(Please note, not edited/checked/PR-ed. You may run into a questionable grammar or two. If you spot them, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!!)
Kain thought he was hallucinating. He hadn’t eaten anything for the last two and a bit days, and intense hunger had a way of screwing with a mind.
What lay before him, was definitely a city; a medieval city surrounded by tall, imposing ramparts.
Yet, its bleached and decaying walls spoke of an unfathomable ancientness of the structures. He couldn’t even begin to speculate on just how old the city was.
Between where he was, and the walls, lay a desiccated and barren wasteland the length and width of several football fields stuck together. Absolutely nothing grew on it, not even a blade of grass. Oddly, not a breeze blew through there either. It was all very eerie, and not in an “oh it’s so mysterious” kinda way. No, it was rather deafeningly silent, as if the only thing permitted to enter the area was death herself.
Kain might have been dazed by the sight, but the phoenix wasn’t. It shot forward once more, its speed not slowing down one bit. It was clearing heading towards the decaying city with all its power. This caused Kain no amount of shock.
Are we going to enter that dead city?!
Kain grimaced, and gritted his teeth. He lacked energy to even voice any complaint at this point, and was a pitiful example of a hapless passenger, simply going along with the flow.
As they got nearer, the forest behind exploded, and the blood-red giant Fiend’s head popped out amidst all the flying debris, its glittering eyes briefly searching, then zeroing on the city. It let out a shrill roar, as if it wanted to call forth the calamity of the heavens on itself, then charged forward even faster than before.
Its roar felt like a needle piercing through Kain’s heart, causing an intense pain that felt like all his blood flow suddenly reversed its direction and tried to rush out of all his pores. The ground below them rumbled and quaked in ripples.
When the dead area up ahead of them vibrated, an imperceptible changed occurred. Naked eyes would never pick up on the subtle change, but the phoenix felt it. And so did Kain, who at the time was employing his Aeterna sense, casting it all around him like a radar.
What’s going on? There’s something…. underground!!
As soon as he thought this, the soil beneath the flying duo exploded, and a hand shot out. A hand made up of rocks and mud and everything in between.
It wasn’t just a single hand; one after another burst out of the dead ground, causing a thick mist of flying pebbles and dry, sandy dust clouds. The phoenix expertly dodged and weaved past the aroused dust storms, missing every one of them with a room to spare.
Kain looked back to see humanoid shapes emerge from the dust storms one by one, each one exceeding twelve feet in height. Shocking amounts of Earth Elemental Aeterna oozed out of them, circling around them, fusing with each creature and acting like glue holding all the bits together.
Golems!! They are the legendary Golems!!
Kain held his breath, as he realized what they were. The question in his mind was now, whether these monsters appeared to repel only the giant Fiend, or everything else as well, which included him?
By the time Kain and the bird got a third of the way across the dead field, hundreds of Golems rose and rushed toward the approaching Fiend like a mindless army of zombies.
The resulting boom, and the shriek, made his scalp go numb with fear. Ignoring the sound of carnage behind, the phoenix continued to shoot forward at the top speed.
The Golems pounded on the Fiend with wild abandon, completely disregarding their own safety in the process. Still, there was too much difference in the body mass; one hit from a Golem did very little damage, if any, to the Fiend’s tough scales.
But one shake of its body, dozens of Golems broke apart into pieces, showering the ground with debris.
Still, attacks didn’t abate. One after another, Golems pounced and pounded on the Fiend, overwhelming with it with sheer numbers. Whenever one Golem got smashed to bits, three more would take its place. It was one never ending cycle where there could be only one loser.
Aeterna seethed and boiled over the whole land, and Kain felt it so clearly. He had never, ever felt so much of it, not even once. Truly, he was stunned beyond words, his hunger now long forgotten.
Bizarrely, the reason why he could forget it was that his body began to rapidly absorb all that abundant Aeterna. His Pool topped up in a blink of an eye, and suddenly, began to overflow. When it did, his hunger was sated, albeit temporarily.
Of course, he hadn’t figured it out just yet. He was too busy scanning the world around him with his Aeterna sense to notice the change happening in his own body. Talk about unable to see what’s in right front of his nose.
By the time Kain got half way through, there were now more than two thousand Golems attacking the Fiend. That number didn’t sound like a lot, but considering each of those Golems were the height of two adult males, the amount of space they occupied was quite significant. So was the ruckus they raised – it was rowdier than a post-final championship football match brawl between two opposing fan clubs.
Weird thing was, though, not one of the Golems targeted Kain or the phoenix. Not a single one turned around and tried to seize the duo. Not one of them hurled massive boulders in their direction. Not one stood to block their flight.
Kain was puzzled at this. He couldn’t understand at all. He and the bird must be just as strangers as to these Golems as much as the giant Fiend was. Obviously, these non-sentient creatures of soil and rocks were guardians of the city up ahead, and would not allow anything remotely threatening to enter the domain.
Kain shuddered suddenly at the possibility of the phoenix being a resident of the city. Or at least, being recognized as one. It clearly had intelligence, so it was possible that this place was the bird’s home.
And then…. he felt he was missing something here. Something he should have foreseen. Something out here that was not included in his calculations, whatever the worth of that might be. This thought alone terrified him.
The giant Fiend roared angrily at the growing number of Golems forcing it to retreat. Kain felt a huge suction of Aeterna right behind him, and reflexively he looked back, to see the monster sucking all of it in.
As proficient as he was at knowing the fantasy genre must-have things, he could tell the Fiend was getting ready to use some sort of Breath attack, favored by the dragon type monsters.
So, it IS a dragon, after all!! No wonder it’s so effing monstrous!!
Also sensing the accumulated energy that was ballooning up, the bird cawed loudly, and exerted even more strength, obviously in order to escape the range of the attack’s influence. There were now more than 50 Rutens, 250 meters, between them.
But that was not enough.
The blood-red Giant dragon Fiend let loose a crimson colored Breath out. Winds howled, the ground seethed, the clouds dispersed.
Kain felt all his blood freeze, figuratively. All because of the purest form of fear inundating him.
Then his eardrums nearly blew out at the concussive sound of explosion. The light emitted from the blast blotted out the sun’s rays, paradoxically darkening the world all around him.
It felt like all his internal organs were about to go bust. Even the phoenix let out a painful howl.
Both of them tumbled out of the flight, heading straight at the tall, imposing walls at a breakneck pace, totally out of control.
Oh, crap!! At this rate, we’ll become a pair of blotches on the wall!! Damn it, I gotta do something!!
Kain gritted his teeth, and quickly shot his hands forward, casting Air Wall. He slammed into it with some force, the illusory wall shattering due to his and the bird’s momentum greatly exceeding what the Wall could withstand.
He thought his bones broke. The pain assaulting him was indescribable. His vocabulary was not rich enough for it.
Kain rolled on the ground and finally came to a halt about 10 Ruten away from the wall; same for the phoenix. It raised itself up from the ground, shaking loose the dirt on its feathers.
Meanwhile, Kain pushed his upper torso up and tried to stand, only to falter and collapse on one knee.
The phoenix hastily flew back up and tried to goad the disorientated boy towards a small opening at the bottom of the rampart. It cawed and slapped him all over the back, trying to get him to cooperate with its efforts.
At the far back, the ground had become roasted blackness, a crater forming where the Golems used to be. The thick, acrid smell of sulfur filled the air like a stench of death.
The Fiend’s face was unsightly, and growled angrily. Its attack was beyond powerful, absolutely pummeling every Golem within an arc of 40+ Ruten, but there were still thousands more rushing at it from all sides. After the Breath attack, it expanded a lot of Aeterna, and it needed to recuperate before it could use it again.
There were just too many obstacles for that, thus its angry expression.
Sensing it might get injured seriously if it remained, the Fiend roared, and began to retreat at top speed.
It only took a few seconds, but the giant monster entered the forest, disappearing from the view quickly, its huge frame melting into the darkness.
The Golems didn’t chase their quarry down. Instead, they froze on the spot for a few seconds, before slowly turning toward where Kain sat, slumped weakly on the ground.
The phoenix let out an alarmed cry, and desperately lifted the boy to his feet, only to have a hand made of sand shot out from the ground, wrapping around him tightly.
Kain let out a scream of pain, as he felt intense pressure bearing down on him. At any moment, his body would be squashed to bits.
The phoenix hurriedly stabbed forward at the emerging Golems’ hand that held the boy, managing to destroy to the fingers and letting the boy fall down. It then snatched him, and flew up, fast.
The Golem transformed, its damaged arm changing into a spike. It fired this new appendage like a bullet at the airborne duo.
Sensing a crisis, the phoenix let out an angry howl and fired a large ball of flames from its beak. The flame and the spike collided mere meters away from Kain, causing a powerful blast that made him scream out more.
Blood dripped down from all the wounds on his body, and he flickered between being awake and blacking out.
Inside, he was flabbergasted. He was beyond feeling angry now. All he felt at that moment was an overflowing sense of shame.
How can I be so weak?
He felt tears welling up.
How can I be so weak, as to let the others decide my fate for me?
He felt the burning blades of shame branding him in his heart.
Why? Why can’t I do something to save my own skin?
He could’ve just said that it was because of his physical age. Because of his small and frail body.
Yet, he thought all that was nothing more than some interchangeable excuses. The bottom line was, he was far too weak, far too unprepared. He knew too little, and he lacked motivation, an unwavering heart to wade through whatever tribulation he had to face. All he ever thought about was living a nice, comfy life in Riverfield, not worried about anything and everything, as long as he had a roof over his head and food on the table.
Was that so wrong? Wanting simple things? Am I not supposed to have that?
Gradually the shame became rage.
Enraged, Kain lifted his head and stared hard at the Golem below. It was firing multiple spikes at the phoenix and him. Soon, two more Golems joined in, all of them firing spikes in unison. Even if the bird was one nimble creature, there had to be a limit, and it had been flying non stop for the last two and a half days. It was about to run out of energy too.
Kain felt his rage boiling inside. He sharpened his senses, and sought out that one spot where Aeterna converged. From his knowledge, he knew about the controlling array, a formation of Invocation spell, or a disc performing the similar function, formed the nucleus of a Golem. Destroy that, and it was nothing more than a lump of clay.
Kain narrowed his eyes, and spotted a small disc-like item that acted as the control center for the Golems.
Without hesitation, he flung off one Wind Blade after another, trying to hit the item, buried deep within the Golem’s torso.
His ploy didn’t work – its protection was too sturdy, and his spells lacked bite. He needed to change the tactic.
Next, he tried to manipulate the Golem itself with his own Affinity.
Since he had Earth Elemental Affinity, it was worth a shot.
The affected Golems froze on the spot, trying to break free from his influence on it. Kain felt his blood surge painfully at the backlash of his attempt, but endured it and continued to exert pressure.
“Blow up, you bastard!!”
Kain roared, blood and spit flinging out of his mouth.
The Golem obeyed, and blew up. The item exploded too, sending a massive wave of accumulated Aeterna outward.
The explosion this time was smaller in comparison to what the giant Fiend’s Breath attack caused, but nevertheless it was still quite a powerful one.
The phoenix was gripping Kain’s clothes to haul him around, but at that moment, the fabric decided to give in.
With a loud rip, he was flung out of the shocked bird’s grasp, and flew over the rampart of the city. The bird itself was not spared from the blast, but it could endure it just fine; all it needed to do was to reorient itself in the air.
The phoenix was about to chase after the flying boy, but was interrupted by the barrage of spikes fired by the Golems. Now, there was more than five of them, the number swelling up in an instant.
Desperately it cawed at the boy’s direction, dodging the spikes and trying to weave past the incoming attacks.
It was in danger of being overrun. On one hand, it wanted to save the boy before he crashed against the wall. But on the other hand, there was no room for it to do just that. Either it sacrificed itself to save the boy, or let him die and save itself.
The phoenix cawed angrily at the hopeless situation. It tried to call its master, sleeping deep within the center of this dead city. Its pained cry pierced past the cacophony of explosions and destruction, reverberating like a church bell ringing to summon the faithful.
And it got a reply.
A booming voice resonated in the world. Only two words were spoken. That’s all it took.
A huge wave of unseen energy surged out from the base of the spindly mountain. It permeated past the buildings like ghosts, emerging from the other side unaffected.
But when the Golems were hit by this wave, they all busted apart where they stood, like a series of fireworks going off.
Meanwhile, a dozen or so of thin, withering vines shot up from who knows where, and wrapped around Kain’s weak, failing body, stopping him from crashing into solid objects.
All of this took less than a blink of an eye.
The vines were gentle, and Kain didn’t feel any hostility from them. As he began to black out, he thought he heard a soft sigh, coming from somewhere in the city’s center, near the base of the spindly mountain.
It sounded weak, almost feeble.
That was the last thing he could remember.
The funeral dirge seemed to go on forever. At least it didn’t rain during the procession. Not one person present at the service thought of thanking the heavens, however.
As soon as the rescue operation ended in failure, everyone involved dispersed and went their separate ways. Lomaxes returned to Riverfield, dejected, fatigued in both the mind and the body, heartbroken.
Damien and Lizbeth barely spoke during the trip, and that continued after. They barely looked at each other, or anyone else for that matter. So, Derrick had to take over pretty much everything.
The casket was empty when it was lowered into the ground. They couldn’t even recover the remains. Not a scrap of clothing, no bones, nothing. That was far, far worse than having an actual body.
Kaleena, at first, didn’t fully understand what had happened, but gradually she figured it out. Katrina helped with that as she was already familiar with death. They both cried, one out of sadness, the other in a mixture of sadness, just like her cousin, and of the past, when her mother lay wasting from the incurable illness.
Everyone seemed to cry for a long time. Beside Kain, Rolf and Jones also lost their lives. It was another heavy blow for the village, after going through the difficult period two and a bit years ago.
But the time didn’t stand still for anyone, not even for grieving parents. On top of that, there were the assassins still at large out there. Damien, Lizbeth and Derrick simply couldn’t afford to wait. They had to do something.
“I propose sending the children to Argos, and to its Academy. I can’t think of a safer place than it for both Kaleena and Katrina at the moment.”
Michelle offered her opinion.
The Lomaxes and the famed Invoker sat in the living room late at night, discussing the future and the way forward from this predicament.
“It’s not safe in Riverfield, not anymore. This was the second time, wasn’t it? First, it was Kaleena. Now, Kain. Since Katrina is here, she could be caught in the crossfire.”
Derrick frowned. “Dawson is missing. No correspondence from him whatsoever. At this point, something untoward must have happened.”
Damien nodded grimly, his face deeply furrowed.
Gaunt-looking Lizbeth wearily spoke up. “I agree with the teacher. I believe it’ll be safer for…. Kaleena and Katrina if they are in SOIR’s care.”
She was clearly pained to say such things, but objectively speaking, she knew it was the best option available. It was proven that she, her husband, nor Derrick could protect her kids from danger. She didn’t want to part with her daughter at all, but she knew there was little choice.
Derrick massaged his temples for a few minutes, before picking up the wrapped object sitting on top of the living room table.
“So, this is the item Dawson wanted, yes?”
Not waiting for confirmation, he unwrapped it and exposed the metal box. His eyes narrowed as he studied it for a second, before he creaked open the top, revealing the content inside.
Damien told his cousin and teacher Michelle about the strange wooden board Dawson was searching for. He had not told anyone, not even his cousin nor his contacts at the Adventurer’s Association.
But with Dawson helping with the investigation with this item as the compensation, he just had to tell the others.
Now that Derrick looked at the object, his mind shook. He felt his own Aeterna Pool reacting against the aura oozing from it. Michelle too had a strong reaction, her breathing quickening.
“Never seen anything like this before. These symbols, this type of wood, the level of the craftsmanship – it’s clearly not an ordinary item at all.”
Michelle murmured after observing the Bagua Board for a few moments.
“We couldn’t get it praised at the time we discovered it. Couldn’t find anyone trust worthy,” sighed Damien. “Well, that’s not important right now. Anyways, I can’t think of any other options. Let’s go with Michelle’s idea. I have to go and see… that man anyway. I don’t want to travel with Kaleena on an unsafe road anytime soon, nor leave her behind exposed.”
Michelle gazed deeply at him and replied. “SOIR will provide more than adequate protection. Even the Imperial Court tip-toes around the old Grand Elders. And since I know a few of those fogies, it’ll be fine.”
With the exception of her, the others let out a long, weary collective sigh. The thick, invisible curtain of fatigue fell on the room like a fine mist, blanketing all.
“So, yes. Right, Lizbeth and I will head to Argos first on a Sky Ark. Teacher Michelle shall accompany us. We will stay in the capital for a few days while the admission for our children is complete. Only then, will we head North.” Damien spoke authoritatively. “Derrick will remain behind in the village. I need a qualified proxy to look after this place while I’m away. Teacher Michelle, could I trouble you for staying in the capital and looking after the kids? Apologies, I know you just handed in your resignation letter.”
“It’s not a big deal,” Michelle chuckled softly. “I was going to suggest it myself. I’d feel better if it’s me watching over the girls.”
“What about Kaleena’s condition?” Lizbeth asked her teacher. “We still need to treat her fading ability to see Aeterna’s flow.”
“I’ll access SOIR’s archives and do some research on the subject. When I gain more concrete insight, I shall send you a missive containing what herbs you need to gather.”
“That works, I think,” Damien smiled warmly for a second, before changing back to a passive face. “Thank you, Michelle. It seems like we’re always the one to owe you. Derrick, will you be alright? I’m sorry for asking you to stay behind.”
Derrick shook his head. Raising his hand, he spoke firmly. “As much as I’d like to go, I understand your reasoning. Don’t worry, I’ll do my best and run this village well. But….”
“Look, Damien. I know it’s not my place to say this, but please, do not take it the wrong way. Go and make up with your old man. And seek his aid, however little. With his influence, finding the culprits will become much easier.”
Hearing this, Damien grimaced. He stayed silent, sinking back in the chair. But eventually, he nodded, showing his consent.
Lizbeth was the one who voiced her deep-seated fury. “When their identities are uncovered, I shall personally make them pay. I won’t spare any, not even one.”
Anger brought color to her wan complexion. She clearly was not settled in her grief, and needed an outlet to vent her anger. So far, she had done an admirable job of holding it in, but it was taking its toll on her physical body.
Damien, though, was visibly worse. He looked like he lost ten, no, twenty years of his life force. He had no energy. He showed no emotions. He was like a walking zombie.
He even stopped his daily morning training. Staying indoors most of the time, he passed the days by sleeping the whole time. He spoke to no one, unless absolutely necessary.
As for food, he only ate the minimum amount needed to stave off hunger. His health would suffer even more so, if this continued.
That’s why Derrick suggested that he seek out his father, Count Caleb Lucius Lomax, of the Grand Northern Territories. More than anything, Damien needed help. Whether that be financial, or comfort he needed it. Lizbeth was too angry to give the latter, and as far as Derrick knew, Damien’s relationship with his siblings was rather amiable.
Lizbeth needed help too. She was pregnant, and a stable frame of mind and the body was critical for the development of the baby. With the couple unable to help each other, it was left to the rest of the family to do something. Being around Dukakis and Damien’s older sister would do a world of good – or at least that’s what Derrick was hoping.
And the real reason Derrick agreed to staying behind…. well, it was because he felt he saw resentment from Damien’s and Lizbeth’s stares. Not always, but sometimes. That’s why, he figured, it’d be better if they were to separate for a while.
Derrick thought that by being near the grieving parents, he reminded them of their son. And most likely, his failure to uphold his promise to safeguard their child.
The dagger of guilt, lodged deep in his heart, twisted every time he received their silent eyes. It was getting ever-so unbearable. If they were to separate and not see each other’s faces, then perhaps, their wounds might heal to a point where his own guilt would no longer hurt him.
That was his reasoning. It sounded cowardly, but that’s how he felt about it.
Currently, he didn’t show it, but Derrick feared being abandoned. He feared being alone. He always put up a brave face and stoically pushed forward, but deep inside he was afraid of being alone, shunned by the others.
He would not be able to stand it, if Damien and his family were to give up on him.
The silence in the living room grew uncomfortably. It was Damien who stood up first, and announced that he was going to bed. Lizbeth shot him an angry glare, but ignoring her, he left without even looking back once.
Michelle sighed, and murmured her good night, leaving for her own bedroom.
Lizbeth followed soon after, her destination Kaleena’s room.
Derrick remained behind, trying to sort out his complex emotions. His heart didn’t want to be settled, continuously roiling about and making him feel terrible.
He leaned back on the couch, thinking of resting his head. As his hip sank down, he felt a dull poking of an object buried somewhere between the cushions.
Irritated slightly, he reached in and dug out the offending item. It was a simple wooden brooch that was used as a clothes pin for Kain’s diapers.
“Huh. How did you end up in there?”
Derrick muttered, and disinterestedly left it on top of the wooden Bagua board. He no longer paid any attention to it as he leaned back on the backrest, his eyes closing.
He didn’t notice it, but a few seconds after the brooch was placed on the board, the Bagua began to emit an eerie violet glow. It was soft and weak, not easily seen by a naked eye, but it glowed regardless.
The brooch was near Kain for a very long time, slowly absorbing his life essence over the course. And as soon as it came in contact with the mysterious wooden board, a reaction occurred.
It wasn’t just any old reaction, however.
It sent out a small beep, undetectable by almost all living things.
The beep traveled beyond the worlds. It traveled past the walls of each of the Ten Realms, threading its way toward a certain place.
Not even the gods residing in the Ether, the world between worlds, could not detect its penetration of the realms. If they did, then surely, they would have done everything in their powers to track the origin of the beep down, and eradicate all evidence of it…
The beep quickly traveled past one Realm after another, until it arrived on the most primordial Realm, the First, the nearest to the Zero Realm, the World Tree itself.
The world of the First was quite different to that of other Realms. For one, there was no night, nor were there days. Instead, one could tell the passing of a day by the changing colors of the sky.
When the sky was light green, it was daytime. If it was hazy blue, it was considered to be nighttime.
And instead of distant stars, thousands of large constellation bodies could be seen. They seemed so close that, if one reached out, one could actually touch them.
On this particular planet where the beep was shooting towards, the lands were rich with stunning amounts of Aeterna permeating just about everywhere.
But not a single sign of life could be seen. Not a single bird, not a single animal, nor a blade of grass. The barren mountains stood tall, harsh winds kicking up dust wherever they blew. In the center of each massive continents, a huge tree grew, its bony, leaf-less branches shaking gently at the heavens, sending out waves of endless Aeterna as they danced.
The beep finally arrived at a grand golden temple that stood majestically over a huge plateau spanning hundreds of kilometers. The tree spewing out Aeterna stood only a few hundred kilometers away.
On the temple’s uppermost floor, a gigantic feng shui board, bigger than a small mountain, was suspended in the air, slowly rotating in the clockwise direction.
There were numerous empty pockets visible on the board, and within each of the pockets, an old man or woman wearing strange robes sat still, meditating silently. An incredible aura of ancient wisdom emanated from each and every one of them.
The beep came to a stop in front of one such man, and formed into a thin, visible white strand.
This old man’s closed eyes shot open suddenly, and he snatched the strand off the air, his deep violet colored eyes glittering with a profound energy as he examined it.
“So…. that’s where you were.”
He flashed a soft, mysterious grin, before resuming his meditation. However, his hands slowly began to form strange hand signs.
Every time he completed a sign, Aeterna converged and dispersed in a strange fashion around him. A shape could be seen right in front of him, then it dissipated. Another form coalesced, then went away again. Whenever the ancient man performed a hand sign, a shape nearly materialized before dissipating like a fading smoke.
Finally, a solid dark gray form that was no bigger than the man’s palm appeared when the thousandth hand sign was performed. Even though it was ostensibly solid, its shape was not set, constantly changing from one to another in a span of seconds. At first, it was a crow, then a snake. Then, a lion. Followed by a bear. Then it was a spider, a deer, a stallion.
The ancient man spoke, without opening his eyes.
“Go. Find me the boy. He’s in the Fourth Realm.”
Shockingly, a violet eye suddenly opened up in the center of this ever-changing mass. It blinked once, before it shot out at the speed too fast to see, leaving behind the grand golden temple.
The ancient man breathed in softly, and murmured nostalgically.
“Perhaps, I may get to see you soon….”