a rope!”

“I can’t!” she responded. “I…” she then remembered the staff in her hand. Of course! Reaching out with it, she was able to snag onto a rope and draw it closer to her. Just nearly there...closer, closer, closer… “AH!!!”

To both of their horror, Duran’s grip was overpowered, he and Angela seeing that the remaining golem had seized the princess by the ankle and overid the soldier’s inferior strength. The young woman and her captor plummeted, falling down, down, down until a resounding splash echoed throughout the canyon, she and her captor disappearing in the ever going current of the expansive river below. 

Chapter Text

From his place on the now fallen bridge, Duran hung, looking down in horror at what had just transpired. The words that he had called the young woman played back in his mind on repeat, not allowing him just a second of internal silence.

"Move out!" he heard one of the mages shout. "Get down to the ravine! Hurry!" he couldn't exactly see it, but he heard them all scrambling and running off to find some safe passage down to the area below.

'Move!' Faerie certainly wasn't helping in that department either. 'You've got to move up!' as if seemingly working against her, he began to try and shimmy his way down. 'You can't be serious! This drop's who knows how many feet! You could break something from this height! Or miss the river entirely!' the winged woman pleaded. 'Duran, please! What good would potentially injuring, or better yet, killing yourself do for Angela?!' Duran paused in his trek for a moment, unable to ignore Faerie's words.

"But…" he began to protest. "But…" just then, he was interrupted, he heard the boards above him having weight added to them. Looking up, he saw a figure looking down at him. The figure's features couldn't exactly be distinguished, yet from what little he could tell, he had quite the dark face (or was it simply coated in shadow) with a helmet bearing small, curved horns and a full, brown beard and mustache. But as quickly as he appeared, he then vanished from sight. "H-Hey!" Duran called out, climbing up as quickly as he could to get to solid ground. "Hey!" he called out. "Wait! Don't go off!" but then, he caught sight of a short shape darting into the cavern, the soldier quickly giving chase. "Hey, stop! I need-" he ran forward, tracking the footsteps he heard, only to be stopped by what appeared to be a solid wall of rock. "...to ask you something." he surveyed the large collection of boulders in front of him. He could still hear footsteps, surprisingly not cut out all together by the barrier, but how could he still hear them? Better yet, how did that little guy manage to get by? Was there some sort of secret switch or something?

"You really wanna know?" Lumina then said, materializing before him. "Truth is, this whole thing isn't real."

"What?" Duran asked, perplexed, Lumina only giggling in response.

"Aw, you humans never get old! But yeah, this whole rock wall is actually an illusion created by refracted light. Cool, huh?"

"How can you be so blase about any of this?!" Duran then questioned, then holding up his broken weapon. "My sword's ruined, the bridge had been blown to shit, that bastard wizard is on his way to the kingdom, and Angela-" he paused at that, grimacing at the memories that seemed to make it their goal to torment him. "Angela…" he only repeated, unable to say much more.

Lumina only nodded understandably. "Rest assured." he then said. "She's alive."

"Wh-What?" Both Duran and Faerie were taken aback by this. "H-How can you tell?!"

"I've got a direct link with Mana, remember?" the Elemental reminded the young man. "And with my role, I can sense the light that comes from each and every soul that lives. I can tell when someone is full of it, or when they are close to death. And the latter part is taken over by another friend of mine. But rest assured, hun, she's still up and kicking." Had he not wished to maintain some portion of his dignity, Duran would've up and done everything from cartwheels to flipping over backwards at this news. "But," Lumina continued. "We've gotta go through here to find her." Duran approached the rock wall instantly. "Remember, it's all an illusion."

Slowly but steadily, the soldier placed his hand outward and, to his shock, found that it passed right through. "Whoa…" drawing it back and sticking it through the illusion again, Duran did this several times before he stuck a leg out and took a tentative step forward, passing through the rock wall to reveal a long tunnel that resembled a mine, lanterns hanging above and pillars of wood lining the carved out earth.

"Oh! Nearly forgot!" the Light Elemental then said.

"What is it?" Faerie asked, having come out.

"You might wanna keep yourself hidden, hun." Lumina then said. "And you," he said, looking at Duran. "You probably need to be extra careful down here."

"Why?" the winged woman asked.

"Well...it's been awhile, but if I'm right, the guys that live down here...they're not exactly friendly to those that come from above. I guess it's just their nature, but still, you should at least have your...oh, yeah. That's right, your sword." Duran groaned, not exactly wishing to be reminded. "Well, you still have your shield, right?"

Those words weren't exactly the best encouragement, but if it led him to where Angela could possibly...so be it.

Cavern at Stonesplit Gap

Duran took small, tentative steps as he continued down the seemingly ever expanding shaft, violet eyes shifting around and surveying for any potential threat that he would need to combat. Not that he had much in the ways of defense as it was, given the state of his sword. But then, he remembered something Lumina had said. "Hey," he said to the elemental, despite them not being visibly present at the moment. "Just what did you mean by 'not being friendly to those above'?"

"Oh, that." Lumina answered. "Well, it's just from my past witnessing of their behavior."

"Behavior?" Faerie questioned.

"Yeah." Lumina confirmed. "They usually just keep to themselves and unless they have to, they don't really involve or care about the outside world."

"Well, doesn't THAT sound familiar?" Duran growled, she shut up then and there. Though not before adding in. "Well, it's sort of true."

They traveled down further and further until the tunnel began to expand, a series of openings that resembled doorways being seen, as well as signs directing to shops, groceries, and, to Duran's delight, a blacksmith. That was more than enough to make him want to approach, but the light elemental urged him to stop for a moment.

"Look, I can't guarantee how they'll react when they see you, but if you just remain calm and explain yourself, then you MIGHT be ok."

"Um…'might' isn't exactly a good guarantee." Faerie said from inside.

"Yeah, I know. But at the moment, hun, it's the best we got." he then paused. "But hey! Who knows? Maybe nothing will happen at all! Maybe we'll be able to come on in, and once our dear boy here explains, maybe they'll see a poor thing appealing to the goodness of their hearts and extend a hand to a unfortunate youth who-"

If not for his reflexes, the pickaxe would've struck Duran right in the temple. "Hey!" the soldier shouted, lowering his brought up shield. "Who threw that?!" Soon, more pickaxes came his way, blocking them all and keeping him on the defense. Despite its condition, Duran drew his sword and brandished it high. "I'm warning you, I'm armed!" upon that declaration, several figures popped out from their hiding places, each resembling the figure that he had seen peering over the bridge beforehand: small, humanoid forms wearing thick trousers and boots with gloves and darkened faces to where only their large, round noses could be seen and their seemingly glowing eyes. They all bore helmets with curved horns on each of them, and, from the way they all held up their tools, very eager and ready to take him out.

"You just had to say something, didn't you?" Faerie sighed.

And indeed, they did so.

Rushing forward, Duran managed to push back some, yet the small men essentially dog piled him, leaping onto him and when he was on the ground, more and more of their fellow brethren came up to add to the weight. She said nothing, yet Faerie was rather thankful for her current position. "Um," she began, her host currently unable to say much of anything aside from muffled shouts and demands to get off of him. "What was that you said about the 'goodness' of their hearts?" Lumina didn't answer, mainly wincing at the blows the young man was receiving. Faerie in turn only sighed. She had a feeling this was going to be yet ANOTHER roadblock.

Casam below the Bridge

"Look everywhere! Leave no stone unturned!" a red haired mage bellowed out, her fellow magic users searching the area with wide, worried eyes. The bridge was out of commission and the one that they had been ordered to take in alive should she be found, had gone from their reach. And for all they knew, was possibly dead.

All thanks to the creations that were supposed to give them an edge in the invasions of Valsena and the other nations.

"I don't see her anywhere, Elsa!" a blonde shouted back to the red haired woman. "I think she might be-"

"No!" Elsa interrupted. "Don't you dare speak it! She MUST be here! She CANNOT be gone! Not yet! Keep looking!" the sorceress folded her arms over her chest, sweat beading down her face.

Lord Koren's orders were clear, and unless they came back with something, then, as he said, they would be considered to be potential candidates for the awakening of the stone's power, and the others that Altena would acquiesce. Yet, Elsa thought, if that was the case, then why was he so insistent that the princess would be the perfect offering for the ritual? Granted, she and the majority (if not all) of the residents of the kingdom were up for being a sacrifice, yet one had to wonder why the blonde wizard had what appeared to be some strange fixation on making her the intended target. True, it was not only by his order that Princess Angela was to be captured and brought back to the kingdom, but by the Queen of Reason herself. Apparently, she too was dead set on having the young woman be the necessary offering to the stone. True, that had been the initial plan, Elsa herself being among the soldiers in the throne room at the time to take the princess to a holding cell, yet even with that, she and several others couldn't fathom as to why Koren, let alone the Queen herself, wanted to sacrifice the only available heir to the throne? Surely the Queen, powerful as she was, wasn't blind to the fact she wouldn't live forever. Did she have plans to turn the kingdom over to someone else? And if so...no. Elsa shook her head. No, that...that was ridiculous. She...she would never turn it over to Lord Koren, would she? That...that would defy everything! That would be a complete contrast against the woman's very title as the Queen of Reason! And yes, Lord Koren was the head wizard of the entire kingdom, but he held no right to such things! Head wizard, commander or not! He couldn't have...how would he even…

"Elsa?" the mage turned, seeing a young woman with blonde, braided pigtails. One around the princess' age. "Are...you ok?"

"Yes." the red haired soldier answered. "Just...go back to searching, Harriet."

"Are you sure-"

"Yes, now go!" With that, Harrier made her way back to looking for the princess, leaving Elsa to oversee the ongoing search, the ridiculous theories and nonsensical conspiracies still flooding her mind.

At least, she told herself that was all they were.

A Distance Away

The golem slowly yet steadily lifted itself up from its place on the ground, the waters of the ongoing river lapping at its metallic form. It hoisted itself up and out of the body of water, surveying itself and its current condition. Its limbs were still intact, yet as it tried to move, it found that its left leg was heavily compromised, essentially forcing it to limp, and its right arm had just nearly been severed entirely. But such things could be repaired. Its purpose could still be fulfilled in this state.

And said purpose was right in front of it.

Though she was laid out a few yards away, the princess was sprawled out on the wet, pebble covered ground, still and silent, the machine unaware of her current condition. Nevertheless, unless it made it to her, it would never know whether or not she was still among the living. Thus, albeit slowly, the automaton began to make its way towards the unmoving Angela. It was a slow arduous journey, its joints popping and gears winding as it tried to maneuver the stout body forward. Closer and closer it drew to her still form, it reaching out a hand to place on her-

Only to feel a massive amount of force ram itself in its side, the golem flying and crashing into one of the large boulders that lined the walls of the casam. Turning its head to look at what had been the source, the golem found it got little more than a glimpse as its head was crushed underneath a huge paw, its claws making it surrender to its superior mass. What this creature was would remain unknown to the automaton, as its inner mechanisms were rendered as little more than flattened cogs and springs, its outer form little more than twisted metal. Its 'consciousness' steadily faded more and more, the environment becoming little more than twisted shapes and colors before it then knew no more.

The creature that had done away with the Altenan creation turned its head and spied with its small eyes a shape, yet that was all at most. Its eyesight wasn't the best, so its other senses had to be made use of to navigate. Its large paws maneuvered its massive body towards the blurry form. It was aware that something was there, yet there was one way to detect whether or not it was worth taking back. The mechanical creature had been one of the strange things that had caused the commotion above, it having to duck in one of the smaller tunnels available to escape the falling pieces of the bridge above. And it just so happened that the mechanical creature had gotten just a bit too close to its hiding place. Thus, it responded in kind. But still, perhaps something from this thing could be salvaged. A long, slippery appendage slipped over all over the form of the golem, its eyes lighting up at the familiar yet savory tastes that met its tongue. Yes, oh yes! They were small bits, but they tasted fantastic nonetheless! All the other forms that had come from above had little to none of these at all, but this thing was loaded with them! Its entire body was a magnet for them!

Then, the creature looked towards the other form that was nearby the river. It momentarily abandoned the automaton and approached it, giving the far softer, more fragile shell a small taste. Hmm...not as tasty as the other one, yet it was covered in the same delicious bits. And ultimately, it was still growing and needed as much nutrition as it could get.

Far up Above

His promise, his father's sword, and now, what remained of his pride.

On the ground sat Duran, a thick rope tied around his upper half, restraining his arms while another secured his ankles, essentially keeping him in place. The small men had also relieved him of his sword and shield. "You know," he said quietly to himself. "You could maybe see if there's a loose spot in these somewhere."

'And potentially get a pickaxe to the face? No thank you!' Faerie exclaimed. Though neither she or Lumina were able to be seen at the moment, they didn't exactly offer much.

'Got no hands, remember?' the elemental commented, giving a nervous chuckle after.

Duran only deadpanned. 'Yeah, yeah.' his attention was then brought back to his captors by a sharp punch to the side of his head.

"Pay attention when we're talking to you, kid!" one of the small men shouted, he and several of his brethren staring down at him. Probably the only way that they would ever stand above anyone, Duran thought, but he (with Faerie's insistence) decided to keep that to himself.

"What's a topsoiler like you doing here in our village?" another one of the humanoids questioned, flicking the young man's forehead when he didn't answer fast enough. "Talk!"

"I WOULD if you'd back off for a minute!" Duran shouted, everyone sort of taken aback by just how much fire he had still left in him. Despite the fact that there were more of them and that they ultimately won the struggle in the end, no one could deny that it took quite a bit to even take the human down, let alone restrain him. Though when he began to try and speak, another one of his captors interrupted.

"How'd you get past the wall anyway?" they asked. "Nobody's figured out the truth of it from the outside, nobody!"

"It wasn't THAT hard." Duran scoffed. "It's far from anything genius." This earned him another knock to the head.

"Nobody, and I mean NOBODY but dwarves are allowed down here!" another said.

"Wait, dwarves?" the human questioned.

"Of course!" the one that had spoken stated. "What else would we be?"

If not for their rather rough treatment of him, Duran would've actually been in a deeper state of awe at the prospect of being in the presence of such beings. It was far before his time, yet he had heard of tales regarding the little people that lived underneath everyone else's feet. It was before his time, yet from what he was aware, in days of old, even before the forming of the kingdom and country itself, the native ground dwellers had cultivated and essentially shaped out the land that everyone knew today. From them, the discovery of silver, gold, and other precious minerals came, yet with that, also the drive to lay claim to it. He didn't know all the details, history not exactly being one of his strong points, but from what little he did know, the human inhabited Valsena a century or two ago had apparently had the initiative to begin trading with the dwarves for the valuables that they could seemingly dig up with ease. At first, things were fine, but relations began to become strained, whether due to one side or the other, and eventually, the dwarves saw fit to cut themselves off from the world and hide away in their tunnels. How long ago that was, Duran knew not, but it had just been the way of things since his father's and even his grandfather's time.

"And," another one began, jabbing his finger in the young man's face. "We don't take too kindly to your folk barging in here like you own the place!"

"Yeah! You've got an entire upper ground to trample on and do whatever you like with! But here, THIS place is ours!"

"You're here for our stock, aren't you?" the dwarf continued before Duran could even get a word in. "Don't deny it! You're here to try and score some extra loot for yourself, aren't you? You topsoilers are all the same! Always wanting what doesn't belong to you because it's all shiny and pretty! It's not like you can't put in the work to get it for yourselves!"

"Yeah!" Everyone agreed, nodding to each other. Though after this, they fell silent for a moment.

"But you're in our turf now! And since you aren't going anywhere anytime soon, we'll...we'll…" one dwarf began, so sure of himself beforehand, yet as he went along, he found himself trailing off. "Um...we'll…" he then pulled someone close to him. "Um, now what?"

"What do you mean, 'now what'?" the one pulled close asked.

"What do we do?" he asked, gesturing to Duran. "With him?"

"Oh, uh…" the other said, glowing eyes shifting. Then, they all got together, huddling in a circle and discussing among themselves, their speech quiet and relatively undistinguishable to Duran's ears. But the brief bits he caught were 'Why is he here?' and 'Who knows? You know how humans are.' On and on they went, discussing the same question that seemed to take forever to get an answer for. But one statement caught his attention, as well as the smirk of the one that had said it. 'Let's just get rid of him!' 'Yeah, it'll be easy! Just like that!' 'It's not like anyone would know where we are anyway! And our secret will stay safe!' Then, all the dwarves turned to face him.

"Ok, we've decided!" one dwarf at the front said, he and the rest of them giggling among themselves. "We're going to execute you." he said so matter of factly.

Duran could've sworn then the entire area went silent. "Uh...what?"

"You heard me." the dwarf said. "We're gonna take you out."

"Yeah, can't have you squealing to your friends about where we are!" they all then brought out an assortment of pickaxes, shovels, and a bevy of other tools.

He began to shift and try to break out of his bonds, yet it was then that, thankfully, someone had taken to speaking for him. "No!" Faerie cried out, manifesting before the group of short, bearded men, all of them backing off in shock. "Don't you dare!"

"Whoa, what is that!?"

"She's smaller than we are!"

"Is she flying?!"

"She's got wings!"

"Ok, guys, joke's over!" Lumina then spoke, appearing before the dwarves as well, a glare on his usually chipper features. His appearance got an even stronger reaction than Faerie, though it seemed his manifestation robbed them of any words. Lumina maneuvered some of the vapor surrounding his form to form what appeared to be arms resting on his 'hips'. "Seriously, you're scaring this poor thing half to death with that talk!"

Duran, only having slightly become aware due to the shock of what he had heard the dwarves say, only registered what the Mana Spirit had just said. "N-Not I'm not!"

The dwarves were still in shock, but one of them got the courage to speak. "You could tell that we weren't serious?"

"But we didn't mean it!" another then said. "We just wanted to spook the kid so he wouldn't go off yapping about this place!"

"Honestly, you guys should be ashamed!" Lumina lectured, shaking his 'finger' at them. Duran was about to protest how that seemed to look like some sort of 'hand', but the elemental kept going. "And here I was trying to give you the benefit of the doubt and tell these two dears here that you weren't all that bad! Just what has this world come to when you can't step foot in a place without people making thinly veiled threats to take you out?" the elemental huffed. "Honestly, if Gnome could see you all, he would be-"

"Wait, did you say Gnome?" one of the dwarves questioned, eyes widening and all of them looking to each other. "You KNOW Gnome?"

"Of course I do!" Lumina responded. "He and I go WAY back! Heck, we're practically brothers! In a kinda, maybe, not entirely sure, sort of way."

"Then...then you're a Mana Spirit! And the winged woman! She must be one too!"

"Well," Faerie began. "Not exactly, but I am a-"

Suddenly, all the dwarves fell to their knees and bowed. "Oh please! Please forgive us! We had no idea! We had no idea that we were in the presence of the one who would wield the Mana Sword!"

"Whoa, whoa, hey now. Let's not get carried away, get up!" Lumina answered, the dwarves immediately obeying. Despite the situation, Duran found a sense of satisfaction at seeing his aggressors being so submissive suddenly. "I know I'm a sight to see, heh, literally. But I am NOT an object of worship. So come on! Get up!" they all immediately did so, mainly out of fear of angering the spirit. Lumina then turned to Faerie. "How about you get a word in? It's only fair."

"Oh, really?" the winged woman was somewhat taken aback. "I...uh…"

"Hey! If anyone should get a word in, it's me!" the restrained Duran argued. "Hell, if anything, you guys should be begging me to-"

"Who's the one tied up right now?" Lumina interrupted, the Valsenan soldier huffing in response and turning away. The spirit could've sworn he heard the human say something under his breath, yet ultimately decided not to heed it. After all, someone had to be a beacon of patience for Faerie to look to.

"Well…" Faerie then nodded, having finally found something to say. "Yes! Before you stands...er, sits the future wielder of the Mana Sword! And soon to be the one that shall...wait a moment." the winged woman paused. "Did you say you knew Gnome?"

"Oh! Uh, o-of course we do!" one of the dwarves answered. "He's our protector!"

"The Earth Stone's just up above here too!" another said.

"Uh, hey-" Duran began, but was cut off.

"We can take you up there, no problem! What do you want?"

"Hey-"

"We can do anything for you guys! Want some food or water? Maybe a bed? Oooh, how about a back rub-"

"What I'd LIKE," Duran snarled, finally getting everyone's attention. "Is to GET OUT OF THESE ROPES!"

Later

Sitting at a table nestled in a rather large room, Duran was currently munching away at the plethora of food before him, Faerie taken aback by his table manners. Or lack thereof. 'Um…' she looked at Lumina, speaking telepathically. 'Is it natural for humans to be this...messy when eating?'

Lumina couldn't help but giggle. 'Hun, you've got a LOT to learn about these guys.'

"Again, we're so sorry." one of the dwarves said, fiddling his thumbs. It was quite a contrast to how they behaved beforehand. "We really DIDN'T mean that we were gonna really kill you."

"Yeah, we were just trying to scare you off." another replied. "But...if it's not too much trouble, we'd appreciate it if you DIDN'T tell anybody about this place. I mean...not to insult YOU or anything, goodness no!" he clarified, waving his hands. "But...you know how humans can be."

"Y-Yeah." Duran said between mouthfuls of food. "Whatever." he munched on a chicken leg. "Doesn't mean...I forgive you though."

"Oh! Then...then how about some more rolls! Or maybe some more salad! But then again, you seem to be more of a meat person-"

"No, no, I think he's good." Faerie answered, flying over to the dwarf that had been speaking. "Anyway...what was that you said about Gnome?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah!" the dwarf then remembered. "Gnome lives here right alongside the Mana Stone!"

"He's helped us create all of this for ourselves to live in!" another then said.

"When we were forced to escape down here from the humans that wanted to rob us, we were able to do so thanks to Gnome and his powers!" That particular speaker drew the attention of the three visitors, all looking (Duran actually pulled away from his food) to see another dwarf that looked not too different from all the others, but bore a far...higher pitched and feminine voice. They appeared to not have much of a beard, most of the hair to the sides of their face, styled and neatly kept...and they wore a small, frilly skirt over their jumpsuit. "What?" they asked, or rather, she asked. "Haven't you ever seen a woman before?" she then did a little pose, gaining the attention of the other dwarves around her.

"Um...anyway," Faerie began again, still somewhat taken aback (seriously, how was THAT a woman?). "What else can you tell us? Has anything unusual being going on as of late?" The dwarves all looked to each other, discussing among themselves, as if not entirely sure of whether or not to release such information as of yet, despite basically bending over backwards to make it up to Duran.

"You know what?" the young man said through even more mouthfuls of food (seriously, how could he STILL be eating, Faerie thought). "I think I WILL have more rolls."

"Oh! Y-Yeah! Sure!" one dwarf said, rushing to get another basket of the baked bread.

"And some beer-"

"Oh no! No, no, no, no, no!" Faerie protested. "You've probably got enough...no, MORE in you than you probably need as it is! The last thing I need is for you to get drunk! We've still got work to do!"

"And I've told you and THESE guys here that I'm NOT going to be wielding the Mana Sword!"

Lumina couldn't help but burst out laughing, the dwarves looking at each other as they observed the Mana Spirit having a hoot at the scene taking place. Indeed, this guy seemed like he'd be friends of Gnome. "In all seriousness though," the elemental began, breaking Duran and Faerie from their argument (as well as Duran's ravenous eating). "How has Gnome been? Anything new come up?"

"Well...sort of." one of the dwarves said.

"What do you mean by 'sort of'?" Duran questioned.

"It's kinda hard to explain, but…" another one of the dwarves began, rubbing the back of his head. "Things have been...sort of weird lately."

"Like?" Faerie asked.

The dwarves looked to each other before going forward. "While these are our tunnels and mines, there are still some natural creatures and some unsavory fellows like goblins that come down and make their homes here."

"Yeah. Like it or not, ultimately, we can't exactly control everything down here." another admitted. "They don't give us much trouble, as we can usually hold them off. And besides, they usually go about their own business."

"Batmos are more concerned with eating bugs and are good pest control. And the goblins usually are warring with themselves with the hobgoblins. True, they can cause quite a ruckus, but they mainly stay away from our mining areas." Duran could only nod at that, having gotten a taste of that experience. "But lately...things have been quiet."

Nothing had been detailed yet, but there was an undeniable heaviness in the air when the short, dark faced humanoid said that. "Well...isn't that good?" Faerie questioned. "I mean...yeah, I don't know for sure, but mining can be rather noisy. But at least you'd have peace of mind when working, right?"

The dwarves were silent for a short while, uncomfortably looking at each other. "We would...if we weren't possibly in the company of something even more dangerous." Everyone was once again engulfed in a sickening, constricting silence, Duran having long since abandoned the food and listened in along with Faerie and Lumina. "I don't know for sure…" one of them began. "But it's been rumored that the Jewel Eater is somewhere in the tunnels."

All three of the visitors to the dwarves' home looked at each other. "Jewel Eater?" Duran asked, no food in his mouth at the moment (surprisingly, Faerie thought).

"It's kinda a local legend around here." the female dwarf explained. "Only...I wonder if it counts as that, as it's actually real." she paused. "Anyway, the Jewel Eater...well...it's kinda like a...sorta like a…" she put a glove covered finger on her shaven chin (the fact she had to shave at all raised a LOT of questions about dwarves as a whole for Duran and Faerie). "Just what COULD you say it's like?" she murmured, going quiet for a small minute before speaking again. "Well...it's kinda a...mole, I guess."

"A mole?" the human soldier raised a brow. "You're all scared of a mole?"

"Hey, it's not JUST a mole!" a dwarf exclaimed. "It's one of the most ill-tempered, nasty, aggressive creatures on Earth!"

"Yeah!" another added in. "It can tear through the thickest of rock and burrow down in everything! Dirt, rock, hell, maybe even metal!"

"And not to mention the stuff it eats!"

Duran found himself actually surprised. "You mean it eats people?"

"What? No!" the dwarf said. "It eats jewels! Why else would it be called the 'Jewel Eater'?"

"But it COULD crush your bones if it wanted to!" one of them added.

"Oh yeah! Be little more than ground dust by the time its done with you!"

"If any part of you could be found at all, as it'd probably crush everything." The dwarf that had spoken then ran into one of the small caverns, Duran rising from the table and following, seeing the dwarf kneeling over and struggling to lift something up. "Help me lift this, would you?"

"Help you lift what-" Duran got nothing further out as a large amount of mass was practically shoved into his hands. Unable to keep it up, he fell to the ground, wincing as his hands were practically crushed. "What…" the young man breathed out, massaging his sore appendages. "Just what the hell IS this thing?! Why do you have a huge rock in here?!"

"Oh, that's not a rock." the dwarf said. "It's a tooth."

The human's violet eyes widened at what he had assumed to be a flattened slab before him. "A...a tooth?"

"Yeah. Ancestor of mine came across it once. Don't know how it got down here, but we get occasional floods that bring down all kinds of crazy stuff." Duran surveyed the fossilized portion of this Jewel Eater creature before him. It was flat, that much was sure, yet it was lined with ridges and went up and down in wave like patterns. "And while I can't be for sure, I think that this was just one of its smaller teeth." smaller?! It was about the size to where the human's whole forearm could fit on there! "Anyway, it may be close to a mole, but everyone here knows well to stay out of its way."

"Y-Yeah. Sure." Duran said. "But if this thing is such a problem, then why don't you find somewhere else to go?"

"And leave our home? No way!" the other dwarves had gathered by the entrance of their brethren's quarters. "This is OUR place! And nothing, NOTHING is going to be kicking us out!"

"And besides, it's not like Jewel Eaters are usually a problem anyway." another then said. "In fact, very few of them are born at all."

"What do you mean?" Faerie asked.

"The Jewel Eater is rumored to be born every one-thousand years or so, give or take maybe, no one's really for sure. They just seem to come up after long periods of time. Again, that's why it's kinda a legend."

"But the thing is, all of that aside." another said. "They NEVER come down here. They make their nests and lay their eggs all the way over in Daria."

"Daria?" Faerie asked.

"It's a massive valley a small distance away from here. You have to make quite a climb to get there, and it's home to all kinds of critters even nastier than the ones you might find here."

"But the gems there are HUGE!" a dwarf practically stretched out as much as he could with his arms for emphasis. "We'd need a whole wheelbarrow to fit just a couple, maybe just one!"

"And seeing as it's called a 'Jewel Eater', it should be up there where all the good stuff is! Why would it have any interest in the small potatoes that we find down here?"

"If that's the case, then why don't we make a trip to Daria and-" one began, but he was cut off.

"No can do." another shook his head. "That place is WAY too dangerous, you know that. But now, if that thing's here in our tunnels, it might be just as dangerous here as it is there."

"Nobody's been down in the mines lately because of that." another commented. "Only one loon's still going down there. Isn't that right, Watts?" The dwarf's question was only met with silence. "Watts?" again, no answer. "Wait…" it was then that everyone realized that, due to the arrival of the topsoiler and news of the state of Mana that no one even bothered to make sure that all of their own were accounted for. "Where is Watts?"

Chapter Text

"You're to move off? Where to?" Goremand questioned, Ludgar positioned against one of the once gorgeous statues that were now little more than halves of themselves.

"We're to scout out a different location." the beastman answered. "Once the preparations have been made, we're heading out to scope out the other Mana Stones. We've wasted too much time here as it is." he then growled under his breath. "Are you SURE that you can't do anything about the new barrier?"

"No can do, I'm afraid." Goremand answered, but despite this, Ludgar raised a brow.

"You don't seem too upset about it." he observed.

"You forget, that the Priest is getting up in the years. And such a maneuver must've taken much out of him. So," the jester then paused, going into a small, mad fit of giggling. "All we have to do is wait for him to croak and boom! Barrier is gone and we can waltz right through!"

"And we have no guarantee as to how long that'll take." the beastman replied. "I'm not going to dawdle around here anymore." he then began to walk away.

"W-Wait!" the jester called out. "You're not going to just up and leave, are you?! The Master-"

"Of course not! What do you take me for?!" Ludgar called back. "I'm no fool! We don't need one, seeing as you already dress the part!" though he didn't show it, the commander could've sworn that the jester was taking joy out of getting him all riled up. "I'll assign a squad to keep control of things here while I lead the other half to search for the other stones. Speaking of…" he then narrowed his eyes towards Goremand. "What news is there from Ferolia?"

"Oh, you know, the usual." Goremand answered nonchalantly, only serving to agitate Ludgar even more. Damn him. "Ol' Gauser's wanting you guys to hurry, and he said that he'd give you all a good spanking if you don't get on it soon!" he remarked with a chortle, the beastman only rolling his eyes. How did he get stuck with such an imbecile?

"Firstly, you shall address him as 'His Majesty' you clown. Second," Ludgar paused, not entirely believing what he was about to ask. He far from wanted to, yet despite the immaturity of the jester's report, he was technically obligated to find out. "What word have you received from your head man?"

Goremand smirked. "Well, firstly," he began in a mocking tone mimicking Ludgar's own. "You shall address him as 'Master'-"

"He is YOUR Master, not mine." the beastman interrupted. "And as far as I'm concerned, he's little more than some benefactor that's given zero details about himself." it would do him no good to say it, so he didn't, but he still regarded this 'Master' as odd. "But back on topic, just what have you received from him?"

Goremand tilted his head. "He speaks the same as your king." the jester answered. "We are to move out and secure the other stones while we bide our time here waiting on the Priest." he smiled upon saying the last part. "Master shall be waiting with bated breath."

"Will he now?" Ludgar asked.

"Oh yes, indeedy!" Goremand chuckled. "He's been waiting a long, LONG time to finally get in a word with him!"

"Sounds like he has some history with the old man." the beastman commander observed. Again, this only fueled his suspicions.

"Well...that's only for me and the Master to know. There are personal matters that don't need to come into this. You understand, right?"

Ludgar only snarled in response, having had his fill in listening to the jester. "Keep an eye on the prisoners. If I have need of you, which is unlikely, I'll call for you." with that, he went away from Goremand, walking through the empty, ransacked hallways of the expansive manor.

Disgusting bastard that owned it...he was just one of the many reasons that this invasion had taken place. The only thing that Ludgar would complain about regarding his king was that it took him this long to realize that this needed to be done far sooner. He had little knowledge of his days in the Peddan War, it having been before his time and he little more than a boy, but still, he suspected that his collaboration with outsiders, particularly humans, had clouded his vision and made him blind to all those damable cretins had put their people through. Once upon a time, they were treated as little more than animals: kept in cages, whipped and kept in chains, hell, some were paraded around in freak shows and circuses for entertainment! Ludgar's great grandfather was one of these unfortunate individuals. Though, as his father said, he managed to escape and release all the other 'freaks' and fellow beasts. And the owners of the circus...well, let's just say that for many, there was good eating that night. His grandfather took no part in that however. Beastmen had been known as killers of humans, yet their meat was not for eating. They were a fierce people, but made the clear distinction between that and total barbarism.

And it certainly helped that his grandfather had been, along with Gauser's own grandfather, one of the founders of the Kingdom of Ferolia. Essentially, it began as a bunch of rag-tag members of his race, natural inhabitants of the unnamed land and escapees like his grandfather. Their ambition was simple: create a land for themselves away from humans where they could rule. The two strongest of the group were his grandfather and Gauser's, and thus, as custom, they fought for dominance. There was already an intense rivalry with the two and the two groups they led, yet the simple fact was, as with them, humans, and beasts alike, there can only be one alpha. Gauser's grandfather emerged victorious, and his grandfather took his followers and settled in the west of the Duskmoon Forest, while Gauser's took to the east, eventually setting up the present day fortress. Ludgar held no resentment towards his king for this, it was simply the way of things. The strongest takes the head. True, eventually, the two divisions would be united, but that was before his time, he quite literally being born just after it happened.

Once Ferolia was 'officially' established, the human inhabitants didn't accept their claim of sovereignty, but they were quickly dispatched of. Many escaped, yet those that didn't were taken care of. Good riddance, if one were to ask Ludgar. Less humans, the better. There was one particular group that resided there, a rather curious group. Their land was already home to that of the Mana Stone of the Moon, and in turn, it was said that Luna, Elemental of the Moon, resided there as well. He himself had never seen her, and pondered whether or not she was there at all, but there was a group of humans that believed such. So much so, that they had dedicated themselves to aiding her. They didn't proclaim her as a goddess figure sorts, yet nevertheless, held her in high regard. Having once resided in what was now the farming town of Mintas, this sect made it their duty to guard and tend to the stone, and in turn, Luna herself. They had made their home and constructed a large, towering structure that rested in the depths of the Duskmoon Forest that was supposedly used to watch the cycles of the moon to indicate when Luna's power would be strongest, a la a full moon meant full power while a new moon meant her power was at her weakest. They took such times seriously, believing that the stages of the moon controlled the dormancy of the beast sealed inside the stone, or so Ludgar had heard. Thus, they all gathered around, or rather, specifically their young women, and performed a sacred ritual in where they would deliver their own power that supposedly kept the stone and the beast inside at bay.

Where this sect was now, no one knew. Many had assumed that, once the beastmen had seized full control over the area, they were driven out or killed with the rest of the humans. Others say that members still lived in the darkest parts of the already dark forest, hiding from sight and continuing their rituals for the Mana Spirit of the Moon. Though some rumors persisted that one among that particular group somehow found their way into their kingdom by secret. Perhaps literally, perhaps not, it varied from person to person. Yet, while it wasn't openly discussed, some say that whomever this human was, they had struck something rather...intimate with their king.

If he were some religious figure, Ludgar would've declared such a thing blasphemous. Gauser, intimate with a human?! Nonsense! Besides, everyone could see that he had a queen by his side: Queen Shandra no less. Beautiful woman, he was told, Ludgar having never seen her however, she having perished before or when he was born, he was not entirely sure. Yet she was told to have long, violet hair and skin of bronze with fierce eyes and sharp but smooth claws. Indeed, from what he had heard, she sounded like a lovely specimen. Still, he had to admit...it was somewhat puzzling to think that the weakling prince had come from such powerful individuals. The prince...Ludgar clenched his fist in anger. Damned weakling...damn him and that pup of his. He had heard of what had happened to the pup, yet not much on the details. All he knew that it was dead, and frankly, good riddance. The princeling was already a disgrace as it was, yet perhaps that thing's death would at least spur some sense into him. What was he doing wasting time on such things anyhow? The fact he even had the privilege to do so, let alone walk around and maintain respect just because of his position...oooh, it was sometimes unbearable!

Still, even with that, in the end, he always managed to prove himself superior. Privilege and position meant nothing if one didn't have the power to make use of it. And wherever the princeling was, he would be dealt with accordingly. Yes, that was it, Ludgar told himself, fighting against the small, odd bit of resistance that crept into his core. He...he was a soldier first and foremost, one in service to his king. And should it come to that...so be it.

At least, that's what he told himself.

Rabite Forest

"Wait! Stop!" Charlotte called out, continuing to pursue the small, sprite-like creature, Kevin following behind and calling for her to come back.

Geez, why did he sign up for this mission, the small being thought. He had forgotten just how much ground humans could cover due to their size! Nevertheless, the boss's orders were clear. At least one of these four had to get to their home, especially since none of them seemed like they had any direction on where to go from here. Looking up, he sighed as he saw the main clearing and made a mad dash for it, ducking behind the bushes and out of sight.

"Wait...aw." the blonde half elf sighed. "He's gone."

Kevin took a moment to catch his breath, stunned that such a small girl could speed off like that. "Maybe...we should leave them alone. Might scare them."

"But why did he come out in the fiwst pwace?" Charlotte questioned. "Wouwn't that mean he WANTED to be seen?"

Kevin pondered her words for a moment. Indeed, they had merritt to them...but still, such a creature didn't even exist where he had hailed from. Thus, he had little to go off of behavior wise, yet he couldn't deny that, while the small being had run away, he DID indeed approach them first. The instinctual alert of danger perhaps had overtaken him and caused him to run...or perhaps, he was indeed meant to lead them. To get their attention and then draw them to where he wanted. But if that was the case, then what was so peculiar about this area?

Save for the small, gargoyle statue that rested in the center of a small circle of stones?

Wait a moment…

Hair on the back of his neck rose, Kevin's golden eyes widening as he noticed the stone statue's eyes begin to glow, as if it had suddenly sprung to life. "Charlotte!" he called to the girl who was searching through the bushes for the small creature that had fled from them. "Charlotte, get away!"

"Huh?" she got no more out before she felt the beastman's hand seize her wrist.

"Gotta go!" was all he said. "Danger!"

"Dangew? Whewe?" Charlotte asked, looking around. But neither she nor he got another word out.

The glow from the gargoyle's eyes grew to be brighter and brighter, glowing with such intensity that both Charlotte and Kevin found themselves blinded by the light, raising their hands to block it from view. Yet this did little good, their sentences about to be carried out. Then, while they couldn't entirely see, from the brief bits and pieces that were seen out of the corner of their eyes, the sky appeared to be getting further and further away, the trees taller and taller, and the bushes that they once stood over beginning to coat and hide them in their shade.

"WAHHH!" the blonde girl shrieked, looking to herself, then Kevin, then the world around them. The far larger world. "Wh-What's going on?! What happened?!"

"I...I don't know." Kevin answered, eyes darting around and gaining a general view of the environment around them, realizing that nothing had changed. Nothing but its size. Had...had they just shrunk?!"

"AHH!" Charlotte hollered, hands taking clumps of her hair and pulling. "Oh no!" she cried out, tears beginning to develop. "What are we gonna do?!"

"H-Hey. Hey, calm down." Kevin assured her, drawing close to her. "Hey." he said, voice firmer. "Calm down." he placed his hands on her shoulders, she in turn sniffled, yet her weeping had died down. "Predators might be-"

"P-Pwedatows?!"

"N-No! Calm down! Please!" Kevin was practically begging at this point, as well as slapping himself for letting the word come from his mouth. Yet he needed to quell Charlotte's wailing. If not the hellriders or hounds, they'd surely catch the attention of something if she kept this up. Then, as if responding to his internal concerns, he heard...and felt something approaching. And it was drawing ever closer.

Taking the girl and essentially flinging her over his shoulder, the beastman made a beeline for the bushes and once they reached them, the surprisingly thick leaves shielding them from sight, Kevin and Charlotte looked to see the massive creature was little more than a simple rabite, yet at their current size, it looked like a mammoth monster. Herbivore or not, it was silently agreed between them that the further they got away from anything that could potentially get to them, whether by accident or intentionally, the better. Going forward, Kevin held a firm grip on Charlotte's hand, the two walking side by side as they went further and further into the bush.

"Whewe awe we going?" Charlotte questioned, Kevin in turn sighing.

"Don't know." the beastman confessed. He had little idea how they were in their current state, yet his mind kept going back to the small creature that the girl had given chase to.

Despite his size, the direction that he had gone in, leading them right to that statue, all of it seemed rather deliberate. He was reminded of a tactic that some of the natural creatures of Duskmoon Forest utilized: though he knew of no time when there had been any, humans once did reside in Ferolia, though the kingdom wasn't established as of yet. Human farmers usually had dogs to herd and guide the animals, and the wolves of the forest would come and act friendly with them, laying on their back and displaying their stomachs, a sign of trust and playfulness. Overtime, the dog would be intrigued in having found a playmate and would follow them into the woods. Right into the jaws of the rest of the pack.

Yet the small being, while he displayed a similar tactic, Kevin found his instincts not shouting out any signals for danger or a warning to stay away. Quite the contrary. It seemed that all of this was, in some strange way, meant to benefit them. How, he had yet to figure it out, but so far, there were no signs or sensations that they were being watched or followed by anything or anyone.

Just then, Kevin's ears twitched. "What's wwong?" Charlotte asked.

"You hear that?" the beastman asked, the girl listening in and indeed, she heard something. Voices. Several voices chittering and chattering. Kevin slowed his pace, yet nonetheless, approached and drew closer to the source of the noises in an effort to further investigate. A large (or perhaps a small, given their current height adjustment) rock served as cover, Kevin and Charlotte ducking behind it.

Peering around, they saw what appeared to be an entire community nestled in between a thickened wall of branches and leaves, homes made of hollowed out tree stumps and large mushrooms appeared to sprout everywhere, some small and serving as something of makeshift stairs while others towered over some of the 'homes' and served as either places of shade or decoration. The creatures wore sewn up bits of cloth to dress themselves in robe-like attire, many wearing caps that bore a similar look to Charlotte's and bore long noses with comically long ears.

"Whoa…" Charlotte began. "It's a Kowopokkuw town!" she was about to go out from behind the rock, yet Kevin held her firmly.

"No, not yet." he commanded. "Don't know if they-"

"Ah, THERE you are!" Both of them were drawn to the sight of one of the creatures, this one appearing to be far older in age and bore a long, white beard and mustache, wearing robes of white and a small hate atop of his balding head. Both Kevin and Charlotte found themselves likening his appearance to that of the Priest of Light. "And here I was beginning to think that you two had gotten yourselves eaten out there."

The Dwarven Tunnels

Indeed, it was unnaturally quiet.

Duran surveyed the area around him, taking in each and every detail so he could get a good layout. Images and memories of the Cascade Cavern came to his mind, though unlike the water filled tunnels, these were bone dry and bore a red, earthy color instead of the blackened teal and violet. No iridescent plants resided in these tunnels, held up with pillars of wood and lanterns hanging up above. The tunnels themselves were wide and quite easy to walk through, but unlike the mountainous pass in the Rabite Forest, it would take a good deal of navigating than simply 'heading forward' to find who he was looking for. Thankfully, or perhaps not, the tunnels themselves seemed rather quiet, little more than the occasional chitter and squeak from some of the batmos hanging above, yet they seemed to be content with staying up in the shadows. And from the looks of it, no sign of any goblins or hobgoblins. Still, that perhaps only meant that Duran should've been on higher alert.

There was the issue of this 'Jewel Eater' apparently being around, and not to mention, one of the dwarves, some 'Watts' person, had up and gone missing. And given that he was already here, and, even though he insisted he wasn't, was the 'future wielder of the Mana Sword', the dwarves practically begged Duran to go out and look for the lost member of their tribe. Thus, here he was, wandering through these long, barren tunnels with aged, worn down tracks for mine carts and dim lanterns above, searching for any sign of a dwarf, let alone someone else.

Again, the words he told her still rang in his head.

"You ok?" Faerie questioned, Duran sighing in turn.

"Fine." he responded. "I'm just...not entirely used to this sword yet." it was clearly a lie, yet it was a subject also on his mind. Due to the current condition of his sword, he couldn't exactly go out with it as a good means of defense. The dwarves had offered to take care of it, saying that they'd do 'anything' for the future wielder of the Mana Sword.

"We're the best blacksmiths around!" they proudly proclaimed. "Bronze, silver, gold, we've got you covered! Hell, we've actually been considering trying to make a sword out of diamond!" Duran had to admit that he would've been curious to see. Still, despite the temporary replacement weapon they had provided for him, nothing would feel right in his hand but his father's sword. Yet it was too late to do anything about it now. Like it or not, he had to wait for his beloved weapon to be mended because his fool self broke it in the first place. And even then, he was still wrestling whether or not it was the worst that he had done in the past hours or so.

"Hey, if Lumina says she's alive, she's alive." Faerie assured him.

"Yep." the Light Elemental replied in kind. "I feel her. She's still with us." Currently, the human was following the Spirit's lead, the wisp floating before him. "And this Watts guy is close to." Lumina was about to add that, at the moment, he could sense his lifeforce more strongly, yet decided to keep such information to himself. No sense in sending the young man into a mad dash into literal danger.

"Is...that all?" Duran asked.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Is that all you can tell me?" the human reiterated. "Nothing about where these tunnels go?"

"Hey, I haven't been here before." Lumina answered. "Though I'll admit, I DID meet your king some time ago."

"You met King Richard?" Duran asked, quite taken aback by this.

"Yep! Though he was technically a 'prince' then. Hardy little guy too. He and his best friend were quite a team! That Roget made a good decision letting them tag along!"

It was then that the young man stopped dead in his tracks, befuddling the Spirit, as well as Faerie, yet the latter felt an intensity radiating off of her host. "This...this was during the Peddan War, right?"

"Uh, yeah? Why?" Lumina questioned.

"His friend...he wouldn't have happened to be named 'Loki', would he?" Duran turned to look at Lumina, the wisp's eyes widening. He didn't answer, yet the human already knew the answer.

"...and we dig, dig, dig, dig all day, the whole way through." Before any words could be exchanged, everyone heard a voice singing a tune, said tune echoing down the tunnel they were currently traveling down. "Dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, it's what, we like to do." picking up the pace, Duran turned around a corner and saw a stout figure, clearly a dwarf, with a blue jumpsuit on, a grey undershirt, a brown beard and mustache, and golden, glowing eyes amidst a darkened face. He was currently digging away at a rock wall, what appeared to be blackened shards lodged inside being picked at with a pickaxe and placed into a brown sack. "A thousand rubies, sometimes more," he continued to sing to himself. "But we don't know what we dig 'em for!" he paused at that. "Wait...what kind of talk is that? Of COURSE we know what we dig them for!" he huffed. "We're the richest people in the world! And no one's the wiser!" he wiped his brow and surveyed what he had collected. But then, he paused. "Who goes there?" whirling around, the dwarf spotted the human peeking around the corner.

Koropokkur Village

"Um...hi?" Kevin greeted the bearded humanoid, he in turn raised a brow.

"Relax, son." he then said. "I know you two came here following one of our own. If anything, that's why he was sent."

"Wait." Charlotte then said. "You KNEW we wewe coming?"

"Indeed." the old koropokkur answered. "And we had to make sure you got here by the orders of Domperi himself."

"Domperi?" Kevin asked.

"Yep. Head of this entire community you see here." the old creature explained. "Only...he's been out for awhile." he continued. "Which is a bit of a shame, because you'll probably need to give him a minute or two if you guys are ever going to get Jadd back from those nasty beastmen."

Both Kevin and Charlotte looked at each other, then back to the koropokkur. "You know about that?" the shorter girl asked. "Then...then pwease!" she begged, running over to him and, in her desperation (and to his chagrin), taking fistfuls of his beard in her hands. "We gotta do it! My fwiends...they'we twapped thewe! Those big biwds took them! Pwease!"

Kevin approached and gently removed the young girl (despite being the same age he was) from the koropokkur, of which he looked mighty grateful for. "Then Domperi...where is he?"

"Well…" the small being began, straightening out his beard. "First off, kindly keep her AWAY from my and anyone else's facial hair, if you would."

"Sowwy." the blonde apologized, rubbing the back of her head and smiling sheepishly.

"Second, Domperi IS still in the village, but he's out and about at the moment."

"Well...where, 'out and about'?" Kevin asked.

"Hmm, it's hard to gauge." the korobokkle answered. "He could be over here," he gestured to the left. "Or somewhere over there." then, he gestured to the right. "I don't know. He could be anywhere." Kevin and Charlotte then looked dejected. "But," he continued. "He IS somewhere in the village. That I guarantee."

"Well...do you know where he is?" Kevin asked.

"Hm? Well, like I said, he could be here, there, or anywhere. I'm not sure where he'll end up next. But, the folks around here will know. Give them a small chat, and they'll let you in on some clues as to where he might be next."

"...that's it?" Charlotte asked. "That's aww, you have to say?"

"It's the best you're going to get. Now, if you want to find him, hop to it!" the old koropokkur commanded, moving past the two shrunken people. "I've got to complete another lap around here before my arthritis begins acting up again." with that, the elderly creature moved past them, leaving them alone.

They stood there for a moment, secretly hoping for him to come back, yet it was clear after a bit that he had intended for them to actually walk around here and begin this scavenger hunt for the particular koropokkur. "Weww…" Charlotte began, surveying the multitude of houses and other small creatures all around. "Whewe do you wanna stawt?"

Dwarf Tunnels

Well, there was not really any point in hiding out. Emerging from their hiding place, Duran stepped out, the dwarf abandoning his digging and going over to him. "What the...a topsoiler?" the dwarf asked, quite surprised. "What are you doing here?"

"Hey, are you Watts?" Duran questioned, ignoring the dwarf's question.

"Yeah, that's me. But these are dwarven lands. What's a human like you doing here?"

'Truth be told, I probably wouldn't have to be if things turned out better…' the soldier thought, but kept it to himself. "I'm looking for someone," he explained. "You wouldn't have happened to see a girl around here, have you?"

"A girl? Well, no, but…" Watts then paused, a small glint coming to his eyes. "What's she look like?" he asked, albeit with some anticipation. "Is she a topsoiler like you?" he then chuckled. "I heard they actually shave their beards."

"What? They don't…" Duran began, but then sighed. "She's got long, purple hair and kinda pale skin. And she wears a…" the human paused. "Well...how to describe it. It's a little...showy."

"Hmm...sounds hot." Watts admitted, only to then turn back to his mining. "Too bad I'm busy right now."

What?! After all that, he just goes back to mining!? Duran fumed, yet before he could speak a single word, Faerie emerged from him. "Mister Watts, please. You haven't seen any-"

"Whoa!" the dwarf jumped back. "What are you?!"

"Um, a faerie, sir." Faerie mentioned. "Sorry, I forget that you all aren't accustomed to seeing creatures like me." she continued. "But back on topic, I heard Gnome was around here somewhere."

"Gnome?" Watts questioned. "Of course he's around here! He's our guardian! Why, this whole mine was courtesy of him watching over us and protecting us!"

"Ah, so he's still up and doing his thing!" Lumina then emerged, Watts nearly having a heart attack at the sight of the elemental. "Oh, yeah. Not accustomed. Sorry." he said sheepishly.

"Wait...if you," Watts began, pointing to Faerie. "And you are here," then to Lumina before going to Duran. "You've got the Mana Sword!"

"Uh, no." Duran shook his head.

"But he will!" Faerie cut in, the human in turn groaning. "And we need to open the Mana Sanctuary to get there!"

"And to do that, we need Gnome's help!" Lumina added.

"Well...that's too bad!" Watts then said, much to everyone's shock. "He's been missing as of late!"

"M-Missing?" Faerie stammered. "What do you mean 'missing'?"

"Just that. Missing." Watts said in between strikes with his pickaxe. "His shrine isn't too far away from here, and while he isn't there ALL the time,"

"Well, yeah. Just hanging around one place can get pretty boring." Lumina admitted. "I'll take any opportunity to get out."

"He hasn't been around lately."

"And...you're ok with this?" Faerie asked. "As in, no one around here's thought that your guardian not being around lately is just a LITTLE bit odd?"

"Well, it was just yesterday that he couldn't be found." Watts said. "But hey, I think he'll turn up later." he dug up more of the black material lodged in the rock wall. "Besides, I've got more important things going on right now. This is the first batch of nitromyte I've found in ages!"

"Nitro-what?" Duran asked.

"Nitromyte." Watts answered. "Most valuable mineral next to gold, platinum, and mythril. Hell, might be more valuable to the right people!"

The three were confused. "What do you mean 'the right people'?" Faerie questioned.

"Eh, you know. Those humans outside have a variety of tastes. Most of them are a little weird for me," he said, looking at Duran. "But hey, if it pays."

"Pays?" Duran asked. Then, he remembered. Back in Maia, that short crazy guy. Bon Voyage, was it? Yeah, and he was ranting about something when he had first taken off to Wendel...nitromyte. "Wait, the hell am I doing?! I don't have time for this!" he declared. "Lumina, where's Angela's…'force' coming from?"

"Hmm…" the spirit focused his senses, bright eyes surveying the area. Yet before he could answer-

BOOM!

An earth rattling shake wracked the entire area, nearly sending Duran and Watts off their feet. "Whoa!" The dwarf cried out, holding onto the wall for some stability, everyone afraid that the very walls would collapse around them due to how violent the shakes were, Duran's company having flashbacks to the shakes all the way back in the Cascade Cavern. Then, as soon as it began, it stopped, everything going silent and still once again. "Uh…" Watts stammered, eyes darting around. "See ya around!" with that, he grabbed his bag filled with the dug up nitromyte crystals and scurried away. "I'd get outta here if I were you!" and with that, the human, faerie, and spirit were left on their lonesome.

Duran looked upward with caution, gripping the side of a wall with a calloused hand, lips tightening. No, he wouldn't be leaving. Not for a while, he suspected. And the Elemental Gnome had nothing to do with it. He wouldn't be going anywhere until 'she' was found.

Unknown Chamber

Poke.

Poke, poke.

She was dimly becoming aware that her bed had become quite uncomfortable. Dare say, it felt like she was sleeping on a pile of rocks. Then, senses began to come back to her, along with the aches and pains that had formerly wracked her form. She stirred, steadily coming back to consciousness, yet all the while clinging to the dim hope that all of it had been nothing more than a horrible nightmare. That she was back in Altena, in her bed, and the whole entire thing had been a terrible vision. Yet such a luxury would not be granted to her it seemed, Angela opening her green eyes and seeing that, indeed, she was practically sleeping on a pile of rocks.

And something had been touching her. Touching her rear end.

Even more, the location she was currently in bore little resemblance to that of the canyons that the large bridge had served to cross over them, yet from what she could gather, she was in a cavern of sorts. Far or near, up or below, she couldn't say. But one thing was certain: she didn't come here by herself. Someone or something had brought her here.

Poke.

There was no mistaking it now, something WAS touching her! Whirling her head around, she came to see the form of a small man with somewhat tannish skin and bright, blue eyes, of which looked rather shocked that his subject of interest had awoken. His beard was comically large, full, and red, a brown jumpsuit serving as garments along with boots on comically big feet, and comically big, pointy ears. He even had a floppy, green hat with a fluffy ball attached to the end of it. "What the-" Angela began, turning herself over and scooting up against a nearby wall. "How dare you!"

"Oh! Uh…" the small man stammered, fiddling with his thumbs. "It's not what it looks like!"

"It looks like you were touching my ass!" the princess asserted. "And it certainly FELT like it, you perverted little troll!"

The little man then seemed to fume. "Hey! I'm no troll! In fact, I'm somebody who you should be respecting, topsoiler or not!"

"Topsoiler? What…" Angela began. "You know what? Never mind. I don't care." she directed her attention back to her current company. "So what are you, aside from a pervert?"

"I'm Gnome! Mana Spirit of the Earth, and Guardian of this here land!" the little man proudly proclaimed, getting atop of a nearby stone to stand on as if he were on a stand and saying something important. "And I'm NOT a pervert either, missy!" he jabbed a finger in Angela's direction. "I was checking to see if you were even alive!" Angela only huffed and folded her arms. "Though…" he murmured under his breath. "You do have a nice rump…"

"You little-" suddenly, Gnome's hand came to cover her mouth.

"Shh! Not so loud!" he hissed. "I don't know about you, but I'm not wanting that big guy to come on back here."

"Bmph gmph?" the young woman said, only to realize, and then remove the spirit's hand from her mouth. "Big guy?"

"Yeah. Big guy." Gnome said. "REALLY big. One of those Jewel Eaters, I think." before the young woman could even ask, the spirit kept going on. "If it was just that, then no problem. A bunch of other guys live around here, ranging from batmos to goblins and their cousins,"

"Ugh, here too?" Angela groaned, remembering well the small 'war' she and Duran had stumbled into. Duran...why was he coming to her mind? She heard every word of what he had said to her on the bridge! He hated her! And frankly, she hated him! Insensitive jerk! She would be fine without him! Good riddance! Hell, he could've fallen off that bridge for all she...well...no. She wasn't sure she wanted it to go that far. Still...didn't change the fact that he was a complete ass. Wait a moment, she had gotten off track. "What's a Jewel Eater?"

"Hm? Oh, yeah. There's no way you're from around here. Sorry, heh heh." Gnome chuckled. "It's a creature native to this country. Though it's usually born a good ways away from here. They never come this far."

"What do you mean?" Angela questioned. 'And what was that about you being all 'hush hush' beforehand?'

"Well, not that you'd probably be familiar, no disrespect though, heh," Gnome answered. "But they eat, well, jewels. Or mainly minerals. And while these mines have them in spades, they fail to compare to those in Daria. Jewels as large as boulders, silver, gold, so many lovely, precious stones!" he declared with pride, then rubbing his knuckles against his suit. "All courtesy of me and my management of this area, of course."

"Uh huh. Very impressive." Angela answered sarcastically.

"It's a lot of work to upkeep this whole land." the small spirit told her. "But lately, things have been a little rocky. If you forgive the pun." he continued on. "It must be the work of the Stone…"

Though he had little interest in the little man, spirit or not (he was totally lying about checking whether or not she was dead, little pervert), but once that was mentioned, Angela's interest was ignited. "The Stone?" then, to Gnome's surprise, she drew closer. "Tell me something," she asked. "Have you seen anyone...well, anyone else like me down here? Like...dressed similar to me? With wands? Or maybe someone in a red cloak?"

"Red cloak?" Gnome shook his head. "Nope, never seen anyone like that. But no matter how hard that ol' lout tries and tries, he's never getting out of that rock. Still," he brushed a hand through his beard. "If what you say is true...and my powers aren't feeling like they used to, then maybe it's time that-" he then paused, she and he feeling distant, but reverberating shakes, the source coming their direction and drawing closer and closer…


Since its birth a few months ago, the large creature could sense that something in its environment had been...off. When it was a newborn and hatched from its egg, its mother having since passed after laying it, as was the conditions of its kind, it had begun dining on the rich gems and minerals found all in the crevices and caverns of Daria.

It was then, however, that it came upon a mineral far larger than any diamond it had seen.

A massive, towering, floating rock that was centered in one of the deepest chambers of the valley, glimmering and shining as if it were basking in the sun, yet no rays of the great star could ever hope to reach this far. How was such a thing possible? The creature approached the massive stone, the object seemingly beckoning it to come closer. 'Come, come, come, little one.' it seemed to say. 'I am rich, I am nutritious, I shall make you grow big and strong.' Whether they were words or thoughts that the animal had, it knew not. Yet the stone was so tantalizing, it seemed lost when looking at it. Just as taste was all it wanted. Just one, small taste…

It was then that everything changed.

The moment its tongue met the stone's surface, it felt its large body wracked with trembling, images of small, bearded men working in mines, drinking, eating, going about as they did their daily tasks of digging and collecting whatever the tunnels held flashed through its mind. What was that place? It had never seen it before, let alone know such a place existed. And the gems there were nothing compared to those all around it. But, for reasons it didn't know, they seemed to glimmer and glow in a way the supply around it didn't. They were smaller, but they looked far more...appetizing. More rich and succulent.

'Go.' the stone seemed to say...or rather, implanted in its mind. 'Go and see. Go down and see. Eat, eat, eat…'

Yet another image was prevalent in its mind. The image of a little, bearded man, a spirit of sorts. A spirit that could lead it to more food...

With little protest, the creature began its trek to unfamiliar land, following the images that it had seen. And so far, it had found what it was looking for: smaller stones that tasted sweet, and a few strange figures that lived down here. They were startled by its presence, yet mostly left it alone. As it entered the small chamber that it had decided would be its resting place, as well as a spot for some particularly nice stones just beneath a thin layer of rock, its eyes widened when it saw that the figures it had brought were missing.


"THAT'S the Jewel Eater?!" Angela hissed, Gnome nodding in turn. "Goddess…"

"Big fella, ain't he?" the spirit said, he and the human having taken refuge from behind a rock. "This one looks young though. Even more confusing as to what it's doing down here."

"But if it eats gems, why did it take you?" the young woman asked. "Better yet, why'd I get taken here?"

"It's not so much gems that it eats exclusively. It's minerals." he then gestured to her. "Minerals that you're probably covered in."

"What? But I haven't-" Angela began to protest, yet then remembered. The river down below…

"The Dwarves have ways to filter the water to make it drinkable, and then they collect what lies at the bottom. But if you fell in…"

Then, a massive, long, pink appendage or tentacle emerged from seemingly nowhere and swished around, both Gnome and Angela ducking away from it, yet the latter wasn't as fortunate, as it touched the tip of her crown, immediately registering that it had found what it was looking for. The appendage wrapped around her shoulders and lifted her up from her hiding place, the young woman able to truly see what had brought her to this place.

A large, mole-like creature with small eyes and large paws with massive, blackened claws perfect for digging and tearing up the earth. Upon its body rested lined, spiked and ridged scales of dull brown and it bore a long, snout like mouth with puckered 'lips' where a long, winding tongue came out from. Angela kicked and struggled, Gnome rushing up and grabbing ahold of her. "Ow, ow, ow! That's my hair!" she shrieked, her scalp being assaulted by the spirit's hands. "Do something else!"

"It's no good!" Gnome replied. "My powers have been growing weaker and weaker with each passing day!" Whether to demonstrate or try to get the creature's attention off of her, the little man produced a series of small shards of clear crystal that manifested from nowhere, all aiming for the Jewel Eater. Yet when they struck, they just bounced off as if they were little, miniscule pellets. "H-Hold on, missy! I'll-" yet before Gnome could get another word out, the Jewel Eater jerked its pink appendage and flung Angela to the side, knocking the spirit off his feet and having him tumble to the ground. "What way is this to treat a representative of Mana? I tell you…" he moaned in pain.

Angela found she was free from the Jewel Eater's grasp, yet not for long, as the tongue seized her ankle and steadily began to draw her closer and closer to the creature's snout. She grabbed and pulled, striking the appendage with her staff, yet nothing seemed to do any good. The 'lips' began to part slightly, the tip of her boot just mere inches away from entering its mouth…

Only for it to suddenly stop.

At first, Angela was confused, yet she heard the sound of something striking something else with incredible force. Something striking the creature's hardened backside. Like a blade meeting a solid wall. Wait a moment…

Letting her go, the Jewel Eater whirled around, coming to see yet another human before it, unable to smell as much minerals on him, yet the sword he held in his hands was carved from the purest iron.

Even more delicious food.

Chapter Text

While it wasn't as large as the large, crab-like Hugger that resided in the Cascade Cavern, this Jewel Eater was still impressive in size. And from how the strikes from his sword seemed to do absolutely nothing to the creature, Duran realized that perhaps, as before, sword strikes wouldn't exactly be the best solution. Still, now that he had gotten the creature's attention, there was little choice now BUT to defend against it. The Jewel Eater lunged forward, Duran bringing up his shield to defend himself from the incoming obstacle. During this, however, the two spirits noticed each other.

"Gnome!" Lumina called out, the little man in turn seeing the glowing wisp.

"Ah, Lumina! How have ya been, buddy?" Gnome answered, giving a wave, Lumina forming a little 'arm' and waving back. "Fine time to come on and pay a visit though!"

"Yeah, sorry." the Light Elemental said sheepishly. "Things kinda got a little hectic back home." he was momentarily interrupted by Duran being tossed, passing right through him. One of the perks of being nothing but pure light and vapor. "Looks like you're not exactly having the best time here either."

"Tell me about it!" Here I am, minding my own business, when this big guy here up and kidnaps me! Do I look like something edible to you?"

"Talk about it later!" Angela, Duran, and Faerie shouted, the soldier once again sent up against a wall by the superior force of the scaled underground dweller.

The Jewel Eater thankfully took its paw from Duran, only to then reveal its intentions in bringing it down again, yet at an even greater force. Rolling out of the way, the soldier saw the creature rear itself up on its hind legs, his eyes searching for any potential weakness that was at least similar to that found on the Full Metal Hugger. Unfortunately, there appeared to be none, the entire underside appeared to be as armored as the rest of it. And despite his skill, it appeared that his sword would do little good against this thing.

"Look out!" Faerie warned from inside, Duran seeing the Jewel Eater, he leaping out of the way before the creature smashed down into the ground, the earth cracking beneath its feet.

The creature then turned and faced Angela, once again drawn by the scent of minerals that coated her form. True, the other human had such covering his form as well, yet this one was practically coated in them. Whipping out its long tongue again, it sent the appendage right in the sorceress' direction. Both Angela and Gnome leapt out of the way, yet the former was still worn down for both her fall and period of unconsciousness that she had gone through, thus, she was somewhat struggling to get to her feet. The Jewel Eater noticed this, and drawn to her mineral coated, began to dash towards her, its steps shaking the ground and causing vibrations everywhere, making it even more difficult for the young woman to gain her footing. Seeing the creature beelining right for her, Angela found herself unable to do anything else but release a loud, and presumably, her last scream as the source of her doom inched closer and closer.

Only, said doom never came.

A strong pair of arms seized her and, while they threw her out of the way, it at least got her out of the way of danger, the Jewel Eater charging and making contact with a solid, rock wall. Angela looked up to see Duran holding her, he hurriedly hoisting her up as the underground creature maneuvered itself back to face the two topsoilers. Duran held up his sword and shield, knowing well that it would have little effect. Still, what else could he do? "Hey, you!" he then shouted, noticing Gnome. "You're a spirit, aren't you? Do something!"

"Like what?" the Elemental questioned. "I was kidnapped like she was! I tried fighting this guy off, but I'm so weak, nothing I did worked!" as if to demonstrate, several gems seemingly materialized from nowhere and struck the creature, bouncing off its scaled hide as if they were little more than pebbles. "See?" Yet then, something occurred that no one could've ever predicted.

Coming into existence in a similar manner akin to Gnome's previously demonstrated magic, a large, shimmering, diamond cut stone manifested from thin air, its surface glimmering and shining despite there being only the dimmest of light, as no lanterns hung above them. Despite the current situation, both Duran and Angela were bewildered by both their size and beauty. "How…" Gnome then gasped. "How is that possible?!"

"What?" Duran questioned. "What is it?"

"It...it shouldn't be able to do that!" he cried out. "Jewel Eaters aren't endowed to harness the power of the elemental forces! How did it manage to…" then, he grew quiet.

"Huh?" Angela then asked. "You can't just leave it at that!"

"The Stone…" the little man muttered. "Of course...how could I not have seen it before?!"

Before anyone could ask as to what he meant, the diamond began to fragment and split apart, those shards then splitting apart, and so on. Soon, what was estimated to be hundreds of sharpened crystals rested in the air, all pointing downward and right in their direction.

"Look out!" Gnome shouted, though he knew well that nothing could be done.

The shards shot downward, striking the ground and breaking through the hardened earth and surrounding walls, rock splintering and breaking into mere pebbles when they struck. Duran, with little else he could do, held up his shield, yet it proved to be little good as, to their collective horror, the shield was outright split in half when a sizable (though not the biggest of the cuts) shard made contact with the piece of equipment. The soldier was sent flying back against a wall, a trail of fresh blood traveling down his face.

"Duran!" Angela shouted, holding tightly to her staff. What to do, what to do?! Frankly, to her dismay and shame, she had up and proven that, despite the sporadic bursts that had occurred, her and making any use of the supposed magic that Lumina had given her were practically useless! And no, simply focusing wasn't going to do it! But still...she had to do something! He was going to surely die if she didn't!

He would die...he would die...he would…

This repeated in her mind as the creature now began to approach the fallen soldier, he in turn struggling to get to his feet. If she didn't do something, she would...yet her previous attempts were useless. It would do no good. And yet...and yet she felt a force ignite from within, said force traveling throughout her entire being. Her breathing grew steady and her eyes focused solely on the Jewel Eater. 'Yes…' she heard Lumina say. 'Yes, that's it!' it was coming! She could feel it, her staff giving off small vibrations, a hot, white light traveling up through the wood, the markings and carved portions glowing.

Then, how she knew the words, she knew not, they seemed to just come to her. Nevertheless, Angela's lips parted as she held the staff aloft, green eyes centered on the Jewel Eater. What appeared to be a spectrum of orbs bearing all the visible colors began to surround the sorceress before they all joined the glowing tip of the staff.

"Holy Bolt!"

A beam of pure, white light emanated from the tip of the curved staff and shot forward akin to a high powered laser, making direct contact with the Jewel Eater. While it seemed to not break through the dense scales on its form, it was enough to send it stumbling over and hitting one of the surrounding walls of rock, a crash and resounding rumble coming from it.

"Holy Bolt!" Angela cried out again, another laser coming out, striking the Jewel Eater yet again, only this time, while it didn't strike it, the beam came dangerously close to its eyes, the creature shaking its head violently and pawing at its face when the light died down. And afterward, it seemed to be somewhat disoriented, as if it had little grasp on the world around it. Had her blow perhaps blinded it, Angela thought. Nevertheless, it seemed that her act, while it managed to get the creature off of Duran, it seemed to do little good for either of them, seeing as the creature then began to bash its head into the walls, its sense of direction completely gone. "Watch out!" Angela shouted, her legs far from in the best shape, but she leapt and essentially crashed into Duran, knocking him off his feet, yet out of the way of the now wild Jewel Eater.

It took a few moments, yet Duran realized what had just happened, he unintentionally giving Angela a bewildered, yet impressed look. "All right!" Lumina cried out. "You did it!"

"Huh...yeah." the princess said. "Yeah. I guess I did." though any further words were cut off by the Jewel Eater's erratic movements causing tremors throughout the area.

"Don't go getting your hopes up!" Gnome then said. "The guy's still up and kicking!" he then extended his hand to Duran. "Here!" both humans appeared somewhat confused. "Look, I know I might not be able to do much, but...just take it!" But before any hands could be joined, Gnome was jerked from their hands, a long, winding tongue wrapping around the little man's middle and dragging him away, Duran and Angela looking to see that the spirit was in the clutches of the Jewel Eater, of which had dug right into the side of the wall and already created a sizable hole. "Help!" Gnome cried out, yet soon, both he and the Jewel Eater disappeared from sight, leaving the two alone.

"Oh no, oh no!" Faerie cried out, having emerged despite the danger. "This is bad! This is REALLY bad!"

"What is going on here?!" Duran and Angela turned to see Watts, having presumably come to investigate what all the noise was.

"Who are you?" the sorceress questioned.

"Well, I WAS on my way back to the village, but I guess all this shaking got me disoriented and I fell off one of the ledges in here! I had no other way to go but here!"

"Well, you picked a fine time to come around!" Duran shouted. "A little late though!" he then gestured to the hole. "Gnome's gone!"

"What?!" Watts shouted, bringing his hands to the sides of his head. "What are you waiting for?! Go in and save him!"

"What do you think?! We can't-" Angela then said.

"Of course we are!" Duran then said, the princess' eyes widening.

"Wait, what?!" Before she could get anything else out, Duran got up and scampered into the hole dug into the hardened rock, leaving Angela and Watts alone in the now empty space.

And within minutes, despite herself, she was standing right in front of it.

What in the world was she doing?! She had just up and escaped certain death a good few times, more than she wished to count or ever have again, yet here she was, actually thinking of going in after that idiot!

'What do I owe him for anyway?' a part of her thought as she continued to look down the recently formed tunnel.

'Much, if I remember.' another part answered.

'Yeah? I wouldn't even BE in this situation had HE not gone and run his mouth!'

'He didn't cause the bridge to come down.'

'Well...well he still had to go and say those things! Telling me I'm scum and that I'm in cahoots with Koren...how DARE he!'

'It was wrong, yes, but again, had he not come, you would've been little more than mush in that thing's teeth.' That, Angela couldn't deny. Indeed, had he not been there at that exact moment...still, he...she was still mad at him. 'And that's fine.' one of the inner voices told her. 'Yet what's a few moments in comparison to a life?'

Angela froze at that, eyes widening as she looked into near complete blackness, gripping the edge of the hole she was up against, it too large for her to touch both sides at once. Her other hand gripped her staff, she looked at it, then back to the hole, the staff, then the hole, and so on. The decision had to be made soon, that she knew. And said decision would hold her, and perhaps 'his' life in the balance.


"OW!" Gnome yelped, his chin dragging on the ground as its once again kidnapper took him in further and further, going over and dealing with rocks from the size of mere pebbles to near boulders. At least, that's what it felt like, and no one could tell him otherwise. "OW! Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow, ow! Hey! Take it easy, would you?!" the little man shouted when he was able to get something else out other than cries of pain.

Duran only had this to go by as the tunnel was growing darker and darker, Faerie having emerged, along with Lumina, to provide some light. Geez, where was this big lug taking him? All around him were a multitude of other holes, some as big as what the Jewel Eater was creating. He heard the scampering of several smaller dwellers of the mountain, somewhat pitying the poor things that were essentially minding their own business. "Oof!" a spiked object from above fell onto his back, Duran wincing in pain as said object struggled to release itself. When it did, the human turned to see that a lone molebear had fallen from above, the yellow creature shaking its clawed fist in his direction before scampering off. "Yeah, screw you too." he muttered, realizing, to his horror, that the Jewel Eater, and in turn, Gnome. "Dammit!" he cursed, his voice echoing through the tunnel. He continued on, going further and further, yet soon came to a stop. All around him were multitudes of tunnels, many of considerable age in comparison to the large one that continued to go forward.

"Where'd they go?" Faerie questioned aloud, looking all around.

"If I knew, I would know where to go!" Duran shouted in frustration, violet eyes surveying and being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of tunnels all around. "Dammit, dammit, dammit!" he stomped on the ground and punched a nearby wall.

"Hey, hey, hey! No need for that!" the winged woman told him, pulling his arm back by the wrist. "That's going to do us no good!"

"Tell me then, what would you suggest?" Duran questioned.

"Well…" Faerie began, trying to think of something. "Maybe Gnome left behind some clues."

"Like what? It's not like he could just leave a trail of…" it was then that Lumina's light caught something in his hue, it shimmering even more brilliantly than it already had been. A gemshard. A gemshard at the entrance of a tunnel that appeared to be going downward. And after that, several other shards were laid out, creating a trail for them to follow. "...bread crumbs." Duran finished, looking down the tunnel before hoping right in, Faerie somewhat surprised at the suddenness of his actions, she then looked at Lumina. "Why do I get the feeling I should come to expect this from him from here on in?"

Lumina nodded. "Human nature is many things. Most of which don't make a lick of sense."


It technically wasn't his problem. Hell, he wasn't even supposed to be out in the tunnels in the first place, the Jewel Eater having been reported to have come to their land a short while ago, so he had up and escaped danger already.

Still, nevertheless, Watts found himself looking down the large tunnel, his bag of nitromyte in one hand and a lantern he had managed to get down from a nearby hanging place above. He was pondering whether or not he was wasting his time even contemplating this. Who was to say that those two topsoilers weren't dead already? They were the ones that up and went into those tunnels, why should he go and get himself killed?

Yeah...just go and let the future holder of the Sword get killed. But...maybe he just had Lumina with him by chance? Sure, it made no sense, but still, it was a possibility. After all, how many topsoilers had their ancestors worked for? And this place, while it was one of the most prominent, wasn't the only place for dwarves in the world. There was even a legend that detailed how a dwarf who (oddly like himself) dedicated himself to finding rare minerals in the mines up and ended up forging armor for the chosen warrior that would hold the Mana Sword, and was even rumored to have tempered that very sword! It was a well documented and repeated legend among his people. After all, where would his parents get the name 'Watts' from?

But that was then, and what guarantee was there that the wild haired human WAS indeed to hold the sword? Aside from having a Mana Spirit with him. And outright hearing it. And...well, he was running out of reasons. Still, he wasn't about to go and risk his life when the kid had up and gotten himself in this situation. It wasn't Watts' fault he got up and dove right into the tunnel after that giant mole!

Still...despite himself, the legend of that particular dwarf, the legendary one that bore his name, kept coming back to him. And as he turned away from the hole, it had seemingly increased to where nothing could banish it. But...even if he wanted to do something, what could he do? All he had was a bag of black rocks and a lit lantern...wait.

The dwarf looked to his bag, then to the lantern. And as he did so, an idea crept into his head. A crazy, improbable idea that would probably never work. But maybe, just maybe, there was a slim chance it could.


"Where the hell is this thing going?!" Duran said aloud, continuing to follow the trail of small gems. Having gone through a series of winding passageways that went this way and that, up and down, right to left, it seemed that this entire thing was little more than a wild goose chase. And it was clear that not all of these tunnels were from the Jewel Eater themselves, several molebears having dashed out of his way. Or thrown a couple of stones at him, damned little cretins.

"Wait." Faerie then said, having retreated inside her host to avoid the stones the molebears threw when they got the chance. "Some of these…" she looked to the jewel path before them, then in the direction they were going. "Doesn't the trail seem to be heading in one particular direction?" Duran paused for a moment, then looked. Indeed. Despite the many missteps that had been taken due to the sheer amount of winding pathways, the stones had all but been on a (mostly) linear path. "I just had a thought." Faerie said again. "What if the Jewel Eater isn't just going off with Gnome, but actually taking him somewhere?"

"Taking him where?" Duran questioned. "There's really nowhere around here that looks any different from any other pile of rock."

"But wasn't there something said about a valley?" Faerie added, and indeed, Duran remembered as such. Yet aside from their presence, what would cause the Jewel Eater to up and change location to where it was supposed to be? If anything, that made it sound like it came here for something. Or better yet, for someone.

"Hurry." Lumina then said, a horrid theory coming into his mind. "We've gotta move!"

Without anything else, Duran kept following the trail of gems, only to stop when it seemed that a pile of them were left at the bottom of a pathway that went near straight upward. Looked like the blasted creature had perhaps caught on that they would follow and tried to outsmart them.

RUMBLE….

The earth beneath Duran shook, he felt that something from below was rising. "Get out of the way!" he wasted no time in obeying Faerie, he jumped back as the Jewel Eater emerged from the very spot he once stood, Gnome wound up in its long tongue.

"Get me outta here!" the little man cried out. "This guy's not all there!"

"What are you talking about?" Duran questioned, oblivious as to what the elemental was getting at.

"Something's driving this guy to do what he's doing! He's not even supposed to be here, let alone be going through all this trouble just for a snack! Especially when he's got so much better stuff back at home! I can see it in his eyes! Something must be controlling him!"

Controlling him?! Duran got no chance to confirm or deny Gnome's claims as a massive, clawed paw swung down, the human soldier getting out of the way, the entire passageway of tunnels shaking and several stones falling from above. Then, the tongue lifted up and swung around wildly, Gnome essentially being turned into a ball at the end of a chain. WHACK! A ball that had knocked Duran off of his feet. Both the spirit and human were disoriented, the former not even registering that he had been momentarily dropped. Then, Duran felt a long, winding appendage coated in a slimy substance wrap itself around his head, its owner jerking him forward, nearer and nearer towards its mouth. Faerie emerged and pulled at the tongue, trying in vain to dislodge the tongue from her host's head, he in turn swinging his sword to try and strike the appendage, of which she had to dodge. Gnome too got into the action, pulling at the tongue while Lumina began to conjure up a magical attack.

"Holy Bolt!" the Elemental shouted, though only a small beam of light poured from him, and all that did was just give the tongue a small sting.

"Diamond Shard!" Gnome then shouted, though the shards of crystal he produced did little more than bounce off of the Jewel Eater.

"It's no good!" Faerie strained, her efforts useless against the creature's superior strength. Closer and closer the creature brought Duran to its puckered lips, images of the tooth that he had seen in the village coming back to him. Despite continuing to struggle, and vowing to do so until he was rendered unable, the sense of impending doom hung over him like a suffocating shroud. "Duran!" Faerie shouted, he being unable to respond due to the tongue clasping over his mouth.

Nearer and nearer he drew, but a few feet away from the mouth now. Had it really come to this? All that preparation and journey, all of the subsequent madness...and it was to end like this? No, no, he refused! And yet, what could he do? He couldn't reach the Jewel Eater's tongue, and he was essentially wildly swinging his sword in hopes of getting a strike on it. That wizard was surely on his way to Valsena by now...King Richard. He would be unprotected...not entirely, yet still, he wouldn't be there to defend his king. Aunt Stella...Wendy...the former, he had promised to come back to. And the latter...surely she must've known that her brother was long gone by now. And father...his father, whose sword he had royally messed up, and who had taken on titanic foes that neared that of gods, and here this youth was, his son, about to be eaten and subsequently crushed to death by little more than an oversized mole! It was enough to make him tear through this very mountain itself! Yet that, as everything else was seemingly a fleeing dream. A dream soon to be ended, as now, there was little that could be done.

'Majesty...Auntie...Wendy...Father...I'm sorry.'

Then, while it was brief, he saw something in the corner of his eye. An incoming light. Then he heard her cry. "HOLY BOLT!" A laser struck the small area in between the creature's eyes, the giant mole stumbling back and retracting its tongue, pawing at the struck area that had seemingly singed the smaller scales that had resided in between its optics. Duran fell to the ground, he then felt Angela seize him by the wrist and drag him up. "Come on!" she shouted, turning and making a run for it.

"My sword!" Duran protested, only to be jerked back.

"No time! Run!" the young woman said, he in turn realized as such too.

"Whoa, hey, hey! Don't leave me!" Angela grunted when Gnome hopped onto her back, Faerie retreating into her host, and Lumina and the sorceress' wand (of whom she finally seemed to be getting a hang of) lighting the way. The Jewel Eater seemed to have recovered from the blow dealt to it, and suffice to say, it wasn't happy. The group were nearly sent off their feet as it charged forward, massive shards of diamond coming their way, their landing places ranging from mere yards to mere feet, some even mere inches away from them. "Follow the shards!" Gnome cried out, practically hanging onto Angela's half ponytail, the young woman wincing in pain as he tightened his grip.

"How else do you think I got here?!" she retorted. "It's gaining on us-" she then, to her horror, lost her footing and tripped, her leg beginning to act up again.

"Ack!" Gnome cried out, hopping off of her and ready to leap onto Duran for transportation, yet once the young man realized, despite having gone a few feet away from the fallen young woman, stopped and turned back, rushing and grabbing Angela.

"Hey!" a voice called out, everyone realizing it to be Watts. "Come on!" running up, Duran and Angela saw that Lumina and Gnome were urging them to come forward, Watts holding a bag containing his collected nitromyte and a lantern.

"What the?!" Duran began, though Angela finished for him.

"The hell are you going to do with that?!"

"I've got an idea!" the dwarf shouted. "But I'll need you guys to get out of-"

BOOM!

"...there." The Jewel Eater popped up from ahead of them, bursting out of the ground and cutting the two humans off from their only exit. With little else they could do, they turned tail and ran in the other direction, Duran hoping that he could still retrieve the sword he had been forced to leave behind. Gnome only looked on, then seeing Lumina wisp away in the two's direction, leaving him and Watts. Though not for long. "H-Hey! Wait!" Watts then cried out. "Where are you going?!"

"You light that stuff and throw it in!" the spirit said. "I'll take care of things for now!"

"What are you-"

"Just do it, ok?!" With that, Gnome left the dwarf alone, centering his eyes on the sack and lantern with him. It took a good few moments, but he eventually opened the lantern and threw the oil and fire inside into the sack. Then, he dropped said sack and made a beeline away from the entrance, ducking down and putting his fingers in his ears.


It came up, they went the other way, only to cut them off in that direction. It seemed that no matter where they went, the creature was one step ahead of them. Currently, the Jewel Eater had Duran and Angela backed up against one of the encompassing walls, a sudden, unfamiliar, yet just as unnerving rage in its eyes. Rage that, while it was easy to reason as to why the hulking beast would be quite irritated at them, seemed somewhat directed at the two in a different way. As if it were going for them, and not just because they had up and made it just a bit too mad. Dare say, it seemed as if it had an agenda. Its eyes, while small, the light provided by Lumina's light via Angela's staff, appeared glazed and glassy, as if it wasn't entirely there.

Well, whatever it was, it didn't matter. They were still in peril with seemingly no way out. "Heyo!" what the?! "Sorry about the delay!" Gnome shouted, the miniature spirit hopping up and over the Jewel Eater towards its two targets, leaving the mole and they rather confused. "Now we can get this done right!"

"What done right?" Duran questioned, not entirely comprehending what Gnome was saying.

"No time, but the missy here will definitely need it!" Gnome said, gesturing to Angela, he then reached for her.

"Oh no! You are NOT grabbing my ass again-"

"No! Here!" Suddenly, Gnome grabbed both Duran and Angela's hands, the two immediately feeling a new, strange energy through them. It wasn't exactly powerful, same as when Lumina had given them his energy, yet still, when it seemingly tied in with their very being, there was a spike of power that came with it, as if the two elements were the catalyst for something that would eventually be amazing. Yet there was no such time to reflect on this.

BOOM!

As they would soon see.

Duran, Angela, and the Jewel Eater looked back, the entire, tightly knit tunnels vibrating, the sound of a far off explosion sounding off meeting their ears. "What was-" Duran asked, but was cut off by Angela.

"No time! Run!" and run they did. Or rather, given that their former pursuer was running away as well, all of them looking back to see a literal wall of fire coming their way.

"Quick!" Lumina then said, flying over to a nearby tunnel that seemed to go downward. "In here!" wasting no time, Duran and Angela obeyed, ducking into the tunnel while the Jewel Eater ran right past.

'That won't do much good!' Faerie then said. 'The fire might come on in!'

"That's why I'm here!" Gnome then said, turning to Angela. "Now it's your turn, missy!"

"My turn?!" the young woman looked to her wand. "I just managed to get this thing to work properly, and I don't think they were anything more than just lucky shots!"

"Nonsense!" Gnome shook his head. "You've got this!" everyone could not only hear, but feel the heat coming. "Hurry now! You have to channel my power!"

Angela looked to her staff, focusing on the image of Gnome and the beautiful shards in her mind. The heat drew closer. She focused on their glimmering beauty, the way they shined, and how it was only now that she realized that they were indeed, perhaps real diamonds. The heat drew closer. She thought all these things, but it seemed nothing was doing her any good. She was just as stuck as before. She began to panic, her eyes momentarily shifting to Duran.

She then thought of Gnome, the stones, how hard and tough they must've been. And 'him'. She found herself thinking of 'him'.

The tip of her staff appeared to crystalize as a multitude of hard, crystal shards shot out from seemingly thin air and made their way to the entrance of the tunnel they currently resided in, everyone shuddering and wincing as the wall of fire came their way, yet to their surprise and relief, the shards appeared to act as a shield against the blaze caused by whatever madness Watts had unleashed up ahead. Far ahead from where they were, the Jewel Eater went further and further, digging and digging a pathway for itself to get away from the flames. On and on it dug desperately, until finally, light! Tearing through without a moment's hesitation, it went forward!

Only to find nothing lay beneath it.

The flames caused by the blast poured out from the mountainside while the Jewel Eater plummeted downward, a resounding splash echoing throughout the entire chasm. Then, as soon as it began, all noises save for the chittering of insects in the still night, stopped.

 

Chapter Text

Everywhere. They had looked absolutely everywhere. In every house, in every corner of the small village that lay out of sight of many eyes, the beastman and half-elf went around with only one question in mind. “Where could we find Domperi?” And the answers they received were all the same. 

“He’s probably out somewhere.”

“Last I saw, he was going in the northwest corner.”

“He stopped by here a moment ago.”

“Hey! Who invited you two in!? Scram!”

So far, their initially thought to be simple search resulted in total failure, having literally been chased out by the last guy throwing a barrage of nuts at them. With little else to do, Kevin and Charlotte sat on the ground against a small trunk, exhausted and out of options. “He’s...not here.” Kevin sighed, holding his head in his hands.

“He’s gotta be!” Charlotte objected. “Othewwise, why wouwd that guy teww us he was?”

“Some idea of a joke?” the beastman suggested, rubbing a sore spot on his head where the rather irritable korobukkle struck him with a walnut. 

“No way!” Charlotte shook her head, her curly, blonde locks bouncing as she did so. “He’s gotta be hewe! Mick and Walph, they’re…” she bit her lip. “They’re…”

“Ah, so THAT’S their names.” Both of them looked up to see the bearded, miniature humanoid approach them, seemingly bemused by their despair, to their confusion (as well as developing irritation). “Certainly things I wouldn’t name any of my children, but hey, that’s humans for you.”

“Wait…” Kevin rose up. “You saw it? Those children-”

“Get snatched up? You betcha.” the old, miniature creature answered with a nod of his head. 

“Then…” Charlotte balled up her fists. “Then whewe’s Dompewi?!” she demanded, stomping her foot. “We gotta find him! Mick and Walph are gonna be-”

“Simmer down, half-pint.” the old man chuckled, taking a moment to groom his beard. “They’re in no danger.” Both Kevin and Charlotte were confused. “Those birds took them right into the city. If they were going to eat them, they would’ve taken them up somewhere high to where they could tear and rip in peace.”

“How...do you know that?” Kevin asked.

“We’ve got eyes everywhere around here. Most don’t know, but we koropokkur are the ones that keep tabs on everything that goes on here. And they all report back to the head guy. Speaking of...your search is over.” 

Both Kevin and Charlotte looked at each other, then back to him. “You mean…” Kevin began, the koropokkur nodding.

“Yep. You’re looking right at him.”

Rabite Forest

“So, you DO require taxes to be paid?” the violet haired thief questioned, the recently revealed princess nodding. She could tell he was displeased with such information. Ever since she had let it out that she was indeed royalty, let alone belonged to one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world (or rather, formerly most powerful, though she didn’t delve into that territory), Hawkeye found himself disappointed upon learning that. Since they had gone off, and after the people of Astoria finally let them do so, the princess and thief went out in search of Kevin and Charlotte, mindful of both the hounds and giant birds that soared the skies for a nightly meal. 

“This offends you?” Riesz questioned.

“I suppose I just expected more from you.” he told her plainly, not holding anything back. “Systems like that is one thing that me and my guild fight against.”

“It’s not as if they are overwhelmingly high.” the amazon answered back. “They are at a fair amount for everyone, and the general economy of the town is taken into consideration. Palo is a relatively stable place, thus, said taxes don’t cripple the people.” 

“It’s still taking money from them.” Hawkeye retorted. “So that the upper class folks can use it for their own benefits.”

Riesz tightened her lips. “Yes, I admit. We MAY be considered ‘upper class’ as you say, yet I will not allow you to insinuate that we waste it on extravagant means or carnal pleasures. That money goes to the maintenance of the Citadel and the supply of our weapons. We are far from just a lord over the people, or as you say ‘upper class folks’.” she then turned to him. “There are many flaws, I admit, that remain, especially those that can be abused, yet when maintained and implemented correctly, it is a system that has been around for a reason. And thus, it can’t be denied that, when correctly established, it works.”

Hawkey only huffed. “Sorry, princess, but I’m still not convinced.”

“Then enlighten me.” Riesz stated firmly. Helpful so far or not, if this rogue dare insulted her people or kingdom…”Why do you hold such distaste for such systems?” 

Both of them then paused, seeing iridescent orbs a short distance away. Climbing up a nearby tree, the two saw a small group of hounds come through with their noses to the ground, clearly on the trail of something. Probably some poor rabite or other hapless creature. Unless they would be willing to take a bite out of a mushboom, then it would clearly be something with meat. Seemingly catching to where their target had gone, the head of them gave out a bark and took off, the others following. Whether they picked up on the thief or princess’ scent was unknown, yet even if they did, their interests were elsewhere. Getting down, albeit tentatively, they continued walking, and in turn, their conversation. 

“Think what you will of the whole thieving thing, but we NEVER do it to those that don’t deserve it.” Hawkeye told her, his usual easygoing nature absent. “There are only two major towns in Nevarl, but you’d be pressed to find somebody that isn’t living day to day on scraps and crumbs, let alone have decent clothes on their backs. Most of the well-do folks live in Sirhtan and live off the backs of little guys all the way in Diin. Last guy we did some ‘borrowing’ from outright had a family once! And now they’re living in rags in another town over! And they STILL have to give what little they have from that time being up top to survive!”

Riesz went silent at that. “I...I’m truly sorry to hear that.”

Hawkeye shook his head. “Lady was the only reason I was able to Jadd in the first place. Sarafina was her name, I think.” the thief continued. “People like her, struggling to get by, that’s the reason our guild exists. To give those less fortunate a fighting chance to actually live rather than just survive.” 

Riesz only stood in silence as she listened to him, taking in and pondering his words. “If I may, it seems that your country is in need of a reform.”

Hawkeye nodded, but then his face grew grim. “We do.” he agreed. “But not in the way that witch has set up…” he muttered under his breath. “Eagle, I promise. She’s gonna pay.”

“Hm? What was that?” the blonde young woman questioned, Hawkeye realizing, to his horror, that he had perhaps spoken just a bit too loud.

“Nothing.” he assured her, presenting a small, reassuring smile. “Anyway, we should probably get to searching for those two. Especially that one girl. One of those birds would have no problem snatching her up.” 

While Riesz had no objections to that, she kept an eye on the tanned native of the invading country as they went along. True, he had yet to do anything malicious (suspicious, yes, but not anything diabolical), but that far from meant she was entirely trusting. And the fact that he was clearly not revealing everything detailing his reasoning for coming to Wendel made the amazon all the more cautious. She heard him say the name ‘Eagle’, though whom that was, she knew not, and probably wouldn’t find out even if she pressed him. He had mentioned a ‘Jessica’ and how she was the reason for his coming, but questions as to how she came to possess a cursed object, let alone why he had to seemingly sneak here in the first place had gotten Riesz thinking. Ultimately though, she had nothing to go off of but speculation, thus, for now, she was forced to apply due process. For now, he was innocent until proven guilty. Yet still, that didn’t mean she wouldn’t be too surprised if something DID come up, so better that than getting attached to a false perception only to have it shattered. 

Besides, Kevin and Charlotte’s whereabouts weren’t the only current matter to be pondered. “Though…” Hawkeye began, as if reading Riesz’s mind. “What are we going to do about those folks back in...well, what’s left of Astoria?” 

Krobbukle Village

Kevin and Charlotte looked to each other, then back to the small humanoid. “Y-You?” the beastman asked. “You’re Domperi?”

The koropokkur, Domperi, put his hands on his chips and gave a sly smile. “In the flesh and beard, kid.”

Charlotte stood there, mouth agape and seemingly trying to find words. “Then...then you…” she then furrowed her brows and clenched her fists. “Then you knew why we wewe hewe this whowe time!” she shouted, clearly enraged, though she was far from threatening. If anything, she looked as if her face had become a red balloon, her cheeks swelling up as if they were full of air. “You...you...you big stupid doo-doo head!”

Domperi raised a brow. “Doo-doo head?” he chuckled. “Now watch it, missy. That’s fighting words.” he told her, though it was clear he wasn't serious. 

“If you want a fight…” she then drew out her mace. “Then you’we gonna get one!”

Kevin could only look on at the scene taking place, planning to step in if he had to, though mainly for Domperi’s sake. Then again, maybe a few smacks to the head would compensate for all the useless meandering that the two had done thanks to him. 

“Do you even know how to use that thing?” the koropokkur questioned. Charlotte rushed forward, yet didn’t get far, as he stuck his foot out and caused her to trip,she then landed face first into the dirt. Kevin rushed over to her and shot Domperi a glare. Sending them running around aimlessly was one thing, yet he wouldn't tolerate this. “Besides, if you give me a concussion, you won’t learn how to get Jadd back from those furry freaks.” Despite her current position, Charlotte lifted her dirt covered face up from the ground. “As well as give your other friends some tips on how to deal with those troublemakers in Laurent.”

Dwarf Village

To say he was sore would be an understatement. Dare say, it was nothing short of a miracle that no bones appeared to be broken. Still, he continued to pace around the small room that had been given to him in the dwarves’ inn (not that they really made much use of it), arms folded and with a frustrated expression. 

“You know, pacing around like that isn't going to make them go any faster.”

“I don’t need you to tell me that.” Duran sighed, continuing to walk around the four corners of the room. 

“You heard them. They said that it’ll be done by morning.” the winged woman told him. 

“Yeah, yeah, I heard them.” the human soldier said. “But…” he hissed. “But that red bastard...he’s making his way towards Valsena right now! Along with the rest of those damned mages!”

“I know that.” Faerie answered. “But we can’t do anything about it. We have no way to get there with the bridge down, you’re currently unarmed with both a sword AND shield, and after that beating you took from that Jewel Eater, what you need most is a night’s rest at the very least.” he opened his mouth to protest, but she cut him off. “You know I’m right.”

Duran remained silent, slumping against a wall and drumming his fingers on his forearm. He hated it, outright despised it, but there was an undeniable truth in his company’s words. For now, the odds were against him. And if he wanted any chance of getting to Valsena at all, he would have to, to his chagrin, wait.

“Um, hey.” Duran and Faerie turned to see the short figure of Watts poke his head in, his nature rather demure in comparison to before. As if asking for silent permission, he took their curious eyes as an invite to come in. “So, uh, how are you feeling?”

“A little sore, that’s all.” the human answered, wincing a bit as he stretched his arms to demonstrate, hitting a bad spot. “Nothing that serious. A few hours rest is all I need.”

“Ok, that’s good, I guess.” the dwarf rubbed the back of his head. “Anyway, the guys and I really owe you one. Really.” he then gave his beard a small brush through. “I mean, if you hadn’t come along, then…” he stammered, trying to find the words to say. “Look, what I mean to say is...sorry. Sorry about being all rude before.” he finally found what he was wishing to say. “I mean, you had the elemental spirit with you and all, but, well, I guess all those tales of the Sword and all clouded judgement as to what a wielder would look like. In all instances, it was just an ordinary guy.”

“About that, I’m-” Duran began, but Faerie cut him off.

“Yes, well, that’s understandable.” the winged woman answered. “After all, many of those who have come to obtain the sword have ranged from actual generals to simple men and even slaves of oppressive regimes.” Faerie explained. “I mean, that’s just from what I heard. I haven’t been outside of the Mana Holyland up until now.” 

Watts then gave a sheepish little kick. “Y’know...I always kinda wondered what it’d be like, if something like this happened in my lifetime.” he confessed. “I mean, I got my name from those legends. Though…’Watts’ is kinda a common name for a dwarf. Still, it’s sorta cool, I guess. Even if it’s just a bit part...I’m not a crafter of weapons or anything. I just mainly dig up stuff.” 

Duran, despite his still ongoing resistance to the idea of wielding the sword, found that he had difficulty in saying so in the dwarf’s question. Then, he remembered how he and Angela were even able to get away from the Jewel Eater. “Speaking of, sorry about your bag.” 

“Huh? Oh, are you kidding?” Watts then said, taking Duran and Faerie by surprise by the sudden change in his tone. “You know that explosion?” Duran and Faerie nodded. “Well, guess what?” he then exited the room, both the human and winged woman hearing something dragging along the floor. After a minute or two, both pairs of eyes bugged out at the sight of a sack filled to the brim with hardened, blackened rocks. “It revealed a gold mine of nitromyte!” he then undid the rope tying the bag, piles of the darkened mineral pouring out, Watts taking handfuls of it in his gloved hands. “If anything, I should be mad you didn’t come sooner! Ha ha!” he then threw up some of it, making it rain on him, proclaiming on how this was going to make him the richest dwarf in all of the country. “Oh! By the way,” Watts then said, briefly ceasing to bask in the large amount of nitromyte that he had unearthed. “Where’s that other topsoiler? What was her name...Angie something?”

“Angela.” Duran corrected. “And at the moment, she’s a little...unavailable.” 

“Huh? Why?” Watts questioned. 

“It’s kinda a quarrel that goes a bit back.” Faerie explained.

“There’s no quarrel involved.” Duran protested. “She just can’t let it go.” he huffed.

“Speaking of her,” Faerie began again.

“Are you just gonna invite yourself into my head whenever you feel like it?” 

“It’s not like you can stop me.” the winged woman said with a wink. “But you two haven’t really spoken to each other since we got here. Don’t you think you should get her side of the story?”

“What story?”

“Back on the bridge?” Faerie reminded him. “The oh so ‘nice’ things you said to her?” Yeah...that. It wasn’t as if he had forgotten. Hell, it was the fact that he had even said such to Angela that drove him to find her. Yet when they found each other again, she only proceeded to give him the silent treatment all the way back to the village. “You know, it’s just a hunch,  but I think that there’s some truth in what that wizard said. Just not in the way you think.” 

“Then what do you suggest I do?” Duran questioned. “Get her side of things?” Faerie only nodded, realizing that he had answered himself. Still...that would require getting Angela to even speak to him. And, well, he had seen by now that the young woman had quite the petty streak.

“Don’t act like you don’t have one either.” Faerie told him.

“Shut up.

The Next Room

Again. A small laser came out from the tip of her wand and made a small indent on the wall. Again. It grew deeper. Again, again, again. She shot at the same spot over and over, yet it didn’t matter. The fact she was doing it at all was what made her continue.

Magic. She had actually done magic.

“You get it all out of your system?” Lumina questioned, Angela responding by yet another cast against the wall. “Guess not.” The young woman held the staff tightly in her hands, green eyes tracing the carvings in the wooden tip. While she had managed to cast bursts of energy beforehand, now seemed to be the only time that she had full control over it. She could summon Lumina’s powers at will and make use of them as she saw fit. “You two have taken quite a beating today.” the Elemental said. “How about you settle down for the night?”

“I’ll be fine.” Angela answered. “Besides,” she then pointed the tip of her staff to a cut on her arm. “I can just get you to take care of all this.” the tip of the staff began to glow, only for it to then fade away. “Huh?” the young woman began to press the staff downward, only to wince when it met the sore spot. “Heal!” she cried out, only for the cut to remain as it was. She then looked to Lumina. “Hey, what’s up with this?”

“Hate to tell you, hun, but you’re just not compatible.”

“What’s that mean?” Angela questioned.

“Healing magic isn’t compatible with you.” the spirit answered. “Back at home, surely you’ve noticed that the other magicians excelled in a peculiar type of magic, right?”

Angela pondered this. “Now that you mention it...I remember reading such in one of old Jose’s books.” the image of the old man came to her mind, as well as a small ache in her chest. “But,” she shook it off, not wishing for this triumph to be spoiled by any sense of negativity. “Where’s that leave me?”

“Well, you’ve just show it.” Lumina explained. “You can make use of my powers by using it against opponents, thus, you are more skilled in offensive magic. Bear in mind though, this doesn’t mean that you are exclusively put into that category.”

“Yeah!” Gnome then answered, the two spirits having decided to join Angela in her spellcasting. “All of us hold all sorts of powers! Some that are both offensive and defensive! For healing and destruction! It’s all about finding out which one of these you can manifest once that particular energy is tied to you!” he exclaimed. “Speaking of, try me next!” 

Angela obliged, holding out her staff and positioned it right where the indent in the wall was. Only for nothing to happen. “Oh…” she groaned. “Really?”

“Oh. Well…” Gnome rubbed the back of his head. “You just kinda got it, so I guess you’re not gonna get it right away.” he chuckled. “Still though, how DID you do it the first time? If what Lumina’s said, magic doesn’t exactly come easy to you.” Angela shot both him and Lumina a glare. “H-Hey, I’m just repeating what he said!” Gnome replied defensively, pointing to the wisp.

“I-I didn’t mean it in a bad way!” Lumina answered, putting up two ‘arms’ of smoke in a motion for the young woman to calm down. “It’s just...well...you know.” he then joined Gnome in chuckling nervously. “But back on topic!” funny, Angela thought, considering that the short man’s comment was PART of the topic. “You’ve always had magical capacity. I knew it when I first saw you.”

“You...you did?” the young woman asked.

“You bet, hun!” the wisp nodded. “You just need the right combination in order to properly use it.”

“Then what is it?” Angela questioned. “I don’t seem to be having any problem using your energy now.” she demonstrated with another beam to the wall. “Still though...it’s kinda...small at the moment.” 

“Practice makes perfect.” Lumina told her, Angela rolling her eyes, as she heard old Jose say the exact same thing to her hundreds of times. “It’s true!” the Spirit attested. “But also, it seems that your magic rises in power when certain conditions are met. At least, that’s from what I observed.” 

Indeed, Angela couldn’t deny that. It seemed that whenever she was highly stressed (sometimes) or when her very life depended on it (sometimes), only then would her magic work. Again though, the results were unpredictable. Still, now it seemed that she had SOME degree of control. Over only Lumina’s energy that was. Still, what had happened in those times that were different from the others? An example being a more recent one, Gnome’s. She had little idea, yet she just thought of how they would all die if something wasn’t done. That ‘he’ would die if something wasn’t done. Wait...what was she doing thinking about ‘him’? 

“Hey.” she turned to see ‘him’ standing right in the doorway, seemingly lacking in his usual bravado. “So...how’s it going?”

Angela was about to respond, only to then scowl and turn away with a ‘hmph!’ arms folded over her chest. 

‘Great.’ Duran thought. 

‘Just talk to her.’ Faerie told him. 

‘What do you think I’m doing?’ he then opened his mouth to speak again. “You hurt anywhere? You took quite a tumble down at the bridge.” she didn’t answer. ‘Looks like I have to cut to the chase.’ “Look,” the soldier approached Angela, of whom still turned his back to him. “I know that I said some things back then.” he stated, still stringing together how he was going to word this. “Things that...well...weren’t exactly well thought out or acceptable.” 

“Why do you care?” the young woman hissed. “I’m ‘scum’, or did you forget?” 

“No, I didn’t.” Duran sighed. “I...I wasn’t thinking. Seeing that wizard...Koren, I think was his name, I was so angry that I took him at his word. It’s not excuse, I know, but,”

“But nothing.” Angela then turned to face him. “Did you ponder that what he said made no sense, or did you have your head so far up your own ass that it didn’t even register to you?”

The words stung, yet despite his pride, the young man couldn’t deny they were the truth. He was blinded by his rage, and it seemed it cost him. “You...you’re right. There’s no excuse. I...I’m sorry. Really, I am.” she still seemed unmoved. “Please forgive me for being so...so…”

“Stupid?” she interjected. He had no response other than averting his eyes, yet eventually, he nodded, agreeing with her. She remained silent for some time, letting him stew in the results of his own hubris, but eventually, she found words she wanted to share with him. “Look...what Koren said was true. Yes, I AM the princess of Altena. But make no mistake: he and I are NOT friends.” she said firmly. “The truth is…” she bit her lip, clearly uncomfortable. “I ran away.” she pulled her arms closer around herself. 

“What for-ow!” Duran asked, only for Faerie to emerge and give him a flick on his ear. 

“It was bound to come out sooner or later.” Angela answered. “Your attitude towards Altena as a whole just made it a little difficult.” Duran looked down guiltily. “Though...I can sort of understand where you’re coming from.” she sighed. “But again, I ran away. Because…” she paused. Goddess, even now, it was difficult to say it, all of it still seeming unreal. “Because I was to be killed.”

“Killed?!” Duran gasped. “But...for what reason would you be killed?! You just said it yourself that you’re the princess! What did you do?!”

“Nothing!” Angela replied defensively, Duran receiving another flick from Faerie, realizing that he had made an ass of himself yet again. “He and mother...they just up and decided that I would be sacrificed for some stupid stone!” 

“Stone?!” Faerie then exclaimed. Like a Mana Stone?!”

“Yeah!” Angela confirmed. “Koren was the one who suggested it, and mother…” she paused, placing a hand to her cheek, still feeling the sting from the woman’s hand. “Mother just up and went along with it.”

Duran was shocked upon hearing this, his anger against the wizard, Koren, rising even more, though now, it was also being directed at Altena’s queen. “If you want to…” he began. “Maybe it’d be best if you start at the beginning.” 

Angela looked at him, contemplating as to where to start. “Only if you do too.”

Fair enough, Duran thought. Only thing was to decide who would go first. And seeing as her eyes were focused on him, it seemed that she had made the decision for him.

Rabite Forest

“Ok.” Hawkeye sighed, resting against a lone gargoyle statue that seemed to have been placed out here for a reason, though for what reason, neither he nor Riesz knew. “I say it's a good time to take a break for now.” Riesz said nothing, only giving a small hum, though whether this was for or against his suggestion, he didn’t know. “This place is kinda big, but it’s not THAT big.” the thief huffed, then turned to his company. “Where do you think they could’ve gone?” he asked, only to receive no answer. “Like...you think they got carried away or eaten?” he expected a ‘don’t be ridiculous’ or maybe even a sharp ‘get serious’ from her, though what came from her next was unexpected.

“...it’s all so sudden.”

“Hm?”

“All of this. Everything.” Riesz said, seemingly off in another world. 

“What do you mean?” Hawkeye asked, seeing her eyes widen in realization that she was speaking aloud.

“N-Nothing!” she quickly said. “Nothing.” 

“Nothing is usually code for ‘something’.” Hawkeye answered, seeing the amazon grip the handle of her spear tighter. “So spill.” he told her matter-of-factly, only there was a twinge of satisfaction in having caught her in his voice. “What’s up?”

Riesz remained silent for a moment more, cursing how his amber eyes practically drilled into her own. ‘Damn you.’ she inwardly cursed. Ok, perhaps that was too harsh, but still, it seemed that this guy knew just what to do to push certain buttons. Still, she had to admit, it was weighing heavily on her ever since it happened. Since the first of those villagers had realized who she was and fell at her feet. And then another and another, all then looking to her with wide, pleading eyes, like a child seeking reassurance from their mother. And while she wouldn’t release too much, she could at least release what was currently relevant. “How are we going to do this?”

“Do what?” the thief asked.

“This.” the princess said again. “This whole operation.” Hawkeye needed no more, already getting what she was referring to. “We have no viable way into the city, let alone any plan as to how to even take it away from the beastmen. Aside from us, we have no one experienced in combat to go in and defend themselves should it come to that, which, if we go through with this, inevitably will happen. This…” Riesz bit her lip. “This whole operation seems doomed to failure.”

“Don’t go saying that yet.” Hawkeye told her. “You’d be surprised what ordinary people have in them, let alone what they can do when pushed.”

“I don’t doubt that.” Riesz answered. “Yet ‘ordinary people’ haven’t had years of training, let alone any knowledge of organization when it comes to warfare. If they go in there, they’re bound to get themselves killed.”

“Not unless we rig things in our favor.”

“Rig?” Riesz questioned. “What are you talking about?” 

“He means, we go and we lay some…’surprises’ for them.”

Both of them looked to the side to see the source of the voice, only to find nothing ahead of them. A voice neither had heard from before.

“Down hewe!” that voice, however, they had heard. Looking down, Hawkeye and Riesz saw that near their feet stood, to their bewilderment, three miniature figures. “It’s us!”

“Kevin?” Riesz asked, the shrunken beastman nodding. “Charlotte?” The now even smaller girl jumped up and down and waved her hands.

“And…” Hawkeye began, focusing on the bearded figure. “You are?”

“How rude!” the bearded figure said, adjusting said facial hair. “I go out of my way to help out you humans and the best you have to say is that?” he huffed. “Perhaps it’s my fault expecting anything more from you lot.” he then looked up to both of them, arms out in front of him. “Well? You expect us to climb?”

“Um...ok?” Hawkeye didn’t exactly get it, but nonetheless, he bent down and allowed the three miniature figures to get up on his hand.

“That’s better.” the korobukkle said. “Behold, you two, for this isn’t a privilege given to many! You look upon the great Domperi!”

“Dom-what?” Riesz questioned, not even believing creatures such as this even existed before now. Let alone the possibility that beings such as herself could be shrunk down to their size. 

“He’s here to help!” Kevin cried out, yelling in case the two larger humans couldn’t hear him. 

“Huh?” Both Hawkeye and Riesz looked to each other, then to this ‘Domperi’. 

“Not just that,” Charlotte then said. “He’s gonna teww you how to take back Wawent!”

Riesz shifted her eyes. “You mean Laurent, yes?”

Charlotte huffed and put her hands on her hips. “That’s what I said!” she attested, cheeks puffing out. Still, it seemed that Riesz’s attention was solely on Domperi now.

“Yeah, that’s right! I know everything!” the korobukkle said with pride. “You humans never know how to make yourselves discrete.” he then pointed to Hawkeye. “And you’re here because you want to get rid of a nasty little curse put on your friend, right?”

The thief couldn’t believe his ears. “How...how did you-” he then shook his head. “Look, who...WHAT are you anyway?”

“You think the Priest’s barrier was anything for us? We have ALL sorts of ways to get by anything. All of which you’ll never find out.” Domperi declared proudly. “Well...all except one.” before either Hawkeye or Riesz could ask, he continued. “We’ve got pathways and eyes all around, and since those furry freaks came into town, we’ve been keeping an eye on things, even in Wendel. You see?”

“Um…” Riesz began, still somewhat taken aback by all of this. “Well-”

“Doesn’t matter in the long run.” Domperi then interrupted. “Right now, you’ve got a town to save. But you’ve got no way in, right?” again, neither said anything. “Well, lucky for you, me and my people have been doing stuff like this for a long time. So, listen up…”

Dwarf Village

Both the Valsenan soldier and Altenan princess were silent as each of their tales ended, both left with little else to say to the other upon delivering the final part as to why they had gone to Wendel. 

“Neither of you have had an easy time, have you?” Faerie asked, the two humans remaining quiet. True, she had known of Duran’s plight due to the bond, yet hearing him relay it only cemented how serious this was to him. Angela as well made her sympathetic.

“Goodness…” Lumina murmured, looking at Gnome.

“Looks like things haven’t exactly gotten more peaceful since last we were in action.” the short man mentioned, Lumina nodding in agreement. 

“I...I’m sorry.” Angela said quietly. “That...that Koren had done such a thing.”

“It’s that bastard's fault, not yours.” The soldier answered. “And I’m sorry that your own mother would-“

“But...but she wouldn’t!” Angela then protested. 

“But you just said-“

“I know what I said!” Angela attested. “I...I can’t believe it. I refuse! She’s my mother! She-“ ‘Ignored me my whole life.’ “She…” ‘Treated me as if my very existence was a nuisance.’ “She…” ‘Maybe never loved me-‘ she stopped herself at the last thought, feeling the beginning of tears stinging her eyes. “Look, I just...I know what I said, saw, and heard. I just…” she lowered her head, Duran hearing soft whimpering coming from her. 

Well, this got a little awkward. He looked to Faerie and the Elementals, all of which silently urged him to go that direction. Tenitavely, he traded out and rested a hand on the young woman’s shoulder, Angela then unable to contain herself, she throwing herself at him and clutching on tight. She buried her face into his chest and wept, Duran taken aback by this, but eventually, he responded with him gently taking her in an embrace, holding her firmly as she continued to release everything that had been building up since the day she was forced to run for her life. 

And despite what had happened between the two before, the princess found that here was all she wanted to be.

Rabite Forest

Riesz took in each and every word the korobukkle said, nothing leaving a single detail out. “...and from there, you’re kinda on your own.” Domperi finished. 

“I...I don’t know what to say.” the princess said, flabbergasted by what she had just heard. “I...are you certain?”

“Kid, you’re far from the first one to come to me for advice, and given the nature of you humans, I highly doubt you’ll be the last.” the small, bearded man said. “But first things first: we gotta get those furry freaks out of the city.” He then turned to Kevin. “Present company accepted, though.”

“Um...thanks?” Kevin answered.

“And what about the Choker of Death?” Hawkeye then butted in. “What can be done about that?”

Domperi’s optimism then diminished a bit. “I don’t know about that.” He admitted. “The one who gave it to your friend is the only one who can release the curse.” He then noticed the thief’s dejection. “But hey, perk up!” Domperi said. “Things usually have a way of working out, you’ll see!” He then rubbed his hands together. “Now...we’ve gotta get back to town and tell those folks how things are gonna go down. We’ll need everyone’s help to get this done.”

“Um, befowe that…” Domperi then looked over to the still shrunk Kevin and Charlotte. 

“Oh yeah, right.” With a wave of his hand, the gargoyle’s eyes glimmered and suddenly, Hawkeye found a tremendous amount of weight on his hand. By the time the light had dissipated, he, Kevin, and Charlotte were lying in a tangled heap on the ground. 

Risez only looked at the korobukkle who had leapt onto her shoulder before the ‘un-shrinking’. “You know that’d happen, didn’t you?”

Domperi only shrugged. “Maybe?”

Ruins of Astoria

“They can’t do it.” a man said, looking despondent to the ground. “We’re doomed.”

“The Goddess has abandoned us.” a woman added, wiping away some stray tears that still lingered after her first bout of tears.

“How can you say that?” Elisa said, rising up from her place on the ground. “We can’t just give up like that!”

“And do what?” the man questioned. “Jadd’s been taken over, this place is destroyed, and Wendel’s been cut off! So tell me, what else can anyone do?!”

“We...we could just give ourselves up to them!” another woman suggested. “It’s the only way! We have to surrender ourselves to the beastmen! It’s the only way to stop them from causing more destruction!”

“Shut up! That’s enough!” Elisa roared, having heard more than her fill. “It doesn’t do us any good to talk like that now!” her body shook, breathing in and out as she calmed herself. She had to keep a cool head. Not just for herself and the others, but her Ralph as well. 

“Well...you know,” a voice suddenly spoke up, the red haired woman turning to see the mayor twiddling his thumbs. “We kinda have help. Sorta.” 

“What can those four do?” someone asked. “I don’t care if that girl said she was an amazon captain or princess or whatever! She’s got no army backing her!”

“Yeah, one of them’s an outright beastman! He could be a spy!” 

“Then tell me,” Elisa retorted. “Why’d he go easy on you when you threw that rock?” the man who had just spoken was rendered silent by the woman’s inquiry. 

“Even so, what could he and those other three do? One of them is just a child!” well, that Elisa had to agree on. Even if the ‘child’ attested she was fifteen (somehow). 

“I...I don’t know.” the woman admitted. “I just...don’t know.” 

The mayor watched as the homeless citizens conversed with each other, which then began to dissolve into arguing which only grew more and more intense with each passing second. His eyes surveyed the environment around him, his mind then wandering back to his manor in Jadd. His multiple rooms that weren’t in use, the food that he had taken in, more than what he probably should’ve, and how, despite his position, he was completely oblivious to the people that he was charged with seeing over and providing for. They were little more than just ‘the people’, in that they were just faces and nothing more. True, he had heard of the beastmen’s activity becoming more aggressive, as well as other nations such as Altena and Nevarl, but he dismissed them as rumors because it was convenient for him. He had no time for such things, he was busy trying to get re-elected or thinking of what next decoration he could spend his people’s tax money on. Not once had he ever thought of the prospect that he’d have his home invaded, placed in a dungeon, and, while it was perhaps the least of his worries, left without any pants. Yet now, as he watched the denizens of the ruined Astoria bicker among each other, that poor mother looking exhausted, he found nothing short of agonizing guilt overtake him. 

“Look!” a child suddenly said, everyone looking to see four figures approaching the ruined gate leading to their once peaceful, untouched town. “They’re back!” Everyone began to gather around the aforementioned four foreigners, all four of them feeling rather put on spot, yet ultimately, they couldn’t blame these people. But it soon became clear to the residents of Astoria that a far smaller fifth figure had been added to the party. “Hey! Isn’t that a...a…”

“Koropokkur.” Domperi answered. Immediately, the sight of him perched on Riesz’s shoulder brought several eyes to view him. “Yeah, yeah, stare away!” the small man fluffed out his robes and beard. “People tell me I AM a looker after all these years!”

“I didn’t think that they even existed!” one voice said. 

“This one looks old!” a child exclaimed. 

“Are there any more of you out there?” someone else asked.

Riesz, Kevin, Charlotte, and Hawkeye collectively rolled their eyes as Domperi was taking in all of this. “All right, all right!” Riesz said, urging the people to move back (though they didn’t exactly obey). “Yes, this IS a korobokkle-”

“Ahem?”

Riesz sighed. “LEADER of the korobokkles, and-”

“Name’s Domperi.” Domperi interrupted, his eyes then filling with determination. “And I’m here to give you fine folks a way to get those beastmen out of here!”

Chapter Text

"All right." Riesz began, a map below her on the ground, everyone gathered around. "This...gentlemen here," she turned to Hawkeye, who only grinned at her, she rolling her eyes. "And Domperi's forces will enter through the western wall and set up the traps. Once that's taken care of and the enemy forces are reasonably compromised, then we shall move in and combat them." she then lifted her eyes to face the people. "Now, are you certain that you all are willing to do this?"

"Yeah!" the citizens of Astoria answered in a thunderous cry, each of them holding an assortment of objects ranging from hoes and sickles to more household items such as rolling pins and frying pans.

"We're taking back our home!" one man shouted, everyone agreeing with him.

"My boy's with those monsters!" Elisa added, her grip on her frying pan tightening. "I'm all in!" Kevin tried to hide his discomfort. True, they weren't talking about him, yet it was clear that he wasn't exactly viewed in a positive light yet.

Hawkeye looked to Riesz. "They seem fired up." he whispered.

"Indeed." she replied, though her tone then grew more serious."All right. Seeing as we're all in agreement, I must inform you of some very important facts." the princess told the crowd. "As I'm sure you all are aware, I will take the helm of the charge, but I cannot guarantee your complete safety." she tightened her lips, staring at the crowd of people surrounding her. Her makeshift, hastily put together 'army'. Hardly. "Some of you may be," no, more like WILL be. "Hurt, some maybe more seriously than others. But if you are willing to go through with such risks, then I commend you all for your courage." Riesz tried to appear unshakable and stalwart, trying her best to resemble an image of what these people needed. "I know that many of you are afraid. And many may perhaps believe that, despite taking up arms, this mission is futile. And I won't lie to you in saying that I do not know how it will go." she took in a heavy breath. "But for this place to truly be free, something must be done. We must act. And seeing as there is no refuge in Wendel, then our only option is to fight. Don't be ashamed if you are afraid, for I share this with you." the young woman tightened the grip on her spear, then slammed it against the ground. "Yet this cannot go on any further. We cannot allow these creatures to continue doing as they please!" she shouted. "So I say unto you, are you willing to take back your home?!"

"Yeah!" the citizens shouted.

"I repeat: are you willing to take back your home?!"

"YEAH!"

"Excellent!" Riesz proclaimed, a smile on her face. "Bring that vigor to the battlefield! We shall proceed upon the signal! I thank you all for your contribution!" she then turned from the crowd, of whom had begun discussing what they were going to do when they broke into Jadd rather excitedly. Some said that they were going to bash the beastmen over the head while others said they'd give them a taste of their pans. Riesz could've sworn she heard about some things 'being shoved up their ass', yet she brushed such things off. If anything, at least these people were confident. She could only hope that they were prepared for unavoidable difficulties. As soon as she turned away though, the image she had put on was quickly dismantled.

"You ok?" Kevin questioned, Riesz only responding with a tentative sigh.

"There's no other choice we have." she answered. "Yet I wish nothing more for there to be one."

"Hey, they can do it." Hawkeye assured her. "If these people can make it through this, they're tougher than what you're giving them credit for. Our entire guild is filled with what you call 'ordinary people'."

"I don't doubt that they're strong." the blonde replied. "Yet tough as they may be, they're being forced to take places and roles that never should've been thrust on them