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An annoyingly intense sunlight tickled Kain’s closed eyelids, until he had no choice but to open them.
Dazed, he slowly sat up from where he lay, only to see crumbling walls, pockmarked with holes and vines coiling around surrounding him on all sides.
Even more dazed, he looked down on himself, and saw that he was covered in animal fur as a sheet, lying on a simple bed made out of a hardened mud.
His confusion grew, unable to recall how he’d got here.
Uhm, where am I? Is this….uh, back in Riverfield? No, it can’t be, can it?
When he swung his feet over the bed, he noticed his tatty, torn clothes were no longer on his body, instead replaced by altogether less tatty and torn ones.
“Huh. Imagine that.”
There was an unfamiliar pair of shoes neatly gathered by the bed, waiting for him to slip his feet inside.
Now he felt even more confused, and somewhat disturbed.
Now wait a dang second here. I blacked out while being hammered by the Golems. I remember that. But how did I end up in here in this new clothes? No, no, no, WAIT A DAMN MINUTE!! Someone actually…. stripped me while I was out cold!! Eeeee???
He hurriedly began checking his body parts. Lifting the loose fitting tunic up to check his torso, to see if there were any foreign incision marks around where his vital organs might be. No surgery marks, so that was good.
Next, he checked his…. rear end. Seemed fine, no strange pain and stuff. One could never be careful in this world full of perverts and miscreants.
After checking out his body thoroughly, Kain breathed a sigh of relief. There was nothing wrong with him. He was so healthy, in fact, not a single mark or scars were visible on him. All those little nicks, bruises, and scratches were miraculously healed, not even leaving behind a trace.
Kain scratched the back of his head, his confusion now firmly tranformed into a speeding bullet train, barreling down the Lost Highway going around in circles.
“What the heck is going on here….”
He cautiously slipped his feet inside the shoes. It was one size too big, but felt rather nice, warm and snug and all that.
Next thing he did, was to approach one of the walls and try to gaze outside through a hole on it. His suspicions were confirmed when he did so: he was indeed inside the ancient dead city.
Well, it wasn’t completely dead, as a flock of birds flew past not too far away from the room he was in. Judging from the angle, as he could easily see the roof tops of other smaller buildings down below, he figured he was at least on the sixth floor, or higher up. As for how deep he was in….
Well, should I try to go outside and find out?
He looked around, and to his left there was an ill-fitting wooden door, slightly ajar at the hinges and seemingly only a push away from falling down completely. It was so dilapidated that, Kain couldn’t even guess just how old it was.
The corridor beyond the door was dimly lit, although there were holes and cracks that let sunlight in. Other than various vines here and there, he felt not a single sign of life, after he swept around with his Aeterna sense. Whether that was a good sign or not remained to be seen, obviously.
So, uh…. go up or go down?
After deliberating for a short while, he decided to go up. If he was in a tall structure, it’d be easier to get the lay of the land. Provided, of course, he could go up to the roof in the first place.
Before that, though he didn’t know which way to go.
Argh. Whatever, man. Let’s just start walking, see where that gets me.
He went left first. It didn’t take long for him to run into a dead end. But it wasn’t a total waste of time, as it turned out. He found another room on the corridor, that seemed to have seen some use not too long ago. A sign that maybe someone alive and possessing of some intelligence lived here.
After retracing his steps, he eventually arrived a spiral staircase made of what looked like limestone. Signs of years of neglect and decay were clearly visible, what with broken steps, missing hand rails and piled up debris all accompanying the echoing sound of creaks and moans.
One look, and he no longer felt like stepping on it. But since he had no choice, he steeled his nervous heart and climbed up.
At the top of the stairs, he encountered a locked wooden hatch. The lock itself was rotted beyond recognition so it presented no problem, but the hatch itself was rather hefty.
Kain nearly slipped a disc as he managed to pry open the heavy hatch and gained access to the roof. The fresh air and the warm sunlight brushing his face felt like a tonic for the frayed soul of his.
Breathing in the air deeply, he trotted over to the edge and took a good look around. The roof was flat in design, with no guard rails to speak of, allowing a shorty like him to take a gander without clambering up dangerously over potentially worn down railings.
Every single buildings he could see showed signs of disuse. Walls had crumbled, vines sprouted out of every pore. Roofs have caved in. The streets rutted and broken.
The city seemed to go on forever. The building he was in was the tallest in the vicinity, and he saw the ramparts in the distance, with the forest beyond that in a blur.
“Wow, so far away.”
Kain muttered, feeling somewhat shocked.
He went to the other side of the building to take a look at the rest of the city, towards the direction of the spindly mountain, and saw that he wasn’t too far from the center, where the base of the peak lay.
There, he saw a massive, massive fort built into the surface of the mountain.
“HUGE!!” Kain exclaimed after rubbing his eyes repeatedly.
If this world had no magic – Invocation – then he’d have to believe he was seeing things. But since that wasn’t the case, building such an impressive structure didn’t seem impossible.
The ramparts were taller than the outer walls of the city, and he could see nine spires set a fixed interval connected to a central tower-like structure. Numerous other, smaller buildings filled the gap in between the spires.
Despite the decay and destruction, overall the fort looked remarkably well kept. Sure, those vines were visible everywhere, even on the surfaces of the fort, but compared to the rest of the city? It was like comparing heaven and earth. No comparison there.
“If this city was still…. alive, then that must have been where the lord lived.”
He shivered as the aura of the place swept across him. Even though the whole architecture was very impressive, imposing and fantastic, at the end of the day it felt dispassionate and cold, as if the person who designed it wanted to impart the message where no one was supposed to enter.
Well, it wasn’t like Kain was thinking of entering anyway.
“Okay, now that I see what’s what, how do I get outta here?”
From where he stood, he couldn’t really see an exit of the city. There was a flowing river cutting through the Eastern section, and that could potentially lead him out. It looked deep, though, and he felt reluctant to jump into a body of water that was an unknown quantity at this point in time. Who knows what kind of Fiend was lurking in the depth?
“This can’t be that difficult. This is – was – a city, so there must be gates on the four cardinal directions, just like how it is with Lafayette. I mean, gotta be, right?”
He decided to find the biggest street, and follow that outward. He figured that method would get him near the exit.
But before that, he had to determine whether there were any Fiends within the city limits. He really didn’t feel like running into one at the moment.
He spent a good few minutes checking out every nook and cranny, stretching his Aeterna sense as far as possible. Instead of spreading it around like a radar, he could narrow it which increased the sensing distance by a great deal. Both had their pros and cons, but since he was so high up, might as well choose the option to look far, or so he reasoned.
Around the half hour mark, he decided the coast was clear.
“Whew, hopefully I’m not making a mistake here, trying to leave this city….”
He was right to feel nervous about leaving the city, which seemed safe enough to him. The troubling thing was, he was smack dab in the middle of this unimaginably huge forest. If he ever wanted to escape, then staying so deep didn’t seem like a smartest decision in the world.
Also, there was this air of uncertainty hanging around the city itself. Kain couldn’t really put his finger on why was that, but something definitely felt very off about this place. Even though it was a sure thing that the city was dead, it felt like someone was watching him. It was a very disconcerting feeling indeed.
He wasn’t an idiot, of course. How could he forget that voice, booming out from somewhere in this city that disintegrated those sturdy Golems like they were nothing?
Or, where was the phoenix? It brought him here in a hurry when that gigantic, blood-red Fiend came after them. Now, where was it hiding?
At the moment, he didn’t even want to know. The further away he was from the bird, the better he’d feel. He didn’t even care for the fact that he wasn’t hungry either, nor why he wasn’t in the first place.
“Okay, let’s go.”
He turned back to the hatch, but the moment he tried to lift it open, a new problem rose: it was too heavy for him.
Veins on his forehead began to bulge as he gave the almighty heave, trying to lift the heavy and obviously stuck hatch. But it wouldn’t budge, no matter how hard he grunted and gritted his teeth.
This infuriated him to no end. After stomping on the hatch for a few minutes relieving his anger, Kain fired a Wind Blade, hoping to slice apart the stupid wooden blockage.
He got a small chip. Not very encouraging, but it was something. The sun was blaring down hard on him now, and Kain just knew he had to get under a shade before he withered up like a mummy. So, more Wind Blade it was.
“Break…. Open…. You…. dumb piece of….!!”
Kain swore as he fired off one Wind Blade after another. One small shave after another, the wooden hatch slowly fell apart and his much deserved escape from this unjust entrapment was getting nigh.
Emboldened by his rapid progress, Kain poured more Aeterna in the spell, and fired the most potent version of Wind Blade he had ever fired so far. It took a fair chunk off his Aeterna Pool, but he felt that it was worth the gamble.
An extremely sharp Blade formed from his efforts and shot forward, slicing through the hatch as if it was a sponge cake. The cut wooden panel fell down, exposing the way down.
But Kain had no time to celebrate just yet.
For the second time in his new life, he emitted a sound of confusion, when the roof began to rumble, literally.
His super-fine Blade cut past the hatch, and also ended up slicing a particularly thick vine that snaked around the staircase. When that bit was cut open, suddenly the support pillars that held the building together became weak.
The end result was that the whole building buckled on its own weight.
Kain muttered dazedly as the roof began to crack apart, brick by brick. In a blink of an eye, the building broke apart in a spectacular fashion, with the boy still on the roof.
He spat out several expletive-laden screams as he plunged below.
Oh crap, am I gonna die like this? After all that I’ve went through?
It’s said that in the moments right before death, time would slow down. It certainly happened for him, allowing Kain to see smallest, most minute details of every falling pieces of debris surrounding his body.
It was surreal. And also weirdly enough, serene.
Morose images of his dying figure stirred up in his imagination. Now that was quite unpleasant, imagining himself buried and crushed under the piles upon piles of ancient rubble, with no one to dig him out.
It sure as hell felt unfair, and he seriously wanted to complain to someone, anyone. Didn’t matter who, as long as he or she had ears to listen with.
But it turned out, his intuition regarding him being watched by some shadowy figure proved to be correct.
As Kain fell, a human-shaped shadow materialized on the roof top of a nearby building.
The figure nimbly jumped across the chasm, rapidly closing on the boy by lightly stepping on the falling debris like they were convenient footholds placed just for the occasion.
While approaching him, the figure shot an arrow toward another building’s roof, the end of which was tied to a sturdy, dark-colored rope.
The rope in turn was tied around the figure’s waist, acting something like a bungee cord.
Before Kain could fully realize what was happening, the figure snatched him off mid-air like a certain well known red-and-blue spandex wearing web-slinger, and by utilizing the momentum from the shot rope, dragged both the boy and herself across the gap.
By the time Kain snapped out of his daze, he was standing on the rooftop of another building, relatively unhurt from the ordeal.
Blinking his eyes like a goldfish, he turned around to see his rescuer, and felt his heartbeat increase by a ten fold.
Before him stood a tall and elegant figure, the pony-tailed verdant green hair slowly fluttering from the wind. She flicked dust off her shoulders, and gave him a cool gaze, before asking him in English.
“Whew, you sure do know how to party big time, dontcha? And wowsers, you also know a lot of naughty words too. I gotta do something about that, since you’re still a little kid. What? Why are you looking at me like? Something’s on my face? Oh wait a moment, you haven’t seen a long-eared kin before, have you?”
Kain gulped as he focused on those pointy ears, barely hearing the non stop assault of words directed at him.
Because she was an Elf.
As the pair made their way toward the grand fort in the center of the city, Kain found out that all his preconceived notions regarding Elves were smashed to bits. For one, he always thought they were aloof, dour and maybe even a little cold. Not her, though. She was a literal chatterbox.
“This one has inherited the family title of Schwinn Fransis. Hailing from the Great Forest of Boscage, the first name is Embouchre. My whole clan hailed from the Great Forest. It’s called a Grand Forest because it’s so big. Bigger than the Tetamus, by many measures. You should come and see it some time. You’ll be left completely flabbergasted!! Oh and the food there is truly divine as well. There are two hundred different tribes dwelling in the Forest, and all of them have different recipes on how to boil a potato!! And they all taste subtly different!! Oh, and then carrots!! Those too!! There was this one time, where Cousin Maratoma did something really funny with a carrot!! You want to know what she did? And, and… oh and….”
Kain developed a pretty hardcore migraine when subjected to this non-stop barrage of yammering. It was a small wonder how she was able to keep it all in, while she observed his behavior from the shadows. The uncomfortable feeling he had back then was because her, apparently.
Disregarding the million and one things she told him just now, Kain asked. “Uhm, so, uh. How should I address you?”
“Embouchre is fine, young one. That’s this one’s given name, after all. Although I’d understand if it’s a smite too long. But I had no trouble from my fellow brethrens. So, yes, you can…”
“Riiiight, okay. Understood. How about Emma? It’s shorter.”
Embouchre Schwinn Fransis of Boscage shrugged her shoulders. “Mmm. I like it. But it really matters not, the young master can call me this or that, as long as there’s some semblance of Embouchre in there somewhere. I’ll be content.”
As she continued talking, going off on her own pace, Kain let her words flow into one ear and slide smoothly out the other one, barely registering the words she spoke.
Meanwhile, he took this opportunity to study her better. She was definitely an Elf, what with her long, pointy ears, tall, slender but stunning frame, and a peerless face of beauty. Her eyes, especially; they were of striking amber hue contrasting with her equally striking green hair.
There was a shocking amount of Aeterna oozing from her, unfettered by the leather-and-metal body armor protecting her vital parts. On her back, a quiver full of arrows and a large greatbow slung around. A length of dark rope wound around her waist. And a curved scimitar tied to her left hip. A half dozen throwing knives slotted around the various parts on her armor completed the look of a warrior.
One bit of decoration that looked out of place was her necklace. It contained a dull ruby-like gemstone, emitting a very weak Aeterna signature of indeterminable Affinity. It was fashioned like a common trinket that could be picked up anywhere, but the way she treasured it, it clearly held a lot of value for her personally.
And there was something else about her; some sort of…. unseen energy that was similar to Aeterna, but at the same time, not really, pulsing and coursing about her. It was a bizarre sight for sure, but didn’t seem hostile, so Kain wasn’t too alarmed by it. Still, something to take note of.
But there was this one question he asked earlier on that remained unanswered. When her presence was finally revealed, Kain asked her who she was – answered – why she protected him – also answered, in a roundabout way – and how come she spoke English, to which she replied, “Why? Is it so strange? All the other long eared tribes speak the same tongue. You call it English? That’s funny. We call it Elvish. So another tribe called Engs also use our tongue? Now that’s something new!”
The final question, the most important one out of the lot, didn’t get the answer. You know, the one concerning about who it actually wanted him in here, inside this dead city, and had him placed under a careful observation.
Rather than giving out an explanation she said, “Just follow me to the Tetamus Fort. You’ll see when you get there. I promise.”
So, against his better judgment, he was walking to the ginormous fort in the center of the city, guided by the ever-chattering Emma.
That voice, though. Kain mused quietly as he followed her. That belonged to a guy. An old guy, no less. So it was definitely not Emma who, uh, shouted out back then. That means there’s another person here in the city. Is that who I’m going to meet?
They walked on the snaking streets, weaving past the crumbing ruins that once formed a part of a thriving city, now nothing but a haunt of fading memories.
Oddly though, Kain didn’t spot a single dead body. Not a single bone, nor anything remotely resembling a dead thing. Occasionally, he saw small, furry creatures scurry about here and there but other than that, there weren’t any signs of life at all, currently or in the past.
They must’ve walked for an hour or so. Kain got this impression that were it not for him and his slow walking speed, Emma could’ve arrived at the destination in a few minutes. She didn’t seem to mind it though, as the stream of words leaving her lips continued to flow like a raging river he crawled out from not too long ago.
She even complimented that he was good listener. To that undeserved compliment, he could only offer a cramped smile.
Soon though, the time for talks came to an end, as the pair arrived at the only entrance to the fort. The once imposing archway had partially collapsed on its own weight, scattering pale white stones all around and creating sort of a field that might suit a paintball gun match.
“In through here, off you go,” said Emma, as she ushered Kain in.
“Wait a sec, you are not going in?”
“No no no. This fort’s a sacred place. I can’t enter. That’s sacrilege, you know!!”
“What is? You entering here?”
She nodded vigorously. “Yeah. I can’t enter no matter what. Why do you think my room was on the building you demolished, instead of here in the fort which is in a much better shape? Hmm? That’s because it’s a sacred place, that’s why!!”
“Okay, okay. I got it.”
Kain stopped her from continuing, and hurriedly entered the fort. She seemed to pout a little, before vanishing into a nearby shadow like a ninja. Kain still felt her gaze on his back, though, so she was still carrying out her duty to keep tabs on him. How industrious, he mused.
Now then, shall I? Do I even have a choice?
Kain sighed, and slowly made his way forward.
The fort’s wall was incredibly thick, even compared to that of Lafayette’s. Kain thought it was at least 1.5 times thicker. Even modern weapons like a ballistic missile would have trouble knocking this sucker down.
Past the walls, the bailey – or was that a ward, Kain couldn’t recall – stretched out far. Weeds and the vines broke the monotony of the perfectly aligned tiles, a sign of color on otherwise white and barren land.
He saw signs of other structures, but they were nothing more than foundations, with wooden bits above all having decayed away thanks to the ravages of time and the Mother Nature.
There was more than three hundred meters between him and the entrance of the fort proper. As he got closer, he couldn’t help but notice that vines seemed to come out from the fort, although none were around the path he was walking on. Now that felt a bit unsettling.
Closer he got, more awestruck he got. The scale of the fort built into the cliff face of the Tetamus mountain, the spindly peak, was something else. Although different, he was reminded of the ancient lost city of Petra when he studied the face of the fort.
Vines came out of cracks and holes, giving off a sad aura of loneliness, unlike when he was looking at it from afar. Suddenly, even Kain felt melancholic just by staying still and leaving his gazes on it. If he lingered any longer, he felt he might burst into tears for no reason whatsoever.
Maybe that malarkey about sacred place and whatnot might be true, Kain sighed weakly, and made his way towards the entrance.
There were no doors blocking his ingress. Only the hints of metal hinges bigger than him hanging loose on the door frame acted as the surviving proof that there once was a pair of grand doors welcoming, or blocking, all visitors.
“Uh… Hello? Anybody home?”
His nervous voice echoed against the massive but empty hallway.
Kain looked around, and was puzzled to see the level of cleanness displayed. The floors, the walls, even the partially collapsed grand staircase, all shone majestically as if they were polished only an hour ago.
Funnily though, he couldn’t see not a single furniture, nor any decorative things anywhere. No paintings, no sculptures, no obligatory standing plate armors that seemed to populate every haunted castles ever – not one of them could be seen, at least in this hallway.
There was one bit of decoration, if you could call it that, a huge carving of a blooming tree on the biggest wall on the middle of the staircase that was wide enough to allow an army to march up no problem.
The carving itself was very, very intricate. Kain even thought that the tree was alive and actually swaying gently with the imaginary breeze. Such impressions only reinforced the overall aura of spookiness, though.
So, which way?
Kain pondered, as he weighed his options. There were passages on either side of him, both of them only sporadically lit and dozens upon dozens of vines curling in and out.
Up on the second floor, there were more passageways, accessible by climbing up on the grand staircase.
Hmm. This place is huge. I really don’t want to get lost in here. Right, last time I went to my left, and that didn’t go well, so this time…. to my right.
After deciding, he carefully tread over the vines and headed slowly into the passage.
Even here, it was rather clean and well kept considering the ancientness of the fort, with the exception of those vines of course. He found several rooms on the way but they were, as expected, devoid of furniture.
What’s more eerie, was the fact that Kain didn’t run into a single dead body, just like how it was in the city.
It just didn’t make any sense, not to encounter anything remotely resembling the dead. Surely, a city this big must’ve had population of hundreds of thousands, if not more. Yet, there were no signs of that.
His imaginations ran wild, all of them without any basis whatsoever, yet there they were, busy frazzling his already nervous mind. In one of the more colorful versions, he wondered if there were some sort of Fiends that swallowed whole the citizens, not leaving a single trace. And now, those Fiends were asleep, deep inside the earth.
In another one, they all migrated out of this place. That was a more pleasant version out of all.
Maybe I should’ve asked Emma….
Kain regretfully thought back to the time when they were walking toward the fort. Maybe she did say something about the city and its apparent lack of people. He wouldn’t know, since he was far too busy not listening to her. Oh well.
Another thing that bothered him was the concentration of Aeterna. It was quite thick by the entrance, but as he got further away and deeper into the inner sanctums of the fort, it only got thicker and heavier.
Such concentration even exceeded what he was subjected to while visiting the branch of SOIR back in Lafayette by perhaps a factor of ten or more.
Regular people wouldn’t even come anywhere remotely close, otherwise they would just fall unconscious and even die.
The passageway curved inwardly, making him think he was getting closer to the center of the mountain, or some such. The light got dimmer and dimmer, necessitating him to start a Firelight and maintain that as an improvised torch.
Eventually, he had to stop when a pair of jet black doors made of unknown materials blocked the progress.
Now, the passage he walked in was on the tall side, easily four meters high. The chamber he was in, though, this place was something else. On the opposite side he saw another passageway, leading him to believe that if he went that way, he’d no doubt arrive back at the main hallway again.
The chamber was about the size of a gymnasium, with just as tall a ceiling. The black doors occupied almost the entirety of the wall to his right. If they weren’t ajar already, he’d have no hope in hell opening them.
The question was, whether he wanted to open them or not in the first place. The answer he reached was refreshingly simple, which formed right after he took a gander at the carvings on the doors’ surfaces. Yep, he didn’t want to. Although a little curious about the doors and what was on them, he didn’t dare venture in any deeper. The fear of the unknown was stronger than the desire to satisfy his curiosity.
It was difficult to make out what was depicted on the surface as a whole, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any snippets he could see.
It looked like a some sort of battlefield where countless number of people lay wasting. People on horseback, people with swords and lances, headless corpses, hills of the dead, spears and other polearms sticking out of the mounds, cackling skeletons madly hacking away, flying Fiends swooping down on the people below.
Thousands and thousands of soldiers clashing in waves upon waves.
“Damn. That’s crazy.”
Kain muttered. He didn’t dare touch the doors, since he felt quite a powerful Aeterna oozing off of them, but he continued to observe and study the carvings. He figured maybe with this he might get some clue as to why this city was so barren and lifeless, besides it being so old.
He was totally absorbed in what he was doing and forgot about the time. Minute after minute ticked by while he stood around poring over the carvings, trying to see if there was anything. Sure, there were lots of things depicted on it, but whether they were of any value wasn’t clear.
Before he knew it, he had inched closer to the open gap, and the deep, unsettling darkness beyond.
“Okay, maybe I should stop here and go back.”
No matter how much he shined his Firelight inside, it didn’t seem to illuminate anything, making him think that the darkness was busy sucking in the light and obscuring his vision.
It was feint, but he felt a sense of danger coming from the depth of this darkness, so he promptly decided not to go any further.
As soon as he turned on heels though, a snort rang out from the darkness, followed by a vexed voice that sounded quite unhappy and impatient.
“Hey, you coward! Where the hell do you think you’re going?! Come here, right now!!”
Before Kain could start running with all his might, the vines around his feet wrapped around his waist tightly, forcing almost all the air out of his lungs. That meant he couldn’t even scream, only whimper in shock, as he was lifted up in the air.
Next thing he knew, the vines were violently yanking him into the darkness beyond the jet black doors.
He didn’t even have time to grab hold onto things.
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.