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Lahel stood outside the city of Egypt for what seemed to be ages. He shielded his eyes from the dust, that scattered in the air, caused by a combination of the wind and the ventilation from the potholes above the city. Though he didn’t know what to expect, Lahel did know who to expect.
It wasn’t until half an hour of waiting did Lahel spot a group of people trudging along the cracked, rocky surface. They huddled around a man who waddled rather than walked due to the excess skin that rolled over itself. As he came closer to Lahel, the man held his hand up to the entourage and made the remainder of the journey by himself.
Lahel bowed, raising his head when the man told him to.
‘Welcome, Village Leader,’ Lahel greeted.
‘No need more formalities,’ the man said.
‘Forgive me, Mr Ching.’
‘Just Larry is fine.’
‘Oh, but you are a man of high status. I cannot possibly call you by your first name, sir.’
‘You have earned the right to be my guide for today. You must have accomplished many feats to be given this task. For that, you have my respect.’
Lahel bowed once more. ‘Your words flatter me, sir.’
‘No problem. I’m actually quite relieved you’re here. Have you heard about the utility medic type mage that died the other day?’
‘I am aware.’
‘Well, between you and me, I believe there’s an insider, so I can’t trust any of my escorts, you understand?’
‘Yes, sir. I will do everything in my power to make sure I can fulfil my role to the best of my ability.’
‘And I’m sure you will, Mr, er…’ the village leader stuttered, racking his brain for a name.
‘Lahel Bints,’ Lahel prompted.
‘Ah, yes. Mr Bints. Anyway, please guide us to the barracks.’
Lahel knocked on the floor three times before the ground gave way, revealing a set of stairs. He led the village leader down them, followed closely by the group of people that accompanied him. The sound of their multiple footsteps echoed all the way to the city, causing a small crowd to gather at the bottom of the staircase.
A woman pushed past Lahel, ushering the people away, using hardened spikes made up of her skin as a deterrent. She then raised her hand, beckoning everyone to continue. Did they all have such tedious jobs? Lahel wondered, looking back at the people that escorted the village leader.
Though the barracks were only a few hundred metres away, it felt like a chore to walk the distance as Lahel slowed down to match the leader’s waddling speed. How was he a high ranked mage with such low mobility? Lahel questioned. Not sure as to why, Lahel decided to keep up the slow pace until he knew of the answer.
Upon arrival, Lahel showed a letter to the guard posted outside the barracks. He flicked through the letter and further documentation before nodding, turning to open a door completely made of stone and several metres tall. Despite the weight, the guard made opening the door look effortless, using just one hand to pull on the doorknob while using the other to shake hands with the VIPs.
Gusts of air hit Lahel as the spacious hallway bustled with animals and soldiers alike. The walls arched into a criss-cross at the top, allowing gaps for water to roll down, dripping into buckets for consumption.
Lahel also admired the tapestries and craftsmanship of the building, noting how the homes couldn’t compare to the barracks. However, the village leader looked unimpressed, as if he’d seen better. Lahel couldn’t help but feel a tinge of jealousy, understanding that the leader witnessed even greater works of architecture, but he hid his emotions well by handling more paperwork at the reception of the barracks. Picking up a metallic but rusty key, he handed it over to Mr Ching, who held it tightly in the palm of his hands.
‘Shall we continue with the tour?’ Lahel asked, turning to the village leader and his impatient entourage.
‘Let’s make the tour short. My time is precious, Mable,’ Mr Ching ordered.
‘Uh, it’s Lahel,’ Lahel attempted to correct.
The village leader made a hand gesture, causing half of the group that accompanied him to disperse. The others joined Lahel and the leader on the tour of the barracks. Most of them came with an air of boredom, sighing or yawning as they went along. It didn’t faze Lahel, however, as his job was just to guide the village leader. He had no responsibility for the others.
During the tour, Lahel showed off several rooms, ranging from the stables, where the mages kept animals such as Lupim3LupimA breed of dog. Large in size and often used as carriers.s, to the storage rooms containing jugs of food and resources. Along each stage of the tour, one or two members broke off from the entourage, leaving half a dozen bodyguards at the end.
‘The final stop is the bedrooms,’ Lahel explained.
‘Ah, ok. Then I’d like my privacy,’ Larry Ching requested.
‘We can’t allow that,’ a beefy bodyguard rejected, edging closer to the leader and turning to Lahel. ‘We must go wherever he goes.’
‘Even to the bedroom?’ the leader scoffed without Lahel’s input. ‘Your rooms are nearby, so go get some rest. We’ll have a busy day tomorrow.’
‘I’ll be accompanied by Rachel too, so no need to fret.’
‘Lahel…’ Lahel murmured.
‘Fine. We’ll rush over if anything happens,’ the guard asserted.
‘As expected of my subordinates,’ the village leader praised.
After leaving the bodyguards behind, Lahel and the village leader made their way down a long corridor. They reached a door unique to the building. Instead of the automatic knocking system that riddled the barracks, this door required a lock which had to be opened by a key. Having received the key earlier, the village leader opened the door to a pitch-black room, breathing a sigh of exasperation.
‘Not bad, Neal,’ he lied. ‘Spacious and clean enough.’
‘You can see what’s inside? You must have an amazing night vision, but I’m glad the room’s to your liking, leader,’ Lahel replied.
‘I’d like to rest now,’ the leader yawned. ‘I’ve travelled several kilometres and am very tired.’
‘Then I hope you rest well.’
The door closed. The leader turned around. A hand reached out to him, sending a shocking sensation through his body. His legs gave way. His eyes rolled. He couldn’t see straight. He saw two people. Was he hallucinating? No, he knew someone else stood beside Lahel. He panicked. He opened his mouth. He aimed at random. He fired pressurised water from the gaping hole. He heard cries of pain – words he couldn’t quite catch. He felt another shocking sensation. His mind went blank. His heartbeat stopped.
‘Calm down, man. I was just toying with him. No fun killing him straight away.’
‘What is wrong with you?!’
‘Chill, Jack. I killed him now and that’s all we needed.’
‘He’s made so much noise just before he died, and you want me to ‘chill’?’
‘We’re far away from anyone. No one is gonna hear.’
‘You underestimate of some of those bestials, Esper.’
The pair heard the sound of footsteps. They had no time to hide the lifeless body of the village leader. The steps grew louder. The voices that accompanied them confirmed the destination: their leader’s bedroom.
Jack cursed his luck.
‘We can take them on, Jack,’ Esper hesitated, clutching his arm. The pain from the pressurised beam of water that hit him caused him to wince.
‘There are three thousand people in the building. Even if we manage to beat his bodyguards, we will not survive everyone else,’ Jack replied.
‘So, what? It’s easy stuff.’
‘We are not going to win!’
The pursuers grew ever closer. Jack had no time to talk with an idiot like Esper, who lived only for excitement. He steeled his resolve. With the mission complete, he decided to make sure both of them didn’t need to die. He lowered his heartbeat and body temperature, matching the thirty degrees in the room, and entered into stealth. Esper’s eyes widened as he realised his partner’s intent.
Jack didn’t reply to his partner’s call. Instead, he moved to the other side of the room, where the standing right beside the door. The sound of footsteps stopped. The voices turned into whispers. Time froze to the point that even a drop of sweat would refuse to fall.
Esper started to panic. He had no plan and he definitely didn’t want to die. In a last ditched effort, he tried calling out again, eyes fixated on the location where he last saw his partner.
‘Jack! Jack! Hey! Man, you gotta be kidding me. Without me, you wouldn’t be able to do anything. This mission wouldn’t have succeeded without me! Stop staying silent! If you leave me here, I will make sure you die with me! Jack, are you listening?!’
Jack heard everything. He made his mind up. He couldn’t save his partner, not with people right outside the room.
The door burst open. A group of ten entered, all well-built. In a one on one, Esper would struggle to win, let alone against this many.
The guards had a look at the floor, where the village leader laid, then at Esper who stayed static, petrified by his bleak future. A white man with curly brown hair, the same one that tried to stop the village leader from leaving the bodyguards in the first place, stepped forward.
‘It seems like the leader was electrocuted,’ the man analysed. ‘The guy over there must be a mage that can use electricity. Kabal. Ren. Pin down the suspect.’
Two men, who looked exactly like one another, with their albino skin, black eyes and crew-cut hair, rushed at Esper. They floored him with ease, strapping Esper’s arms behind his back and mashed his head against the floor.
In desperation, Esper sent out a wave of electricity through the men holding him down. However, they didn’t even flinch, as if it had no effect on them. With how helpless he felt combined with the hatred he radiated towards the man who abandoned him, something snapped in Esper’s mind. He began laughing a madman’s laugh, mumbling gibberish in between his fits.
‘What do we do now, boss?’ asked one of the men, still pinning Esper down.
‘Poor guy’s gone mad. Did he try doing anything to you, Kabal?’ the boss asked
‘He did try to electrocute me,’ Kabal replied.
‘Same here,’ added the other.
‘Luckily I brought some Electricity resistant types with me,’ the lead bodyguard lauded himself. ‘But that confirms it. He must be the culprit. Kala, what’s the status?’
A woman looked up. While Kabal and Ren pinned Esper down, she inspected the body. From her frowning face, everyone in the room knew the outcome. They looked down, mourning the loss of their leader. His death dealt a major blow to the upcoming battle.
Esper’s laughter died down. However, he didn’t shut up. He shouted at the guards who ignored him, all except the boss of the group.
‘What did you say?’ he asked Esper, crouching down to meet him face to face.
‘You’re all idiots!’ Esper screamed.
‘Sintal, why are you speaking with him? He’s obviously crazy,’ said Kala, referring to the leader of their group.
‘Hush. I think he knows something,’ Sintal replied before turning back to Esper, ‘Why is that?’
‘Did you really think I could kill him?!’ Esper mocked, a grin on his face.
‘All the evidence is there. I don’t see who else it could. No, wait.’
Sintal’s eyes darted around the room, looking for any more evidence. Failing to do so, he gritted his teeth,
‘Think about it. The leader was always with that guide. He was also the one who went with him to his room. I didn’t see the guide leave though. On the other hand, I’ve never seen this guy before in the database. He couldn’t have done this alone. Prayan, light a torch in this room,’ Sintal ordered.
Jack darted for it, leaving the manic laughter of Esper behind him in his silent steps. Why was he such a fool? Did he really think he could save him? He bit his camouflaged lip to bring back his rationality. With all that time he lost, he knew the people in the building would be notified of his existence soon. Jack needed to come up with a plan.
With over two-thousand rooms, combining to stretch several kilometres long and wide, and with him being in the centre of the barracks, Jack couldn’t escape in one go without losing his camouflage through fatigue. With the whole Egyptian army after him, a single breath or beat of the heart could alert the guards of his presence. His body demanded oxygen but, with the lowered heart rate and breaths per minute, he couldn’t afford to last long distances.
Luckily, Jack knew the barracks’ layout inside out, having to do so to play his role as a guide. Out of all the rooms in the building, he deemed one room as safe to hide in: the King’s Room; a room found in every city of Africa, dedicated for the chance arrival of the King of AAA himself. No one dared enter the room out of fear for being punished by the smallest of reasons rather than anything else, making it the ideal place to take shelter.
Jack glided his way past those on patrol, listening in to some of the conversations. As he predicted, no one knew of the village leader’s death from what Jack overheard, to avoid any panic to occur, but word of his disappearance circulated around the mages. However, knowledge of him being a stealth bestial type, or even his real name, hadn’t been discovered yet. On high alert, the soldiers searched not for Jack Darius, but Lahel Bints, the man whose identity Jack had stolen. He could use that to his advantage.
Sticking to the dark corridors, Jack meandered towards the King’s room. Where torches perched on the walls, Jack kept to the shadows, making sure his own shadow overlapped with them. Though his stealth allowed him to be unseen, a stray ray of light would reveal his location through the shadow it created.
At last, Jack reached an alley without a torch in sight. He placed his hand on the walls, rubbings against it as he walked down the path, catching weeds and insects that made him want to recoil in disgust. Though the dim lighting made the search difficult, he felt a line that ran vertical. He found the entrance to the hidden passageway.
Jack opened the sliding door, causing several plants to get knocked off the edges. He stared into the passageway he uncovered but he couldn’t see anything. The black abyss waiting in front of him beckoned him to go forward, which he accepted without hesitation.
Having closed the entrance behind him, Jack dropped his stealth and breathed a deep breath. His body ached from the lack of oxygen in his body and he lied down, heart beating at a frantic pace. Although he could keep hold of his breathing and heartbeat for much longer, the symptoms that came after such a feat took a toll on his body. He remembered attempting it once before but fell unconscious for several days after that; a mistake to avoid this time.
Jack’s breather let his mind to wander. He couldn’t concentrate. He remembered the smiles of Maria as she handed him squadron W’s first real mission in decades. He thought of how he prepared, planned and executed every single step, assuring the success of the assassination. He slammed his fist against the wall at why, despite how perfect his methods might be, he couldn’t account for the chaotic nature of Esper which ultimately led to their demise.
‘I miss squadron W. Maria, Humin, Tobi, Quintero, Rial, Obliin, Raphael, Tenage…’ The list continued as Jack mumbled all their names to himself, reminiscing on how they accepted him into the squadron despite being an E ranked mage. ‘…Kyle, Kieran, Alder.’
The final name snapped Jack back into reality, noticing the surroundings for the first time since he entered. He couldn’t see anything nor could he hear anything. Just black silence. At first, the silence soothed him, indicating that no pursuer caught onto his location but, as time went on, the quiet corridor soon became a curse.
Jack started to hear the meticulous thumping of his heart followed by the pumping of blood through his veins. His lungs made an almighty racket, his bones creaked under minimal pressure and a buzzing sound in his ears all unnerved Jack. How long had stayed floating between the planes of consciousness and unconsciousness? A minute? An hour? A day? Jack couldn’t think straight. He had to get out.
Jack made his way through the passageway, slapping the walls at irregular intervals to keep his sanity. He tried to forget about each factor that went wrong but all he could think of was the series of events that led to his predicament. Maybe Jack should have planned things out more. He should have predicted the possibility of something going wrong. He should have figured out more escape routes. Yet, why didn’t he? Did something deep down inside him tell him that Esper would do as he was told without a hitch? Jack cursed his ineptitude. He deserved to be a low ranked mage – a failure of the Eurasian MBP.
Caught in his train of thought, Jack crashed into a wall opposite him. He stammered backwards, getting a sense of the world around him once again. He shook his head and pushed the wall. After some effort, the door began to push forward. Rays of light graced Jack, bringing a sense of joy to him. He clambered up some stairs to the source of that light. He opened up another door above him and turning the rays into bursts of light, blinding Jack in that very moment. Rubbing the initial daze away, Jack regained his vision and climbed his way out of the darkness.
A lavish room awaited him, with floors and walls made of marble shiny enough to see your reflection in them, all carved to perfection. A king-sized bed with the softest mattress Jack had ever seen seduced him. He stumbled towards it, falling headfirst into the covers, allowing a wave of exhaustion to overcome him, making him fall into a deep sleep.
Jack opened his eyes. A gentle illumination welcomed him, unlike the burning sensation he felt earlier on. As he laid on the bed, he took a moment before realising the source of the light. A huge shaft above the bed let the stars and moon to shine into the King’s Room, mesmerising Jack.
‘Nighttime already?’ he noted. ‘What happened to the pursuers?’
A rumbling stomach prompted Jack to look for food instead of answers. He got up, searching the room for anything to munch on. As luck would have it, Jack found some fruits placed above on a sink on one end of the room. He removed the moulded half, chewing on the fresh side.
With his hunger sated, he made looking for water his next task. However, before he did so, A tinoo fluttered into the room via the shaft. It nestled beside the eating Jack, cooing in delight. Jack caressed the bird’s feathers, enjoying the company. For once, a living being he could trust!
‘You’re Syndra’s tinoo, aren’t you?’ Jack asked, getting an affirmative squawk in response. ‘I see. Any chance you see water? I need to regain my energy if I want to get out of this place.’
The bird nodded, raising its wings towards a stone bowl he had never seen before. Attached to the wall, the bowl stood on a pillar with no apparent purpose. Not only that, on top of the bowl, a weird metallic tube, that arched downwards, stuck out with knobs attached to either side.
‘That thing? Really? Huh, might as well try it out.’
Jack moved towards the bowl, turning his head around the contraption, figuring out whether how on Earth it produced water. He tapped on the tube then the knobs, waiting for something to happen, but just a single drop of water fell instead.
‘That it?’ Jack said, turning to the bird.
Even though the tinoo couldn’t speak, Jack knew what its face tried to convey. Are you kidding me? he heard loud and clear. It then flew towards the tube, placing its claw on one of the knobs and turning it. A stream of water gushed from the tube, falling into the bowl and through a hole in the bottom.
‘Wow. The AAA’s king sure is spoilt. We’d have to walk more than a kilometre to get out water and he gets his just like that! Where did you learn about this thingy anyway?’ Jack said for a lack of a word to describe the bowl, tube and knob mechanism.
A lack of response from his animal companion prompted Jack to gulp down the water, gasping in relief after each handful. He splashed some more water over his face, closing the knob when finished. With that done, he slapped himself awake, realising the gravity of the situation he was in.
‘Thanks for the help. Tell Syndra that I’ll leave tonight. If I’m not out within three days, assume I’m dead. Leave ASAP if that happens. She’s in as much danger as I am.’
The bird cawed in agreement, flying off through the shaft again, away to its master. Though brief in the time he spent with the tinoo, Jack gained new hope through it. He lost his partner but not his life. Now he had to make sure he didn’t lose that either.
Drying his face off with his arm, Jack looked for misplaced objects and furniture. From his knowledge, two more hidden passageways connected with the King’s Room. Jack couldn’t use the one he came out of, lest he feared people waited outside the entrance.
A box caught Jack’s eyes. Like the bowl earlier on, he had never seen such a thing. A black stiff material, that made an echo when flicked, surrounded a glass plane, which slotted parallel to the walls. Jack peered into the glass but all he saw was greyish darkness – not quite pitch black as he could see his reflection.
On top of the box rested a stick with buttons attached to it, each with a symbol he couldn’t recognise. Did that open up a secret passageway? Only one way to find out. A big red button on the stick drew Jack’s attention in particular. He pondered whether to press it or not, settling on his initial gut feeling but a thumping in his head told him otherwise. Perhaps his mental fatigue still plagued him. How long was he out for again? He clutched his head, shaking off any remaining drowsiness.
To calm his nerves, Jack imagined the praise he would get from colonel for his success to the point he could feel her gentle touch on his head, making his body lighter. However, in his daydreaming, his knees buckled causing him to fall forwards. Unable to react in time, Jack failed to cushion the impact. His chest collided with the side of the box, winding him in the process. His eyes looked up towards the glass in befuddlement, gazing into the reflection, head throbbing in pain.
He saw spiky hair.
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