When the morning sun rose over the horizon, Layette and Merlin left their encampment with haste. There was no way of leaving the cursed woodlands, so Merlin suggested they pursue Aren using his Tracker spell. As they followed the trail the spell laid out for them, Shadow Wolves were no longer seen and light cast the darkness away. It was assuring to know that even they won’t worry about the vegetation trying to kill them. During their walk, Merlin asked a lot of questions about Layette’s experience of being part of the Divine Circle. Though it was overwhelming for her to answer them all, she was happy to see Merlin smiling despite what he had been through.
“Is it true that you guys can, like, destroy entire cities?!”
Layette smiled awkwardly. “Y-Yes, if we tried.”
“Then why leave the fighting to the commoners? Why use so many lives to end the conflict?”
“O-Oh, uh. Well.” Layette cleared her throat. “More lives will be a risk (I think)! Instead of hundreds dying at once, imagine like a thousand just being swept away like nothing. A power like mine has a lot of responsibility behind it, so one cannot be reckless with it.”
Merlin widened his eyes in astonishment. “Woah, that’s superb! Will I be able to see the destroying city power in practice?”
“Please, like a small demonstration!”
She waved her hand, dismissing any continuation of the topic. “A-Anyway, tell me more about that Aren guy.”
“Oh right… Well, he had like white hair and wore an eyepatch on his right eye. Also, he was wearing this long scarf, which I believe is the Mystical Shawl of Destiny!”
“Wait, white hair? Aren has white hair?”
“Weird right? I thought only half-breeds can get it! I never seen a person with hair pure as snow, other than old folk, of course.”
This might be the person Father is interested in. I have to bring him in, Layette mumbled to herself. Maybe then, he will stop his research and help end the Civil War.
“Ah, it is nothing. From what you told me, he is faster than Senior. To evade a member from the Conclave is no easy feat, so Aren must be stronger than he looks.”
“Yeah. Only if he was here. Senior I mean. He’d probably give more into the conversation than I can…”
Layette lowered her eyes. “S-Sorry. I forgot. Forgive me for saying his name.”
“It’s okay, Miss Hawk—I mean, Miss Layette. I am still sad, but being in such a state won’t help me get out of this place. We have to stay focused and until then, my tears are unnecessary!”
She expressed her concern, but didn’t press on the subject. “Right. Him having a Divine artifact does not make light of the situation. If we are going to catch him, you will have to help me, okay?”
After some time, the shining glow of the staff glowed brighter: they were close to Aren’s location. Auras of purple and green seeped from the surrounding trees, and the sky turned bloody red. Something dangerous was up ahead, and the duo mentality prepared themselves. A flash of light appeared in front of them, revealing a white-gown-wearing woman. Layette got in Merlin’s way, pointing her steel sword.
“Wait, Layette, that’s the woman-in-white!” Merlin said.
“The one who saved you and led me to safety?”
Merlin nodded as the woman bowed. She gestured for them to accompany her. “I bring no harm, young mistress and knave. Please excuse thy suspicion of me and follow with haste. I wilt leadeth thee to that gent. This way, please.”
Layette and Merlin followed the woman, cautiously watching her tread on the dirt ground: each step was elegant in a way they cannot describe. Her silky, long green hair drifted when the soft winds blew. Now that Layette thought about it, this reminded her of a legend she’d heard before, but she does not know which. She confessed this to Merlin.
“I cannot put my tongue on it, but I swear she looks familiar. Like from an old legend of some sort. You came from the Academy: any ideas?”
“To be frank, Layette, history is one of my weakest topics in academics…”
“Same. Academics in general is a nightmare for me.”
“But Miss Layette, there’s a lot of stories about green-haired heroines going out and about. I doubt a person can live centuries while looking like a newborn babe. We should focus on what’s ahead, if I may inquire.”
“Are you not at least a bit curious? Her back is still turned, so we should take a closer look!”
Merlin lowered his eyes. “I-I don’t think that’s appropriate for—”
Layette and Merlin walked closer, stopping at an arms-length distance away. The white-dressed woman turned to face them. She was waiting until they were willing to move again. This person seemed to be younger than Layette, blinking twice, and stared with her yellow, tender eyes. Glancing closer at her face, they saw a symbol of a star and a glowing sun behind it on her forehead.
Layette’s eyes widened. “No way. Is that what I think it is?!”
“Is thither a problem I can address?” she said.
The two jumped up. Though her face was devoid of emotion, it was clear the white-dressed lady was confused upon seeing their reaction.
“Oh, nothing! Nothing suspicious going on here, haha!” Layette said, laughing nervously.
“We art heading close. Making haste is of paramount.”
“Where are you leading us exactly? Wait, this is a trap, is it not?!”
“Nay. Thither is a horrible evil, falsing within this forest. I, along with many of my comrades, fought to end it. Yond horror ended, but its price was our life.” She lowered her eyes. “To address my own person, thither is no logical reason for thee to know now. I am to guide thee and that is all. You ought to consider our lodging of interest, instead.”
The fair maiden turned around and continued onward without hesitation. Merlin shrugged, and they followed. After some time, they reached to what appeared to be a ruined shack. A devious aura seeped out from its doors, swirling in a lifelike matter. It urged the unknown visitors to come in, the front door opening for them. The woman raised her arm, pointing at the shack.
“Thither, a young sir is fighting the evil. Holp that gent and the people trapped inside the wretched castle.” She turned, facing Merlin and Layette, dissipating into blue-colored particles. “I beg thee: free us from this nightmare and defeat those whose I failed to defeat. I, June Kyngeston, bestow thee luck for thy upcoming conflict.”
Layette’s mouth dropped, realizing the person she’d traveled with was one of the legendary Heroes of Old. She called out for her, but the ancient hero was nowhere to be seen.
“Did I hear that right? June Kyngeston’s ghost came to talk to us!” Merlin exclaimed.
“No wonder why she looked so familiar! I should have asked—wait, that is not important right now!” Layette furrowed her brows. “She said something about helping someone. Can you check if there is anyone inside?”
Merlin raised his staff, casting Detect Presence to survey inside the shack. Sure enough, he identified many sources of mana and the divine artifact within. Taking these circumstances into consideration, there was only one thing to conclude: Aren was trying to summon an unstoppable monster.
The large sources of mana were most likely people that are used to fuel the ritual, and the Divine Artifact was a catalyst to call upon the horrid beast. This would explain why the Tier-5 Barrier was implemented in the first place. The evidence in front of her were pieces of a puzzle that fit too well together, and it was clear she had to stop him.
“Come on Merlin, we got a world to save!” Layette exclaimed.
“C-Can you tell me what’s going on, Miss Layette? Have you figured out what’s going on?”
”A hero never waits for their victims to fall prey: we must take action in the heat of the moment! We will save them!”
The squad of skeletal soldiers traveled in unison as they marched through the dark halls of the castle corridors. They searched through the countless quantity of rooms, looking for Aren and Archimedes. One of them found a trail of blood, leading it into a ruined kitchen, and reporting their findings to June. June nodded and with her large force of fifty undead warriors, they formed a shield wall near the kitchen’s entrance. She pushed the soldiers away as she made her way through the line, then with a gestured, ordered twenty of her undead to follow. They searched around, looking through every crack and hole they can find. With no success, she commanded everyone to spread out once again. When her troops were gone, she went into her rotten rib cage to take out a rusted key.
Arch… i… medes…
Rage surged through her controlled subconsciousness and she howled in pain. Marble tables and nearby walls were torn asunder during her rampage. When she got control of herself, she left the room in haste, continuing the search. Little did they know, there was a secret room under the kitchen. A marble slate moved to the side and Archimedes peered out from the corner. After confirming they had departed, he used his head to shift the plate back to its spot. He turned to Aren, who sat back against a wall with a pool of blood forming around him. Archimedes came to him with weary eyes as yet again, he had to watch another friend die before his eyes. Aren smiled, blood draining from his mouth.
“I-It’s okay, turts’… D-Don’t worry, I’ll be back. Just stay tight and…”
His eye slowly closed on their own and Archimedes moaned, trying to make him stay awake. Aren’s head bobbled down and from there, he was still. Several tears of agony fell from the tortoise’s eyes. Another person had died because of him. If he hadn’t led Aren here, then none of this would’ve happened. Before he sank lower to the depths of depression, a flash of red came past him. He jumped back, seeing Aren’s body forming streaks of lightning all over. When he glanced closer, Aren’s wound and blood were drifting back to his body, as if time was reversing the injuries. Then, it was silent, and when Archimedes neared him, Aren shot up and gasped for air. The tortoise’s mouth dropped as it looked with awe, wondering what type of black magics did it witnessed. Aren moved his head around and stretched, before smiling and greeting Archimedes with a wave.
“Yo. Told you I’ll come back.”
Archimedes pounced on him, licking his face.
“H-Hey, hey! Ease it with the licking!” Aren wiped the tears off from the tortoise’s face. “I’m immortal, yeah, big revelation. Sorry you had to figure it out this way.”
He got up, brushing off the dust from his pants. Archimedes stood in front of him, tilting his head. When Aren tried to move, he blocked him from going any further, doing the same tilt as before. It was as if he was curious to what had transpired, and so Aren told him. Or so the boy thought.
“Oh, how did I come back? Magic!” Aren scratched his head and sighed. “Well, it’s more complicated than that. You saw those orbs of blue light coming out from my body during the fight?”
“My mana is intertwined with my immortality. If I have no more, then I die. However, I always store mana before every fight, so I can come back once I retreat. In order for me to actually stay dead, someone has to take ALL my mana at once. Neat, right?”
Archimedes gave the so-so impression.
“Hey, it is what it is. I’m sure no mortal being can live for hundreds of years without some bull crap to keep them from dying.”
Archimedes tilted his head once more, wondering why would anyone do such a thing. Or so Aren thought, again.
“Well, I did save the world. Technically twice, but that’s a different story to tell. It’s under the predicament of imminent doom, so I’m here to save it, again. No thanks required.”
Aren put his hands on his side with his chin up. “If I defeat the Grand Necromancer, then I can continue on to my world saving! Haha, that would mean this would be the actual third time I saved the world and the future will be the fourth!”
Archimedes lowered his eyes in disappointment. As much as he missed Aren, he’d rather succumb to depression than to hear his boastful talking. When the two when out of their hiding spot after confirming no one was around, the tortoise stopped in front of the doorway, tilting his head.
“Are you going to ask another question about my immortality again?”
Archimedes shook his head.
Aren touched his chin. “Hmm… Then I suppose you are inquiring how we will stop the Grand Necromancer?”
“Hmm… Don’t know. We have to take down the Necromancer before any reinforcements can respond. Only if we had someone to help us, that’ll be swell.”
The moment Aren stepped out of the kitchen, he felt something sharp brushing against his throat.
“Not another step,” the person said. “Aren Damoder, I am holding you accountable for your crimes!”
“A woman’s voice?” he remarked.
“Now turn and face me, coward. I, Layette Hawkwood, am stopping your evil deeds here!”