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Oblivious to the happenings going on outside the Tetamus Range, Kain sat on a boulder, staring at the flowing river a short distance away from him. His eyebrows were deeply knitted, as if he had lots of things to think about. Which was true.
At the moment, he was planning to build himself a raft, and float out of this hell.
Next to him, a bird not much bigger than a hawk lay on its side, snoring softly. Its reddish fur reflected the warm sunlight, flickers of flames rising and falling whenever it breathed.
Kain couldn’t help but contemplate the last few weeks that flashed by in a frenzied rush to survive, as he watched the serene waters gently flowing by.
Lots of things had happened, most of them being, a too-close-for-comfort brush with death. He didn’t venture too deeply into the interior of the forest. He felt it was not a good idea, seeing that Aeterna got thicker the further he went in.
He couldn’t even climb up on a tree to take a gander at just how big the forest was; his physical body couldn’t support it. Not only that, the trees were super-duper tall. Only a monkey with long, dexterous, and strong arms would be able to climb them.
But to compensate for his shortcomings, he improvised a way to temporarily run faster by shoving Aeterna down to his legs, sort of how he protected himself from the giant lizard Fiend’s tail swipe. The whole thing tired him out super fast, but it proved to be invaluable a couple of times so he wasn’t complaining.
Then, there were the passing days.
He marked the walls of his new shelter every time the sun went down the horizon. This way, he was able to tell how long he spent in this place. And also, that’s how he knew no rescue was coming. Too much time had passed. Even if he was a pragmatic idiot, which he wasn’t, he could imagine the rescuers giving up, believing he was dead by now. If the shoe was on the other foot, he’d think the same.
Therefore, he decided, it was high time he did The Great Escape.
Monsoon came and went, and the sweltering heat enveloped the entire forest. Now, it was in the middle of a proper Summer.
The river water had become a lot calmer, with the rain subsiding. He’d been waiting for that. Actually, he’d waiting for lots of other things too, but never mind that.
He attempted to leave via a raft before. Three days ago, in fact.
But then, his desperate escape came to a grinding halt the moment an aquatic Fiend that sort of resembled a goldfish sprung out of the water and tried to swallow him up. That monster was a size of a minivan. Thanks to the phoenix, he safely avoided becoming a fish bait.
It remained a problem, though. He couldn’t sense its approach, even with his Aeterna vision. It seemed like he couldn’t gaze into the water. He wasn’t powerful enough yet for that. He had to wonder just how he lived through falling into the river and then carried down without getting eaten by these large fish.
Now, how do I solve this, eh? C’mon now, think.
Kain pondered. He couldn’t come up with an answer.
The other day, he asked the phoenix whether it could carry him above the mountain range.
Even though it couldn’t speak, it had amazing intellect, maybe even surpassing that of Kain. So, conversing with it was possible. Understanding what it wanted to say took some interpreting from his side, but still, it could be done.
However, its personality could do with a little more friendliness.
It totally dissed Kain, as if he was beneath it. Which was true, if one looked at it objectively. Still, its I’m-bettter-than-you attitude grated on his nerves a bit.
Honestly speaking, the bird was fearsome enough to cause most of the medium sized predators to back away. And there were many, many medium sized Fiends and creatures in this forest, all of them possessing sharp talons, claws and fangs. Kain would have been shredded to bits if he were to fight a single one of them.
“….Well, I guess it’s better than being alone, right?”
Kain muttered slowly, as he shifted his gaze at the bird. Its eyes were closed, it snoring softly. It was slightly irritating to see it so nonchalant about everything, but he couldn’t deny the fact that hunting for food became a lot easier with the bird around. He was thankful for that, at least.
Sighing, he shook his head and concentrated on finding ways to overcome his current dilemma.
“So, yeah. Now what should I do, huh?”
Kain looked back to his first attempt at escaping. The lone giant goldfish was enough to destroy his raft and nearly swallow him on one go. He poured his all in crafting that – and to see it break into pieces, really made him shed a tear of blood.
“Maybe I should make the raft more sturdy?”
He could do that. He used Wind Blade to chop down trees and then used various vines and roots as ropes to tie all the cut logs. This time, he could cut thicker, bigger trees and use double the number of vines to tie everything down.
Kain’s index finger rested on his chin, his head tilting slightly as he fell deeper into thought.
“No. That’s not going to work. I need a way to defeat that underwater nasty first. Or, at least, a way to increase the speed of the raft.”
He glanced at the river and narrowed his eyes, checking out the direction of the flow.
It looked oh-so-serene now, as if the earlier deluge was nothing but a lie concocted by a passing drunkard. Even the wind was gentle, to a point where it might as well be an asthmatic trying to blow through a straw.
Another sigh escaped from Kain’s lips. This was hopeless. Only if he was a bit stronger.
“Why can’t you just fly me over the mountains, you dang stupid bird?”
He gritted his teeth, remembering the time he asked the sleeping phoenix for a favor. Instead, the damn thing cawed and aggressively lectured him in a bird tongue, ending the tirade with a cold harrumph.
That was unpleasant. Not only it had a shrill, nails-on-a-blackboard voice, its chirping was quite incessant, enough to drive him around the bends.
If it weren’t for his strong mental faculty, he’d surely try to choke the living daylights out of this flame-covered bird with almighty haste.
Anyway, he knew he was asking the impossible. The mountain range itself was tall. Taller than his eyes could see the top, now that he was near enough. He craned his neck but still failed to discern just how tall the tops of the range were. The clouds hung like drapes over most of the top, obscuring his vision.
Which was somewhat weird, considering he was able to see past the range and at the tall, spindly peak in the dead center before while traveling in the merchant train.
Well, at the time, he was in an elevated position to begin with. Still, that wasn’t a good enough explanation for the height discrepancy.
“….Must be magic. Oops, I mean, Invocation.”
He chuckled bitterly.
The range was too tall. The bird was hardly any bigger than a well bred parrot. Even if it could lift him up, sustaining a lengthy flight while combating heavy headwinds wouldn’t be a walk in the park, even for an Awakened.
Kain figured his avian partner was one such mystical creature. Otherwise, it was hard to explain away the flames on its feathers. It was not hot to the touch but still possessed enough strength to burn away things. Only the Awakened had the ability to wield Aeterna, so it was safe to assume the bird was too.
Unfortunately, none of his deductions helped him out at the moment.
Frustrated, Kain hopped down from the boulder he was sitting on and stretched his limbs a little. This kind of leisure could be afforded simply because of the phoenix. Unless it was a huge Fiend, others kept away. He was genuinely grateful for this breathing room, of course. One of many things he was grateful about, really.
“If anything, I’m glad I decided to save you back then,” Kain shrugged his shoulders slightly, and poked the still-sleeping bird. “Hey, hey you lazy bird. You coming?”
Irritated, it flapped its wing, brushing off his finger and sat up, drowsiness clearly visible in its eyes. Yawning loudly, it flew up slowly, and circled around his head for a while and then descended, perching itself on Kain’s head.
Before he knew it, the top of his head became the bird’s spot. Kain at first tried to wave the stupid thing off but it was far more crafty and stubborn, and he had to give up in the end.
As they carefully tread past the undergrowth, Kain suddenly remembered something rather important.
“Hey. I still haven’t come up with a name for you, haven’t I? I can’t keep on calling you The Bird.”
Hearing this, the phoenix narrowed its eyes sharply in a frown.
Ignoring this, Kain continued. “So, yeah. How about…., uh, Firebird? It’s a great classic car, y’know.”
The phoenix shook its head in disapproval.
“Okay. So… uh, how about…. Flame-O?”
The phoenix slapped the back of his head.
“Hey!! What was that for?”
The bird glared at him, its eyes cold and obviously not pleased.
“Oh? So it’s like that now, huh? Fine. I don’t care. I’ll just call you whatever, whether you like it or not. I was just being nice but now, all bets are off!!”
As he bickered with the bird on top of his head, Kain suddenly sensed some creatures up ahead. He immediately shut his mouth and crouched, making himself very small. Seizing all movements, he remained deathly still, waiting. Even the bird quietened down, although it didn’t look worried at all.
A several breaths’ worth of time passed by, until a loud stampede could be heard, shaking the ground like a small earthquake.
Kain raised his head and peeked past the dense, dark and fragrant shrubs to confirm the source of the trembling earth: a herd of large deer-like creatures, at least hundred strong, briskly running through the forest.
Behind them, a dozen or so figures following the herd.
Kain narrowed his eyes, and shrank himself further.
Each of these deer was at least 1.5 times bigger than a moose, and possessed ferocious countenances that didn’t fit that of a peaceful herbivore. As a matter of fact, these creatures were actually omnivores. In other words, they didn’t discriminate when it came to food.
Lots of animals living in this forest were like that. Even a small, furry little critters aggressively sought out meat, placing Kain at near the very bottom of the proverbial food chain. Were it not for his Invocation prowess, he’d be in the last place.
One or two of these deer presented no problem for Kain. With the phoenix by his side, it was even better. Heck, he could prey on them if he wanted to.
However, they weren’t the only parties here.
Those following the herd consisted of one Hobgoblin, and a dozen Goblins. Now they were something else.
Now, it was not the first time Kain ran into these dastardly foul-smelling fantasy genre staple monsters. Oh no.
After the bitter struggle to entrap the giant lizard Fiend in a sinkhole, Kain carried the injured bird away, trying to find himself a new shelter. That’s when he ran into a group of Goblins, four strong.
They were scouts, sent out to check out what all the ruckus was about. Obviously, Kain was shocked out of his skull at the sudden arrival of the unwanted players, and ended up freely firing off Wind Blade toward every which direction while panicking like a screaming little girl.
These Goblins were only as tall as he was. And they weren’t too well armored. So, the sharp, compressed air sliced through them like a knife through hot butter. Gore and filth flung everywhere. That was not so nice.
Even then, he had to struggle even more. He had to fight one on one with a single surviving Goblin which was missing its left eye, struck blind by a stray pebble roused from its resting ground by the wayward Wind Blade.
Because of that memory, Kain dared not to tangle with Goblins. And if there was a Hobgoblin in the mix, stay the eff away. It was a rule he strictly adhered to, whenever he ran into a Goblin pack.
A Hobgoblin was as tall as a teen, covered from head to toe in thick, dull green skin, and smelled even worse. At one time, he saw it cleave a bear-like creature with a single swing of its rudimentary ax, surprising him greatly. It was a wise idea not to tangle with one, at all cost.
For now, he couldn’t move until the herd went past him. That much was obvious. He silently watched as the various members of the Goblin pack kept on shouting and herded the deer forward. It was like a scene from a cowboy movie, where a group of rugged-faced riders urging the slow and dimwitted steak-on-hooves toward the greener pastures.
That alone showed these Goblins, Fiends or not, possessed intelligence far above that of ordinary monsters.
Eventually, the stampeding herd went away, moving towards the river’s direction. They were probably trying to get water for their livestock.
Thinking that this was a chance, Kain made his move and crept out from the bush, dashing madly deeper into the forest. Even with the aid of the phoenix, there was no guarantee he’d survive if he was found.
After all, there was only one phoenix, and there were more than a dozen of them. It took a single hit from the smelly Goblin’s weapon to kill him. So being prudent was the best.
He ran for a short while, mindful of other creatures in the vicinity. Thinking the coast was clear, he slowed down a little, only to hear an enormous boom coming from behind, followed by a huge, primal roar in some distance away. Near the river, where he was contemplating on his escape plans.
“I really don’t like the sound of that,” Kain grimaced, and increased his running speed. Unfortunately, he was still a little kid, with short legs, so he couldn’t run that fast, so, although reluctant, he began sending Aeterna down to his legs. It seemed too early for this life-saving emergency measure, but something about that roar disturbed him greatly, and thus he decided to not to dilly-dally.
Even the phoenix sat up in alert, once it heard the roar.
During his stay, Kain heard quite a diverse array of roars emitted by the largest, most ferocious Fiends occupying the forest, turning him into a pro when it came to identifying the sound, but this one, he couldn’t tell.
One thing’s for sure, it was loud. Very, very loud.
As he ran, a shockwave laden with Aeterna began to sweep up from behind him. Trees were pushed back, dirt and fallen leaves swept up, and Kain momentarily felt weightlessness as both of his feet left the ground.
He stumbled back down to the ground, but quickly regained his posture and continued to run. Unwittingly, he ran past a few Fiends on his way, including, somewhat ironically, another pack of Goblins led by a Hobgoblin.
And yes, they began chasing after him.
There was not much Kain could do, even though a monster train was rapidly forming behind him. The reason being that, shortly after the boom and the roar, the deer herd emerged from the forest, frantically chasing him down. Huge panic clearly etched on their faces, and panting out of their skulls.
Obviously, they were running away from whatever it was that made the noise near the river.
Kain even heard screams of pain and death behind him, coming from the various Fiends and monsters. That made his frown deeper. Something was going very wrong back there, and he had a feeling it was not good, to put it mildly.
He was sweating buckets now. He thought that during his stay in this forest he got used to being under deadly pressure but hell, he sure wasn’t. He was scared out of his mind too, the only thought running inside his mind was to escape. Didn’t matter where to, as long as he was safe.
That statement proved to be so true when the source of that horrific roar came to Kain’s view. He had the misfortune of turning back when he heard the earth beneath his feet tremble unnaturally.
A ginormous, blood-red head full of razor sharp fangs shot out above the treeline, like a nightmarish candlestick. Four whiskers thicker than a tree trunk flowed luxuriantly on its maw, a hind leg of a deer visibly stuck between its teeth.
By his estimation, the parts that appeared above the forest canopy were as large as the giant lizard Fiend. And he knew that there were more to this new king of Fiends as far as the body’s length was concerned.
Holy moly, jesus, mary and joseph!! What the hell is that thing? A dragon?!
Kain felt the kind of chill he’d never, ever felt before. He froze on the spot, when the crimson creature bellowed out, sending out another shockwave.
It wasn’t just him that stopped in their tracks. The Goblin pack, led by the Hobgoblin, also froze on the spot, gazing towards at the gigantic Fiend, their entire bodies shaking in pure fear.
Kain’s daze broke only after the phoenix slapped him in the forehead. It then pointed towards a direction, with a grim expression, telling him to go that way.
If he went as he was told, then he was heading straight into the center of the forest.
Do I even have a choice?
Kain looked back at the crimson Fiend.
The huge monster groaned, and thrashed its body once, sending out an incredible explosion of air as well as thick, murderous aura. Goblins yelped out and began to scatter like a headless chicken.
Kain inwardly cursed. It was just moving about, yet it was causing destruction on the level incomparable to pretty much anything he’d ever seen.
As if to make the matters worse, it then turned towards Kain’s direction, and began to slither forward.
His scalp went numb. All the hair on his body stood up.
Without thinking twice, he ran towards where the phoenix pointed.
The further he ran, taller and denser the trees became. Sunlight ceased to penetrate the black canopy. The air carried an aura of something arcane, something that should not be disturbed.
Kain had no choice. Currently, the huge blood-red Fiend was right behind him, seemingly intent on chasing him down till the ends of the earth.
Actually, if he bothered to change his direction – like the way most of the fleeing Goblins did – then he’d come to an understanding that it was not coming after him, but rather, they happened to share a common destination.
And that destination was the center of the forest, where the spindly, towering mountain stood, unmoving for all of the eternity.
A single flicker of strange fear, totally unrelated to the chasing Fiend, slowly took root in Kain’s heart, as he neared the unnamed mountain. He wasn’t sure why, but his fearsome ability to sense ominous future flags was coming back in a lively swing. This made him deeply worried.
For the last few weeks in this forest, not once had it gone up. But now, as he neared the mountain, it was rousing from its slumber.
He bitterly smiled inwardly, thinking that maybe this ability to foretell bad/inconvenient things happening was his cheat skill after all. What a waste of a cliched divine gift, if it was.
Oblivious to his thoughts, the phoenix kept on directing Kain, making him stay on a certain course. The trees here became less crooked and sinister, but taller and unbelievably thicker. On average, the vegetation here would be as tall as a ten story buildings quite easily.
Traveling below such tall trees, even the vicious-looking red Fiend looked somewhat less imposing than before. That did not mean Kain wasn’t scared of it, of course. Oh, no.
Just like the taller trees, Aeterna got thicker, heavier and more sinister with every step he took. Now normally, this meant there was a powerful creature up ahead, but for some reason, he did not encounter any so far. It was as if…. there were no living things within the forest.
Powerful boom resounded, and a bellowing gust of wind smashed into the back of Kain. He cried out in shock and pain, and rolled on the ground, smashing past several shrubs and low lying branches. Blood seeped out from the small cuts and bruises on his exposed skin, his already worn and damaged clothing becoming worse dregs in a blink of an eye.
Kain hastily gathered himself and resumed running. But he knew. He knew that at this rate, he’d be squashed flat by the red Fiend. It was time to come up with a new plan. A plan to save his bacon.
And that plan was pretty simple, really. He’d chance it and hide. It worked before, so he didn’t see why it wouldn’t work today.
A place to hide? That was also simple as well; just dig a hole and climb in it. All he had to do, was find a patch of ground that was not covered tree roots or rocks, and then he’d be golden.
Unfortunately for him, though, he was in a middle of an increasingly dense forest. Everywhere he looked, there were tree roots jutting out of the ground like writhing snakes.
He had to find a small clearing. That’s all he needed.
The trembling grew louder. So loud, in fact, his internal organs were shaking. Kain grew desperate at that.
“Damn it!! Hey you, you stupid bird!! Help me out here, will you?”
The bird had an unsightly frown on its face. Not from what the boy had said, but from the deadly aura coming from behind. At the rate he was running, it was only a matter of time before Kain became food for the approaching giant Fiend.
As to reinforce its premonition of the future, the red, bloodied and scary face exploded out of the thick undergrowth with vengeance, less than 20 Ruten, around 100 meters, away from Kain. The Fiend’s glittering golden eyes immediately locked on to fleeing boy’s terrified face, and the fiery bird perched on top of it.
It was then the phoenix decided on its next course of action.
It was told not to help Kain out in combat. But, it was told by its master to look after the boy and make sure he wouldn’t get killed before its master emerged from the secluded meditation. It was too early, but seeing how the situation was playing out, the phoenix knew there was no other choice.
Sighing, the phoenix suddenly flew off Kain’s head, and swung around behind him. Before he realized what was happening, the sturdy claws grasped hold of his ratty tunic, and lifted him off the ground.
Kain could only emit a sound of confusion at his weightlessness. Then he screamed as hard as he could, when his body and that of the phoenix turned into a crimson blur, shooting forward like a bullet train – leaving behind an unending streak of red.
His face stretched at the sudden burst of speed. His uncut and unkempt hair smashed around like a bundle of whips on his face, his ears and the neck. It was rather painful. Most of them though, tried to rip out of his skull. And that was doubly more painful.
Thankfully, he squeezed his eyes shut, so his eyeballs were spared from being mercilessly poked. Also, he clenched his teeth tightly, so he wouldn’t accidentally bite on his own tongue.
The bird’s speed was quite extraordinary. If enhanced Kain could run as fast as an Olympian, then the bird was equivalent of a Bugatti Veyron. Quite clearly, incomparable.
In a proverbial blink, he was flown deep into the forest’s core, towards the spindly mountain. However, it somehow didn’t really feel like he was getting any closer. In fact, he was, but the illusion was maintained because of the enormous size of the mountain itself.
No matter how close he got, its huge girth didn’t seem to grow. His perception was thrown out of whack due to the impossible speed his body was moving at.
Constantly, Kain sent out Aeterna out of his reserves to protect his body. He felt that if he stopped doing that, the air pressure would shred his skin to bits.
His Pool was barely holding on. They were moving too fast, and he could not replenish his supply at all. At the rate it was being used up, he’d be running empty in less than ten minutes.
Kain was inwardly angry. Not at his small Pool of Aeterna, no, but the fact that this bird could’ve easily taken him out of this forest, out of the tall mountain range if it was so inclined, judging by its amazing speed. Yet it refused to.
Why? Why didn’t you take me out of this place? You could’ve done so easily!!
Kain couldn’t voice his anger, though. He was far too busy clenching his teeth to open his mouth. His tirade had to wait for a bit.
Amazingly though, the blood-red Fiend was keeping up. It was actually keeping up with the phoenix’s speed. Granted, the bird had to carry a passenger, and also had to weave between the trees, but still, it was fast.
The giant Fiend however, it just smashed the blocking trees apart with its ginormous body. Simple, and Kain had to admit, way too effective.
So effective, in fact, as the splinters of the destroyed trees whistled by Kain’s face like a sharp shrapnel. Get hit by one of those, and he might lose a pound of flesh.
Kain panted, his face turning visibly pale. At any moment now, his Aeterna Pool would go completely empty. That meant saying a bye-bye to his skin.
Miraculously, the phoenix then emitted a cold harrumph, and suddenly, Kain felt warmth flooding in. It was Fire Elemental Aeterna, deeply nourishing his depleted Pool.
That instantly made Kain dumbfounded.
Back when he rescued the bird, he had no idea on how to treat the wounds on the bird’s body. After some deliberation, he thought of transferring his own Aeterna to it. The problem was how he could do precisely that. He even tried to feed it a ball of flame produced from the Firelight spell, only to have his fingers nearly bitten off in anger.
Thinking back to the ordeal, how could he not feel dumbstruck? Most likely, the dang bird knew all along how to send Aeterna back and forth between him and itself. How stupid he felt, realizing that possibility.
His bubbling anger had no bearing on the chase itself, however. Ever since noticing the phoenix and the boy, the red Fiend continuously honed in the fleeing pair with a single minded doggedness that deserved some praise. It even disregarded other prey and focused only on two of them.
With a cold snort the phoenix shot forward, pushing itself faster. And as if to answer the increase in speed, the Fiend roared and pursued harder.
The distance between the giant, blood-red creature and the bird neither increased nor decreased. No one gained an inch nor lost one. It was a stalemate.
They remained like this for two full days. Kain did not count incorrectly. Oh no. He definitely saw the sun go down and come up again twice.
By this time, he was completely aghast at the sheer size of the forest. Logically, no such place should exist. But it did, and he was inside of it.
What’s more, he was even more shocked at the seemingly boundless stamina of the phoenix itself. It was like…. it was like, as if the time it got injured by ‘running’ into one of the protrusions of the giant lizard Fiend was all an act. An act to make him take the bird along, wherever he was going to.
To say he felt angry, humiliated and whatnot was an understatement. Of course, it was natural for him to feel somewhat betrayed by this duplicity of a small, weak-looking bird of fire. All he wanted was a companion, a friend to ride out the rough patch together. Maybe, even a cute mascot, like a certain yellow rodent-like creature with a penchant for lightning attacks.
What he got instead, was a sneaky, scheming piece of…. something.
At the beginning of the third day, they finally arrived at the foot of the spindly mountain. What greeted him, was beyond his expectations.
The mountain was devoid of any trees. It shot up straight through to the sky, like a thumb tack ready to prick an unwary finger. As for whose finger it might be…. well, it could only be that of a heaven, since Kain couldn’t even see the tip. It simply pierced through the cloud cover and disappeared into the blue.
There were huge clearing around the foot of the mountain. The radius was massive enough to house all five boroughs of New York and still have space left for the rivers that ran in between.
The place Kain and the phoenix emerged from was on a hill, looking down on the clearing and giving him a stunning view of the vast open space.
And then, there was one more thing that waiting to shock him, down below: a ghostly city of ruins.
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.