From Glitchtale Wiki
- 1 Prequel Stories
- 1.1 Masquerade Party
- 1.2 The Grey Phantoms
- 1.3 Phantom Memories
- 1.4 The Knight Captains
- 1.5 Miscellaneous
This section contains official Prequel stories by Devour, one of Glitchtale's co-writers.
An introductory story to the world and characters of The Prequel.
"I'm not saying it's suspicious, Milo. I'm saying it's interesting." Seyv Dypal lounged back in his chair, watching the candles dance as they gave the room light. They were sitting together in the Grey Phantom's base of operations. "Jessee said he was working on this project of his for months, so... why didn't any of us know about it until now?"
"Well, I knew." Milo's voice swelled with pride. Sae, who sat next to him, giggled like he had said something funny. "He only kept this a secret to protect us. Now that we're here, now that we can do our part, he's telling us everything."
"Okay... but what is it?"
The door to their room creaked open. Milo was instantly on his feet, standing at attention. Seyv sat up straight. Sae's hands started fidgeting together on her lap.
"Excellent. You're all here already," said the leader of the Grey Phantoms. Jessee wore a small smile as he hung up his robe and removed an enclosed tablet from its pocket. It was adorned with gold inscriptions along the edges.
He strode over to the table where the others sat and placed it there for all to see. "You can sit down, Milo."
Milo's eyes were wide and star-struck when Jessee addressed him directly. "Oh! Y-yes, of course sir." He sat down so hard that his chair shook the ground.
"That tablet of yours has the King's own insignia." Seyv mused, studying it. "What's inside? And how did you get this?"
"Not legitimately." Jessee said silkily. "For our purposes, however, it's legitimate enough." He picked the tablet back up and gently spun apart a small gold mechanism in the middle. A sheet of paper slid out from the bottom and into the light for all to see. "Sae, would you like to read this for everyone to hear?"
"Ah! M-me?" Sae had been staring down into her hands at her lap. "Yes, I can do that..." She held the paper in front of her delicately, opening her eyes wide to not make any mistakes. Sae's reading was slow and careful. "On behalf of your Royal Majesty… you have been cordially invited to attend… a grand masquerade ball. Join us to celebrate... a new era of peace and prosperity for all people." Seyv snorted in derision at that. Milo frowned, waiting patiently to hear more. "I, Baron Torge, royal appointee and safekeeper of the Kingdom's Rudalite reserve, look forward to being graced by your presence." Sae narrowed her eyes at the last passage in the bottom. They quickly flew wide with surprise and delight. "...Mister and Misses Milo and Sae Stenske? Jessee! We're royalty now!"
"Excuse me?" Seyv reached out his hand for the paper and began reading it himself. Milo appeared to be strangely embarrassed.
"It was logical to give you both this mission," said Jessee. "We'll be attending this event with false names. I trust Milo without question. I trust Sae and her ability to get us out safely, should anything go wrong. Seyv will stay somewhere nearby and act as backup if things should become very messy."
Seyv grunted in affirmation. "And what about you?"
"I will come along with Milo and Sae as a personal guest, to be your speaker and keep you safe from any… overly-curious individuals." His eyes twinkled as he smiled. "Royalty is the realm of politics. Charisma is sometimes more valuable than magical strength."
"A masquerade party, huh?" From a corner of darkness, uninterested until now, Gall stood up into the candlelight and slowly sauntered to the table. He stuck a small dagger into the table, inches away from the Baron's invitation that Seyv had dropped. "What a perfect opportunity. So many royal dogs in one place, all drunk on their wine. Not suspecting a thing."
"Gall…" Milo growled in warning.
"That's what you want, isn't it, dear leader?" Gall spoke his words without respect. "While you and your lackeys do your work… just let me do mine. In secret. No one would suspect anything was wrong until I was gone, and they found the bodies dozens of royalty cut into ribbons."
"That. Is not. Our intention." Jessee said coldly. "Gall, I will repeat myself as many times as it takes. The road to the future we want will not be painted in blood. You will not be coming with us."
For a moment that seemed to stretch on forever, Gall stared back into Jessee's glare without emotion. Then, shrugging, he plucked his knife from the table and returned to the place he sat before.
Seyv raised an eyebrow at Gall in the shadows, arms crossed. Milo looked furious. Sae was staring down into her lap again.
Jessee broke the silence. "What we want is very simple. Baron Torge was recently gifted a beautiful, very expensive gesture of good faith by the King. A soul heart made out of pure Rudalite. He's going to have it on display for all to see." He smiled again, and it was contagious. "We're going to take it. The King will lose his faith in the Baron for allowing it to be stolen, and the Baron will think the King took it back because he didn't truly trust him."
"A heart of pure Rudalite! The value of that thing must be… beyond numbers." Milo's eyes were wide. "That's a genius plan, sir. I'll do the best I can to help you."
"It sounds tough...! How are we going to take something with so many people there watching?" asked Sae.
"Don't worry about that right now. That's why I'm coming with you." Jessee stood up. He looked playful, extending his hands to both Milo and Sae. "Right now, I would like you to both come with me."
"Oh! W-what for, Jessee..?" The girl asked.
"We need to get you and Milo some proper attire." He smiled. "You're going to be playing the part of married royalty after all."
"Haha! We really are, aren't we?" Sae clasped her hands together and smiled wide, leaning into Milo's shoulder playfully. Her shyness seemed to evaporate around him. "That means I get to make fun of you for wearing those frilly robes!"
"Yeah…" Milo was suddenly red in the face. He was still looking at Jessee obediently. "Seeing you all in regal clothing will be… interesting..."
Although the sun had set hours ago, The Baron's estate was lit up by countless magic lights in the color of every trait. Each one powered by its own Arnicite crystal. These lights guided dozens of very wealthy, very powerful people up the stairs to the grand entrance. Here there were two doors taller than some castles swung wide open, welcoming the Kingdom's highest nobility.
Dressed in his perfectly-tailored suit and wearing his mask, the leader of the Grey Phantoms waited at the bottom of the steps.
"Sae. You look simply charming." Jessee grinned as she arrived in her brand new dress. It was turquoise and blue like the colors of her dual trait, decorated with lapis lazulis that sparkled in the magic lights. A skilled hair-stylist had even worked their magic. She looked like she belonged here.
"Ahhh..! I-it's not that special. Really..." Sae pushed her index fingers together, fidgeting a little. No mask could hide this part of her. She looked away and saw Milo coming up to join them, looking entirely uncomfortable in his expensive disguise. Her expression changed to smiling. "Milo! There you are!"
"Milo. Our little sister has grown up. Doesn't she look enchanting?"
"Jessee…" Milo's eyes went wide, looking at them. His cheeks flushed with red. "You look great... both of you."
"So do you!" Sae beamed. "I bet we never thought the Grey Phantoms would take us to a place like this." She easily reached out and grabbed Milo's arm, standing together like a couple would. Milo's face was sheepishly fixed to the ground.
"This is an important mission, Sae..."
"It is! And Team Patience is ready for it."
"Team Patience? What on Earth are you talking about?"
"It's not even Patience magic. We're both dual-traited."
"We both use Patience magic." Sae insisted stubbornly.
"That's not right, silly girl. Mixing them turns it into something different. You wouldn't mix flour and eggs together and call it—"
Jessee watched the two of them bicker together with a smile. Any doubts he might have had were leaving his mind.
These two were perfect for this mission.
The ballroom was divided into two distinct areas. The larger of the two, which took up most of the space, was a wide open and beautifully decorated antechamber. On the ground and on the upstairs level, people talked together and dined on food and wine that was handed out by servants wandering the grounds.
Baron Torge was known for his kindness and generosity, and for that reason some of his servants were even Traitless.
The second area was tucked away, accessible by a much smaller doorway, which opened into another spacious hall where music played and people danced together with elegance that matched their noble status.
It was there, guarded by men who stood so still that they might have been statues, that the Rudalite Heart sat for all to see.
"It's right there." Milo hissed. "Yet it's impossibly out of reach. Such elite witnesses would bring the entire Kingdom's strength upon us, even if we escaped."
"An opportunity will present itself, Milo." Jessee said knowingly. "I have full confidence that you and Sae will recognize it when it appears."
"If you're really sure..." Sae murmured. "What do you want us to do until that happens?"
"What do you mean?" Jessee looked to the both of them, his eyes twinkling. "It's a grand celebration. Go and celebrate. Enjoy the food and drinks. Immerse yourself in the affluence and splendor."
"Well…" Milo didn't want to relax. He wanted to make sure he didn't fail Jessee. But if there was really nothing he could do right now… "I'm going to go to the ballroom and take a closer look at the Heart."
"I'll get us something to eat!" Sae's eyes were longingly following the snacks being carried around. "Ah..! Jessee, w-what are you going to do?"
"I suppose I'll just stay in arm's reach. I'd rather not have them ask too many—" Jessee's mouth snapped shut. Somewhere on the second level of the grand hall, his eyes caught a flash of brilliant green, and a flowing robe that could only belong to a Wizard. He slowly smiled. "On second thought… I may have to take a small mission of my own."
"Umm. Do you want me to help you?" Milo asked.
"Thank you, but your job is far more important than mine." He said. "This is best for my own particular set of skills."
Jessee left the other Phantoms and comfortably strode through the ranks of people. He knew exactly how to walk to dissuade others from coming to greet him, though he never appeared unfriendly. He climbed the stairs and politely took a glass of wine from a passing servant. It was only a short way to go before he found himself in the same room as Mila Rutrow herself. A Wizard whose status on the Council put her on par or above the King himself.
Even better, she was standing with a second Wizard with blue hair who Jessee recognized as Kody Fallenfire. Two Wizards of the council.
For his goal of changing this world to be fair and just towards all people, including the Traitless, he may never have an opportunity like this again.
Jessee waited patiently until the two Wizards were alone with each other before he stepped forward to say hello. He comfortably drew close and said, "Your masks do little to hide your names. It's an honor to be here with you today, Kody and Mila."
"Hello! You're too nice." Mila smiled wide. "I wish I could say the same for you! I don't think we've ever met, but you're here to celebrate the success of the King's peace talks. I know you're good at heart."
Kody spoke next. Jessee noted that he didn't speak like a noble at all. "Pffffft. I'm just here for the food and drinks. I'd respect ya if you're around for that." He ate another one of his snacks and talked with puffy cheeks. "They're so good!"
"Yes, the peace talks." Jessee smiled innocently. "I'm happy to be part of a Kingdom which strives to improve the lives of its people. And I'm pleased that the Baron allows Traitless servants to be here among the royalty." Very subtly, his words had barbs at their edges. "I assume the lives improved by these peace talks are supposed to include the Traitless?"
Mila smiled again, but it was a pained one. Kody scratched the back of his head. "Eh, we got them to take a step in the right direction. It's a real complicated situation, you know." He looked longingly at his snacks. "I'm with you on this one, believe me. But... I don't like politics even when I'm working…"
"We should feel blessed, Kody." Mila said to her friend. "It's only because we're living in peace that these issues have room to be brought up at all."
"Ahhhh, I guess you're right. Hey, why don't you refill your drink? And get me one too. I'll need it!" Kody managed to laugh again. "Let's get on the same page with this stuff."
"Excuse me..? Pardon me!" Servants passed Sae left and right with their delicious snacks and drinks, but she was too shy. It felt wrong to just reach out and take it off their plates like they weren't even people. She felt hopeless. "Can I have one of those please? Hello..! Pardon me!"
Just when all seemed lost... a Traitless servant, tall for a girl, noticed Sae's efforts and stopped next to her. "For you, my lady." She smiled. "Please, take as many as you wish."
"For me..?" Sae was overwhelmed by gratitude. She took one gently and, making sure it was okay first, took a bite.
It might have been the best thing she had ever eaten. She wanted to hug that girl for giving this to her. "Oh, it's so good! You're wonderful! Thank you..!"
"Ah… miss?" The girl looked confused by Sae's kindness to her.
"You noticed me when no one else cared…" Sae blubbered like a baby, still chewing. "I don't care what anyone says. You're better than any Traited servant in the world..!"
Sae hadn't been thinking, but now she could imagine how many times this girl had been looked down upon or even insulted for being Traitless. Hearing praise from her had brought tears to the servant girl's eyes.
"Ah… I'm sorry for my appearance. I'm afraid I can't wipe my tears. My hands aren't allowed to leave this plate until it's empty." She said, still smiling. "Thank you, kind lady."
"How long does it take to get some snacks...? It can't be that hard." Milo pretended to check his fingernails, but every so often he would steal a glance over to the Rudalite Heart, searching the pedestal for hidden mechanisms and gauging the strength of the guards around it.
He was completely oblivious to the group of young women who had gathered to watch him from a safe distance.
"Who is that guy? He's so handsome…"
"Do you think he's single? I want to ask him to dance."
"You're so brave! I would just freeze up like a little girl if I tried to talk to him!"
Raising an eyebrow, Milo looked back and noticed a bundle of blue hair trying to politely push through from beneath the crowds of people.
"I'm back! Mission accomplished… for team Patience!" Sae smiled wide and dramatically showed him her loot. In her arms were far too many snacks for either of them to eat.
"This team Patience stuff again..." Milo sighed. "I'm glad you made it back, but... why did you take so many?"
"The servant girl couldn't use her hands unless I took them all."
"I… what?" Milo raised his eyebrow again, confused. "Never mind, just give them to me, I'll get rid of them so we don't draw so much attention."
Sae sheepishly handed them over. She looked around and noticed all the women admiring Milo from afar. They now wore frowns of jealousy ever since she had arrived. "I think you have plenty of attention already." She giggled and grabbed her friend's arm again.
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Hehehe, you really haven't noticed?" She laughed.
"Sae…" He muttered. He dumped most of their snacks into a waste basket. "You're being so goofy. Have you been drinking wine?"
Their bickering was cut short as the music stopped, and a huge, friendly voice boomed over the sound of the chatter. It was Baron Torge, a tall mountain of a man, standing in the center of the dance floor. "Ladies and wonderful gentlemen! We will be playing one last song before we empty this room for the night. Please join us for one more dance before making your way back to the grand halls." He called out. "And in this moment of celebration, let us give our thanks to the King for his gift of the Rudalite Heart. To signify our dream to make these lands safer and more prosperous for all!"
Milo rolled his eyes while the rest of the room politely applauded. Sae tugged his arm, giving him an encouraging look. "He sounds nice. Maybe Jessee could talk to him one day."
"As if that could ever happen."
"Ahh…" She sighed. "If it were so easy, the world wouldn't need us, would they?" Shaking away her sad thoughts, Sae raised an eyebrow at Milo playfully. "Hey… husband?"
He raised a much less playful eyebrow back at her.
"What? Why? I don't like dancing."
"Everyone else is! They'll ask questions if we're supposed to be married but we won't even dance together." She thought about all the girls watching him.
"Who is they?"
Blowing air out her nose, Sae took his arm and started dragging him towards the dance floor.
"W-whoa. What are you doing? Hey, wait!"
"Shhhhhhh, husband." She looked mischievous now. "We are going to dance."
"...Actually, lemmie tell you a secret. It's not a real secret since all my friends know this, but…" Kody shrugged. "Hey, want another one of these?"
Jessee accepted Kody's gift of food politely. He ate without caring for its taste. "Thank you. You were saying?"
"Both of my parents were Traitless, you know. I know how bad stuff is for them, 'cuz I was born and I grew up inside of it. It freaking sucks!" Kody continued. "And my magic? Pah, I'd be the same Kody I am today without it. Magic doesn't define who you are. Only you can do that."
"Then I must ask, Kody. You know that these people are oppressed, perhaps even more so than I do. You and Mila are both in a position of political power." Jessee mused. "So why… does nothing change for the Traitless?"
Kody gave a pained smile. Mila spoke up to fill his silence. "Surely, you can imagine what would happen if we went to the King tomorrow and demanded… I don't know. 'From now on, every profession must be changed so that a Traitless man or woman can do their job as well as a Traited can. What would happen to our world?"
Jessee took another bite, waiting.
"...Because that's the problem we face. Even the weakest of Traited can use Arnicite tools to do their jobs better through magic. They can build things better. They can heal the sick better. They can enforce the law better. Every aspect of society is the same. If we... handicapped them… so they were only as capable as the Traitless were…"
"I understand what you're trying to say." Jessee said. "We would grow slower because our construction slowed. Our wealth and prosperity would fade. People would die in their hospital beds without the help of healing magic. Crime would run rampant because many of our criminals use magic of their own. Is that correct?"
Mila nodded sadly. "That only scratches the surface of our reality. Laws cannot change that one side cannot use the magic which built our society."
"Yes. Then it seems to me that the solution isn't so simple." Jessee said. "Perhaps we should be using all our wealth, magic and resources to invent new, non-magical tools that help the Traitless keep up. Through science and technology."
"I agree, my friend. But that takes the effort of everybody." Kody said in a rare moment of seriousness. "It takes money and time, and we can't force people to do that. That would make us tyrants ourselves. That's not what the Law is for."
"...So the good people of this Kingdom are willing to forsake the Traitless and leave them to rot, so they can enjoy a world built around their magic."
"Ah, man." Kody mumbled. "Maybe now ya see why it's taking us so long to help them out. We're doing what we can, but..."
"I'm beginning to understand a lot of things." Jessee's voice was cold. He was disappointed in how little progress was being made here.
Before he could say more, their conversation was cut short by a commotion on the ground floor. It seemed that everyone was leaving the ballroom. With the increased traffic to the antechamber, a Traitless servant had accidentally tripped and spilled wine all over a man's expensive robes.
She was tall for a girl. Her hands never left the plate even as the man berated and pushed her. Even from up here, his voice was loud enough to turn heads. Everyone watched. No one stepped forward.
Frowning hard, Jessee looked over to see how Kody and Mila were reacting to this. He felt hope for a moment, as Kody looked furious. He was on his feet, gripping the railing of the upper balcony as if he wanted to leap all the way down and stop this.
But Mila's hand was on his shoulder. She was shaking her head sadly. Kody looked back at his friend and slowly, reluctantly sat back down.
This was the reality of the Wizard Council, wasn't it? They wanted to help the Traitless. They were just unwilling to do what it took to change things quickly. None would step forward to protect the Traitless from the world's injustice.
Of course they wouldn't.
Kody took a deep breath to steady himself. "Gah... Here's an example, my friend... We can't do anything to help that poor girl right now. But after this is over we will find this man and make sure he gets the punishment he—" Kody stopped. He realized Jessee was gone. "H-hey, where'd he go?"
"You ruined my suit! Do you have any idea how much this costs? More than you'll ever make, that's for sure!" The drunk nobleman yelled at the Traitless servant beneath him. "I was going to meet some very important people. Now I can't because I look like a fool! You ruined everything!" A slap rang out as the man hit her across the cheek. "What was the Baron thinking, using Traitless servants? Brainless. Worthless. All of you..." He hit her again. This time the servant girl fell to her knees, still holding tight to her plate as her tears ran freely.
"Please, sir. I'm sorry…"
"Sorry? You're not sorry yet." He raised his hand to hit her again. "You can be sure I'll go to the Baron and make sure that he knows what sort of clumsy oaf he's…"
He felt a hand grip tight around his arm, stopping him from bringing it down on the girl a third time.
"Who dares..?" He slowly turned around.
Jessee's eyes stared back at into him. His glare was of pure ice. "The only thing you're telling the Baron is that you're worthless scum." He hissed. "Rotten to the core of your soul."
"Get your hands off of me." He tried to shake his arm free, but barely succeeded in making Jessee move at all. "Know your place! Don't you know who I am?"
Jessee punched him straight in the face. The nobleman toppled over backwards, sprawling back and holding onto his nose. He shouted out incoherently.
Fury burned like a living thing inside of Jessee. His eyes glowed bright yellow as his magic came alive. Hardly aware of what he was doing, the man lifted up dozens and dozens of wine glasses all around him with the power of his Trait.
For one brief, horrible moment, he wanted to send them all hurtling into that disgusting man's face and heart like so much glass shrapnel. This man was a tumor that society would be better off without.
Then the wave of rage passed. It left Jessee feeling ugly and tired and spent. He instead dumped every glass of wine he held over the man's suit.
"Ladies and gentlemen." He turned to the crowd watching him. "I apologize for my outburst. I will leave you with this horrible man's company." Placing the now-empty glasses of wine back down, he turned and allowed himself to be escorted out of the estate by the Baron's guards.
His rage may have passed, but after seeing how the Wizard Council themselves could not rise to defend the Traitless...
The rage had taken some of his hope, too.
"H-hey… I think this is the opportunity Jessee wanted us to look out for." Sae murmured. The anxiety of what just happened had her clutching Milo's arm tight.
"You're right. Let's use this distraction while it lasts. Can you get us back to the Rudalite Heart?"
"There's still guards in front of the doors, Milo…"
"Come, now…" Milo smiled. "When have doors ever been a problem for you? No one's looking. Can you get us through?"
"Ahhh... You mean you want me to teleport us back there? With all these people around..?" She shivered, terrified that the success of this mission now rested on her.
"I believe in you. Do it for Team Patience, Sae."
"Team... Oh! You finally said it!" She suddenly shined like the sun. Sae was feeling a little more brave now. "I think I can do it. I'll try. Only because it's you."
"Then there's no time to waste."
The ballroom was no longer bright and full of life and magic. The dancing and festives were over. Now, the only lights were the torches on the wall and the moonlight which streamed in through the windows.
Here, the Rudalite Heart sat on its podium surrounded by guards. Alone.
At least until a flash of bright blue light appeared in the center of the room. Sae and Milo, both wearing grey hoods to disguise their hair, materialized from nothing. They looked, and saw the guards waiting for them, and Milo sighed quietly to himself. He was used to this, after all. "Are you going to start screaming about how we got here, or can we skip to the part where I kick all your butts?"
"It's the Grey Phantoms!" They drew their weapons and started shouting at him in an unintelligible mess of confusion and loud orders to surrender. One guard left the group and began running to sound the alarm.
Milo smiled, looked down at the nervous Sae and said, "This will only take me a bit."
Then two purple knives of Perseverance magic flew out from his wrist, trailed by a thin string of Patience. One wrapped around the fleeing guard's leg like a bola. The other embedded itself into the stone of the roof. Then Milo yanked hard and he was flying through the room.
With the escaping guard tripped over, Milo let go and landed square on his back with both feet. The guard let out a pained huff of air and stopped moving. He stood up and looked back at his opponents.
"Everyone, get him!" Milo threw out two more knives and disappeared from his spot, as magic missiles whizzed by where he used to be. He swung from the roof in a wide circle, taunting and throwing out one roped knife after another into the ground, dodging every attack his pursuers uselessly threw at him.
By the time Milo was done, he had expertly surrounded them all in a circular web of strings while leaving them distracted with his acrobatic circus act.
The Grey Phantom landed neatly on the ground next to Sae, willed his knives to disappear into the air, and yanked on his magic strings with his last remaining knife. The web he had created instantly tightened into a circle and contracted around them, slamming them together and leaving them trapped. Tangled and unable to move on the floor.
"How did you like that?" Milo asked Sae. She simply stared at him with stars in her eyes, looking like he was the coolest person she had ever seen.
In times like these, Milo couldn't help but feel a little smug.
It felt even better to ignore the guard's shouts as they walked over to the Rudalite Heart. Sae reached out with careful hands and plucked it off the pedestal. She gasped a little at the strange sensation of its touch.
"Wow… I can feel it making the magic in my body disappear." Sae murmured. "I thought Rudalite was the opposite of Arnicite, but this is even worse. I don't think I can teleport while I'm holding this, Milo..."
"That's okay." He said. "Jessee said he prepared another exit for us. Do you remember where to go?" Sae nodded, worried, and he ruffled her hair with his hand. "Then don't worry. We'll be back in no time."
Jessee sat alone in the basement of the Grey Phantom's base of operations. To his right was an enormous sledgehammer and an anvil. To his left was a furnace, which held a large bowl of molten Arnicite. The fire was the only light in this dark place.
The door opened and closed. Milo and Sae, both of them bright-eyed and celebrating, stepped in and came up to Jessee with smiles. "We did it!" Sae cheered. "Team Patience wins again!"
"You're back. I trust no one followed you?" Jessee asked coldly.
"Ahh…" Her smile faded a bit at the sound of his voice. "Y-yeah. I couldn't teleport us away because of how Rudalite blocks my magic. But..! After we got it, we sneaked away through the servant's halls and we got out through there. Just like you told us to! " She produced the Rudalite Heart for Jessee to see. Even pitch black, it glinted beautifully in the dancing flames.
"Good work. Both of you." Jessee took the heart and inspected it for a moment.
Then, placing it on top of the anvil, he picked up his sledgehammer and hit it as hard as he could.
"S-sir!" Milo was aghast. "What are you doing with the Heart?"
BANG! A second swing cracked it open into six separate pieces. "This Heart was a symbol of peace and prosperity." Jessee hissed. "Not among all people, like those lying fools tried to say. Only for the Traited do they care enough to change for the better."
BANG! Another hit shattered one of the Rudalite's crystalline pieces into countless shards. Jessee picked up another chunk and placed it on the anvil. "The Council. The King. They're all powerless against the disdain people feel for the Traitless. Our world isn't made to protect the weak. It's to protect the majority from the weak."
The next piece shattered, and so did the rest after three more swings. Slowly and methodically, Jessee gathered the shards of broken Rudalite and dumped the batch into the molten Arnicite beside him.
"W-what are you doing, Jessee?" Sae asked, worried for him.
"I'm simply adapting to what I have learned." He said. "The Wizards and the King himself cannot change the world peacefully. Not if the path is too difficult."
The leader of the Grey Phantom's eyes glowed with yellow light. Piece by piece, he used his magic to pick the shards of now-molten Rudalite out of the bowl. He couldn't raise the magic-rejecting material himself; Instead, each bullet had a core of Arnicite within their Rudalite shells. Only a small nub of Arnicite stuck through from the center and allowed his magic to carry them.
"If the most powerful people in the world can't make the world a better place through peace, then we must be ready to use violence when necessary." Jessee said at last. "This Heart, which was truly a symbol of how the Traitless had been forgotten, will become my weapon to save them. God help any Wizard who thinks they can stand in my way."
Milo had never seen Jessee like this before. He walked up and delicately placed a hand on his leader's shoulder. He flinched at the touch. "Whatever you want, Jessee… w-we believe in you. If that's really what it takes to make the world a better place.. we'll fight too, if we have to..."
Sae didn't say anything; she looked worried, and unsure what to do. Jessee just knew that she wanted to do the right thing. That was good enough for him.
Jessee's eyes still glowed in the firelight. "Then get some rest. You have done well today." He said. "But our road is just beginning."
The Grey Phantoms
A compilation of several stories introducing the Grey Phantoms' elites, a majority being released alongside Cami's Phantom Week speedpaints.
Echoes In The Garden
Jessee Krovor took a deep breath. The smell of the garden's flowers filled his nose, and for a moment the worries eating at him felt a bit farther away. All the same, each step he took forward made those worries grow larger in size. They brought him closer to the moment of action, and confrontation.
He and Milo strode together down a long walkway with Sae tucked nervously behind them. They entered the gardens behind Justeco's castle like they belonged there, and followed along the thick stone walls that bordered its edges. The garden itself was enormous, stretching along the entire rear section of the castle and continuing out into the forest nearby.
"What are we looking for, Milo? Remind me." Jessee asked as a way to distract himself. He noticed how his friend snapped to attention the moment he heard Jessee's voice and smiled despite everything.
"Um! According to what Arcane said, there's a private garden room built into the walls. We're almost there. That's where he should be relaxing now that his meetings are over." He cleared his throat. "King Ozrich, I mean."
"And the King's guards…" Jessee looked down, and down, to the young woman trailing behind them. He gave her a gentle look that said his words for him. The magically powerful and highly-trained men were Sae's job to deal with.
"I can do it." She answered bravely. But the worry was clear on her face. All the practice in the world could only do so much to prepare someone for the real thing.
"I know you can. I wouldn't doubt you for a second." He replied confidently. Her worry disappeared the slightest bit, and she beamed with pride. "Milo, would you take the lead?"
"Of course, sir...!" He and Sae took the front, and Jessee let himself fall back a good distance away. Better for the guards to think it was just them once they were noticed.
The two worked well together. Sae and Milo had become friends soon after they met, and they had only grown closer since then. It was likely that Milo's presence was the reason Sae was brave enough to do this at all.
Far enough away to avoid notice but close enough to eavesdrop, Jessee heard everything when the two Grey Phantoms picked up speed and hurried towards the door. The guards noticed them and quickly frowned. "Stop where you are, sir. Turn around and leave. No one is allowed here right now." They warned. One guard quietly brought a hand to the weapon at his belt.
Then their gaze fell upon the small, adorable girl that was Sae. She didn't have to do much acting to look terrified.
"I'm sorry, something terrible happened. This girl needs your help." Milo said in a voice like a worried mother, not slowing down. "I don't know what hurt her, but something's wrong."
"Wrong? What do you mean?" Their voices were confused, unsure what to do.
That was what Jessee was counting on. With the look of a frightened child, Sae left Milo's side and hobbled towards the guards with her hands out, like someone reaching for safety. Instinctively, the two men each took one of her hands. They didn't have time to think.
Then Sae's eyes squeezed shut. There was a flash of blue light, and the small girl simply disappeared from where she was standing. And so did the guards.
In the blink of an eye, King Ozrich was alone in his garden.
"What would we ever do without Sae." Jessee whistled to himself as he came back up to the front with Milo. If all went well, their teleporting mage should have brought the guards to the other side of the city, before jumping again without them. She should be waiting for them in the forest nearby. "Are you ready for this?" He asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be…" The man looked back at him and smiled. He guessed it was Milo's turn to look braver than he felt.
Then Jessee grit his teeth and shoved open the door. Today, the Grey Phantoms would have an audience with the King of Justeco.
They were doing something incredibly bold. And dangerous. King Ozrich was arguably the most powerful man in the world, and easily the wealthiest. Even worse, this was the King who had almost been assassinated by one of the old, now-dead Wizard Council. It was many years ago, but there was no way to predict how Ozrich would react to two strangers sneaking into his room while he was alone.
But Jessee needed to talk to him.
They stepped into Ozrich's private garden, surrounded by bushes and swirling vines that sprouted beautiful flowers, and they saw the King himself taking a sip of tea. Ozrich paused, then slowly brought his cup down onto his plate. He turned around to face them both. "Where are my guards?" He asked, almost gently. His voice had not a trace of confusion, or fear.
"They're gone. Unharmed." Jessee took a step forward. He was the intruder here, and yet he was the one who felt afraid. It was something quiet, but unshakable, like the instinctive fear of the dark. Standing in front of Ozrich made him feel small.
"I see." The King replied, like he didn't believe him. "Then I suppose I should ask the more pressing question." His eyes met Jessee and they turned hard like steel. "Who are you, and why have you invaded my room? Is this an assassination attempt?"
"No. That couldn't be further from what we want." Jessee said, unable to keep the disgust out of his voice, that he'd suggest such a thing. "I'm Jessee Krovor. And this is Milo. He's going to stand back and warn me if more guards show up to interrupt us. I want to talk to you peacefully, as the leader of the new Grey Phantoms."
The King's expression widened with recognition, then suddenly burned with controlled fire at the mention of that name. "The Grey Phantoms?" He scorned it. "The terrorist organization that as sowed seeds of chaos and destruction for years? For decades, even? YOU want to talk to me?"
Jessee saw Milo take a step back in fear. The leader of the Grey Phantoms stood firm, though his body told him to run. "The Grey Phantoms you remember doesn't exist any longer. I fought Fergal Baladeva myself. I defeated him and drove him out. We are nothing like him, and we never will be again."
There was a long pause where Ozrich stared. He even took a sip of his tea—an action that seemed to be to calm himself. "You. Defeated? Fergal?" Ozrich finally spoke. Then amazingly, he smiled. "If you didn't sound so earnest, I'd say you must think I'm a utter fool to believe such a wild claim. You're stronger than you look."
Jessee smiled, but he wasn't interested in compliments. He pressed forward. "The years of war and bloodshed waged accomplished nothing for the people Fergal claimed he was trying to help. Nothing but for the death and suffering of countless innocent people." Jessee brought his fist into his palm, feeling the passion of what he believed in with all his soul. "I had enough of it."
"Is that so?" Again, Ozrich smiled. Jessee dared to think the King liked what he was hearing. "What do your people plan to do next, then? You became an opposite force to Fergal and those who served him, I imagine? Keeping the peace?"
"Not only that, but… yes." Jessee answered.
"Then perhaps we are on the same side after all." Ozrich hummed. He took a long, satisfied sip of his tea.
"There's nothing I'd like more than that." The leader of the Grey Phantoms dared to feel good about himself. For everything imposing about this powerful man, he was reasonable. He listened to him when he spoke. That meant everything to him.
"I want to bring change for those people, the Traitless. Actual change. I want to do it without the death of a single person." He continued. "I remember, years ago, that you donated a very generous amount of money to lift the Traitless from poverty. You gave them places to live, and time to make a life for themselves. I thought that if there was one person on the continent who would be an invaluable ally for us, and a catalyst of real change, it would be you, Ozrich. A King who was sympathetic to the Traitless crisis. Someone who could help us do what Fergal could not. Who could help us show the world that we can fix this. Not with violence, but with unity."
Jessee thought he had delivered his speech very well. He could see Milo's chest swelling with pride in the corner of his vision. But Ozrich, the King who had done more to help the Traitless than even he himself had, was staring back with a dull, somber expression.
"I understand what you're saying now, Jessee Krovor. Now I need to ask you something." King Ozrich murmured after a long pause. "Do you think, in his many years of trying to achieve change, that Fergal never tried simply talking to us peacefully? Do you think he hasn't said the same things you have?"
"Well, I—" The question caught him off guard with how direct it was. "No. I mean, he couldn't have. Because someone like you would be open to the idea of peaceful cooperation, and yet—"
"He did try." Ozrich gently raised a hand to silence him. "And I am open to it."
"Then what happened?" Jessee found himself frowning. "How many years ago was this? The Traitless need help, and they need it now. Why has nothing been done for so long?"
The King's expression hardened right back, which Jessee found maddening. As if he was the one who had said something wrong. "You sound like Fergal once did, Jessee." Ozrich's voice was like a warning. "To our knowledge, Traitlessness inflicts about two percent of our population. The continent has ten million people living on it—not including monsters. That's two hundred thousand people. Nine million, eight hundred thousand others have problems, too. Statistically, the Traitless are insignificant."
"That's two hundred thousand innocent lives!" Jessee had to fight to keep his voice controlled. "If it's so few people to you, how are the kingdoms so powerless to help them? Or is it that no one wants to?"
Ozrich spread his hands to either side of himself. Jessee couldn't tell if the gesture was mocking. "I'll humor you. Pretend that you're my advisor, Jessee. What is something I should do as the King to save the Traitless people?"
"You—" Jesse was once again taken off guard. Of anything he was hoping to accomplish with this meeting, it hadn't quite been this. The one thing he wanted most. A hundred answers rushed to his mind. "If I tell you what I'd do, will you do it?"
"If it's possible." Ozrich answered. Jessee could see Milo staring at him from the corner of his eye, jubilant.
"Okay." The Grey Phantom leader blew out a breath. "It's simple. Make it illegal for the Traited to oppress the Traitless."
Ozrich studied him. He looked unimpressed with his simple answer. "When you say oppress, do you mean those with magic should not be allowed to hurt those without it? That already exists. It's called assault, and murder. Both are illegal already."
Jessee felt his face go red. "I didn't mean—"
"Do you mean that hatred towards them should be illegal?" Ozrich wasn't done. "Do you want guards to spy on every person in every corner of the world, eavesdropping on their conversations and arresting them for how they think? Never mind the precedent that would be set by such a thing..."
"I mean the oppression that's systemic!" Jessee said hotly, despite his best efforts to control his voice. "The world is made in a way which they don't fit. The crystals that light our homes need magic to glow. To take a position of power and change things peacefully, you need a Trait or no one will even talk to you. Our stoves and heaters and torches which all use Arnicite, they have to do without it. The whole world needs to be changed, from the bottom to the top." The more Jessee spoke, the more Ozrich's expression grew dangerous. At least he was listening. "It's not going to be easy. But it's possible. Especially with your help. It's a fight that's worth fighting—and it can't happen slowly. It needs to happen now."
"You want to change the world from the top to the bottom. Quickly. For two hundred thousand people." The speed that Ozrich replied surprised him. So did the contempt in his voice. "Why?"
"Why do you not? Do you not care about innocent people?"
"I care very much." The King glared at him. "I care about the dozens of villages in Justeco that may starve this winter without my help. I care about the fragile peace between the provinces, and the possibility of war. In one such war, I risked my very life to put an end to it rather than send thousands of soldiers to die in my name." Ozrich stood up from his chair, and his voice became forceful. "I care about the Queen of Integreco, who is secretly supporting an incredibly dangerous terrorist who she calls her son. I care about the real possibility that her actions could spark another war. So don't tell me I don't care about innocent lives, you damn fool. I care about everyone at once. You only care about a few."
Jessee grit his teeth. He was ready to yell right back at the King and counter every point with an argument of his own. But he wasn't an idiot. He knew that Ozrich didn't want to talk to him any longer. Trying to push further could be dangerous.
WIth a herculean effort, Jessee pushed aside his anger and his passion. He forced himself to close his eyes and speak calmly. "I see. Very well, then. I disagree with you, very much, and one day I hope to change your mind." His eyes opened again. "But thank you for at least listening to me. I'll leave peacefully."
The King looked surprised that Jessee was willing to step away. Then he closed his eyes as well, clearly reining in emotions of his own. The tension in the room dropped by a few degrees.
Then a thought occurred to the Grey Phantom's leader. "Before I go…" He began. "Making changes to the law. Trying to make this world a better place in general. That's what the Wizard Council does, doesn't it?"
"That's one of their many duties, yes." Ozrich still had his eyes closed.
"Then why not take the help of someone who knows what it's like to live without magic? Why not add someone Traitless to the Council?"
Ozrich's eyes flew open. Suddenly, they were filled with a terrible, righteous fury.
And then his long, braided hair flashed bright yellow. Before Jessee could so much as draw a breath, two glowing swords appeared in front of Ozrich and swung down upon him.
He couldn't have reacted. The thought that he'd be attacked so suddenly and without warning hadn't even occurred in his mind.
But somehow, it had occurred to Milo. He appeared in Jessee's vision as a blur of purple and light blue, with two long knives clasped in each hand. The man dove in front of Jessee—into the path of the swords—and met them with his own. Jessee cried out Milo's name.
He cried out because the King was one of the most powerful mages in the world. That's part of the reason why Ozrich was king. Milo was strong, but compared to the King it wasn't even close.
And yet Milo's magic withstood the magic of the King. The glowing sword crashed into the crossed knives he held at an X to stop it. His blades held, the King's sword perfectly matched against Milo's own strength.
And then the second blade came. It evaded Milo's knives like it was alive, and cut open his chest from his collarbone to his hips.
Jessee watched in stupefied horror as a long streak of something thick and red hit the floor in a rush, then slowed to a rhythmic dripping. From far away, a long and awful sound echoed around him, like the wind from an enormous canyon.
Then he realized that the red substance was Milo's own blood, and the sound was his cry of pain. Jessee blinked, and suddenly he was back in reality. He saw another sword, reared back and ready to strike. But waiting.
Despite his terrible wound, Milo was still on his feet, weapons ready in shaking hands, still protecting Jessee. King Ozrich had hesitated. Stunned, maybe, by the act of self sacrifice. What he saw was a boy who knew he stood no chance against the King—and who stood against him anyways, if it meant that Jessee would live.
Then Ozrich met the leader's eyes, and his glare shifted to the cold resolve of someone who hated violence, but had decided it was necessary.
The image of his soft, tranquil garden inside the castle walls had been turned into a bloody staredown. From the chaos, Jessee's mind finally returned to him. His magic awakened, acting fast.
He reached out with it to the center of the room and tore the walls down between them. Meter-thick stones fell down and cracked into pieces. Glass shattered and fell from the skylights above, falling like razor sharp rain. But his magic ensured that none of it fell on him or the friend who had saved his life.
As the rocks crashed to a stop, the only thing in its wake was silence and slowly-settling dust.
Then an impact shook the earth, and the pile of massive stones trembled with the force of what had struck it. This barrier wasn't going to be able to stop Ozrich from following them.
"Come on, Milo. We have to go." Jessee had to lower himself down to look his friend in the eyes. Milo had fallen on his hands and knees, blood dripping out onto the floor beneath him. His face was pale and tight with pain and shock.
"Yeah." His voice was tight and thin. "Good idea."
Milo tried to stand up, then just as quickly began to fall back to his knees. Jessee quickly caught him with both hands, and hoisted Milo's arm around his shoulder.
They reached the exit doors when a second impact thundered behind them. A handful of giant bricks tumbled and fell from the top of their pile. Jessee grit his teeth and carried them both towards the forest as fast as he could, with Milo struggling to help him with his own weight.
The third impact was the final one. An explosion of smoke and debris blew out from the doors behind the fleeing Grey Phantoms. A short while later, yellow light appeared in the center of the swirling mass. Then Ozrich strode through the smoke with six shimmering swords behind him, splayed out in symmetrical angles. He looked like an angel of divine judgment.
He didn't run, but he was gaining on them all the same.
"Jessee…" Milo gasped next to him. His head hung limply from his shoulders, his face hidden. He wasn't trying to carry his weight anymore. "Leave me behind. I'll hold him off. Try and give you enough time to find Sae."
"What? Like hell I will!" Jessee yelled without hesitation. His voice came out more angry than he'd meant it. "We're only just getting started. We have a world to change, soldier."
"You have a world to change." Milo said back. "The Grey Phantoms can go on without me. But not… without you."
Jessee looked at him, then to the slowly-approaching King. Then his eyebrows furrowed and he tugged Milo hard, getting his feet to stumble along behind him. "I don't want to hear another word. You're coming with me if I have to carry you myself." He said, his voice harsh. "Are you going to help me or not?"
Milo never replied. But he felt as the boy's legs started trying to lighten the load against him.
That was one problem dealt with. The fact it was the least of his problems told Jessee just how quickly things had fallen apart. King Ozrich was still approaching—and he was close enough to hear him if he shouted.
"We came to you in peace!" He yelled out. He heard the frustration in his voice like it belonged to someone else. "What does it say about you that you let Fergal live, yet you try to kill in cold blood those who want peace?"
Even now, Jessee knew how to make his words hit where it hurt. It must have, for Ozrich to reply to him at all. "Not killing him was the greatest mistake I ever made." The King spoke back, his voice heavy and cold. "You're a fool if you think he was always the man he is now, using fear and death as his seeds to sprout change from the charred earth. Before… before he became that monster… he was just like you. Naive and powerful, thinking he had what it took to do the impossible. Thinking he could change the world. Peacefully."
"No. That's not true!" Jessee yelled back at him, insulted and disgusted at the same time. "I'm nothing like Fergal!"
"You and him are exactly the same. He even had your same ideas. But slowly, surely, his failures marred his soul." The King's voice was perfectly clear. It had the tone of someone who knew that they were right. "With each defeat and broken heart, Fergal slipped further into darkness. He became more and more extreme, hoping to provoke a reaction from a world too large and complex to notice him. Yet he continued to fail, and the cycle continued."
Even now, Jessee didn't want to fight. But if he did nothing, Ozrich would catch them both. He called upon his magic again and reached out to the forest behind them. With a roar of effort, an enormous oak tree was lifted from the earth in a rain of black soil and snapping tendrils of thick roots. Gritting his teeth, he threw his hand out towards the King, and the entirety of the massive tree flew at his command.
Ozrich's swords seemed to react to Jessee's immense power. They shone even brighter, almost too bright to look at, and when the gigantic oak reached him two swords flashed forward and cut in an outwards arc, lopping through the tree in one cut and throwing the two halves out to the side. It passed by without harming him.
But Jessee hadn't released his hold on his enormous weapon. Grimacing with the effort it took, the two split halves spun around horizontally and converged upon each other. Two floating, wooden walls rushing to crush Ozrich between them.
This time, four pulsing swords flashed out. The oak split apart into four separate pieces. They crashed together with a thunderclap loud enough for Jessee to feel the noise, but the King remained unharmed in the center of it all.
He was looking at Jessee, not with anger, but like there was nothing left to be mad about. To Ozrich, Jessee was already dead. It was just a matter of waiting a few more short moments.
With the last of his strength, Jessee drew back with all four massive tree trunks and hurled them into Ozrich again. The King swept his arm out, and the tips of each of his swords jutted deep into the wood and stopped them in their place like they didn't weigh hundreds of pounds each.
Then with the fading flickers of light, they fell to the floor. Jessee fell too, panting hard. Milo was too weak to let out more than a gasp of discomfort as his knees hit the dirt.
He looked up, and saw King Ozrich standing sadly above him.
"I'm sorry, Jessee." He said, like a father after disciplining his son. "Every person Fergal killed is someone who would be alive today if I had only done what was necessary. The weight of my failure weighs on me every day. Your misguided journey would have ended the same as his." He only had one sword left that wasn't stuck. He raised it high, point down, ready to thrust it through Jessee's shoulder and into his heart. "I will never let another Fergal Baladeva enter this world."
Then Ozrich's eyes… widened in confusion. Jessee felt a small hand wrap tight around his arm.
Then there was a flash of blue light, and Jessee found himself inside the Phantom's home base.
He heard frantic panting, and above him he saw Sae, her eyes full of panic and brimming with tears. "I d-didn't know where you were." She babbled. "Not until I heard you fighting. I'm—I was almost too late. I almost—"
Jessee shushed her by raising a hand, and her mouth shut with an audible click. He just smiled gratefully. "What would I ever do without you. Good job, Sae…" His emotions paired with his exhaustion made him dizzy. Staring his own approaching death in the eye, feeling the adrenaline leaving his veins in painful tingles…, it was all catching up to him at once. He suddenly felt very, very tired. "Milo needs healing right away. Can you get Apitat?" He asked gently.
He fell unconscious before he heard Sae's reply.
Milo was alone in the infirmary. He couldn't remember many times in his life where it hurt this much just to breathe. The long wound across his chest was wrapped in bandages and closing quickly, thanks to Apitat's healing magic, but it would be hours before he was back to normal.
And it hurt! His only consolation was that the worst was over, and that he had lived.
Then Gall stepped in through the door. His permanent scowl was etched on his face, as it always was. Milo let out a tired sigh.
"Never mind. The worst isn't over after all." He muttered.
"What?" Gall asked with a frown. Milo shook his head and tried to wave him away with his hand—and grimaced as a flash of agony seared through his chest.
"You're not supposed to move, dumbass." The boy sat down in a chair next to the wall, near to the door, as if he had come here for a reason that wasn't to talk to Milo. But the two of them were the only ones in the room. Milo rolled his eyes at Gall's childishness.
"Why are you here?" Milo scowled at him. "If you're here to make fun of me, I swear I'll kick your ass as soon as I can get up from this bed."
He thought Gall would fire back with something rude, as he always did. Instead, the boy looked away. "No. It's not that this time."
His tone of voice got Milo's attention. "What—" He unconsciously tried to lean forward, and winced again at the pain. "Damn it all. What do you want, Gall? It was painful to talk to you before I had this big cut on my chest."
Gall ignored the jab. "Jessee didn't tell me much. He said he wanted to wait for you to get better before he told everyone what happened with Ozrich." He mumbled. "But I heard that Jessee carried you back himself. Did he really?"
Milo looked at Gall warily, expecting to be made fun of somehow. "He did…" He said carefully.
"He also said how Sae got to you seconds before Ozrich killed you both. It was close, then." Gall's voice became tight. He didn't once look in Milo's direction. "He risked his own life to save yours, and he almost died for it."
Again, Milo frowned, not knowing what this boy was trying to get at. "I tried to stay behind. I knew it was too risky." He said defensively. "Jessee said he'd drag me back himself if he had to."
"I… I see." Something in Gall's voice made Milo blink. He looked closer at the troubled teenager, and saw something he didn't think Gall was capable of feeling. Beneath the angry scowl he always wore as a mask… he looked pained. And sad. "If the leader dies, the whole Grey Phantoms falls apart." Gall said stiffly. "I didn't think Jessee would risk something like that."
"You didn't? Why not?" Milo asked.
"Because what happened to you—happened to me, once." Gall stood up. He suddenly looked very uncomfortable. "Fergal didn't come back for me."
And then he was gone. Milo wished that he had stayed, but he could only tell his reply to the empty room around him. But when he said it, he meant it with every fiber of his being.
"Jessee is nothing like Fergal was." He promised. "And he never will be."
"Ah. There you are, Mila. I've been looking for you." Rin Winterway of the Wizard Council strode into the small kitchen where Mila was baking cookies alone. Her arms were folded neatly at her waist, elegant and poised as her status should expect of her.
Mila, however, was dancing in her ridiculous chef's hat, flitting from one cooking bowl to the next and humming to herself. The kitchen was a mess. Rin sighed.
"Hello! What do I owe the pleasure of seeing you today?" Mila asked. Her apron and arms were both covered in flour. She brought a bowl into one of her arms and started stirring it with the other.
"Hmph. I'm only here for business, Mila. Not to have a friendly chat. I'd like to ask you a small favor."
"Mmm-hmm?" Her reply wasn't businesslike at all.
"How much do you know about Dual-Traited individuals? Have you met any yourself?"
"Dual-Traits? I see them sometimes, but ones that I've met…" Mila stopped stirring and brought a finger to her chin, accidentally painting it with blue icing. "Not many, I'm afraid. One used to be a soldier! Kody liked that one, but that was a long time ago. And I must have seen one at Baron Torge's masquerade ball..."
"Yes. They're quite rare. It grants them a unique sort of magic." Rin said. "You'll always find them in prestigious positions and they're all quite famous. So—"
"Excuse me~" Mila politely nudged Rin to step to the left. Frowning, she obliged and watched as the Kindness Wizard bent down and grabbed chocolate sprinkles from the drawer.
"I said I was here for business, Mila. I wish you would take this seriously." Rin muttered.
"I am! What were you saying...?"
She sighed. "I was saying… would you find it uncanny if I told you about a Dual-Traited girl that no one seems to know anything about? Her magic is Patience and Integrity. It's like she appeared out of thin air one day."
"Wow! That's unusual. I admit I'm a little jealous that she's managed to live a peaceful life…" Mila said. Rin waited, hoping she had more to say. "...What about her, though?"
"What do you mean, what about her?" Rin blurted. "We live in a Meritocracy. She's Dual-Traited. She should be famous! Or at least doing very well for herself... it's very odd that no one even knows who she is."
"Maybe she doesn't want to be rich and famous?" Mila asked simply.
"I mean, that's always a possibility…" Rin said sheepishly. "However—"
"Excuse me~" Mila reached around Rin and grabbed a small bag used for pouring icing. She got some flour on Rin's expensive robes. "However...?"
"Mila…" Rin was not amused. "Hmph. I just think someone should go talk and talk to this girl. Just to make sure there's nothing strange going on. We may be living in peacetime—officially at least—but that's not truly the case. Hypothetically, if this girl were associated with something like the Grey Phantoms..."
"Rin!" Finally, Mila frowned at her. "She's a nice Dual-Traited lady who doesn't want to be in the spotlight all the time! You're thinking of a terrorist organization because she's not famous enough for you!"
"I've been taught that anything is possible." Rin countered. "That's why, when I happened upon this girl a few weeks ago and learned they were visiting Amikeko, I asked one of our spies to find where she was staying for the night."
"You did what?" She was aghast. "Rin! You can't just spy on people like that!"
Rin continued like she hadn't heard her. "We may never get an opportunity like this again, Mila. After she's gone, she'll disappear again because she has no job, no friends, no home that I'm aware of... it's truly baffling."
"Wait. What did you mean by opportunity?" Mila blinked.
"Think about it for a second. A powerful mage who is part of the Grey Phantoms would want to stay under the radar. Does this not make it worthwhile to learn what's going on?" She answered her. "I just want to learn the truth so we can leave her alone and stop worrying. You should go and talk to her."
Mila was aghast. "W-wait. You want me to do this?"
"She's in your district. This duty should fall upon you."
"Ah—But I mean—I'm not—very good at interrogating people!" Mila stammered. She was wringing the poor bag of icing in her hands without realizing it.
Then a thought occurred to the Kindness Wizard. She shook her head and delivered a bright smile. "I know how to do this!" She realized. "I'll just go and make her my new friend!"
"W-what? Mila! Don't befriend her!" Rin shook her head, exasperated. "You must find the truth! Be mean if you must! Anything to make it more difficult to conceal a lie."
Sticking out her tongue in concentration, The Kindness Wizard had already returned to spreading icing over the top of her freshly-baked cupcakes. Rin wondered if this hopeless girl was even listening to her.
"Don't worry, Rin. You can count on me. I'll find the truth." Mila smiled brightly.
"I should hope that you can." Rin muttered. "The Grey Phantoms are a dangerous threat to the peace of our Kingdom. We cannot be too careful in trying to find their—"
"Cupcake?" Still covered in flour and icing and spilled sprinkles, Mila offered Rin one of her finished pastries for her to take.
So that was the scorched smell. Even with the icing, Rin could tell Mila had burnt her cupcakes terribly. She reluctantly took the offered gift and asked, "If I may ask… what made you try baking? Why not ask a chef to do this for you?"
Then, to her confusion, Mila blushed. "It's, umm, going to be Kody's birthday soon." She said shyly. "So I thought I'd try and…"
Rin groaned loudly. "Never mind, Mila. I'm sorry I asked."
Sae Ereny yawned and stretched, feeling a little bored. This new life of hers with the Grey Phantoms was so spectacular and so exciting; normal life between missions felt dull in comparison. She didn't know what to do with herself when there was no one in trouble. No heart-pounding excitement. No friends who were willing to fight for the same cause that she believed in.
Well… Sae glanced over to the large bundle of blankets, fast asleep on her couch, and she smiled. Some friends were here at least.
The sound of way too many horses caught her attention. Attention turned to interest when they slowed to a stop somewhere not too far away from her little house.
Interest became full-blown anxiety when footsteps approached, and someone knocked on her door.
Should she look out the window? No, that would be too suspicious. Maybe she could wake up her friend first… except that would take too long and that could look strange too!
Maybe it's nothing… it's probably nothing! Sae knew she always made herself afraid over nothing. She clenched her hands into fists, took a deep breath and forced herself to walk up to her front door.
When she opened it, Mila Rutrow, the Kindness Wizard herself was looking down at her with a smile.
"M-m-m-m—Lady Rutrow!!" Sae felt her heart leap into her throat. It instantly started going a million miles per hour. "What are you doing here?"
"Hello, Miss." The Wizard waved a small wave. "I thought I would just, umm, say hello! Like I just did… ah… I'm not very good at this." She coughed politely. "Are you new around here?"
"I… I guess I am." Sae's hands were fidgeting crazily beneath the oversized sleeves of her gown. Mila was fidgeting, too. Both looked very nervous about this whole thing, which actually helped Sae feel a bit better. "I've been around for a while now, but I only found a place to live a few months ago…"
"Well. Umm. Congratulations! That means you're doing well for yourself, right? Ah, financially, I mean." Mila tried to smile, but she was obviously struggling with this. "I guess it's easier because of your… Dual Trait..?" The Wizard blinked, as if noticing Sae's hair for the first time. "It makes your hair look so pretty!" She leaned in closer, her eyes suddenly excited by the mixture of light and dark blue that painted Sae's head.
It was a small compliment, but Sae's cheeks were immediately on fire. "Eek! Thank you!" She covered her eyes with her hands, going bright red. Despite Mila's own nervousness, Sae could hear the Wizard giggling to herself.
"Ahem… I know that we only just met, miss...?" Her voice trailed off into a question.
"I'm Sae." She answered before she realized she should probably lie. She squeezed her eyes tight again.
"What a lovely name! Well, ah, I was wondering…" Mila paused. They both fidgeted in solidarity for a moment. "Would you perhaps like to come and have tea with me?"
"With—with you? Why does the Kindness Wizard, umm, I… I have to think!" Sae had to step back and turn around, squeezing her hands under her chin until her heart stopped doing somersaults in her chest. Mila watched her with a smile. "I'd be honored! But I just don't understand. Why do you want to have tea with me?"
"Because… because, umm—" The Wizard nervously scratched the back of her head. She started to say one thing, stopped, took a deep breath and spoke honestly instead. "It's your Dual-Trait. That's why. People like you are supposed to be quite famous, so…" She managed a friendly smile. "I'm curious! I want to know more about you! I hope that that's okay..."
Sae was feeling anxious again. Lady Mila seemed really nice. A lot nicer than she had ever imagined. But Sae was a Grey Phantom! That meant they were enemies or something, right? What if she accidentally said the wrong thing and Mila learned she was a criminal? She couldn't stand the thought of someone so kind thinking she was a terrorist. Thinking she was on Fergal's team, and not Jessee's…
She felt heavy footsteps next to her. Mila's eyes turned away from Sae and to someone who had appeared next to her. They trailed up. And up. Until she was looking at Seyv Dypal staring down at her impassively. Mila's smile turned even more nervous.
The moment he appeared, Sae felt her anxiety disappear. "Good morning, Seyv." She beamed a smile at him.
"Good morning, Sae." He mumbled. "And you're Lady Rutrow. Anyways. I heard your talk. If she's coming with you, I'm coming with her."
"Oh!" Sae was delighted by the idea. "Can he come? He's really nice! I think you'd love to get to know him."
"Ah… well, you see…" Mila's finger spun nervous circles around the pig-tails at the side of her head. "I really shouldn't… I was only supposed to talk to…" She looked up at Seyv again, gulped, and finally gave up. "I guess it's okay."
Sae breathed a sigh of relief. She felt so much better about this if her friend was going to be there with her.
Then she looked out at the small carriage Mila had come here in. Some could fit huge men like Seyv, but those were made for knights dressed in full armor. Mila's was made for comfort. What would Seyv do if he didn't fit...?
...There wasn't enough room for Seyv when they walked to Mila's cart. He was just too big. Sae's heart did a somersault as she imagined having to talk to Mila all alone.
But Seyv didn't even say anything. The huge man simply grabbed the top of the stagecoach, pulled himself up and sat on top of it, bored as ever. He stared down at Sae and Mila, waiting for them. Mila looked flabbergasted.
"I-I guess that works too." She forced herself to smile.
As a Wizard, Mila wasn't allowed to go many places on her own. Not unless it was for political meetings or combat missions or some job that left her mind too busy to enjoy where she was going. Her freedom was limited to what was inside the castle's walls.
But one of the few places she could visit was her Father's cottage. The townsfolk around here lovingly referred to him as the Tea Man.
To Sae, she would know him as Kauzku Triuzar, or the Kindness King.
This… interrogation of hers… Mila felt a little lost. Now that she had met her, Sae was adorable. She was kind and soft and gentle. Mila felt guilty even thinking about someone like Sae as if she could be associated with the Grey Phantoms. What was she even going to ask her? Why on Earth had she agreed to let Seyv come with them? Rin never should have given her a job like this, and she knew it.
But when she saw her Father standing outside of his cottage, hunched over with age but smiling and waving, she felt a little bit better.
As the stagecoach stopped in front of his home, King Kauzku took Sae's hand even though he didn't know her, and gently helped her down from the carriage steps. He even smiled at Seyv. When Mila herself stepped out into the sun, he spread his arms and she came in to hug him tight.
"It's good to see you again, Mila." He smiled in the way that only kind old men could. "What a pleasant surprise! I was going to visit you for lunch."
"It's good to see you too." Mila smiled gently. "This is Sae! And the other is… ahh… Seyv?"
Seyv gave her a thumbs up.
"That's wonderful, dear." Mila knew her Dad well enough to know that he likely hadn't heard their names at all. "The three of you came just in time. Why don't I make us some tea?"
When he left to go back to his kitchen, Mila tried to keep her mind focused on her job. But when she turned to Sae, her heart melted a little all over again. "Why don't we sit in his garden together?"
"Okay!" Sae smiled.
"And you, Seyv?"
Seyv said nothing.
He gave her a thumbs up.
Kauzku's garden was a beautiful place. In any space where there was room, vines and plants and well-kept bushes flourished. The Tea Man took good care of every last blade of grass in the garden. It's how his tea was so revered.
Joining them for company was a playful litter of kittens which had escaped from inside the house. Mila watched them chase butterflies and tussle together, and she finally started to feel at peace.
Sae was sitting with her on the other side of a small table, watching the kittens as well with a smile. Seyv was off to the side, relaxing in the sun. They all had a warm cup of tea in their hands.
"So… Sae!" Mila made herself speak. She still felt guilty about this. "If I may ask, do you live here in Amikeko?"
"I do! Well, I think I do…" Sae scrunched her nose, as if unsure about the question. Mila didn't understand it. "I was born in a little village in the woods. I guess you could say I still live there."
Mila had heard of places like that. Small villages far out and away from the Kingdom's walls. She had no idea how people lived without everything you could find here. "What was it like, living like that?"
"Well, my parents were both Traitless, so, umm, I tried to take care of them." Sae smiled. "It's hard out there sometimes. Especially in the winter. But they have a better life out there than they would here in the city, where they'd be treated like… you know…"
Mila looked away, suddenly sad. She understood that much, at least. Kody had grown up in a Traitless family, too. It's not something she would wish on anyone. "What made you leave that place after so many years?"
At that, Sae's eyes actually sparkled with life. It was different from the rehearsed answers like before. "It's because I wanna be brave one day!"
"Brave...? Do you mean like the Trait? Because, I mean…" Mila was too nice to remind Sae of the way she had screamed when she saw her on her doorstep. Bravery was the last thing this girl had. But Sae seemed to know what she meant, and she giggled.
"I do get scared really easily." Sae smiled, looking embarrassed. "Honestly, if I see a spider I can't even look at it. I just start crying."
Seyv looked like he was half asleep, but he spoke up from his chair so suddenly that Mila jumped in her seat. "Sometimes, you'll be minding your own business and then Sae just jumps into your arms without even warning you. That's how you know there's a bug somewhere." The man grinned. "If she weren't so small, she'd be dangerous."
"Seyv! You're not supposed to say that!" Sae cried.
"Oh my. There's nothing wrong with not being brave, Sae." Mila smiled. She imagined how it would look for the young lady to just toss herself into someone's arms. The thought filled her with warmth.
"But—but I am brave! Well, sometimes, at least..."
"Hmm? Pardon me if I don't understand."
"Well you see... someone I look up to and admire always told me that being brave doesn't mean that you're not afraid." Sae's eyes were up in the clouds as she remembered someone. "When you're really really scared, and all you want to do is cry and run away, you're brave when that doesn't stop you from doing the right thing anyways."
"Ah…" That was wise. Mila felt herself smiling a little.
"I didn't know that I wanted to be brave until he told me that. When I learned how special it was to be someone with my kind of magic, and I realized I had spent my whole life doing nothing with it… I don't know." Sae shrugged. "I don't want anything to stop me from doing the right thing anymore. So I did something that terrified me!"
"And that was… travelling here, to the city?"
"Mhm!" Sae nodded. "Not just here, but all over the world. It's still really scary all the time. Especially when I'm—" The girl's mouth snapped shut as if she had been about to say something secret. Her face turned red, and she finally stammered out, "W-w-when I get asked by the Kindness Wizard to have tea! That's all!"
Part of Mila wondered if she should think anything of that sudden and confusing reaction. But honestly… she had let go of any suspicion for Sae a long time ago. Her heart was so full with love for this adorable girl that she didn't give it a second thought. Mila knew someone like this would never be a part of the Grey Phantoms.
"That's very admirable of you, Sae." She smiled. "It is an amazing thing to see the world, and all its different people."
"In fact, I'm a little jealous of you..."
"Wait. You? Jealous of me?" Sae's mouth hung open with sudden confusion. Now she was the one who didn't understand.
"Yes. I guess I'm jealous that you can be afraid—or excited I suppose—because you're trying new things that you've never done before. You woke up one day and decided you would become someone new. That's amazing." Mila smiled, but she couldn't make it as happy as she had before.
"Umm… I still don't know why you're jealous, Mila." Sae admitted.
"I mean—I don't get to do anything new and scary. In a fun way, I mean. Sometimes, I'm terrified. That's when I'm in combat… and I know that I'm the one in charge of making sure my friends come home alive."
"Oh... I guess I don't know what that feels like." Sae mumbled.
If it were any other person, Mila would have thought Sae sounded like she was lying.
"Ah. I'm sorry. This is the only way I know how to explain this feeling." She apologized. "When I'm not doing my duty as the Kindness Wizard, I become nothing. When I'm not with the very few people I can call my friends, my life returns to being the same as it was since the day I was born."
"Umm, and what's that?" Sae asked.
"I just wait. I wait until I'm needed to fulfil my duty as the Kindness Wizard again. Mila Rutrow's existence begins, and ends, at the walls of my castle here." She explained. "You, however… you changed your whole life the moment you decided to. You can do whatever you want."
"Wait! But, Mila… don't you don't get to do anything fun once you get home safe? Not even to celebrate?" Sae whispered.
"I shouldn't need to. My bloodline exists to serve and protect others."
"But what about your you?" She asked. "That's hardly even being alive! I'd go crazy! Does anyone even tell you thank you for saving their lives?"
"Sometimes." Mila said quietly. "But I was raised to not expect anyone's thanks."
"Even if you get hurt trying to protect them?"
Mila didn't answer right away. Sae's question brought her back to a time not very long ago, so intense and chaotic that all she could remember was bits and pieces.
She remembered the feeling of her blood dripping from her palms and down the side of her outstretched arms. She remembered the flames that blinded her and the dozens of innocent people behind her. She remembered ignoring the pain of the cuts across her face, focusing everything she had on her magic shield, while the leader of the Grey Phantoms tried to break her with his glowing, monstrous hammer.
"I'm one girl. It's better for me to be hurt than for the countless people I protect." Mila said quietly. "If there is no one who needs my help, my duty is to wait patiently so I can be there when I'm needed again."
"But what about... what about all the things like—" Sae stammered. To Mila's surprise, there were tears in her eyes. "Do they even let you feed the ducks at the pond?"
Mila blinked. Her mind had gone to a dark place for a moment. She'd forgotten who exactly she was talking to. "I'm sorry… the ducks?" She blurted out. "Why would they let me do that?"
Somehow, this made Sae's expression even more horrified. "That's it. You deserve better than this, Mila! We're going out together and we're gonna do something fun. Right now!" Sae stood up, suddenly ready to spring into action.
"What...? W-w-wait! I can't just do that!"
"Why not? There's nothing stopping you!"
"All the guards who have to watch me are!"
"Then we'll sneak around them!" Sae spoke this like a mission that must be completed at any cost.
"N-no, that's not… I'm supposed to be the one asking you questions over here!" Mila protested. "What would it look like if we turned it into some foolish adventure?"
"We'd be having fun! That's what it looks like." Sae beamed. "You've been boring your whole life, Mila. Don't you want to know what it feels like to do something you're not allowed to do?"
"That's hardly something I've dreamt about doing!" Mila could feel her heart hammering in her chest at the mere thought of disobeying someone. "Sae! I thought you were a scaredy-cat!"
"Hehehe…" Sae's giggle surprised her. "I am. I'm terrified right now, actually. See?" She brought up her arms to show Mila how hard her hands were trembling. "But being brave means doing the right thing even if you're afraid! And right now… I learned about something more important than me being scared. It's you!"
"B-but Sae—" Mila stammered. "I'm not... important."
Sae stared back at her. Mila could hardly believe a face like hers could become so serious. "That's it." She declared quietly. "We're going whether you like it or not. Are you coming with me? Or do I have to drag you there myself?"
Mila looked down at all five feet of Sae. For all her brave words, the Dual-Traited girl's face was red and her cheeks were flushed. No amount of clenching her fists could hide how nervous she was.
Mila finally smiled. It came out crooked, because of how scared she was herself. "Is this really so important to you?" She asked.
"Yeah. It is." Sae answered honestly.
Mila sighed in defeat. It was the only reply Sae needed. The small girl took the Wizard's hand and ran from the garden, leading the way as Mila followed behind her.
And behind them both, with kittens resting on his lap, one on his shoulder and one on top of his head, Seyv leaned back with his eyes closed. He was sound asleep.
Being led hand in hand behind Sae, one half of Mila felt so guilty that she might melt into a puddle. In the other half she felt ecstatic, like she might start laughing and never stop.
Her guards didn't even have a perimeter around King Kauzku's cottage. She was Mila Rutrow. No one would ever expect disobedience from her. Not after a lifetime of silent servitude.
In front of her, Sae was giggling loudly. "This is kind of like I'm kidnapping you, isn't it?" She asked with a smile.
"Sae! Don't say that like it's funny!" Mila gasped. She just started laughing all over again. "I can't believe I'm doing this! W-where are we going anyways?"
"Not very far!" She beamed. "We'll get some bread from a bakery. Then we'll go to a pond… and then I'm going to see the Kindness Wizard feeding the duckies."
"This is so foolish..." Mila repeated to herself. But deep inside, she was excited. She couldn't make her heart stop pounding.
She wondered if the ducks were as wonderful as Sae made them sound.
The cobblestone road Sae took her through led to a small public square with stores built around its edges, and Mila guessed they kept this part of the city fed and clothed.
Her Dad chose this quiet place so he could tend to his gardens in peace, but there were still statues and other signs of royalty to be found here. Not that she would know what any of them were.
But the people certainly recognized her. The moment Mila stepped into the square, everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at them with dumbstruck eyes. Sae kept pulling Mila like she hadn't even noticed them.
One very awkward visit to the baker's stall later, Mila had a loaf of bread in her hands. She stared at it like she wasn't sure it was real, or if any of this was real. She simply allowed Sae to pull her along to… wherever they were going… while she wondered what could possibly be going through the minds of the poor villagers watching this.
If Sae was part of the Grey Phantoms and this was a kidnapping, it was the strangest plot she had ever imagined.
"We're here!" Sae finally announced. Mila blinked and looked around, realizing she hadn't been paying attention to their surroundings at all. They had arrived at a cute little pond that burbled along the side of a small path. Mila recognized the small feathered creatures swimming in the water as ducks. Were they really that small?
"This is it?" Mila asked. "Somehow I thought we had further to go."
"Nope! I didn't want to get in too much trouble, you know." Sae smiled. "So...?" She looked expectantly at the bread in Mila's hands.
"So when are you gonna do it? We're here!"
Mila felt strangely embarrassed. She couldn't believe that after fighting in wars, after her life as a Wizard, this loaf of bread left her so confused and apprehensive. "W-what do I do?" She asked Sae. "Do I throw the whole thing in the water?"
Sae tried not to laugh. Tried. "Just break off little pieces you can fit in your finger, Mila~" She giggled. "Careful though. Once they know you have food, they'll love you!"
Mila did as she was asked, feeling a little silly. "Sae… is this really as fun as you say it is?" She asked.
"You'll see." The smaller girl looked like she could hardly contain herself.
So she threw a few small pieces of bread out into the water.
"Oh my gosh! Did you see that, Sae? They ate it!" Mila yelled out with delight. Sae looked at her like she was watching the greatest thing in the world.
"Don't stop now! They know you have bread! They're hungry!" She cheered her on. Mila dug in and threw out a few more pieces, laughing as the ducks swam forward and gobbled it all up.
Other ducks seemed to know what was going on. A few more swam to the shore in front of Mila. Others flew down from the sky. Soon it was all the Kindness Wizard could do to keep up with their demands. "Sae, look! I'm really doing it!" She laughed. Sae's grin could have lit up the sky.
She wished that moment could have lasted forever.
Mila couldn't stop grinning as she walked back to her Father's cottage with Sae. She listened while her new friend talked on and on about all the fun things there were to do outside in the real world.
It was bittersweet, in a way. Not because experience with Sae made her wish she could do this more often. In fact, she felt more sure of duty than she ever had before.
Mila's duty to fight and risk her life was far from over. She lived to protect against the evil that wanted to bring chaos to society and hurt innocent people.
When the next battle came, Mila would remember that she was fighting for people like Sae. Someone innocent and kind, whose life was full of joy and laughter over simple things like feeding ducks and making her friends smile. Even if Mila died one day, she would know it was worth it if Sae and the people like her could live another day without losing that smile.
...She just knew that after this was over, she would likely never be allowed to see her new friend again.
Mila tried not to let it show for Sae's sake. When she returned the two commoners back to their homes in the city, she thought she was hiding her emotions pretty well. She even managed to smile back when Sae hugged her goodbye and told her she was glad they had met.
But when she sat alone in her royal carriage and she knew it was over, she finally allowed her tears to show.
It didn't matter what happened to her. It didn't matter what the Grey Phantoms tried to do to burn down society for their misguided cause. Mila would remember Sae, and she would die before she ever let them hurt her.
Dacu Nasir earned enough money to live in comfort, and he did, at least when he was off duty at his manor in Persisteco. But he found he preferred the small wooden shack he stayed in when he was open for business. He liked the work it took to stay fed and to keep the fireplace warm. He never wanted to be softened by an easy life.
And in the mornings, after an hour of daily training, he'd check a small hidden box for letters from his contacts in the black market—the only people who knew where he stayed out here.
And sometimes his sister would write to him, too.
Stepping back inside, Dacu impassively sorted through two leather-clad folders from his informants, tossing them to a table without looking. He apparently had a job, and he'd read it later. He was more interested in the small white letter in the back, which he opened.
I stopped by your dreary chateau today. Since you're too busy to see your own twin sister (I'm kidding~ I know how your work is) I will have to tell you the news with this letter, because you won't see me for a very long time otherwise. And yes, even including the time it will take for this letter to get to you.
I'm finally moving away. Dad won't be happy with how he wants me to take over the business in a few years, but that's not the life I want. I want to use this magic I've been gifted with, like you. So I've joined a freedom fighter's group of sorts. You know, adventures and danger and making the world a better place? The man who talked to me saw the potential I had. I admit it made me cry, after hearing my whole life that a business and a politically strategic husband was all I'd ever be allowed.
And the guy's right hand man (woman, I guess) is TRAITLESS! He says she's stronger than any of us. He really can see our potential if he found a warrior in someone without magic. I can't wait to see what makes her so strong.
Love you. I'd say stay safe but you know. Stay alive. I can't wait to see you again and show you what I've learned.
Dacu put down the letter, making two quick decisions and filing them away neatly in his mind before he returned to the leather booklets. One was that if their family asked him anything, he would say he had no idea where she had left to.
The second was that if anything happened to his twin sister, he would kill everyone responsible without hesitation.
Then he picked up the folders from work.
Work took him to Kurago. Or rather, it took him to a small castle in a minor city that served as a hub for everyone entering from Determino. The last place a traveler might find grasslands and forests before they reached the deserts beyond.
Here, he had found a temporary hideout in an old and dusty storage room deep inside the fortress at the center of the city.
Motes of dust drifted through the air around him as Dacu leaned against a long-forgotten wardrobe, eyes closed and deep in thought. He hadn't moved in hours, waiting until it was time to uncoil and begin the hunt.
Waiting very impatiently. He hated this part of the job.
Dacu knew who his target was—some very important and powerful Bravery Wizard—but he didn't care to remember who it was or what might be caused by their sudden and untimely death. He knew what kind of magic they were capable of, but it would hardly matter when they'd be dead before they knew he was there. Boring. He'd simply do his job and his contractors would be happy.
Was it cold to be bored before a murder? Probably, but he didn't try to pretend he was anything else. He was a killer, and in this line of work, the best killer in the world.
The city held a ceremony for the mage's arrival. Dacu was there to see it, watching from above like a lurking predator, almost completely invisible. With mild interest, he noted that very nearly everyone in the room was Monsterkind.
But the Wizard—the dead man walking—had a guard of a dozen human warriors. All were well armed and armored. For a brief moment, he felt a small twinge of excitement.
As the ceremony ended and the man left, Dacu dropped to the floor and followed behind them, perfectly silent. Wherever they went, he was always there, always watching and never far away.
At some point, the Bravery mage scowled and his head whirled around. Dacu was close enough to see the torches gleaming in their bright orange eyes, staring down the long and apparently empty stone hallway. Woefully unaware he was looking into the smiling face of the man who would end his life.
"Is something wrong, my lord?" A concerned guard asked him.
"No… no, it's nothing." They grumbled, not satisfied. "Just tell me if you see anyone following us. I have a bad feeling."
"Of course, sir."
They started walking again. In a detached sort of way, Dacu noted that the Wizard was doing everything right. He was listening to his instincts and taking all the necessary precautions, short of paranoia.
They would die regardless.
On the second day, Dacu left his hideout early in the morning.
He felt like a ghost, shrouded in invisibility as he was. To walk through so many rooms and hallways full of people and yet remain unnoticed felt unnatural, even after all this time.
If it weren't for his sister, he imagined he might forget he was alive.
It wasn't a lack of purpose. He was doing the job given to him by whatever force had seen it fit to give him his unique brand of magic. it was the lack of challenge! He couldn't even remember the last time he'd felt the thrill of battle.
This job was his purpose, yes... but that thrill was what he lived for.
He once thought that being gifted with such a powerful and unique form of magic had been a blessing, and his life would be exciting and dangerous and full of adventure. He'd picked the most dangerous and exciting line of work he could imagine.
Now he'd come to realize that being the best could be quite boring.
When others failed to provide him a sense of danger, he would supply it himself. Sometimes it was fun to see how close he could come to being spotted.
Dacu sat crouched before the massive gates leading to the auditorium where his target spoke yesterday, and where he would speak again today. Two pairs of guards stood to either side of him, unaware of his presence for now.
He reached back and brushed his hands against the gem-laden belt he wore. Out of five Arnicite stones, two were still alive with blue magic. After a moment that number reduced to one, and his soul felt replenished.
He didn't have long before he'd need to begin the exhausting process of filling them back up again. He would make his move soon.
With the loud clanking rumble of chains, the castle's gate opened wide. From the sunlight, the Bravery mage appeared, flanked on all sides by guards. Dacu smiled, daring to imagine how the next few minutes would go.
Time to see what exactly he could get away with.
No amount of boredom would reduce his standards: his target would be given no opportunity to defend themselves. With an effort of great skill and concentration, Dacu leaned forward and summoned a gravity platform beneath his feet while maintaining his invisibility.
The last angle anyone expected to be ambushed from was in front of them.
The moment he uncoiled and launched himself, his invisibility blew apart in a shockwave not unlike the power that threw him across the room at incredible speeds. A long and razor sharp blade of Perseverance magic had appeared, extending from his forearm.
In the half-second that followed, Dacu appreciated the looks of surprise and horror as he soared over the heads of the soldiers in front, their eyes following him. The Bravery Wizard had just enough time to realize something was happening. Their huge palms rose and stretched out in front of him, thick flames already roaring to life. A pillar of fire scorched the air beneath Dacu's belly, just barely not fast enough to save himself.
Dacu thrust his arm forward—and a green barrier suddenly appeared between him and his prey to block his killing blow. He commended the speed and reflexes it would take for a Kindness mage to bring up a shield so quickly.
Then his blade pierced straight through the shield and into the center of the Wizard's neck.
He 'landed' horizontally on the wall, tucked into a crouch with his arm pointed down into the shield. The Wizard stayed on his feet like a puppet held aloft by strings, but his arms were limp and his eyes were lifeless. Dacu had aimed for the spine in the back of his neck, which he knew had killed him instantly.
With a flash of blue, the blade snapped off of Dacu's wrist and he flipped neatly off of the green barrier, landing on his feet. The Wizard fell to the floor at the same time, the glowing blade protruding grotesquely from his neck. He had a small moment to admire his own handiwork.
Then a sword as tall as he was almost split him in half down the middle. Dacu twisted to the side, watching the weapon swing past him. "You didn't freeze up. Not bad." He commended the soldier who had almost killed him.
"MURDERER!" They screamed back. Not very original. "GET HIM!" With that proclamation, everyone seemed to snap out of their daze and turn their full attention upon Dacu.
Finally. Enough waiting. A new blade sprouted from the assassin's arm and he swung out behind him, knocking aside a second attacker's mace that was en route to a meeting with his skull. Continuing the swing, he spun around and came back, driving the blade back down into Sword Man's chest. The scream he made then was more interesting than what he'd said before. Dacu snapped off the blade and left it embedded in their lungs, enjoying the noises they made as they fell.
Dacu turned around and saw the mace was headed his way again, now towards his stomach. He watched it impassively, wondering how close he could let it come without hitting him, then a blue platform appeared at his side and he whirled out of the way at the last moment. He swung around them in a trail of blue light and drove two more blades into their back. Another scream pierced the air.
He kicked off their shoulders like a springboard, spinning and flipping in the air and detaching two more blades mid-swing as he threw out his arms. They flew across the room and embedded into the hearts of two sharpshooters before they could fire their bows.
He landed again. Dacu crossed his arms behind his back and ducked low beneath another wide swing of an axe that would have bisected him. He lifted one foot, spinning with the motion, and swung his heel into the soldier's helmet so that it rang like a bell. The comical noise made him grin as they stumbled back.
Then they gained their footing and came roaring back, insulted and furious. The entire rear guard followed close behind them.
He sidestepped the thrust of one's spear and grabbed it, letting himself be pulled back as they instinctively tried to stop him from taking it away. A glowing orange warhammer whizzed by his ear as he drew closer, then he was close enough to make using their long-handled weapons awkward. He quickly stabbed the spearman twice in the stomach, then rapped their helmet with the flat of his blade so it rang out like a bell again. He chuckled to himself as they sprawled to the floor.
Dacu barely avoided yet another bladed weapon as he twirled back around. A second blue halberd followed behind it, which he batted down and leaped on top of its handle. From above, he raised both arms and drove each one's edge into a different man's platemail. He then spun and thwapped their helmets with his blade, one after the other, laughing openly now at their dull clangs. He turned to face his next unsatisfying opponent.
"Damn it all! I can't hit him!" Someone cried out behind him. Dacu guessed he'd heard that at least thirty times. He ducked around and banged his weapon across their helmet again, this time hard enough to make them fall over, clutching their head. Ding dong.
"What do we do?! He's tearing us apart!" He'd heard that fifteen times, maybe?
"Somebody call for help!" That one had to be fifty.
As Dacu mentally counted, he jumped over a broad axe swung at his legs. He grabbed their shoulders as he swung above them, and as he fell another one of his blades went into the attacker's shoulder and exited somewhere under their ribs.
"This would be more fun if you all tried a bit harder." He scolded the dying man. He half-heartedly rapped the metal of their helmet with his knuckles.
The warhammer of the first attacker appeared again as he hit the floor. Dacu felt the urge to let it land a glancing blow so his opponents wouldn't lose morale. Maybe they'd fight a bit better. He spread his arms wide… and the attack missed. It was a defensive attack then, trying to hit Dacu before he could leap forward. He gave the soldier a withering look of disappointment.
He noted how that soldier was the only one still fighting him. Bravery types.
"You... you sick bastard. You're enjoying this, aren't you?" The man gasped from behind his helmet. He swung a wild uppercut at him again.
Dacu leaned backwards and watched the trail of fire that scorched the air behind it. Then he caught the weapon between two of his blades before it could begin its downswing. "That's the problem. I'm not enjoying this at all." He said as he stared into him.
It had been fun for a moment, but now it was clear these people would provide no challenge. Not with reduced numbers and no will to fight.
He looked over the man's shoulder. The five guards still standing were now frozen still, their expressions a mixture of hopelessness and disgust. The Kindness mage was kneeling over the body of the fallen Bravery Wizard, her face wracked with guilt, splitting the air with her sobs.
In a way, he envied these people for being able to feel such intense emotions.
The blue in Dacu's hair flared bright. With one final surge of magic, every one of the blades he left embedded in his slain enemies ripped free from their sheaths and converged towards him.
Fortunately, someone was in the way. The last Bravery soldier's eyes went wide. A trail of blood leaked out the side of their mouth. Eight of Dacu's blades now sprouted from the man's back, making him a living pincushion.
He fell over forward. Dacu stepped to the side and let him hit the ground with a dull thunk.
Well, not living anymore.
There was a hole in Dacu's heart that desperately wanted to be filled. The more he fought, the more he realized he wasn't going to get what he wanted so badly.
He was bored, and he was leaving. He strode over to the body of the Bravery Wizard.
The Kindness mage saw him and recoiled back, tears glistening and streaming down her face. He ignored her and untied a sack that had been slung into the man's belt. He turned around and ignored the surviving guardsmen who cowered back as his eyes briefly glanced over them.
By the time Dacu left the room, the blood had stopped dripping from his sleeves.
The assassin couldn't just leave through the front doors. His employers wouldn't be very happy if he left a trail of bodies all the way back to Determino. So he took a path that would take him to the top of the castle, where he'd leave through the air.
The auditorium was a scene of chaos by the time he'd left. At around the same time that reinforcements arrived, the smiling crowd awaiting their beloved Bravery Wizard realized something was wrong and found his body soon after. In comparison, these hallways were peaceful and quiet.
Now that the fighting was over, he could just relax and…
Was it just him or did he feel cold?
From around the corner of the hallway, a black long-handled axe swung towards his neck.
Dacu didn't have time to react. It was his instincts that saved him. A blue pulse of magic shoved him back and only just under the head of the blade. If he had a beard, it would have shaved his chin as it whizzed past his nose.
He threw back his hands and caught himself, doing a backwards flip to regain his feet. He now had a nice view of where the axe had struck with enough force to smash bits of rock out of the wall.
That, and the knight in sheer black armor who now blocked his way. Thick metal plate covered them from head to toe, obscuring their face or who could be behind it.
Wait, was that armor really all made of Rudalite? It was, wasn't it? He could feel it in the air. He watched with fascination as the one who almost killed him drew back their weapon—also made of Rudalite—and hefted it over their shoulders. They planted their feet in the center of the hall, waiting for his next move.
"Well. Nice to meet you too." Dacu broke the silence. He spread his hands. "You almost killed me. Very well done. But you're in my way."
"I am." To his surprise, the voice was a woman's. He suddenly had more appreciation for the brutality of that swing. "Do you often compliment those who try to kill you?"
"I'm an assassin. It's how we show respect, trying to kill each other. I took it as a compliment." He smiled and rolled his hand, pointing one upside-down finger her way. "Are you an assassin too?"
"When the need arises." The voice replied. She rolled the shoulder holding her axe. The helmet turned, glancing down at the pouch at Dacu's side. "You stole my kill."
It took a second, then Dacu couldn't help but laugh in surprise. He smiled wide and asked, "They sent the Black Knight too? They really wanted him dead. HAHA!"
She didn't join him in laughter. Her black gauntlet seemed to grip the axe tighter. "The Wizard's death is to send a message of what happens when you cross the Grey Phantoms. I can't allow you to take this from us."
Dacu gave a half smile. "Or what? You'll stop me?"
"Yes." She said simply. She rapped a fist against her metal stomach. "I hunt people like you. You cannot hurt me."
She sounded very confident and unafraid. Maybe it would be fun to change that. "A suit of armor has never stopped me before. Maybe I could find a way through yours."
"Mmmm. There are many corpses who once thought the same way." She gripped her axe tighter. "To be quite honest, I've been waiting this whole time for you to take one step forward and enter the range of my axe again. A famous assassin like you—I've always dreamed of having the chance to kill you myself."
Dacu smiled, touched that this knight held him in such high regards. Without a trace of sincerity, he spread his hands and said, "Point taken. Perhaps we can negotiate." He gave a tiny bow, hands still spread. "My real name is Dacu Nasir."
She seemed surprised by that. She looked at him more closely and said, "Nasir? Hmm. That explains a lot. Fate is strange indeed." He swore he could hear a smile behind her helmet.
"Well? You have my face and my name, Black Knight. I have neither of yours. I thought knights had honor?"
"I owe you nothing." She told him. "...But I will make an exception for a Nasir. I am Alexandra Lostra." In one smooth motion, Alex removed the helmet from her head. Long, snow-white hair spilled from her shoulders as she shook it loose. She looked to be a woman in her mid-twenties. Now that he could see her face, Dacu felt his heart skip a beat.
She was beautiful, but it wasn't her looks that captivated him. It was the way he could tell she'd been a warrior since she was young. It was the deep-seated hatred he could see lurking inside her. It was the look in her eyes that scared him in a wonderful way. She fully intended on driving her axe into his ribcage if the opportunity presented itself. Multiple times.
"So? Our negotiations..." He gave her a charming smile. He enjoyed the way Alex glared at him.
"Why of course. I'll negotiate with you." She looked at him like he was an insect. "Either you can hand over the bounty... or I'll rip your arms from your Traited shoulders and use them to smash your head into a pulp."
Dacu blinked. Then he cackled, one hand over his face, covering his wide smile. "You know something, Alexandra? I always loved the kind of woman who would actually just kill me." He swung the Wizard's pack out of the way behind him. "Why, when I left for work this morning I was thinking, 'Damn, I really hope a beautiful woman with an axe paints my brains all over some fucking hallway.' And here we are."
"I take that to mean you don't wish to accept my generous offer?" Alex leaned forward the slightest bit, like a predator waiting to pounce.
"I'm afraid so." He said, coiling as well. "You see, I'm starving for a challenge. No, not a challenge—I want you to destroy me. I want you to scare the hell out of me. By the time we're done here, I hope your boots look like you spent all day mashing strawberries into jam."
Alex stared at him, waiting impatiently. He happily filled the silence.
"I'm talking legs around my throat level carnage. I hope you try and crack my skull like a walnut between them. I won't be satisfied unless you do things to me that give my funeral a closed casket... Ma'am." He added respectfully. "Do you understand what I'm trying to say here?"
She didn't answer.
"I'm a real freak. I'm not normal. I just killed ten men and it bored me. If we're going to do this… I do hope you won't disappoint me."
"Then step forward and see what happens, Dacu."
Feeling real excitement tingling in his arms, he crossed the line and entered the range of Alex's weapon. Part of him was afraid that he'd be disappointed. Especially when she didn't swing right away like she promised, perhaps not wanting to do something he expected.
So he snarled, dove forward and drove a bladed arm at Alex's exposed head, knowing her axe was too slow to stop his attack. He had a moment to admire how her fierce scowl became a look of wide-eyed recognition that death was milliseconds away—the same look so many of his slain targets had worn before they died.
But then Alex's other hand appeared and she slammed her helmet up into his arm, painfully knocking his weapon aside. If Perseverance didn't give his body natural resilience, he knew his elbow would have snapped back the wrong way. Instead he flew past her, and the Traitless Knight hefted her axe and swung it after him one-handed.
Dacu deftly rolled across the floor. Mid-roll and upside-down, he had an instant to realize that she had leapt and overswung on purpose to catch him trying to avoid her. A burst of blue magic barely shoved him to the side before the blade's edge annihilated the stone where he just was, hard enough to smash a crater into the rock and send shards flying. He tumbled and hit the wall, and Alex was already closing in on him again before he could regain his feet. Her mouth was curled into an annoyed scowl.
He leaped again to his feet and dodged back, but Alexandra followed by using her axe handle like a pole and swinging forward after him.
He tested her by throwing out his arm and sending a long blade at her throat. Her reaction was to frown, quickly drop her helmet and simply snatch it out of the air. She crushed it in her metal fist like it was glass. More hope, more excitement, began to pound in his heart.
Then she was above him. She twisted the axe around and brought the backside down. It hit the floor like a meteor striking the Earth. He felt like the castle itself should have rocked from the impact.
If he were anyone else, maybe it would have had a chance of hitting him. He easily slid beneath her and drove his weapon up into her plate as she passed—and was met with dull annoyance as his magic simply snapped apart instead of biting into the soft flesh beneath.
Alex landed and yanked the axe free from the ground, then swung it ferociously back around in a crescent arc that split the air. Dacu simply bounced back and out of range, chuckling at her.
"I hate fighting Integrity types..." Alex swore to herself. She shouldered the black axe again staring balefully into Dacu, ready to strike again if needed. Without looking, she stomped a foot down and her helmet flipped up and into her other arm. She wasn't even breathing hard. "Don't flatter yourself, assassin. If I thought you could hurt me you would have never had the chance to land a strike."
"What about you, Alexandra? You're not going to hit me with a slow weapon like that." He smiled at her. "Does a famous Knight like you not have other weapons?"
Scowling, Alex slung her axe across her back and locked it into place. She pounded her fists together once. "These will do."
"That's more like it!" He hunched forward. He was breathing hard, not from exertion. but from the thrill of battle. "Let's get personal!"
A platform exploded beneath his feet as he launched himself gleefully at her again. Alex dodged her head as the first purple blade whizzed by her ear, then struck out an elbow to crack his ribs as he passed. Dacu pushed off of nothing and spun out of the way, swinging again to separate her neck from her shoulders. Alex rose an arm defensively and his blade crashed into it, splintering into harmless fragments.
"I've got more where that came from!" He hit the floor and jumped again, flipping up and over the knight's head. Right as she had to turn to keep her eyes on him, he stabbed down with killing intent towards her exposed neck.
Unlike the successful kill this move scored earlier, Alex simply hunched her shoulder and twisted, knocking it aside with the spike of her shoulder plates.
Very unlike before, she bent down with the motion and swung a long axe kick into Dacu's chest while he was still in the air.
The blow made him flip around and hit the ground on his stomach. It was all he could do to catch himself so his head didn't smack the floor. The kick left his chest feeling like clawed talons were squeezing it, and he loved the sensation.
Then what felt like an instant later, there was a crushing grip around his foot. He could feel his bones creaking. How the hell did she move so fast in such heavy armor?
"Got you." Alex said with an evil smile. Then she roared with effort and simply swung Dacu with incredible strength into the wall. Pain exploded everywhere at once and his breath left him in a gasp—and then a second metal fist clamped around his leg and he was flying towards the opposite side with even more speed. The impact shook the wall and made stars explode in his vision. He felt more than saw the way that Alex reared back to drive his skull into the ground like an axe splitting wood. The cruel and ferocious violence this woman was capable of...
She would have flattened his skull if he hadn't summoned platforms to absorb the force of the impact. He shattered through his own magic and hit the floor with only a mild thud. He finally began to regain his wits.
Then another platform appeared beneath his feet and he kicked off of it with reckless power, trying to rip from her hold on him and dragging her along.
"Bloody Integrity types!" He heard her furious cry. He kicked off again and again, each explosive burst of energy almost yanking the knight off her feet.
"Hahaha! You having fun yet?!" He crowed down at her.
Rather than answer, Alex snarled and dragged herself up—armor and all—and clamped a little further up Dacu's leg. Then another hand higher. Smiling playfully, the assassin began stabbing one purple blade after another into the walls as they flew.
Then at last, Alex's hand clamped down around his other foot. Dacu fell, no longer able to use magic from his feet, and he hit the ground in another painful rush of air. His furious opponent wasted no time and leapt forward, straddling him so he couldn't move or defend himself with his legs. "Oh, this isn't kind of naughty, isn't it?" Dacu laughed.
"Shut the hell up." Alex brought down a fist to crush his skull. He twisted his head out of the way, feeling the floor shake from the heavy impact. She swore angrily and changed tactics. With practiced motions, Alex twisted so one leg was over his neck and her foot pinned down his left shoulder. With brutal intent, her hands clamped around Dacu's unpinned arm and pulled hard.
Incredible. She really did intend on taking his arm and beating him with it.
As much as Dacu enjoyed how it would look to see her do that, he was having far too much fun. His hair and eyes suddenly flashed blue, and he grinned through the pain as Alex's eyes suddenly went wide in alarm.
She ducked her head just as a flurry of blades flew out from where he left them in the walls and they crashed into her back and over her shoulders, close enough to brush her hair... locks of silver white down onto him, cut apart by their passing.
It was the barest distraction, but it was enough for Dacu to butt his head into Alex's nose. She snarled in pain, and he quickly elbowed her in the jaw and began to wriggle out from beneath her.
"No you don't." A hand shot out and grabbed him by the back of his shirt. Alex roared and swung him around again and into a wooden door.
And straight through it.
CRASH! Wooden boards splintered and broke outwards as Dacu tumbled and slid across the floor. With the white hot pain of fresh cuts on the left of his face, Dacu watched captivated as the woman stomped through the door. She slowly unslung her helmet from a hook at her hip and placed it back over her head. Even so, he could feel the anger and desire for bloody violence burning from her presence like heat from a fire.
"Oh. You'll do, Alexandra. You'll do." He choked up at her. He was still smiling, but it wasn't the playful, charming one he wore before. The impact had thrown his long bangs aside, revealing the other side of his face that usually stayed hidden. That face was a bizarre mixture of admiration and hatred. "I wasn't sure before, but now I have no doubts. You're worthy."
"Don't speak to me of worth. You left me bored, Dacu. And very annoyed."
"Hahaha…" He stumbled to his feet, one arm hanging and the other covering the hidden side of his face. "I'll show you. I'll show you what stays hidden deep within my heart. You understand, Alexandra, the monster that lurks inside you, born from your pain and your hatred. It feeds on the violence you inflict on others, but always wants more. It wants to break free, but you keep it locked away."
"Locked away...?" She replied quietly. "No. Fergal taught me to embrace it. You are looking at mine right now."
"I see. Then I'm afraid I have been terribly rude, Alexandra." Dacu's voice was rising. His heart pounded faster with every word. His head felt like it might burst from the pounding excitement coursing through him "You showed me your true self. Let me show you mine!" Cackling, Dacu lurched forward and slashed without grace or technique. Only mindless desire to hear Alex's voice scream in pain fueled him.
She contemptuously drove a fist into the first strike, stepping one foot forward as it shattered against her, her glare unmoving.
Dacu wildly struck again. Another arm rose up and met it halfway. Sparks flew. Across her metal forearm, a long slit was cut out of the metal. Neither him or Alex noticed it. She took another step forward.
Dacu surrendered himself entirely to his monster. He dreamed of the soft skin beneath the armor protecting Alex's neck and how it would feel to see her lifeblood paint the floor. He reared back and drove his blade towards her throat.
Alex didn't move. She simply knocked it to the side with her wrist so it would strike her shoulder plate instead. Then suddenly, she screamed.
Dacu's blade punched right through the metal and out the other side. For one glorious moment, the Black Knight yelled in pain and surprise. Blood bubbled out from the point of entry and spilled onto the floor.
Then he felt Alex's hand strike out and grab his wrist. With a primal roar of pure fury, the warrior ripped the blade free from her armor. She ignored the hideous pain and clamped her wounded arm around Dacu's elbow.
He laughed as his arm popped and snapped backwards the wrong way.
The length of his own blade sunk deep and tore across the right side of his face.
Alex shoved him away and he stumbled back, but stayed on his feet.
The blood pouring down over his eye and the terrible white hot pain made him feel more alive than he'd ever been before. He brought a hand to what had once been the uncovered side of his face and felt as his blood poured over his fingers and down his wrist. Hidden beneath his hand was a smile of pure murderous glee.
"Do you think you've beaten me? I've only just begun!" Dacu cackled at her. "Your armor is nothing. I spilled your blood. I can kill you and you aren't safe!"
Alex didn't step back, afraid that she couldn't hide behind her Rudalite. She silently took another step closer. He could feel that she was just like him. Her monster wanted more.
"Let us paint the ground in a glorious portrait of our human cruelty."
And then the doors around them all burst open at once. Four knights of the Royal Guard swarmed into the room and surrounded them, and then four more. Dacu could hear the pounding footsteps as even more of the castle's garrison was on its way. He wanted to gnash his teeth in frustration. He wanted to join hands with his opponent and slaughter them all so they could begin their battle in peace.
Instead, he smiled at her and vanished into thin air. "Until we meet again, Alexandra."
A moment later, glass shattered as he leapt from the side of the castle, leaving her to face them alone.
But he knew her now, and better than anyone else ever would. Even after he escaped into the forest and painfully curled his ruined arm across a rock. Even as he smashed a glowing green crystal of Arnicite into the stone and pressed it hard against his shattered bone, hissing with the agony of it as the joint popped back into place, his mind was only on that beautiful, furious, cruel woman.
He knew that one day he would see her again.
A Trapped Spider
When the attack fell apart, everything felt as if it were happening in slow motion. It all played out in front of the man's eyes like scenes of a horrible memory.
"Grey Phantoms! Fall back!" He heard somebody cry out. "Everybody fall back at once!"
Retreat...? He thought, not believing it at first. After I defeated so many people? After I... got hurt this badly? The man looked down at himself. At his hands, wet with blood, and at the cuts in his arms visible through the torn fabric. Blood ran down his face and dripped from his chin as he lowered his head.
Then someone nearly knocked him over as they ran past him, retreating. It made him realize that the battle was really over, and that they had lost. Feeling half asleep, he turned around to try and join the retreat.
He nearly tripped as he took the first step, falling hard onto his knees. He was too hurt. He needed someone's help to get out of here.
"Hey!" He reached out towards someone running away, and he was ignored. "Help me!" He tried again, more desperately. Dread made his stomach turn to lead. "Don't leave me here! Not after everything I did!"
But then, arriving from the front lines of battle, the only one unhurt despite the fighting, came the leader of the Grey Phantoms. The Gall's heart dared to fill with hope. "Fergal, help me!" He cried, trying to rise to his feet to meet him. "I can't get out of here alone."
Fergal was enormous next to him. His leader heard their voice and looked down at him, inspecting his wounds, and for a moment a flicker of approval passed over Fergal's expression. Gall had been useful to him.
Then he looked behind them, and saw the enemy's forces advancing to catch their retreat. In less than a second, the decision was made in Fergal's mind.
"Die a death I would be proud of." He told the him. Then he left without another word, unbothered by the surprise, the dread, the tears of betrayal that broke Gall's heart. He was powerless to do anything but watch as the one he had fought and bled for disappeared into the forest.
All alone. Left for dead.
Gall turned to face the oncoming tide of the King's soldiers. He grit his teeth, and his bitter sorrow became drowned out by rage as he cried out and ran towards them, calling upon any strength he had left.
It all went black after that.
With a weight like he was lifting a thousand pounds, Gall's eyes slowly opened again. For a brief moment he wondered if he was dead, as he saw nothing but more darkness.
But then he felt the metal cuffs around his arms, tied behind a pole. He heard the sound of voices, and of footsteps far away but slowly coming closer. Gall realized he had been captured and wanted to scream. He wished he had been killed instead.
"This is the one we managed to take alive?" A deep voice asked, somewhere in front of him.
"Yes, sir. T'wasn't easy. Took nearly ten of us to bring the bastard down." A gruff man answered. "You best make him talk, for all the trouble he caused us."
"Let me worry about that." Came the reply. They were in front of him now, and close. Gall felt the bag get taken off his head, and the light of an oil lamp hanging by the door nearly blinded him. He realized he was inside a tent, sitting in the dirt. It was night outside.
"He's…" The one who seemed to be in charge paused, as if shocked by what he saw. "He's just a kid."
"Pah. Don't trust his appearance, Shane. The boy's a feral beast." Growled the other.
Shane? Gall recognized that name. That was one of the Wizard Council. The strongest user of Perseverance magic in the whole world. If he was here, no wonder the Grey Phantom's attack had failed.
Looking at him with pursed lips, Shane's expression showed that he had come to a decision. "Leave us. I'll speak to the boy for a while. Alone."
Alone... New dread seeped into Gall's veins. What were they going to do to make him talk? What sort of things were a Wizard of the Council capable of doing to him?
Even through the fear, Gall glared up at his captor, seething with hostility. If he could move his hands, he'd use his magic and try to get a cut in before Shane struck him down.
The Wizard looked like he could sense this, and the thought didn't worry him. He calmly lowered himself down, so his eyes were level with Gall's. He very calmly asked, "What's your name, kid?"
"I'm nineteen." Gall spat, feeling strangely insulted. Shane didn't answer him, and simply waited to see if they would grant him a name.
When he didn't, the Wizard reluctantly moved to something else. "You were hurt bad. It almost killed you for our healers to keep you in this world, but you fought hard." He said. "In more ways than one."
Gall continued to stare, realizing almost as an afterthought that he was no longer wounded and bleeding. He hadn't asked for their help.
"...But now we're here. You probably know what I'm going to ask you next."
His heart thudded. The dread in Gall's chest grew deeper. So this is why they kept him alive. So they could extract him for information. He knew what was going to happen next if he refused to cooperate, yet still he grit his teeth and answered, "I'm not going to tell you dogs anything."
Shane's eyes widened in surprise. Then they furrowed with concern. After a pause, he said, "I'm sorry... I have to admit I don't understand why."
"What do you mean, why? You're my enemy! That's why." The Grey Phantom hissed.
"Because, my men… they didn't only report how hard you fought." Shane's eyes studied him. "They also saw—very clearly—that you had been left behind. They used you as a bait to cover their retreat." Every word was like an arrow in Gall's chest to hear it out loud. "They saw you reaching out to them for help, and they let you die."
Shane studied him again. Gall felt like he was going to catch fire from the heat on his face. "Do those people deserve any loyalty from you?"
"Shut UP!" He cried out.
The words bounced off the Wizard like he was a wall. They only served to make him look more concerned. "You know the kind of man Fergal is. If there was any doubt in your mind before, you've seen his true colors now." Gall closed his eyes, trying to shut out Shane's voice. He couldn't. "What will your silence accomplish but to let him continue to sow his destruction? How can you want this after what they did to you? Knowing what you know now?"
Gall couldn't find an answer. He hated that he had nothing to say back. He hated the voice nagging in the back of his mind, wondering if the reason for his loyalty was simply fear and nothing more.
Then a thought entered his mind. A thought that allowed him to feel something different. He latched onto it and smiled a sick smile that took Shane aback. "What makes you think I'm any better than Fergal?" Gall sneered. "You must know who I am. Do you really not recognize me?"
Shane frowned. He waited for him to continue.
"You wanted my name? I'll give it to you. You must have heard stories of the killer named Gall Gassasu." Finally, Shane's eyes widened in shock and Gall relished the feeling. "I'm the spider who left your men in pieces."
"You...!" The Wizard raised a hand to his face. Anger, grief, even horror flashed over him, perhaps remembering the men and women Gall had killed at Fergal's command. He wondered if Shane would finally kill him for this.
"...But you're just a kid." The arm fell limply back to Shane's side. Whatever emotions had flooded through him, they were gone now. He just looked terribly sad. And tired. "This world is cruel and ugly, for it to make a monster out of someone like you. You should have had a bright and happy life with the skill you possess. Not this. Not this…"
"Shut the hell up!" The fact Shane looked like he pitied Gall made him want to roar. It made him furious. He choked out a forced laugh. "You're right. I'm a monster! I'd try and kill you right now if my hands weren't tied! That's the one thing I'm good for!" He crowed. "Does that answer your question, Shane? Maybe you should just kill me, because I'm not telling your people anything!"
Shane didn't react in anger like Gall had hoped. Instead, he let out a long and pained sigh. "I'm not going to kill you, Gall." He stood up, no longer wanting to be in the same room as him. "...But you will answer for the things you've done. Come tomorrow, you'll begin your trip to Determino and you'll be given a fair trial. I can at least promise you that."
"I don't care." Gall muttered as Shane went. It didn't provoke a response.
He was left alone again.
Gall frowned hard at the empty space where the Wizard used to be. He muttered an insult under his breath, feeling his false confidence fading fast, and looked around himself.
The silence was even worse than talking to Shane had been. Now he had no company except his thoughts.
He was here because Fergal had left him behind, and there was no way to pretend he didn't know it. The lingering words of his captor stuck in his head. They latched on like thorns, unable to be shaken from his mind. He thrashed hard against his bindings, more to escape his thoughts than out of any hope of actually being able to break free.
It accomplished nothing. But it did cause a pale blue light of charged Arnicite to start glowing above him. He cursed. Filled with Patience magic, it must be imbued to be able to sense his movements. The light served as a warning to the guards outside to show that he was moving.
An irritated soldier poked their head in through the tent's curtain. "Go to sleep, brat. Or we'll get more rope until you really can't move."
Gall clenched his teeth. He awkwardly tried to lay down on his side with his hands tied behind the pole, glancing upwards to see how the crystal reacted. Even if he made very slight movements, it still glowed at least a little.
So instead, he began to move very, very slowly.
Gall's hair turned a faint glow of light blue. Small lines of magic string appeared between his fingers and spooled outwards, which he grabbed carefully, making sure the motions produced no light. After another long and painful process, he managed to position a few of his thin strings so that the loops extended into the keyholes of his cuffs, where he could manipulate them.
He took a slow, deep breath, calming his mind. If nothing else, there was one more thing that Gall was remarkably good at. Being patient.
Two hours of almost perfect stillness passed, and the bindings on his wrists fell open.
It took another hour to take three painful, gut-wrenching steps towards the tent's curtains, expecting someone to step through at any moment. Thirty minutes of waiting later, the shadows of his guards—silhouetted against the moon's light—left for a moment to swap places with the night watch.
In that moment of opportunity, Gall fled.
No one was there to notice him leave.
It was almost…
Gall stopped, leaning against a tree and panting hard, out of breath. His wounds being healed had truly sapped him of his strength. He was much too far to be caught now, so maybe it wouldn't hurt to take a break.
The moment he stopped, Shane's words were there to greet him. He frowned hard, looking back towards the sleeping camp behind him.
When he looked back out towards the forest, towards the path back to the Grey Phantoms, towards freedom…
Which direction was the path that would take him back to being shackled? He wasn't sure anymore.
The Grey Phantoms had left him for dead. Everything he had done for Fergal meant nothing. It was like he was a tool—a useful one but a tool all the same—to be used and discarded once it broke.
He knew this. He knew the kind of person Fergal was. But still… what choice did he really have? What sort of life could there be for him if he went anywhere else?
What would Fergal do if he learned he had told Shane everything he knew?
The thought froze the blood in his veins.
Gall continued deeper into the forest. It was the only direction he had.
"He's back?" Within the Grey Phantom's hideout, Fergal's voice could be heard on the other side of the door. After a long pause, he finally continued. "Very well. Let him in."
Gall, battle-scarred, tired beyond words, was carried more than escorted into the room where Fergal stood waiting for him. He nearly fell to his knees when they let him go, but Gall lifted himself tall on his wobbling legs, trying to look his leader in the eye. "I…" He managed to gasp. "I made it back alive, Fergal. Despite… everything." Despite being betrayed. Gall couldn't say out loud. And still I remained loyal to you.
"You did." The leader of the Grey Phantoms gazed down at him through smoldering orange irises. His expression was impossible to read.
After a moment of decision, he stepped forward and clutched a massive hand around Gall's grey cloak, lifting him up to his face with one arm. Fergal's eyes burned with quiet fire. "If you led the King's men back to me, boy, I will kill you without hesitation."
"I didn't tell them anything." Gall choked. "They tried to convince me. But I didn't…" Tears of frustration and rage filled his eyes. But he only had the strength to hang limply in the air before Fergal's strength.
"And why should I believe you?" Gall felt the hands around his cloak grip tighter.
But then a new hand reached out and clenched Fergal's arm, squeezing hard. Alexandra Lostra cleared her throat, glaring daggers of warning up at Fergal, sharper than any magic. "Let him go. He's telling you the truth."
Fergal looked down at the Traitless warrior, briefly annoyed, but he relented at last and released his grip. Gall fell back to the floor and caught himself roughly. His face burned with embarrassment, and his throat felt tight as he clamped down on the tears threatening to spill out.
"...I suppose we'll know if he spoke soon enough." Fergal grunted. "And if he did, Alexandra, you won't be able to protect him from what comes next." He turned to Gall next, looking at the expression on his face. He put a rough hand on his shoulder and Gall tried to pull away, but his hold was unbreakable. He awkwardly turned away from him instead.
"You feel you were left behind. Don't be mad." Fergal grunted. "I knew you could manage to get out alive on your own. Try to keep up next time."
The hand lifted from his shoulder. As soon as it left, Alex was there to support Gall's failing legs. She bent down and took his arm around her shoulder, helping the boy out of Fergal's den. "Come on..." She said to him gently. "You've had a very bad week. Let's get you fixed up."
"Don't touch me." Gall protested and weakly tried to pull away from her, but Alex ignored it. She carried him away from the Grey Phantom's leader, who watched them leave with mild bemusement.
"Assuming Alex is right about you…" Gall heard his voice behind him before the door closed. "Welcome back to the Grey Phantoms, Gall Gassasu."
"...I don't understand why you're helping me." Gall's voice was quiet. He had been given soft white clothes and a warm bed to rest in. In the dim light of the room, he could see Alex returning with a plate of hot food.
"Shush, now. Eat." She scolded him gently. Alex slid the plate onto the table next to his bed and sat down on a chair nearby, where he knew she wouldn't budge until he had finished his meal.
He wanted to refuse, at least for a while, to look like he didn't want her help. But his stomach rumbled otherwise. The food looked delicious and he hadn't eaten in days. Gall picked up the plate and began to eat ravenously.
"That's better." The Traitless woman smiled, pleased. "I don't care what Fergal tells me. Until you've regained your strength, you're not going back out to fight."
"But…" Gall managed to say between bites. "If I don't fight, what use will I have?"
Alex raised an eyebrow at him in mild disbelief. "What use? You talk like you're just a weapon waiting for someone to swing it, young man."
"...I am, am I not?" He frowned.
"Gall Gassasu..." When Alex said his name, it felt very different from when it was uttered by Fergal. "You are a person. You're a boy with incredible magic talent. I think you could achieve great things one day, if you chose to. And you are certainly not a tool to be discarded at the whims of others."
"But…" He didn't understand what she was saying. "This is what I am. It will always be like this for me. How could it not? Fergal won't ever let me go."
Alex pursed her lips and leaned forward in her seat. "Mmmmm. I think I understand now. Listen, mister…" She shifted in her seat, leaning forward a bit. "I know what it's like to feel trapped like you do. Trust me. I do. It feels like there's no escape, and like the only way to live with yourself is to accept the way things are, no matter how cruel it may be. Like hoping for something better brings nothing but pain."
Gall didn't answer. He stared at his food, perfectly still, trying not to let his emotions show.
"...But no darkness lasts forever, Gall. Even if you don't understand how it could ever leave, one day it will. The struggles you survived will disappear into the past. Into a part of life that isn't you anymore." She reached out and ruffled his hair. Gall hated it. "Because you've grown into something different. You just need to keep holding on. That day will come. I promise."
She was right about one thing, at least. He didn't understand how there could be a way out of the mess his life had become. Gall shook his head, too tired and too defeated to say anything more.
It was easier just to take another bite of his food.
The Gentle Mountain
Seyv's world was one where insults, legal disputes and wars themselves could be settled by a duel in the arena. It was only natural that the same people who crowded the arenas to watch them would be drawn by duels for sport. And they did.
There was no shortage of competitors, either. People came from all corners of the world to become heroes and make something new of themselves. Some fought for the fame and prestige before the crowd. Others came for riches. Some fought to build a new life for themselves.
Seyv Dypal had made a name for himself, fighting in the sands before the roaring crowds, but he didn't consider himself their hero. Even as he stood ready at the Arena's iron gates, next in line to fight, his heart wasn't hammering and adrenaline wasn't flowing through his veins. To him, this was just another day of work.
He also felt the star-struck eyes of one of the guards behind him, a new recruit who hardly passed for being an adult, staring at him like he might disappear if he so much as blinked. When Seyv turned back to look at him, he didn't turn away.
"Yes?" He asked him. It snapped the guard out of his trance and he looked away at last, a red in the face.
"Oh! I'm sorry. It's nothing, umm, Mr. Seyv… I'm just, I'm a big fan, that's all."
"...Thank you." Two words were enough to start the guard babbling with all sorts of stories about how Seyv had inspired him to join the army and protect the weak. The huge man looked away from him, back towards the Arena, with a small smile.
This is what he fought for. Not for fame, but to change people for the better, through his example.
"...Umm, I'm sorry if this is a weird question, but I might never get the chance to ask you this again…" The guard spoke up again. "Is it really true that you killed all those people years ago?"
Seyv stopped smiling. As the guard saw his expression, turned red and tried to apologize, Seyv stopped him with a shake of his head. "No. I was framed."
"You were? Then what about all the—" Although horrified, the other man stopped mid-sentence as he thought to himself. "I mean… I guess you don't have any reasons to lie. You already spent your time in jail and won your freedom back from… doing this."
"Mmmmh." Seyv grunted in affirmation. "You can make your witnesses say whatever you want if you have enough gold."
"That's horrible..." He whispered, mostly to himself. After a moment of uncomfortably shifting his weight, more answers still on his face, the young guard asked, "Why did you stay here, then? Wouldn't you want to go back to your old life?"
Seyv shook his head again. "There was no life to go back to. The trials destroyed it."
"...So you stayed here. I'm sorry." The man said. "Well, for whatever it's worth… I look up to you even more now!" He gave Seyv a smile, shining bright. "I'm glad you're here. I might just be a guard, but I'll be cheering for you!"
Seyv smiled. After remembering his past, the fact he could smile at all showed him how completely he had survived what had happened.
The gate opened and he walked out onto the sands of the arena, taking in the roaring crowd; the people screaming his name.
Seyv was a gentle man who had been branded as a murderer. The people he used to know now hated him, and his old life was gone forever. But his new life was here, and these people looked up to him as their hero.
Seyv didn't think he needed to go anywhere.
He knew who his opponent would be—his matches were all scheduled on the board weeks before they happened—but it was different to see them waiting for him in the center. Osiris the Victorious was his title. He was tall and muscular, almost as large as Seyv, which was unusual for a Justice soul. They usually preferred to fight from far away.
But this man let Seyv walk right up to him, unafraid. The two combatants sized each other up while the crowd cheered, and the announcer worked his magic to bring excitement before the battle.
Osiris spoke, and Seyv could tell by the growl of his accent that he had grown up alongside the monsters in Kurago. "I've heard a lot about you, Seyv. Or should I call you by your title? The Gentle Mountain?"
Seyv watched him. He didn't answer.
"I came all this way to fight you because, like me, you too have never lost a match. It felt insulting that I should share such a record with someone like you."
Seyv raised an eye, questioning him silently.
"An unbeatable fighter should be someone strong; in their heart, in their mind and in their spirit. I'm sure you are a worthy opponent, but you are weak in your heart. You refuse to accept matches against Traitless opponents."
"Do you have a problem with that?" Seyv finally spoke. His voice hovered on the edge of anger.
"No. No, I don't care what morality you choose to follow." The warning in Seyv's expression had shaken even Osiris' composure somewhat. "I'm simply telling you my truth. This… sentimentality of yours is softness. Weakness. Only the strongest men should hold the title of being unbeaten."
"...Then we will see who the strongest is between us." Glaring, the two men silently nodded once to the other, ready to fight. To prove their ideals.
The spokesperson told them to step ten paces away from the other. They did so, taking each step with full knowledge that each footfall was a step closer to the beginning of their match. Two champions who have never known defeat would soon be reduced to one. The crowd was alive and roaring with excitement, cheering Seyv's name.
And Osiris was smiling, defiant, hungry to turn the crowd into stunned silence.
"Fighters! Face your opponent!" The announcer shouted. They listened. Seyv watched as Osiris' hair began to shine, as magic flowed from his soul to his body. Directed by the spokesman, the crowd began counting down from ten. The battle would begin once their count was finished.
Seyv wondered what kind of magic he was about to see this man wield.
As the crowd's chant reached zero and their battle began, he simply crossed his arms and stood calmly, waiting and watching.
"You want to see, do you?" Osiris called over the noise of the crowd. "Then let me show you what I can do!" Clenching his fists tight, yellow Justice magic crackled and flowed into his arms. As his power gathered and grew brighter and brighter, it finally exploded out from either side of him. Two enormous fists made of magic appeared at Osiris' sides. Each one was as large as he was, and they moved in tandem with his arms. The fingers opened and closed when he balled his fists.
"Us humans don't know everything. I learned this style from studying monsters. From Roman himself." Osiris explained, enjoying the gasps of awe from the crowd. Entering a fighting stance, he prepared to fight Seyv up close and personal, man to man. A style he had never seen a Justice Trait use before.
"Impressive. Now—show me what you are capable of." Seyv spoke.
Roaring his battle cry, he approached Seyv without fear. The fist-constructs followed him, crackling with energy. The crowd cried out and shouted for their hero to move out of the way, but Seyv stayed right where he was, staring down at his opponent with his arms crossed.
Osiris twisted his body and put his whole weight into the swing of his fists. Seyv let the enormous fist crash into him.
The crowd screamed. Dust flew as the force of the blow set the air into whirling spirals. And Seyv slid a mere two feet back on the sand.
His hair was glowing now, too, and Seyv's magic had awakened. It was his Integrity; a magic that used not just gravity, but kinetic energy as well. He had just absorbed an incredible amount of it.
Drawing back his fist, Osiris barely had time to blink in dumbfounded awe at how little his attack had done before he was forced to use his fists to defend. Seyv hit him with a fist that weighed a thousand pounds. The sound of it crashing into the magic construct was like two metal titans had slammed into one another. Osiris's eyes flew wide with the unexpected force of the impact, leaving him momentarily stunned. The fist made of Justice magic held, but barely.
But Seyv was already attacking him again and again, cold, relentless and efficient. Each punch he threw had the strength to shatter stones, as he used gravity to make his arms briefly weigh hundreds of times more in the moment before impact. As he released kinetic energy from the blow he had absorbed. Each strike was barely withstood. Osiris was strong—very strong, actually—but Seyv could see how each one of his fists rocked him through his body and hurt his soul. Cracks were appearing on his magic fists. He had learned all he needed to know about his opponent.
"You are outclassed." Seyv said the words without malice. It was simply a man speaking the truth, like a doctor telling a patient the time of his death.
With a leap, Seyv flew high into the air. He flipped around, bringing his leg around wide as he increased the weight of his entire body, and he delivered a final crushing axe kick that shattered Osiris's fists into thousands of glimmering pieces. The champion from Kurago clutched his heart and fell to the ground, and the magic shards dissolved into dust in the wind.
One of the strongest fighters Seyv had had the honor of facing, who had never once been beaten, now lay in the sand as a defeated, crumpled heap. It hadn't even been a fight. Seyv stared down at him, wondering if he should say something.
He didn't. He gently put a foot over the man's chest, signaling his victory, before he looked up to the crowd that screamed his name. Cheering for their hero.
Despite what Osiris believed, Seyv was living proof that one didn't need to become cruel to be strong.
That is what he fought for.
It was a very strange sight to see. In one side of the room stood Seyv in his sleeveless cowl, covered in dirt, choosing to stand even though he was almost too tall for the cramped office. On the other side was a man in clean and regal clothing, obviously rich, and yet the two talked to each other like they were friends.
Not too long ago, Seyv's pay for his fights in the arena came in the form of reducing his jail sentence. Now that he was free, he was paid in gold. The arena master slid a cloth bag towards him and leaned back in his chair, grinning in a humorous way.
"I keep thinking—here's what I think every time I see you here in my office, Seyv." His boss, Mr. Ames, began wryly. "I think that once you leave my room, it's the last I'll ever see of you. You'll use this money to buy a house somewhere. Maybe another farm. Maybe you'll just leave to travel the world. But you always come back, sleeping in the same dingy bed you had when we called you a prisoner."
Seyv raised an eyebrow, waiting to hear where he was going with all this.
"Where does all this money go?"
"Heh." The question made him smile. Trying to explain it all to Ames would be a challenge, and it would only invite more questions. Seyv decided to settle for something else. He picked up the bag of gold and took a step back, ready to leave. "It gets put to a good use."
Seyv left, with his boss wearing the same bemused smile he always had when Seyv didn't answer his questions.
As he closed the door behind him, Seyv almost bumped right into a pair of scowling, very professional-looking men whose clothing told him they were bankers, or maybe debt collectors. They scowled at Seyv before shoving past him, entering the room of his boss without speaking.
Frowning, he briefly considered stepping back inside to see what they were here for, but he decided against it. Mr. Ames was good at what he did, and he ate men in suits for breakfast as comfortably as Seyv threw his punches. He would be fine.
Seyv had more important things to prepare for.
After waiting for the sun to set, he set out from the arena and into the busy streets of the city. He was wearing a cloak made from burlap sacks as a way to hide his identity—at least from the side. He also had his long hair tied into a ponytail, as he always did when he assumed this identity, to keep it from spilling out and revealing that he had a Trait.
Then, disguised the best he could to look Traitless, he entered the poor part of the city where the majority of Traitless lived together. A boarded-up quadrant of houses that fell a bit more into disrepair each year, yet the people living inside them stayed because they had nowhere else to go.
Even with his disguise, he was looked at with fearful eyes and given a wide berth by the hungry and frail people living here, simply because of his size. Families on the street stopped what they were doing to watch him go, and others pulled their children inside so they wouldn't cause trouble. Seyv wondered why he bothered wearing a disguise at all.
But at last, he found where he was trying to go.
Knock, knock, knock. Three gentle raps from Seyv rang out from the front door of a house made of old bricks and flaking paint. As he waited, he heard the noise of many small footsteps followed by those of someone much older. He hid his hands behind his back.
"Hello...?" A timid voice asked as they opened the door. A tired-looking woman with bags under her eyes looked up, and up, and they widened with delight when they saw who was standing at their front door. "Oh! It's you again! I didn't know if I would ever see you again, after last time…"
"I've been to a few other homes since the last time I came here. Can I come in?" Seyv asked.
"Um? O-oh! Of course, mister. I was making dinner and… that's okay." She stammered. "I would offer you some, but… there's not a lot of food, I guess. At least not until I can find a way to… you know."
"That's okay." Seyv knew the words left unspoken. She didn't want to say out loud that she would have to beg for the money to buy her next meals. He pretended he wasn't aware.
Following the woman to her kitchen, he sat down in a chair that creaked under his weight and placed his gift in his lap. He watched as she tended to the small fire which boiled a modest stew of broth and vegetables.
Hearing a small meow, Seyv looked down as a cat pawed up next to him, demanding his attention. He always seemed to have a way of drawing cats to him. "I see this little one is still here since the last time I visited." He said with a smile.
"It's been hard, but… we manage to keep her around." The woman answered. Her smile was much more strained.
"Mmmh. It sounds like things are only getting worse."
"I guess you could say so." Looking back towards Seyv, she saw two of her children peeping in through the entrance to the kitchen. All she had to do was frown, and they all scampered away. She sighed and sat down at the kitchen table across from Seyv. "Things are better than they could be. We have a better home than we should be able to afford. Even though it's falling apart…"
"I remember. King Ozrich built these homes for the Traitless to live in, years ago."
"Yes. I'm thankful for that... but the money he used to give us to pay for our food, and to clothe our children…"
Seyv raised a concerned eyebrow.
"It's just hard not to be angry. Why did he stop helping us?" Her voice was hot with a helpless, restrained anger. "Why did the King do all this to help the Traitless and then… s-suddenly decide that he couldn't afford to help us any longer? To keep us from starving to death? If he could afford to do it to begin with, why would he stop...?"
"I don't know." Seyv grunted. "A lot has happened since then. Maybe they don't make as much money as they used to."
The woman didn't answer. She just looked worried. A defeated, powerless kind of worry that Seyv only knew from faint memories.
The gift hidden in his lap felt heavy. He decided he should hurry up and get to the point of this visit. "Here. I know this isn't much, but…" He took his winnings from today's fight and put them on the table. "This should help you get through the rest of the year, at least."
"What...?" She looked at the cloth bag of gold, then at Seyv, like she wasn't sure if this was real. With a shaking hand, she undid the ribbon holding the bag closed and let the gold coins spill out, clinking neatly on the wooden table. She finally seemed to realize what this meant. "Really...?" She whispered. She was trying not to show tears in front of him. "You don't have to do this."
"I don't need this money. You do." He said simply. "Take it."
On instinct, she reached for the coins before she stopped—quickly pressing her hands at her sides instead and shaking her head. "I shouldn't, I mean, I-I just…" She managed to stammer. "I don't even know your name. I don't know who you are! Why are you doing this for me?"
Thinking to himself, Seyv decided there wasn't much point in wearing his disguise any longer. He could do a lot more by showing her the truth. He pulled down his hood, revealing his flowing, light blue hair. Out from the shadow of his hood, the Trait of Integrity reflected bright in his eyes. The woman gasped as he realized he had magic, instinctively taking a step back in fear before she remembered he was still a friend.
"I'm doing this because I want to help. That's all." Seyv explained. "A lot of us Traited wish this world was better for you. We just don't know how to help. I can do this much, at least, so I do."
The Traitless girl didn't know what to say. Not able to hold back her tears, she simply put her hand down on top of the gold coins Seyv had given her. "I wish I knew how to make things better for us, too." She whispered. "Thank you."
Seyv pulled his hood back up and stood. Part of him didn't want to accept her thanks. He felt like he wasn't doing enough.
The sad reality was, there were countless families starving families just like this one, who were living in poverty and struggling to make ends meet because they couldn't use magic.
He was only one person. He could only do so much with what he had. It wasn't enough to help everyone. Not even close.
But at least it was something.
"Maybe one day, we'll figure out a way to change everything."
The night passed, and the sun rose again. Staring at the roof, Seyv was laying on a bed which was too small for him, in a dusty room of brick and stone. The only light came from the rising sun which shone through the metal bars that served as his window.
He was content.
The metal door to his room squeaked open. Seyv's eyes looked down and saw a man he didn't recognize, carrying a page that looked ripped out of a calendar. Ignoring Seyv, he tore his old calendar off the wall and replaced it with the one he held in his hands.
Seyv frowned. "You're not the one who gives me my schedule."
The stranger scowled down at him. "I am today. Read up. There's been changes."
"What?" But by the time Seyv sat up in his bed, the man was already gone. Shaking his head in annoyance, the man grumbled and plucked his new calendar off the wall, wondering what kind of changes they could have been talking about.
Taking one look at who he was meant to fight next, Seyv's eyes went wide with fury.
BANG! The door to his bosses office blew open beneath one of Seyv's fists. "What the hell is this?" He growled.
But the man at the desk was not his boss. After a moment of confusion, Seyv realized he recognized him from yesterday. This was one of the men who had shoved past him when he was getting ready to leave. Confusion was quickly replaced with renewed anger. "...And who are you?" He demanded to know.
"I am your new manager. Temporary. I represent the King's interests." The businessman replied coolly. "Your boss, Mister Ames, failed to make good on debts he owed to King Ozrich. This arena is now our property... and its revenue will be ours until the debts are settled."
"What?" Seyv shook his head. "Never mind. Listen. He must have forgotten to tell you something very important." He slammed the calendar in his hand onto the desk, hard enough to shake the walls of the room. "I don't fight Traitless opponents. And to the death? You must be out of your mind!"
Infuriatingly, the man only smiled back. "You have never had a say in who you fight, Seyv. Mr. Ames' generosity must have fooled you into thinking otherwise."
"Like Hell I don't." He growled dangerously. "I refuse to participate."
"No. You really don't have a choice." His smile slowly curdled into something threatening. "According to our laws, you have never officially left imprisonment. You still live in your old jail cell. You, Seyv, are a prisoner awaiting release." He explained maliciously. "And a prisoner refusing to participate in the arena is a crime, punishable by an extension of your sentence as long as we deem necessary."
Seyv felt red hot fury boiling in his blood. He wanted to pick this small man up like a doll and show him how little his money and power mattered to him.
But this, too, would only end with him losing his freedom once again. He felt helpless, which only made him more enraged.
"We will collect our debt. This is a means to an end, Seyv. We know your reputation. The Gentle Mountain facing Traitless opponents will draw crowds unlike anything else, and this… will make us an excellent sum of money. It will allow us to give this property back to Mr. Ames as soon as possible."
Seyv didn't answer. It took all his energy simply to not squish this man like a bug.
"If it's any consolation to you, each of these men are guilty of crimes punishable by death. They would have died tomorrow regardless of your participation."
"...They're guilty, are they?" His voice was a dangerous growl. "I was judged guilty once. Whether or not it was true mattered very little."
The businessman sighed. He had the audacity to sound like someone who was being patient. "You aren't their Judge. It isn't your place to try and save the world." He said. "You're a man who fights for sport, and you have a job to do." Or else, he didn't say. But Seyv heard it clearly in the tone of his voice. Standing up, he offered the calendar sheet back to the fighter. "I will see you on the sands tomorrow, Seyv."
Seyv looked him in the eye. There was nothing more he could say, and he was trapped. He raised his arms... and brought them down on the desk, smashing it into wooden tatters.
Finally, there was fear in that disgusting man's eyes. Seyv snatched the calendar from his stunned hand and stormed from the room.
His satisfaction curdled as quickly as it came. Reality was unavoidable, and it hit him the moment he stopped walking. He wanted to punch something until his fists bled.
Seyv could rage to himself all he wanted, but there was no escaping from this. Not if he didn't want to lose everything he had built for himself.
But what would he lose in the process of trying to save the meager life he had built for himself? It would mean turning his back on everything he believed in. His magic, his soul, the life that he tried to follow was Integrity.
The rest of the day was spent staring at his wall. Staring at the piece of paper that sentenced him to kill five Traitless souls for sport. When he imagined their faces, all he could see was the poor, starving families that struggled to survive in a world not built for them.
There was nothing he could do to win.
Seyv's hair was less blue than it was yesterday.
When the iron gates slid open and he stepped out into the arena as if in a daze, he didn't recognize what he was seeing. It was the same sands; the same coliseum and the same place he had fought countless times before. The people were still cheering his name.
But it wasn't excitement that was in their voices. It was something malicious. Something ugly.
This crowd was not the one that came to watch Seyv fight powerful opponents. These were people who wanted to see blood spill. Specifically, they wanted to see Traitless blood. Drawn from a world that mostly tried to keep to itself, cruel events like these drew out those among the Traited who actively hated the Traitless and wanted to see them hurt. People who were horrible and ugly inside.
Seyv was shaken by how many of them there were.
And at the top of the podium, in the seats reserved for royalty, sat the man who had taken over the arena and subjected him to this. He was watching to make sure Seyv fulfilled his duty.
On the other side of the arena were his unwilling opponents. Four men and one woman stood before him, looking terrified up at the crowd cheering against them. They had been given spears and shields made of Arnicite that they couldn't use. The metal was a little better than useless without magic.
This wouldn't even be a fight. Seyv knew he could take one of those spears from them with the same ease as picking a flower. He could increase the weight of the Arnicite and kill them all with a single unstoppable swing. The thought made him sick.
The announcer was speaking to the crowd, but he barely heard what was said. He had already decided what he would do. He could only hope he had the courage to do it.
Seyv met his shaking opponents in the middle of the field. He said nothing to them, and as they turned around and walked ten paces away from the other, the call for the battle to begin was joined by hundreds of bloodthirsty cries.
And Seyv sat down. He did nothing.
The Traitless who hid behind their shields to prepare for his attack peeked out, confused to what was happening.
The disappointed jeers from the crowd followed soon after as Seyv refused to move from where he was.
He had followed the law and participated in this cruel farce of a battle. These men who had barged into his life and tried to destroy it would have no grounds to punish him.
"Seyv Dypal!" It wasn't the announcer's voice who rang out, but the so-called owner of the arena. He was red in the face, glaring down at him with all the arrogance of an old man who had never been defied. "This is a battle to the death. There is no surrendering!"
Seyv didn't answer. He didn't need to.
If they refused to end the fight, the only outcome of this battle would be for him to die, and they couldn't allow that. He knew how famous the Gentle Mountain was. They would lose everything if they let him perish.
"So be it." The representative sneered. He turned to the Traitless criminals. "Kill him, and you will all be pardoned for your crimes."
Seyv's eyes went wide. Brand new rage and disbelief shot through him like he had been struck by lightning.
But the eyes of his opponents weren't terrified any longer. They had also become furious. And defiant. They threw down their weapons.
"You want us to kill him?" They cried up to the podium. "After everything he's done for us? No! I refuse!"
"Excuse me?" The ringleader didn't seem to believe what he was seeing.
"And so do I!" Yelled another.
"Yeah...! I refuse too!"
In this world, the Traitless feared the Traited. But on this day, in this moment, four Traitless souls strode over to where Seyv sat and stood over him, protecting him from the jeers of the outraged crowd. Giving themselves to protect the only man who ever openly tried to protect them.
"Hmph. Very dramatic. But I expected something like this." The ringleader's voice had lost its tone of disbelief. He sounded dangerous and stubborn. "Granted, I didn't expect the criminals to join you in your act of rebellion, but it's no matter. The men I prepared to contain you will be adequate." He raised a hand into the air and bellowed, "Guards!"
The iron gates slammed open and soldiers began to stream through. Seyv watched in quiet horror as almost two dozen heavily-armored Traited mercenaries lined themselves on the sand. Their Arnicite weapons were drawn and incredibly dangerous, much less useless when wielded by people with Magic.
Seyv rose back up on his feet. For the first time, hopelessness threatened to crush his spirit. Could he even take on this many people at once? Even if he could, what would it mean? Would he spend the rest of his life on the run, hunted as a criminal?
Did this mean he wouldn't be able to help anyone any longer?
He looked behind him and saw the five men and women who were standing behind him. They had picked their weapons back up from the sand, holding them with shaking hands. As afraid as they were, they were smiling at him, some thankful, others defiant. All were willing to protect him with their lives.
In that moment, Seyv's hair regained its bright blue hue of Integrity. He knew what he was willing to fight for. He brought his fists up in front of him, ready to do what he knew was right. Even if it meant he must die.
Then what happened next caused the roaring crowd to fall into stunned silence.
The weapons in everyone's hands, from the soldiers and the Traitless alike, simply floated into the air, torn from their grasps. A strange new yellow glow surrounded them.
And from the silence came the laughter of one man, who clapped his hands in applause. As he clapped, his dark skin shone with yellow light from hair that had been brushed over one of his eyes. The stubble on his chin told Seyv he must have been around the same age as Seyv.
"What a beautiful display this was. Simply brilliant. I could not have asked for a better show!" Jessee Krovor stood on the edges of the crowd, smiling down at the stunned scene beneath him. "Unfortunately… this show is over." Bringing his hand into a fist, the dozens of weapons in Jessee's grip twisted and snapped into mangled fragments, now completely useless.
"Who...? What the—" The ringleader of the arena stuttered and spat, powerless except to watch his control slip from his fingers like sand. "Who dares interfere in the King's affairs?" He cried out.
"I… represent the Grey Phantoms." Jessee answered with a smug smile. "And if you wish to destroy the life of such remarkable talent… I suppose I'll have to take him for myself. If you so wish to join me, that is." He looked back down at Seyv, winking coyly. "These five Traitless heroes are welcome to join us, too. We would be honored to have such bravery and courage on our side."
Seyv had heard of the Grey Phantoms before. He didn't know much about them, to be sure, except that they supposedly fought for the Traitless. He remembered that he wanted to admire them, but the way that they broke the law and caused chaos made him wish they would try and find more peaceful ways to accomplish their goals.
But after today… he didn't care about following the law any longer.
"Jessee… before I accept your invitation," Seyv spoke up to him, smiling for the crowd to see his defiance. "I have a feline friend I'd like you to meet."
Just A Traitless
"So why are we meeting here?"
Seyv was a huge man. His head was above the baker's stall as he leaned back against the wall, arms crossed, waiting for Alex. His partner was pretending to cheerfully buy some pastries. Although she was much smaller than him, authority radiated from her and he could feel it. She was the co-leader of the Grey Phantoms.
"You know why we're here." Alex replied, nonchalant. "We can't have too many people coming in and out of our base of operations. It looks suspicious. Best to avoid that unless—oh, thank you kindly!" She flashed a bright smile and took a bag of baked goods being held out for her. When she walked away and motioned Seyv to follow her, she dropped her cheerful act and continued. "This is a small mission, so I'd rather meet you out here."
"I see. I remember that you prefer to work alone." Seyv pointed out.
"Not always. I would prefer to have the assurance of a big, strong man such as yourself to help me on this one." Alex reached into her bag. "Donut?"
"Mmmh." Seyv grunted. He'd meant for that to be a no, but Alex tossed one to him anyways. He frowned at it and took a bite. Not bad…
"My people have heard rumors about a district outside the city's walls." Alex said very seriously. "A bunch of Traitless cobbled together some huts and now they're living together in a small community. Strictly Traitless only. Not that anyone else would want to live like that." She took a bite of her pastry. Whipped cream and a strawberry stayed stuck to her nose as she pulled it away.
"Traitless only? I doubt they'll be happy to see me there." Seyv carefully ignored his superior's appearance.
"You're big and scary. They won't do anything if you're with me." Alex plucked the strawberry off her nose, glared at it, and ate it in a bite. "I'm more concerned about the nature of these rumors."
"Mmmh?" Seyv asked through a mouth full of annoyingly-delicious pastry.
"Men and women have been disappearing every week, and it seems like the city has better things to do than find whoever's responsible. Every single one of these victims have been Traitless." With her free hand, Alex pulled down her hood and shook her hair free from her cloak. It was long and silver and perfectly boring. Even after all this time, Seyv had trouble believing that Jessee's right-hand woman was a Traitless. "That makes me one of their ideal targets. I'm not dumb enough to go in without backup." She told him.
"Huh. Makes sense." Seyv supposed. "We going in to investigate? Or to fight?"
"To investigate." Alex shrugged. "But we'll fight if we get the chance."
We? He thought. Traitless people can't even use magic. He couldn't imagine Alex would be any help if they encountered someone dangerous. Out loud he said, "How soon are we leaving?"
"Now. If you're ready."
Alex threw another donut at him. Her bemused look told him what she was thinking.
"I mean, yes. I'm ready."
"Then let's go, big guy."
The Traitless community was no more than a collection of ramshackle huts in the shadow of the city's walls, tucked away from the forests around it. Here, they lived a short walk away from the main gates.
These people had no place for them in a world where most jobs required magic. Their source of income seemed to be begging from the steady river of people that came and went every day.
It wasn't much; Seyv didn't know how they even managed to feed themselves, but somehow they did. There were even some men and women living together, but what he noticed was the lack of any children. It made sense, he supposed. Who would want to raise a child into a world like this?
Seyv was beginning to get strange looks from the locals. Some were angered and others afraid. His blue hair, loudly declaring his Traited status and magic, stood out like he was a lion in a nursery.
Alex stepped forward to talk to a weathered old man who leaned against a fence post out in front of his hovel. Seyv stayed a safe distance back.
"Good morning. We're from the city," she said seriously. "People have been disappearing here for a while now. Do you know anything about that?"
The man looked from her to Seyv and his eyebrows shot way up. "Yer with him? Eh…" He tore his gaze away. "Me... I've seen nothin'. All I know is my friend Jenn o'er there. She lost her husband a few days ago. Rest her 'hart." The man shrugged to himself, gesturing with a hand at nothing. "These things happen. We Traitless don't 'ave much to defend ourselves with, y'know. If 'sum bandits come out from them woods..."
"Just because this does happen doesn't mean that it should. Or that it can't change." Alex frowned. "We're going to find whoever's behind all this."
Again, the old man looked at Seyv. He blinked twice at the rippling muscles of his arms. "Is he really with you?"
The man took a closer look at Alex. "Yer well fed, lady. N' strong, like yer friend. Are ya really… a Traitless?"
"I am. I'm stronger than most people might think." She actually smiled at that. As she left him to rejoin Seyv on the road, she said, "Maybe one day that won't be so uncommon."
"Mmmh." Seyv grunted when she took next to him. "Hey. That Jenn girl isn't too far from here."
"Right. Hopefully she saw what happened to her husband. Otherwise we'll need to do a sweeping search of the forest for bandit camps."
Again, Seyv grunted. He looked around him, at the poverty these people were forced to endure. "We live in an evil world. Traited scum probably see these people and think the Traitless deserve to live like this."
"Ah... some, but not all." Alex replied. "These people survive by begging at the gates. It feeds this entire community. That wouldn't be possible unless a great deal of Traited cared about them, wouldn't you say?"
His superior raised an eyebrow at him.
"...Maybe. Their help only lets them keep living in this state of… destitution." Seyv spoke up. "It's not enough to make me feel better about this."
"I agree. That's why I have a plan to help these people. After we deal with these bandits, of course."
He raised an eyebrow at her.
"I'll teach them how to hunt their own food, for a start. If I have enough time I'd like to show them how to skin animals and use their pelts to keep warm in the winter. Or if they'd like, they could sell them for a good price on the market. That should be a better source of income than begging."
Seyv felt a little foolish for how much this surprised him. These were such basic skills, but no one ever did such things without the help of magic. No one ever needed to. "Is this... what you do when you're working alone? Helping the Traitless learn to survive?" He asked her.
"Sometimes. Not always. I do a lot of things."
This made him want to ask a lot more questions, but they were almost where the old man had pointed them to go. He could only hope this Jenn person was home.
Her house was something more resembling a farmer's tool shed, but having walls and a door was more than most could say. Alex stood up to it and knocked politely. "Hello? We're from the city. We're here to talk about the disappearance of your husband?"
"Go away…" Came a morose voice from the other side.
"Ahem. We're going to find him. If you could just help us a little with some—"
"What can you do? We're all Traitless. It's too late to help him now…"
Frowning now, Alex stepped back and looked up to Seyv. She murmured, "All you, big guy. Gently, please…"
Seyv read her expression and knew what to do. He drew back his fist and allowed his magic to flow to his arm. Alex put her hands over her ears.
BANG! Seyv's fist blew open the door like it wasn't even there. There was a loud squeak and the woman inside jumped straight into the air before skittering back into the corner.
"Alex didn't say she wanted to find your husband." He said to her. "We're going to. You're going to help us."
"Ack! Big man! Very big man!" She stammered. Jenn seemed to notice something and her eyes narrowed. "...Blue hair? Traited man? What? Why would any of you care what happens out here?"
"Because I do." Seyv said simply.
"You could say we're professionals. We're good at what we do." Alex added helpfully.
"Professionals..." Her eyes were wide.
Alex followed her gaze back to the door. The locks had been blown out from the door's frame, ruining the door completely. "Ah."
"I'll fix it. We're more worried about your husband. We might be too late to save him if we don't act fast." Seyv explained. He gave Jenn a meaningful look, which she shrank from. "Where did you last see him? Tell us everything you can."
"Yeah. Yeah…" She finally began to slow down. "My poor husband…"
Jenn had pointed them towards the path her husband once took to gather berries. Although the sun was high in the sky, the dense trees made Seyv feel like he was walking at night.
He wondered how Alex felt right now, heading towards danger. Towards bandits who specifically targeted people like her. Bandits who likely had magic, and she did not.
If she was afraid, she didn't show it. Alex's eyes were sharp and searching the ground and the trees for signs of human activity.
He wondered why she was being so vigilant. "Whoever these people are, they would have to be very bold to be this close." Seyv said.
"That's correct. They know no one's coming to stop them. They can be as close as they like, as long as that little town can't see them."
Seyv grunted. He looked out above the bushes to see what he could see. Tall as he was, he could notice things from further away than most.
He frowned at something. "There's something moving over there."
"There is?" Alex hissed. "What is it? How many are there?"
"No. It looks like it's… just one person." He peered closer. "A girl."
Her eyes turned sharp. "This smells dangerous. Take it slowly, okay?"
The two of them waited from behind the trees. After a few moments passed, the girl Seyv had spotted came limping into view. It was close enough now to tell that she was Traitless, and that she seemed to be wounded. One hand clutched her chest, her eyes were wide and her breathing came in gasps. Every step seemed to be on the verge of stumbling over.
Seyv shot a worried look over to Alex, who hissed, "She needs our help."
"Right." He stepped out from behind cover, holding his hands in a placating gesture. "You! We're here to help. Are you hurt?"
"I…" The woman froze. A jolt of pain seemed to shoot through her and she clutched her wound more tightly. "I'm… hurt bad. Please…" She tried to run towards Seyv but she fell forward into the ground. The two Grey Phantoms ran out and got onto the ground, turning her over they could see.
"Who hurt you? Where did you come from?" Alex pressed her.
"I'm… I'm so afraid." The girl cried. "I feel like I'm going to die. I'm not brave. I'm not brave…"
"What?" The silver-haired woman looked closer. "You're not bleeding. You're going to be okay. We'll get you to a doctor, I promise. Listen, are you from the village?"
"Yes. Yes…" The girl managed to reply. She grimaced and clutched her chest again, and her breathing began to pick up again. "It's too much for me. I can't take this any longer! I'm not brave, I'm not brave, I'm not brave...!"
Alex frowned hard. Gently, she took the woman's hand and pulled it from the area she was clutching on her chest. She gasped...
Jutting out from her torso was a rod of Arnicite crystal. It was hot to the touch and glowing bright orange. The color of Bravery magic.
"What...? Look at this. This is barbaric! Who could do something like that?" Alex gasped.
"I'm not brave. I'm afraid...!" The girl was repeating to herself. Her eyes were beginning to glow orange and streaks of magic were trailing from her hands, balled into fists.
"The Arnicite's pouring magic into her." Seyv realized. "Look, it's trying to get out of her body, like she can use it!"
"But she's Traitless! That shouldn't be possible."
"Maybe that's why she's yelling about being afraid. She's trying to act opposite to this Trait so that the Bravery magic won't—" Seyv was cut short when he realized a glowing orb of magical energy had formed above the girl, above the Arnicite crystal. Streaks of orange light were streaming from her eyes and her cries had turned into screams.
Bravery magic is incredibly explosive. Seyv only had a moment to react as the orb began to crack open.
He dove forward and wrapped his arms around Alex, putting his body between her and the explosion. His hair flashed blue as he protected himself the best he could with his own power.
Seyv had been hit by the largest of the ocean's waves before. This was that but a thousand times more, striking him everywhere at once. The shockwave blew all the trees around them into thousands of wooden splinters and leaves rained down from above. Only his magic kept them from being blown away themselves.
But he felt like his head had been hit by a sledgehammer. The strain on his magic was intense. He could feel through the stars in his eyes that his consciousness was fading away fast.
Seyv was only vaguely aware of Alex prying herself free from his protective hold. Vaguely aware she was yelling at him and pulling his arms, but he couldn't quite make out what it was.
Vaguely aware that her eyes snapped away from him and to something behind him that he couldn't see.
Alex stepped back and raised her hands in surrender. Five men with weapons—their hair painting them all as Traited—surrounded her without fear. Two of them looked down at Seyv and noticed he was still awake.
That's when he fell asleep.
Alex was taken to a large cage filled with people. Other Traitless. She didn't know what they had done with Seyv.
"Get inside with the rest of them."
They shoved the co-leader of the Grey Phantoms to her knees and locked the door behind her. She found herself surrounded by a dozen pairs of eyes, all open wide with fear. Sympathetic for her, but devoid of hope.
"What was she doing with that big Integrity guy anyways?" One the Traited guards asked the other. His yellow hair marked him as a Justice Trait in Alex's mind.
"I dunno. It doesn't matter. Forget about her, she's harmless." He replied. His hair was blue, like Seyv's. Integrity. "Tell me about the guy we found with her. Are his restraints holding?"
Alex's eyes went wide. She gripped the iron bars holding them captive. "Listen to me! What are you doing with Seyv? What are you doing with us? You think you can cage us like we're animals?"
The two men looked at her with mild surprise. The blonde looked back to his buddy. "Hey... you ever heard one of these people talk like this? She's got that authority in her voice."
"Don't be ridiculous. You can't have authority if you have nothing to back it up." The other grunted. He crossed his arms and turned to Alex, looking at her like he was doing her a favor. "Relax, lady. Your friend—Seyv, you said his name was?—he's doing fine. The Doctor was surprised by how strong he was, so he's got a special plan for him."
"Doctor? Special plan? What the hell are you talking about?" Alex snarled.
"Hey, settle down." He chided her. "We're on your side. All of this is to help your kind, you know. Dr. Ardu's going to fix everything for the Traitless one day."
Every word Alex heard confused her more. The other guard must have taken her silence for acceptance. He smiled and spoke up. "He's going to figure out a way to make Traitlessness a thing of the past. People who couldn't develop their own magic… he's using Arnicite to bring magic directly into their bodies and give them their own Traits."
For one brief moment, the Grey Phantom felt hope. Saving the Traitless from oppression, from the world that had no place for them because they couldn't use magic… that's exactly what she wanted. That's what they all fought for.
But then she remembered that poor girl with Arnicite in her chest. That had been Dr. Ardu's work, hadn't it? It killed her! Her Traitless soul couldn't contain that magic and it almost killed them as well.
"You fools are chasing after an impossible dream." Alex told them. "Traitless souls aren't compatible with magic. In fact, I'm sure its very presence corrodes our souls like rust. How many innocent lives have you already taken for nothing in return?"
"N-no, you don't understand. You haven't seen how close he is to making this work!" The blue-haired guard at least looked uncomfortable. "There was a girl—he gave her Bravery magic—and she was able to use it! That's, uhh, how she escaped. But that should prove how close he's—"
The orange-haired guard interrupted him. "Hey. Why're you getting so worked up over this person? She's nobody important."
"Ugh. I guess you're right." He deflated. Alex hissed, feeling outrage burning inside her. It was enough to find herself back inside a cage. Being treated like she was nothing made her want to tear them both into shreds. Her mind was struggling to process all this and people were dying. And these idiots had the audacity to smile at her like they were helping.
She had to bite her tongue until the time was right.
Alex noticed a traitless boy, younger than her, working up the courage to talk to her for almost an hour. She raised an eyebrow at him when he came close, which almost sent him scurrying back to his corner. "H-hey… you're not from around here, are you?"
"No." She said flatly.
"Yeah, I-I mean, it's just… you don't look like any of us. I've never seen a… a Traitless like you. And you talked to those guards like they're… beneath you or something!"
"They are. They're both scum." Alex scowled.
"B-but they're Traited! They can use magic! Aren't you afraid that they'll get annoyed and hurt you or something? They could do it so easily. We're like insects to them!"
"They could try if they liked. They would quickly realize they made the worst mistake of their life."
"Wow…" The boy shifted unsteadily in his spot. "Is it your silver hair? Maybe that's some kind of magic no one's ever—"
"No. I'm Traitless, just like you. What's your name?" Alex asked.
"I'm… I'm just John, miss."
She turned around and looked him straight in the eyes. "What if I told you, John, that being Traitless is the reason why I'm stronger than these monsters?"
"U-um… I would think…" He gulped. Before John could muster the courage to speak, the sound of footsteps shut him up. He tried to crawl back to his corner.
"Quiet over here!" One of the guards had returned. It was the blue-haired man who Alex despised. "The Doctor needs another pair of bodies. Who volunteers?"
No one spoke. The Traited guard shrugged. "'Kay, then. You. Boy." The Traitless who Alex just spoke to squeaked with horror. "Since you wanna talk so much, why don't you join us?"
"M-me? No, wait! I don't want to—"
Alex stood up, standing between him and the guard. "I volunteer to go with him."
"W-what? Lady, you don't have to…" John gasped.
Eyeing her, the blue-haired man shrugged. "Good. You look healthy. Maybe we'll finally have what we're looking for." He told her. "Both of you, stick your arms out."
Alex hated being in chains. They felt red hot on her skin and made her remember very bad things. Even worse, she hated seeing the fear in the eyes of the boy next to her.
But she had a mission to save these people. She would rescue Seyv as well. The responsibilities of a leader weren't easy and she had no intention of shying away from it now.
The two of them were taken to another area. A small clearing without any trees or bushes. She and John were both sat down onto chairs and had their hands fastened to their armrests. On a table nearby, Alex saw two stones of glowing Arnicite, both fully charged with blue and orange magic.
Next to that was a second table, which held all sorts of gruesome cutting instruments.
Alex realized that John had been pleading to their captors this whole time. She was so focused on their surroundings that she had drowned it out completely. She just knew there were three men around her, all Traited of course, and there seemed to be no one else in earshot. There were no weapons she could use, and no way that she could immediately break free from her restraints.
That would have to do.
"Hey. Shut up." Alex hissed. John immediately went quiet with an audible click as his teeth hit together. To their captors she asked, "What are we waiting for now?"
"Dr. Ardu will be here in a bit." One of them grunted. "We're going to make sure you don't try anything funny until he gets here. Then we'll leave you three alone."
"I see." Alex looked at them more closely, matching their colors to their magic. Integrity, Justice and Bravery. She couldn't talk to them all at once, but she would have to make this work. "Hey, Justice man. You never answered my question to you earlier." She spoke up, looking at him.
"How many people have been here before us? How many people did your Doctor try and fail to save?"
"Uhh…" He shifted his weight on his feet. "Only five."
"Only? You make me sick."
"Hey, listen. I don't like it either, okay?" He frowned hard. "But y'know what? More of you Traitless people starve to death every day because of how you are. Five is nothing next to how many lives we'll save when Dr. Ardu gives you all Traits of your own."
"Except he won't." Alex said evenly. "Traitless souls don't work like that. You're killing us all. What are you going to say to comfort yourself when you have a mountain of corpses behind you and nothing to show for it?"
"This again...?" The blue-haired guard muttered. "Gabriel, you know we're doing a good thing, so—"
"You're even worse!" Alex turned to him. "You're so absorbed by your so-called Integrity! You'd rather blind yourself from the truth in front of you so you can feel like you're saving the world!"
"Shut up. I'm not talking to you..."
"Integrity? I'll tell you where you can stick your integrity. You might say you're doing this for the greater good, but I don't believe for a second that you would stand here so quietly if your own mother, your own wife, was the one sitting in this chair."
He didn't respond, but his deeply-troubled look told Alex that her words had hit him where it hurt the most. She directed her voice at the third man, the orange-haired Bravery Trait. "You're not good people. You're opportunistic scum, snatching away Traitless from their homes because you know they can't fight back. You're all such cowards that you're hiding beneath your Doctor like he's your messiah." She looked each of them in the eye. "You're just using him as an excuse to act out your own sick desires."
And one by one the color of their hair, their Traits, faded and became a bit more grey. They no longer looked sure of themselves.
"W-what did you do with your voice...?" John gasped next to her.
"Nothing. They're just some harmless Traited." Alex said. She started straining against the ropes holding her to the table. Her muscles bulged as the ropes struggled to contain her. "What are they if they can't use their magic as a crutch?"
"H-hey! What are you doing? You stay right there...!" The man who once had blue hair ran forward to stop her.
Alex leaned forward and straightened her legs so she stood up with her chair. She headbutted him right in the nose. She watched her target stumble back and fall on the floor, clutching his face.
"She's trying to break out! Stop her!" One of the others cried out. Alex didn't care who said it.
The Grey Phantom waddled after the fallen man, still stuck to the chair, and when she came close enough she pumped out with both her feet and did a somersault in the air, landing chair-first directly on top of him. The chair exploded into pieces and her arms came free. She stood up and smiled at the guards approaching her.
"You're on my level now, and I've been here longer than you." Alex reached out and caught the first attacker's fist in her bare hand. She kicked him in the stomach and, while he doubled over, she grabbed his arm with both hands and threw him over herself like he was an axe. He crashed into the ground shoulder-first with a cry and stopped moving.
From behind, the third guard's fist connected across the side of her face. Alex was surprised by how little it hurt. She slowly turned, feeling her cheek with the back of her hand, and looked back at him with a belittling smile.
"You don't fight without magic often, do you?" Alex asked.
"I-I hit you… as hard as I could…"
"Hit me again."
"I… I don't..." He was in disbelief. His mouth flopped like a fish out of water.
"You're not going to? Have it your way." Alex slammed her fist across the side of his jaw. He stood there for a moment, dazed, and she delivered a kick which finally sent him sprawling to the ground.
Still seated in his chair, watching this with pure disbelief in his eyes, was John. "Y-y-you're… really a Traitless?" He stammered. Alex calmly rubbed her cheek where she had been struck and stepped over to undo his bindings.
"Yeah. Maybe if they had a few more Traited they could have stood up to me." Her smile was a little smug. "But I doubt it."
"But miss… we're worthless! What would you have done if they—they didn't lose their colors like that?"
"...Then I would have made them miss with their magic and hit my chair to destroy it." She said simply. "Once I was free, I would limit what they could do with their magic by staying close to their friends. One by one, I would dismantle them by—"
"Lady...!" He gasped. By the time he had caught his breath, Alex was done untying his ropes. "I just don't… umm, well, how did you ever learn to fight like that? I could never be like you. No one even taught me to start a fire on my own. It wasn't worth the time to teach a worthless person like me anything."
Alex frowned. He pulled him up to stand next to her. "One day, you will find an opportunity where your actions determine the kind of person you want to become. Actions that change your entire life. The choices you have available to you… are infinitely more than what the Traited have available to them. You have free will. In my eyes, you have every Trait at once."
John stared blankly at her.
"When that time comes, I hope you choose to do what you believe in."
Seyv's eyes opened slowly. He was still lying prone on the table restraining him.
His eyes flashed blue as his magic flared, but no matter how heavy he made his arms, his bindings managed to bear his weight.
"Ah, don't struggle so much." The man whose name was Dr. Ardu gave him a reassuring smile. "You should be excited. All this practice giving magic to the Traitless has given you a wonderful opportunity." In his hands was an Arnicite crystal of glowing yellow. "Tell me, how much do you know about those of us who have two Traits at once?"
Seyv remembered his friends waiting for him back with the Grey Phantoms. He knew about the Dual-Traited, alright. Two of them had that unique power.
"If you have some funny idea about making me Dual-Traited, forget it. You'll just kill me." Seyv muttered. "Are you sure you're a scientist?"
"It's okay. You don't know the things that I do." Dr. Ardu patted his shoulder. Reaching back, he produced a very large, very large knife. "You'll understand me soon enough."
Then a flying rock struck his hand, sending the knife flying. The Doctor yelped and clutched his hand painfully. "What in the name of...?" He turned around. Seyv's eyes bulged wide.
"That's my friend you're trying to hurt." Alex yelled from the other side of the open space. "Let him go before I reduce your delusional, murderous, cretinous existence into a wet smear upon the grass."
"Who are you? Where are my guards?" Dr. Ardu blustered.
"I dealt with them. You're running out of time."
"W-what? Am I? You don't control me! You're Traitless!" His hair began to glow yellow with Justice magic. "Sit down, woman! I'm trying to save you!" Pointing out with a finger, he shot out a yellow beam of magical energy at Alex's chest.
She turned to the side and it missed her completely, turning the base of a tree behind her into ashes which crumbled away. She said, "One more chance. I won't miss if I hit you back."
"SHUT UP!" He fired again, aiming for the ground at Alex's feet. It exploded into a cloud of dirt and dust, meant to blind her eyes.
But to Seyv's amazement, she jumped over the beam and cleared over the explosion of dirt with a graceful somersault, landing neatly on her feet. She kept walking.
In her other hand she produced a second rock.
"Stop right there! You're just a harmless thing! Why won't you just—"
Dr. Ardu hit the dirt. His forehead bleeding from the rock which Alex had hurled at him.
"Huh…" Seyv mumbled. "Nice aim."
"Thank you. Nice handcuffs." Alex smiled. She stepped over the doctor's body without so much as a raised eyebrow. "Are you hurt?"
"No… I don't think I am." The man raised an eyebrow as he noticed someone behind her. "Hey, who's that?"
"That's John. He told me he wants to join the Grey Phantoms."
"Does he now?"
"He does." Alex smirked. She seemed to remember something and her humor softened into something more genuine. "You saved my life back there, you know."
"Oh. That. The Bravery explosion." Seyv tried to shrug. His restraints didn't let him. "I didn't really think about it. There wasn't time to, you know."
"Yeah…" The co-leader of the Phantoms paused for a bit, opened her mouth to say something, and closed it again with a shake of her head. She looked smug again. "You're awfully nonchalant for someone tied up in magical restraints. Is this just another day at work for you?" She drummed her hands on his chest like she was playing an instrument. Seyv actually smiled, which surprised him.
"I've had better days."
"No kidding. You were supposed to be my backup."
"Hah. Maybe next time." He frowned. "Say, did you really deal with all of that guy's men by yourself?"
"I did. Why do you ask?" She pulled a lever on the table next to him. Seyv's arms were freed from their binds at last.
"I was just—heheh." Thinking back on it now, Seyv's worries seemed so foolish. "Earlier, I was wondering how you managed to become Jessee's right hand man without any Traits to help you." He said. "But I think you answered that for me."
"Don't worry. I get that a lot." Alex turned away from him and started walking. "You ready to help these people find their way back home?"
"Mmmh." He frowned one last time before shaking his head and rising back to his feet. "Sure thing, boss."
One of Devour's stories adapted into a comic. Made by Pencilnote. Check out more of their work on their server:
The Knight Captains
A compilation of several stories introducing a majority of the continent's Knight Captains.
Lyn and Julius
Julius stood with his arms crossed on a crest of a hill that overlooked the capital city of Justeco. Every few months, the King and Queen of here and Pacienco would meet together and discuss their relationship to ensure a war like the one they narrowly avoided in the past might never happen again.
They were always tense, even now. Queen Ellie was never more than formally cold to King Ozrich, despite his efforts to show only understanding in return. As always, the Wizard Council was asked to oversee the meeting as a neutral third party. As Justeco's military leader, he was obligated to sit and watch, too.
Tiring as they were, they were much better than the alternative. War. It was what he trained for every day of his life, yet hoped every night he would never live to see it again. Not unrest, not rebel groups or their skirmishes, but real and ugly war. Where armies of thousands died in the fields and towns were razed and innocents starved. It had changed who he was forever to experience it firsthand.
But now he knew that war was not something to be glorified, but instead a desperate last measure used only when all other options failed.
He would do his part so that he would never see his friends lose their joy or innocence like he had. He could imagine the smiling faces of his closest friends, and hoped that they would grow old in a world of peace.
As unlikely as that was.
In the distance, he heard joyous laughter. He smiled and closed his eyes.
Then he opened one, and raised an eyebrow. It seemed to be coming closer...?
Then a bright streak of yellow lightning flashed by him, so fast that it was a blur. The lightning seemed to be laughing happily as it dashed around the man, spiraling a few times, before it rose to the air with a loud YAHOOOO!
Then the bolt came down and hit the ground with a splat. Lyn had misjudged his landing and was now splayed across the ground like a starfish. Julius blinked.
Then the boy bounced up from the ground like nothing had happened. He had a bright smile on his face. His gold-streaked hair was wild from blowing in the wind, though it rarely wasn't. "Julius! I knew I'd find you here! Hey!"
Julius gave a much softer smile. He was somehow used to this. "Aren't you supposed to be in Integreco, Lyn?"
"What's going on in Integreco? Pffffff! Snoozefest. I heard all my best buds would be over here!" His hands were in excited fists, held under his chin. Lyn was looking up at him. Julius realized he was waiting to be greeted back. He sighed, but his smile grew a bit bigger.
He reached out a large hand and ruffled Lyn's hair. "I'm glad you came. It's good to see you again."
Lyn giggled, pleased to hear it. Then he was already bouncing back and looking around. "Wait a second, where's the Wizard Council? Where's Kody?"
"Oh...?" Julius knew exactly why he wanted to see the Integrity Wizard. "They're on their way up. They'll be here at any--"
"IT'S YOU!" From the trees a bit further down, Julius turned and saw Kody pointing an accusatory finger at Lyn. "My nemesis…"
"Oh, look! If it isn't the second fastest man in the world!" Lyn shot back. He put his thumb to his nose and waggled his fingers. Kody stuck out his tongue.
They glared at each other, and then they both broke into wide grins. A few moments later, the rest of the Council appeared from the trees as well. Kody left them behind and launched himself into the air so he could land next to the two of them. He tried to save some shred of formality by saluting to Julius, but then he was right back to being a kid, doing a secret handshake with Lyn it was a sacred ritual. They dove into chattering to each other, both excited by the other's arrival and fiercely competitive.
Julius saw Lady Rin arrive next. She saw the two boys bouncing off the floor together, stopped in her tracks, and then smoothly turned around and started walking the other way.
"That's it! You're gonna eat your socks." Kody jabbed a finger at Lyn's sarcastic grin. "You and me. Right now. First one to touch all four corners of the castle walls and make it back wins."
"Haha! I've been waiting for this all day! Let's do it!" What looked like the tip of a huge spear appeared in Lyn's hand with a flash of yellow light. He planted his feet and the weapon began to glow, brighter and brighter until arcs of magic began to leak and strike all around him like bolts of lightning. Next to him, Kody took three steps straight up into the air and began to layer bigger and bigger gravity platforms underneath each other.
"Julius...!" Lyn called out. The military leader was also, somehow, used to this.
"Of course. Three, two, one--"
"LETS GOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooooo" Lyn's jubilant whoop faded into the distance as they both blasted off, faster than anything the older man had seen. The wind whipped at his hair like he was briefly next to a tornado. Twin streaks of blue and yellow raced across the sky towards the city.
Lyn won, as usual.
Kody loudly demanded a rematch, as usual.
Hours passed. The sun was almost set and Julius had enjoyed a long and pleasant chat with the rest of the Council, but eventually it was time to leave. He excused himself from the others and went to find Lyn. Without much trouble, he found him fast asleep in the grass, his energy finally spent. When he picked the boy up into his arms to take him inside, Lyn murmured something and didn't wake.
It was precious. But it made him feel something else that was hard for him to describe.
Julius had talked with Lyn about this before. If the time ever came, the boy believed in his duty. His sense of justice. He didn't become who he was today without knowing what it meant to be the leader of Integreco's military.
But no one knew what war was like until they saw it for themselves. The chance of him living his whole life without seeing it was slim. He knew that if the time ever came to face reality, well...
It was selfish, in a way, but he didn't want Lyn to change. Not for anything.
He would cherish the good times while they were still around, and keep them close to his heart.
Julius smiled to himself and held his sleeping friend a little closer.
Serpent of Amikeko
In all her years of serving Kauzku, Navae rarely forgot the day when Mila, only a teenager at the time, stormed into her room as angry as she had ever seen her. Navae had been discussing matters with the King, then, so she'd left it to him to be the one to talk to her. Kauzku could try his best, but Mila was too young to understand.
When Navae fights, the wounds she strikes never heal. Never! Any fight with her is a fight to the death. This isn't what Kindness is! Why is she allowed to represent who we are?
Kindness is fragile, Mila, Navae would have told her. Her father didn't, and his careful excuses only served to make the young princess more upset. She would have told her how compassion and mercy would be taken advantage of by an enemy who wanted her dead. Evil does not bend. Mila's kind heart would be used to kill her. In every other aspect of life, yes, she should be loving and kind. But if the enemy wished to hurt her despite the love she tried to show them, she should not reward them with mercy. Forgiveness is only an invitation to be hurt again, because now you have taught them there's no consequences for their actions.
Fear is the only thing evil men respect, and that allows us to be kind to them, because then they will never force us to be cruel.
A few years later, Mila burst through the doors once again, even more angry than she had been before. Kauzku had finally told the truth about her. Navae, you're the queen of the black market! Why did you never tell me? Why is the military leader of Amikeko, the kingdom of Kindness, the same lady who rules the criminal underworld? You're not just a killer! You're evil!
That time, there was nothing Navae could have said to make her understand. She just closed her eyes and let the words fall around her.
Maybe one day, when she was older, Mila would learn that even evil could be used to do good.
As the black market's queen, she had spies in corners that no royal guard could touch. Every illegal trade done in whispers, every hooded slave dragged to work, every freshly dead body left in the streets, Navae knew everything. Because it all happened after they had asked for her permission, and she had allowed it.
Maybe that was evil. It certainly felt like it at times, knowing those victims would have lived if she'd said no, but it also gave Navae the power to deny that permission when it was needed. She could protect those who were doing good from ever being targeted.
By extension, those doing evil were open season. If someone stepped out of Navae's hard line, every thief, extortionist and assassin would know they could target them without hindrance from the law. The potential allies and business partners of those scum shrank away, not wanting to become targets themselves. The corrupt fed on the corrupt, making their presence in Amikeko ever smaller.
It wasn't perfect. Not by far. All too often, Navae had to allow things she wasn't okay with. Although all murders had to be approved by her, there was a grey area where people who were a bit of both good and bad weren't bright enough to be saved. Not without pushing her powers past their breaking point. She had to look their assailants in the eye and tell them it was okay to prey on these regular people.
And sometimes... she would tell these criminals they were forbidden from hurting someone, and they would go and do it anyway.
That was why she was here, alone, striding purposefully through the night. Through a part of the city controlled by one of the largest and most notorious gangs in Amikeko.
Their leader, Zorro Onyx, had asked her permission to ransack the home of a wealthy family who used their money to help veterans who'd been crippled by war. Despite Navae's furious order not to, Zorro had moved forward with his plan anyway. The family's home had been burned to the ground, the people inside had been killed in the chaos, and their money had been taken away.
Now Navae was coming for him. She'd made sure that he knew that perfectly well.
The two dozen armed men waiting for her told her just how much Zorro had done to try and protect himself from her judgement. As if that could save him. She spread her arms in front of her and two vipers of death coiled around her arms, snapping viciously as if they were alive. Her bright purple hair glowed in the night, and she watched the naked fear that struck their hearts.
It wasn't just the fear of death, although she would kill them without hesitation if they tried to stop her. It was fear of who she was and what she represented. It was something much bigger than just one person. To them, she was a malevolent force of nature.
She stepped towards the soldiers Zorro had paid to protect him, each one of them clutching their weapons until their knuckles turned white. She stopped for just a moment, turning her head to look them in the eyes. No one returned her gaze.
Then she stepped forward again, and they bowed their heads and parted like the sea, letting her pass freely to the door where Zorro was hiding inside. No one dared to look up at her as she passed them by.
How am I supposed to trust you? Navae could remember Mila's words as she kicked through the locked door. When I become queen, how can I tell my people I want to protect them when my closest advisor is someone like YOU? How am I supposed to tell them the evil things you allow to happen? The things you do with your own hands?
Navae approached the final door, where she could hear Zorro shouting for mercy from the other side. Her fist reared back, ready to smash through as if it were only so much paper. She thought about Mila's words as she did the evil thing that needed to be done.
Because of her evil, people like Zorro knew what would happen if they tried to defy her. She didn't use that to try and wash the sin from her blood-soaked hands. She knew what she was, as surely as she knew fire was hot and the sky was blue.
But she knew Amikeko was the safest place to be in the whole continent, too. It was the terrible things she did and the fear she commanded as the queen of the black market that granted them that safety. It was her burden to bear.
Navae did evil, but in her heart, she hoped that she was still good.
Grey stone was once the color that defined Zanshi's arena. Now, red was what painted its floors. Red from dripping wounds and splattered from hard impacts. From blood-soaked feathers lying discarded where they had fallen from their owner. Red magic, flaring bright, before the following explosion sent Zanshi's daughter flying into the corner with a pained cry.
Jun looked up at her mother, one eye shut from the blood dripping over it, her wing now bent at a painful angle and deep cuts all over her body. She watched, half dead, as Zanshi drew back one of her wings. The feathers at its tip switched from red to a razor sharp purple, and she swung it hard.
The feathers released, and deadly projectiles embedded deep into the stone walls to either side of Jun's head. The younger monster closed her eyes, knowing that Zanshi had missed on purpose. Their training session was over.
They ended when Zanshi held back on the attack that would have killed her—but no sooner. Until that moment, there was very little difference between this and a desperate fight to the death.
"Hmm." Zanshi wore a few wounds of her own, but she was almost untouched in comparison to Jun. She looked down at her wounded daughter like one would look at a pile of dirty dishes. "I felt a lack of resolve from you. Are you feeling doubtful about your training, Jun?"
Jun fell forward from the wall, onto her knees. She managed to croak, "No, mother. Never…"
"I would hope not. You are being watched by our ancestors. Their life's work, my life's work, was to give you what you have today. You are too important to forget your purpose."
"Yes, mother." Jun replied obediently.
"I need not remind you—but if such doubts ever enter your mind, I want you to remember what happened to Roman. He is only a shell of the monster he once was. Death would have been a kinder fate."
"His father never spoke to him again." Zanshi's daughter nodded. She had heard this story many times, and each time it made her more certain she must never end up like him.
"And make no mistake that I wouldn't do the same to you, should you fail."
Jun felt a stabbing pain, deeper than her many wounds, and then she nodded again. "Yes, mother."
"We have been given incredible power, Jun, but this power is not free. It is a debt we took before we were even born. Monsters such as us only have one reason to exist, and that is to protect the King. And to protect the King…there must be no other monster who can defeat us." Zanshi turned and began walking away, leaving her daughter in her slowly-spreading pool of blood. "Heal your wounds. We will do this every week, until the time comes when you will face Gaster."
Grateful to be allowed to heal herself, Jun's feathers flashed green. She struggled to heal the cuts that had been made with Perseverance, and they burned as she tried. They slowly began to close.
Every week, this would happen again. Zanshi would kill her—near to it as possible, at least. But she had accepted that suffering was her destiny. No price was too great to become the strongest.
Months later, after all her brutal preparation, standing in the center of the arena to show the results of her training… Gaster never appeared to face Jun in their duel.
She wasn't disappointed. She was happy to take her seat, as hollow as that victory was. It was never really about him to begin with. It was the position that she needed. The role she had to take to fulfill her purpose for existing. She could finally begin to walk the path set before her by all her ancestors.
She was now, officially, the Military Leader of Kurago.
Another year later, she learned Gaster had become the royal scientist in Determino. An attempt to piece together the shattered remains of his purpose in life, perhaps? She told herself she didn't care.
But now, after all this time, he was going to be there when the Wizard Council arrived for the Monster King's grand feast. She was finally going to meet him.
Jun wondered what sort of broken monster she was going to see, empty of life and purpose, yet with all of immortality still ahead of him. She couldn't imagine such a fate.
She wouldn't have to imagine much longer. In fact, standing outside the guest's dining chambers, Jun was sure one of the voices within belonged to Gaster.
She composed herself, making sure she looked the part of someone of her status, and then rapped once on the door.
The one who opened it was Gaster himself.
Jun didn't realize it when she froze and held her breath. She met eyes with the monster who would have been her opponent in Kurago's arena. The one who had lost his reason for being alive, and to her. He stared back, his deep purple eyes blinking in surprise.
Then he smiled. "You must be Jun! It's a pleasure to finally meet you. Come on in, the food is fresh and hot."
Jun was more prepared to be attacked than to hear such friendliness. Confusion almost made her dizzy as she struggled to keep up. "Ahem," she managed to keep her composure. "Gaster. Thank you."
Inside and seated at the long table, the Wizard Council still wore the field outfits they traveled in. Hot soup and meat and freshly-baked bread made the air smell delicious. She watched as a man she recognized as Roy dunked his bread and took a bite—then he stopped as he noticed her. Jun caught the glimpse of a smile at how foolish he must look before it was covered politely by his hand. The other hand waved at her, still holding its bread.
"The military leader of Kurago, everyone." Gaster introduced her. Jun frowned, not sure if she was being mocked, but he was already back at his food.
With his own hands on his bread, three more skeletal fists appeared in the air, holding a bowl, a ladle, and a large fork for the meat in turn. "Are you hungry?" Gaster asked. "My friends are starving after the long journey. But there's plenty for you, too." When she didn't answer, not sure what to say, he smiled at her again, understanding in his eyes. "Please, don't worry about formalities here. Me and my friends may be regal in the public eye, but I assure you we are anything but that when it's just us."
"You got that right!" She heard the Integrity Wizard call from across the table. A small mountain of food had been stuffed onto Kody's plate. "Just kick back and relax. It must get tiring being serious all the time, eh?"
"Um… not particularly." Jun felt out of her element here. She hadn't been this lost for words in a long time. She would treat this like a battle, then.
When on the back foot, take a defensive position and try to learn more.
"I'll have a small portion. I ate a short time ago. Thank you." She managed to sound bored. Zanshi would be proud of her acting skills, she thought. Jun gave a small birdlike chirp as thanks to Gaster. Then she sat down at the far end of the table, away from the others, and tried to eat in peace. Lady Rin, who appeared to be doing the same thing, nodded once at her in mutual understanding and left her alone.
Undisturbed, Jun was able to safely observe as the most powerful mages on the continent shared lunch together. She watched as Mila leaned over to say something to Rin, which Jun recognized as a gesture to make sure she knew she belonged here. Jun saw as Rin briefly hunched over her bowl, using her hair to hide her face, brow furrowed in annoyance. Then the Patience wizard forced a smile and she turned to Mila and mumbled something back.
"Oh, it's nothing! I just thought the glasses Gaster made look good on you!" Mila replied to the mumbling. Rin said something back and turned back to her food.
Gaster made those glasses? Jun squinted, studying Rin again. She couldn't help but be impressed by how thin and delicate their frames were.
And strangely, Rin's small smile remained. Even though Mila wasn't watching her.
Few words were spoken over where Roy and Shane and Asgore sat. Each of the boys were too busy devouring food like they hadn't eaten in days. Kody sat next to Gaster, listening intently, and Gaster himself… he was telling a story.
The air filled with laughter from the boys as Gaster told a joke. He was sharing a story about one of his failed experiments, and about the colorful shade of purple his skull had taken after an explosion of Arnicite dust. It took days for it to wash off.
Jun looked to the eyes of those who were listening. Even Rin was smiling at Gaster. These humans… were they really so happy to talk with him? After everything her mother had told her?
Zanshi said that Gaster was a failure. An outcast, even. He was too full of shame to want to be seen, so he locked himself in his lab all day and night, so one day he could be forgotten.
He didn't seem like the broken shell of a man at all. For as long as they all ate together, Jun tried to figure out why Gaster looked so happy.
She decided in the end that it must be an act.
They sat together for a time, just enjoying each other's company, and not once could Jun think of anything to say to talk with them.
Sure, she could have talked for ages about battle strategy and war and politics, but the conversation never went there. They talked about happy things instead. Memories they had together. The nice things strangers had done for them.
Things that Jun didn't understand at all.
As their lunch ended, Roy reluctantly stood to his feet and addressed the room with the tone of a leader. "Alright, everyone. I hate to ruin the mood, but celebrations like this one are often the perfect target for terrorists. We all need to stay sharp, just in case. Let's meet in the training hall in a few hours and have some friendly sparring matches. Sounds good?"
The reply was both groans of disapproval and enthusiastic agreement. "Great. I'll see you all there, then." Roy continued with a half-smile. Then he turned to Jun. "You're welcome to come too, if you'd like!"
"Oh...?" Jun actually felt excited by the offer. She would love to watch these powerful mages in action. In fact, there was nowhere else she'd rather be. It was all she could do not to smile in delight.
"I suppose I don't have anything better to do." Jun made herself scoff. "I guess I'll come and watch."
The Wizard Council, monsters and humans alike, stood to the side of Zanshi's arena. To them, it must have been like the sparring room in any other castle. But Jun had fought here so many times that each imprint in her surroundings was a ghost of a vivid, painful memory.
Of course, the others thought nothing of it. Roy stood up, standing near to a pillar where Zanshi had once stuck her to it with three long feathers, like a pincushion. Her head throbbed, and she tried to ignore it.
"Alright, guys. Who wants to go first?" Their leader looked expectantly at the Council. The King's son immediately pushed himself to the front.
"Me and you! I want a rematch after you tricked me last time!" Asgore grinned.
Roy smiled and met his gaze smugly, but he shook his head. "We always go first, big guy. Let's give the honor to another pair."
"Hmph!" The goat monster snorted. Then his eyes turned mischievous. "Hey… if you care about that so much, why don't we let someone new go first?" He looked over at Jun, and she blinked as she realized she was being chosen to fight.
"Me? I only came to watch you." Jun squawked.
"Oh. Really? You don't want to fight...?" Asgore seemed confused by that.
"It's not that I don't want to. I simply wasn't expecting to—"
"So you do want to practice with us! You could have just said that, you know." The prince smiled, pleased to hear it. Jun sighed—but she was only pretending that she wasn't excited by the idea. She strutted out to the center of the arena.
"Fine, then. And who will my opponent be?"
"Hmm…" Roy surveyed his group of friends, taking the lead again. "How about you, Gaster?"
Of everyone he could have chosen, he had picked him. Gaster froze, and so did Jun. They had reached the elephant in the room. Roy seemed totally unaware of the history he had touched upon.
Still, Jun watched the monster scientist closely, wondering what his response would be. Her feathers twitched, ready for action.
"...Maybe another time. I don't feel like fighting today." Gaster smiled.
And just like that, the wave passed over them and disappeared. Jun couldn't help but feel disappointed—but maybe it was for the best.
"Well. Seeing that you're all so hesitant to do your jobs…" Rin spoke up, though her voice was teasing. "It would be an honor to spar with Kurago's commander."
The Patience wizard stepped out to join her on the training floor, her long hair tied up safely behind her head. Although she and Rin had only exchanged glances, the young woman looked at her with a sense of comradeship. "Besides. It's always a pleasure to meet someone else who can enjoy some peace and quiet." She told her.
Jun nodded back with a small smile of her own. She hadn't meant to make any friends, but allies were always useful. "Shall we begin?" The monster asked.
"Of course. A friendly match against chroma magic should be interesting." Rin's hair flashed white and blue. She threw out her arms, and with a hiss of effort four large tentacles sprouted from her hips and back. Amazingly, each one seemed to be made of a single enormous Patience string.
Rin threw her palm forward, and one tentacle swung wide to strike Jun from the side. The motion was slow and easy, as if the Wizard wasn't taking this fight seriously.
Jun reacted exactly as Zanshi taught her to. She flapped her wings and leapt high over the attack, then reared back in the air. Four bright orange feathers flashed out from her wing, and each one embedded at the base of one of Rin's tentacles. She only an instant to gasp, wide-eyed with surprise, before they exploded. Her weapons were blown apart.
With her opponent coughing and disarmed, Jun landed and threw out another feather, which flared bright red and exploded a short distance away from Rin's chest. She was knocked back with a pained cry, tumbling to a stop near the edge of the arena.
"Hey! This was supposed to be friendly!" Mila cried from the sidelines. Jun barely even heard her. She readied three more red feathers, not caring that Rin wasn't getting back up, and let them fly.
But before her attack found its mark, a green barrier sprang up between her and Rin, exploding uselessly off of Mila's shield. Behind the clearing smoke, the Kindness wizard scowled at her through her barrier. But all Jun saw was the ghost of Zanshi behind her.
You must never lose, child. No matter how many opponents you may face. Jun could hear her voice. If this new opponent meant she must face two wizards at once, she would never disappoint her mother.
Jun's peacock feathers turned light blue, then a dozen feathers flew and stuck themselves into the boards above and around Mila, behind her shield. With a flash of magic, twelve strings entangled themselves around the girl's arms and legs, stopping the movement needed to cast her magic.
"Ugh! What has even gotten into you?" Mila yelled, struggling uselessly against the restraints.
Time spent talking was time not spent countering Jun's attacks. Four more feathers imbued with Justice magic stuck themselves into the roof above Mila, glowing brighter and brighter. They'd fire down while she couldn't cast another shield.
Shane acted fast. He dove over Mila so the beams of energy struck him in the back instead. "I got you…" He hissed, pain in his voice, but he was already back on his feet. "Kody, do something!"
Another one? Jun saw just a blur of blue motion, but it was enough warning to flap her wings and dodge out of the way of Kody trying to tackle her.
"What the hell's goin' on, Jun?" Kody yelled as he lunged at her again. Jun just barely managed to avoid his speed, but it gave her the time to counter attack with four more feathers of exploding Bravery. Her opponent had to dive to the side to avoid getting badly burned, rolling back to his feet and scowling at her in a half-crouch. "You're taking this fight way too seriously!"
Panting hard, Jun tucked her wings behind her, waiting. She had hidden four purple feathers stuck into the ground behind her. If the Wizard dove at her again, she would leap out of the way and he would run into her spikes.
Then an enormous skeletal fist crashed into her from the side. Jun flew out of the sparring grounds and into the wall, then through it. She rolled into a heap on her back among dust and splintered wood, dazed, and tried to get back up. She found that she couldn't.
Seven floating hands, glowing green, pinned her to the floor and created a barrier that stopped any motion she could make. Gaster stepped in through the opening he had created, looking down at her with contempt. "Kurago's Commander is supposed to be a position of honor. Not someone who cannot tell friend from foe." The monster's voice was dark. "What would Zanshi think if she saw you now?"
"Zanshi...?" Jun gasped. With the heat of battle fading, she felt only a deep, deep confusion. And a horrible worry that she had misunderstood everything. "This is how Mother taught me to fight." She tried to explain. "I thought… I thought you were supposed to try and kill me. So I was supposed to—I would try and survive. I'd try not to lose. I was told I should never lose to anyone…" As she spoke, Gaster's expression lost its anger, and became something worse. Sudden and painful understanding. Then sympathy.
"Oh no." He said in a horrified half-whisper. "What did Zanshi do to you?"
The Wizards were coming now, each one just as upset as Gaster was.
But to her surprise, the shields pinning her to the floor disappeared. The monster scientist she had once considered her arch-nemesis turned to face his friends.
"Everyone, listen. There has been a terrible misunderstanding." Gaster told Shane, Kody and Mila. "I think Jun has calmed down. She can tell us what happened now."
Jun looked up at their looks of betrayal. Their newfound distrust. She wondered if she could tell them what happened when she barely even knew herself.
Even worse, she was beginning to realize, she barely even knew herself.
"This isn't the kind of person I am." Jun tried to apologize. They were away from the training room now, and from all the bad memories that came with it. She had made sure to heal Rin's wounds herself. "I don't see you as my enemies. I'm honored you wanted to treat me as one of your own. But I took that… and I hurt you. That was a terrible thing for me to do. I'm sorry." She said.
The silence of the council answered her. Some of them looked willing to forgive her, though the anger was still there. Gaster understood Jun completely. But on the other side of things, Rin's scowl was still dangerous, and hurt. It would take time for her to forgive her—if she ever did.
"I was never taught the difference between a friendly match and a fight to the death. I was taught that if I ever held back—against anyone—they would use that weakness to kill me. Zanshi made sure I knew." She tried speaking again. "I'm not asking for your forgiveness. But if you would give me the chance to start over one day… I'll do better next time. I promise. Even if it's just to have dinner together again." She felt sad as she said it. "As small a gesture as it was… it was special to me, to feel like I had friends of my own."
There was another moment of silence. Then Gaster was the first to step forward. "Well, Jun…" He placed a hand on her shoulder. "I am not the one you hurt, but I understand what you went through more than you might think." He said. "If you ever want to talk to someone who understands, you're welcome in my lab any time you wish. It helps to talk about it."
The others forgave her—most of them, at least—but it was Gaster's words that stuck with her the most. When the Wizards all left together, they were patting their skeletal friend on the back and thanking him for stepping in. For getting to the bottom of what happened before the situation got any worse.
Gaster really was happy, Jun realized. He looked like he was exactly where he belonged.
Even much later, while she lay awake at night, she couldn't forget what he'd said and what he'd done. His actions taught her something, just as much as her actions had taught Gaster.
She thought Gaster was the broken monster. But she was the one who didn't know how to be herself. She didn't know how to talk to people, except by parroting what her mother would say. She didn't know how it felt to have friends.
All she knew was how to hurt people.
Who was really the broken monster between them?
The Dark Figure
A beaten dirt road snaked alongside the edges of the massive forest known as Viridi Atrium. This path led a black market caravan deep enough to remain safely out of sight from most people. Yet it stayed close enough to the edge of the forest. They knew better than to disturb the deep, ancient and powerful magic rumored to exist within, which caused its trees to grow to such dizzying heights.
More specifically, they needed to keep their cargo from disturbing Viridi Atrium.
Beings of magic hated Rudalite.
Jacquelle Durant looked back to the convoy he was leading, all dotted in sunbeams from between the leaves above. He commanded two dozen soldiers, a few skilled mages, and a small host of Traitless slaves to handle his cargo. All meant to safely care for the prize he was transporting home, secured tight to an iron wagon pulled by horses.
This prize was locked inside a giant metal strongbox, black as an abyss. Even from the front of the line he could feel the effect of the massive amounts of Rudalite hidden inside. An aura of cold wrongness extended out and seemed to slowly eat him away. Like he was fading into dust by the edge of his skin. The magic in his veins continuously fizzling away and being replenished.
Jacquelle knew that if he stepped closer, the effect would worsen with each step. Come too close, and his body wouldn't be able to replenish magic faster than the Rudalite made it disappear. It couldn't kill him, but it left him no better than an...
He glanced over at the people walking alongside the wagon. The Traitless men and women were the only ones unaffected. For obvious reasons. Perhaps they had some use after all.
At the sound of a horn, the leader's head turned to see his second in command emerge from around a curve in the road, followed by a few other scouts. He quickly smiled, beckoning him to come closer. The other men, motivated by thirst and exhaustion, braved the Rudalite's field to help themselves to the caravan's food and water.
"Leo. It's good to see you're safe. How are we doing?" The leader asked his friend.
"We'll clear the trees in a few hours, Jack." The man smiled back, using his nickname. "If luck permits, we'll reach the Amikeko Kingdom by nightfall."
"And our men at home? Will they be ready to open the hole in the walls to move our prize through?"
"They said there will be no surprises. They stand ready."
Leo peered over his leader's shoulder, to the enormous black strongbox behind him. He seemed to shiver a bit. "An entire suit of armor made from Rudalite."
He said out loud, sounding like he could hardly believe it. "The Kings themselves would shudder if they learned of its existence. What are you going to do with it?"
Jacquelle smiled again. This man was the one person he would trust with this knowledge. "It's going to be mine." He said.
Leo blinked, like the words had failed to register. "What?"
"I'm going to wear it every day—for years if I must—until the magic in my body disappears. Until nothing remains but pure flesh and blood, except for the heart within my soul."
His friend stared, waiting. On his weathered face was a mixture of admiration and respect… and fear.
"My body will change. But it will allow me to bear the weight of Rudalite. Instead of being impossibly heavy, I'll be able to use it as my armor. As my weapon."
"Jack…" Leo said in an almost whisper. "You're one of the strongest people I've ever met. Even our mages can't compare to your talents. The effect this would have on your magic—"
"What need does one have for magic when they are invincible to even the strongest of the Wizard Council?" Jacquelle smiled again. "If I choose, I will be able to walk up to their seat in Determino, through whatever means they use to stop me, and bring them down with my hands alone." His eyes were distant, like one imagining their greatest fantasy. "No. I won't have magic. I'll have something greater."
Leo thought for a moment, watching his leader. At the moment, he couldn't say if it was his friend he was looking at, or if it was the face of a man who would change the world.
To be able to wield a suit of Rudalite would easily make you one of the most dangerous individuals in the world.
There was a sound, no louder than the snapping of a twig, and suddenly the horses whinnied and reared back. Jack had to lean hard to avoid being thrown off. He swore and tried to soothe his horse, and saw that his wasn't the only one. The convoy had come to a complete stop. The animals all looked afraid. Too nervous to take another step forward. There was something dangerous in the air. Something ancient.
A hooded figure emerged from within the forest. Its dark robe obscured its shape, except for a long beak that curved out from beneath the hood. It seemed to glide as it walked, stepping to the middle of the path in front of the convoy, and it turned to face them. Its green eyes glowed in the shadows of its robes, staring down horses and men and dozens of soldiers.
They stared back, terrified.
How did he follow us so quickly? Jacquelle thought in disbelief.
He climbed down from his horse and stepped forward. When he opened his mouth to speak, he was unafraid. "Creature or monster or otherwise; stand aside, Miasma. Our business ended when we left Determino. You stain your honor by following us here."
Its beak twitched. Something that did not sound human escaped its throat as the shape that was not a mouth had difficulty forming words. "Small human... who are you to speak of honor? You failed… to uphold your end of the bargain."
From behind him, Leo looked down at his leader. With a gesture from behind Jacquelle's back, he signaled to bring the fighting soldiers to the front of the caravan, just in case.
"I don't know what you mean." Jacquelle smiled at the monster in front of him. "I told you. My men would deliver the gold you asked for. For the price we paid, it was no small feat to move that much money without the guardsmen noticing."
"Your men did not come. They never existed." It hissed, staring harder. "You lied. You are not worthy of the armor, and I have come to take back what is mine."
"I'm not a liar." Jacques spoke loudly. He knew this thing wouldn't believe him, but his soldiers would. At his command, they formed into ranks behind the Black Market warlord. Looking at Miasma again, he said, "I knew you couldn't be trusted. But perhaps your kind understands the language of power. Try and stop me, and you will die." His brows furrowed into a threatening glare. "Stand aside."
The figure hardly reacted. It didn't so much as move, except for its glowing green eyes to burn with terrifying intensity.
"You are misguided." It finally rumbled. "It is you who will die trying to stop me."
"So be it." He said. Raising his voice, he cried, "Kill it!"
Jack's forces were trained well, criminals or not. Men in full armor, their weapons glowing Purple and Orange, roared their affirmation and charged forward as one deadly body of magic and metal.
Standing perfectly still, Miasma's eyes flared bright.
Then the screaming began.
In moments that were so fast that they almost appeared as flashes of light, green shapes appeared in the air and acted with brutal strength. Jacquelle watched in horror as some men had their arms ripped from their bodies. Others were grabbed by the shapes and torn apart. The mages from behind hurled powerful missiles of fire at Miasma, their intense heat screaming through the air in an arc, and they weren't blocked more than they were contemptuously batted away by small, durable walls of green. Miasma even had the spare attention to project small domes around where the fire landed, snuffing out the flames before they could burn the forest.
This monster wasn't killing them because this was how it fought, Jack realized. It was hurting them on purpose, and without much effort. Killing them painfully. Not out of malice, but out of cold necessity. He watched as one man was gripped and slammed into another with such force that their armor crumpled inwards and stabbed through their ribs. They screamed in pain and it seemed to appreciate the noise.
What kind of magic was this? What kind of horrible monster could fight with such cruel brutality?
The soldiers were running away now. They had barely closed half the distance before most of their numbers had been annihilated. Jack, the one who had ordered them to their dooms, knew that Miasma would continue to assault them as they tried to flee.
It made him furious. Not just at Miasma, but at himself. He had let this happen. It didn't matter that he couldn't have known how powerful that monstrous being truly was. He was their leader. The responsibility of this failure fell on him.
"MIASMA!" Jacquelle roared. His eyes and hair both glowed like miniature yellow suns. He spread his hands wide behind him, roaring, making sure the thing's attention was on him and not his surviving men. "FACE ME!"
The green eyes flickered towards him. It seemed pleased. Surprisingly, it made no move to attack, but all that mattered to Jack was that its attention was directly on him.
Righteous fury burned within him. His Justice, roaring from his soul now in a raging torrent, flowed through his arms and he raised them up into the sky. Yellow power surged out and stopped somewhere above the canopy of the trees, and they blew back from the sheer power of the construct of magic.
Channeling every ounce of his strength, Jack had created a singular, massive sword of Justice above him, sheathed in spirals of magic that burned from his outstretched palms. It glowed with energy, barely contained, but it held true.
With a mighty roar, he brought his hands down and the sword fell down with them, directly upon Miasma's immobile form.
As it hit the earth, an explosion of pure yellow light ripped the air apart in all directions. Trees snapped back and broke from the shockwave of power. A storm of dust, kicked up by the sword's impact, turned the air into whirling and turning clouds of agitated dust, obscuring Jacquelle's view.
"Hah… you didn't even try and stop it." The man gasped. He had used so much magic in a single attack that he had almost drained his entire soul. He had no regrets. "Must have known… it was pointless to try."
Slowly, the dust cleared. It was still too obscured to see within.
But he saw glowing green eyes staring back at him.
"W-what?" He choked. The sheer disbelief caused his eyes to flicker, dangerously close to dulling his magic. "That's—that's impossible! It hit you! IT HIT YOU!"
"Weak human. Doomed fool." The creature stepped forward from the dust. It moved one of its arms. Jack watched in horror as it drew back its robe. It reached somewhere hidden, briefly revealing a horrid hand with fingers made of hooked talons, and it withdrew a sword that was made of Rudalite itself.
"No…" He gasped.
"This world has forgotten. I will use your survivors… I will use your remains… as a reminder. They will know what it means to evoke my anger."
The sword raised high.
Somewhere in the hidden Black Market that existed in Determino, there were two displays for all to see where Miasma kept his wares.
One was a massive suit of armor, made entirely of Rudalite.
Another was the severed head of a prominent member of Amikeko's mafia, its eyes still wide with fear. It had once been called Jacquelle.
Now it was named no more than a fool.
Flames of Irony
In the dead of night, illuminated by the light of the full moon, Jevai sat in the destroyed ruins of a long-forgotten building. No one had been here, or in this part of town, in a very long time. With the strike of a small stick, her face shone orange as she brought a flame to the cigar in her lips. Waiting.
Then came the sound of footsteps, slow and heavy. Jevai's gaze flickered up to see as a man appeared from the murky darkness. The shadows veiled most of his features, but she could see the one that mattered most; the faint glow of purple coming from his eyes. The sign of someone who had readied their magic and was prepared to use it.
She didn't move as the man called out to her. "I knew I would find you here." He said. "Even you couldn't stay away forever. Is it some kind of sentimentality that brings you back? Or do you hide here, because you think this is the last place we'd think to find you?"
Jevai stared, taking a deep breath of her cigar. She let him talk. She watched as a long blade of magic flickered and appeared in his hands. As he stepped through the door and into the charred remains of the building, dragging his weapon against the walls which still stood. Sparks flickered from the stone against his knife's edge.
"Perhaps you came here because you knew you couldn't run forever." He spat. "Because hard to catch as you are, like a roach scurrying from sight, you knew it would end like this. Defenseless. Hopeless. Alone. Nowhere left to run."
A gust of wind whistled through the tattered remains of what had once been a large estate. It made Jevai's cigar glow brighter for a moment. She took it from her lips and blew out a puff of smoke, unimpressed. It made the man's expression turn for a moment, from smug victory to annoyance. "Well? Do you have nothing to say, you whelp?"
Finally, the Traitless woman spoke. "I'm waiting." She uttered. "Waiting for you to realize you were dead the moment you stepped through that door."
"Huh?" It was so absurd that other words failed him. He watched as Jevai reached inside her long coat and revealed something strange. It was long and made of wood, though metal reinforced parts of it along its center. JT, written as a single letter, was inscribed along its base.
Jevai continued. Her voice was cold enough to freeze water to ice. "...But before I allow you to die, you will grovel on the floor and beg for my forgiveness."
The Traited assailant frowned hard, unsettled by her words. "Know your place, woman. You are empty, and your kind has no place speaking to us that way!" Bringing his magic weapon to bear, he lunged forward with murderous intent.
KABOOM! A blinding light and a sound louder than thunder erupted from the tip of the Traitless woman's weapon. Shortly after came the sound of screaming.
Jevai's expression was set in a scowl, merciless and alert. At her feet, not too far away, the man who wanted her dead was now sprawled on the floor, crying out. Even in the moonlight, she could see the hole that had been shot into his kneecap with her weapon.
"I was not asking you." She said, ignoring the noises he made. The sounds of it didn't make her smile, but it did bring her a certain satisfaction. She drew a long saber made of plain metal from a hilt at her belt, pointing it at him. Finally, awakened by what she felt, emotions began to light up Jevai's face. "What are you feeling right now? Confusion? Terror? You have no idea what just happened to you. An empty whelp just reduced you to a puddle of mewling slime." Her eyes hardened with her cruelty. "I hope it hurts more than you could have imagined was possible."
The man said nothing, though the sounds began to subside. He stared up at her, dazed and wild-eyed.
It made her angry. "Are you waiting for me to do something? I told you I wouldn't allow you to die until you begged for my forgiveness." She spat. "NOW BEG!"
Her foot came down hard on the man's leg, bringing out renewed screams. Jevai's expression didn't react to the sound. She didn't raise her foot, waiting for him to comply.
"You—" He finally managed to cough out. "You killed… so many of my friends. You killed so many… innocent people. With your traps." He stopped to take a deep breath. If nothing else, Jevai was impressed by the man's resilience to pain. "You deserve to die for what you've done. Why should I ask forgiveness… when you did this to us?"
Jevai's lip curled with disgust. "Blind fool. Arrogant cretin. With your own words, you admit that I'm right to slaughter your kind."
"What? No! I—" Jevai silenced him by grinding her heel into his leg.
"You say there should be revenge for what I've done? Now? After centuries of Traitless like me being killed for no reason but for their Traitlessness?" She yelled at him. "You reap the benefits of being born with magic, looking down at us from above, not a care in the world for the way we die every day to people like you!"
"And now! Now that it's finally happening to you! You think I should die because one of us found a way to fight back!"
She watched him squirm, breathing hard as fury burned inside her. After a time, after the night finally returned to silence, she heard the words she was hoping to hear.
"I'm sorry…" He finally cried. "I don't want to die. I'll go back. I'll tell them whatever you want. Please…"
Jevai's fury slowly drained away. She almost looked pleased as he continued.
"You want things to get better, don't you? I'll change..." He gasped. "If you kill me here… there will be another like me, wanting revenge. People will just keep dying. So please… I beg of you..."
"That's enough." She said. Her voice was warm now, like a mother talking to their terrified son. "So you did it after all. What delicious irony it is, that in this place where it all began, a proud and noble Traited is the one on the dirt, pleading for his life." She knelt down, looking into his eyes. "Purple. The color of Perseverance. A powerful magic, granting you resilience. Letting you live on for much longer after you should have died."
Reaching into her coat once more, Jevai produced a small flask of a strange liquid. Popping the cork, she began to pour it all over him without saying a word.
"What… what are you doing?" He asked, afraid.
"Your eyes are fully open now. Now that you've been brought down to where I once was, it should all become clear to you. Clear how cold and merciless this world is towards the Traitless." Slowly, Jevai bent down and plucked her cigar off the ground. She took another deep breath, and the tip glowed in the dark.
"When I begged for my life... I was shown no mercy by the likes of you. Now you will receive none from me."
"No… no, wait!"
Jevai tossed her cigar onto the man's clothes. The embers ignited the liquid she had poured all over him, engulfing them in flames. The screams began anew. The flames danced in her lifeless eyes as she watched him burn.
For all the resources he had at his disposal, Gaster had never once been to the floating islands. They had fascinated him for years; not only because of the incredible way these land masses hung suspended in the air, defying gravity, but because of the sheer height at which they floated. He looked up, shielding his eyes against the sun, and he could see them as small smudges painted against the canvas of the sky. Completely unnatural. It was mind-boggling.
He and Kody Fallenfire stood together at the edge of a cliff. Far below them, a dense forest danced its sleepy dance in the gentle wind. Gaster could watch as the shadows cast by the islands traced a slow line over trees, and his mind buzzed with the possibilities. What he would give just to be able to track those shadows from sunset to sunrise, to see where they began and where they ended.
Kody, unfortunately, was slightly less enthusiastic than Gaster. He was staring up at the islands in the way that someone looked at a pile of logs that needed to be split."I can't believe I agreed to this." He sighed, with a good-natured smile. "Why'd I let you talk me into this again, Gaster?"
"Why?" He looked confused by the question. "Because science! There's so much we could learn!"
"We..?" He replied, half-teasing. Kody knew book smarts weren't his thing.
"We... perhaps I should have said I. Me. No, us!" Gaster stumbled over his meaning for a bit. "Irrelevant! I am but a scientist, O' Kody. What science learns becomes knowledge for all people. Therefore, we both stand to benefit from this."
"...And in return for this gift of knowledge I'm providing us, I believe it's a fair proposition to ask that you carry me up there."
Kody blinked, then his head rapidly swung back and forth from Gaster to the islands floating way up high in the sky. "Huh, what? There? THERE?"
The monster scientist smiled, wide and confident. "There."
"Oh, boy." Kody's hand nervously rubbed the back of his neck. "Do I have to...? Aren't you a master of all seven Traits, Gaster? You can use Integrity too, eh?"
"Why, of course I can." He answered proudly. "No one alive can wield its circular blades like me."
Kody stared for a bit with a strained smile. "No platforms… eh...?"
"Who needs them?" Gaster smiled smugly, happy he had impressed Kody into silence. "Regardless, Wizard Kody, while I do have limited ability to fly with the help of Duality, it has its own limitations. The hands can't move very quickly, meaning I would likely run out of magic on the way up. Furthermore, they have a relatively short maximum distance the further away they are. It would be very difficult to catch myself safely if I fell."
Kody just kept staring. He looked defeated. "I do hope I'm not asking too much, Kody. I must have misunderstood, because…" Gaster leaned forward with a teasing smile. "You seemed very happy to do this every time you took Mila up there."
"M-Mila?" Kody's cheeks turned an impressive share of bright tomato red. "Hey! That's different! I'm just—you know—she doesn't leave the castle for weeks sometimes, 'cuz she always wants to be ready if someone needs her help. I'm just glad whenever she's with me because—because she's letting herself be happy for a bit, y'know? It's not because we're, I mean, uhh, not because I like her. I mean I DO like her, but not like that! I mean—"
Gaster studied Kody's face for a bit as he continued to blubber out more excuses, observing the fascinating ways humans pretended they were blind to what was right in front of them. "Oh yes. I do know." He smiled. "...That I'm ready for my royal carriage to the sky."
Kody sighed in defeat. Somehow, he seemed happy for the change of subject. He held out his arms. "Yeah, yeah. Come on."
It was a long, beautiful, and mildly terrifying journey into the sky.
This high in the atmosphere, one would think the floating islands would be barren hunks of rock. What amazed Gaster was that they were anything but that. Not only was there grass, not only were there trees, there were small forests on some of these islands. Between the ones close enough together, vines had grasped out and became connected, creating an incredible unique ecosystem where plant life blew in the wind, collecting water from the clouds like a net. In other places, water gently dribbled off the ledge from small ponds, glinting in the sun as they fell the long way back to the Earth.
If Kody weren't being so loud, lying on the ground in a heap trying to catch his breath, he could have listened more for the sounds of nature.
"Whew… did ya get… what you were hopin' for?" The Wizard huffed. He managed to recover somewhat, now just on his hands and knees.
Gaster turned to him with stars in his eyes. "Oh, this is incredible, Kody! Absolutely astonishing! Nature isn't my specialty, but I could spend weeks studying the flora up here. Let alone everything else I'd like to do. Imagine how beautiful the stars are at night!"
At the mention of the stars, even Kody smiled a bit. "Heh… you really do love science, don't ya?"
"Truly." Becoming self aware for just a moment, Gaster settled down somewhat. "It means more to me than you think, Kody. This is what I love, but due to, ahh, unfortunate family circumstances…" Kody quirked an eyebrow at the evasive tone of his voice there. "...The time spent doing what I love is often spent alone. I'm grateful to you, and thankful you agreed to help me today. It means everything."
As tired as he was, Gaster's words seemed to lift Kody's spirits. He gave the monster scientist a bright smile… then rolled over flat on his back, taking deep breaths. "Take your time, big guy… I'm exhausted. I'm gonna need to rest for a while before I can take us back down."
"Oh, why of course." Gaster said. Then, his smile turned to the side of mischief. "In fact, that's what I was hoping for. After you rest, Wizard Kody, would you be willing to help me with a small request?"
"Eh...?" That smile gave him mixed feelings. "What kind of request?"
"I'd like to temporarily make you my assistant. There's something incredibly fascinating, incredibly valuable to learn, which I'd like to try. But it's not something I can do myself."
"But you, Kody, are perfect." Gaster's eyes shone with childlike excitement as he explained his idea. "Have you ever considered, even if for just a moment, what would happen if you began from here, fully rested, and continued to ascend into the sky as high as you could?"
Kody's face went a little pale at the thought. He gulped, "I thought of it, yeah… and it's a little scary. Lookin' up there is like looking down into the ocean, Gaster. I dunno how deep it goes, or what's out there." He shivered a bit. "And I'm not afraid of heights, but when I think how tiny everything would be if I went up there and looked back down… it gives me the creeps."
"Oh, Kody." Gaster sighed. "What I wouldn't give to be able to do what you can do. I think it's incredible. Imagine if you could see the entire continent! All of Human and Monsterkind, all of our history, living together in a space small enough to cover with your hand. Imagine what else you could see...?"
"Heheh…" Gaster's fantastic descriptions only seemed to worry the young man.
"And I know it's safe. Unlike water, you know exactly what awaits you up there, and it's nothing except the beautiful sky."
"I guess so… It just feels wrong, for some reason."
Something about the idea that Kody might decline unsettled Gaster. The thought that something he cared so passionately about, something which he might never get a second chance at, might slip through his fingers because someone else had irrational fears bothered him greatly.
He ignored all the ways it was like how his Father felt towards him. Instead, he pressed a bit harder. "I sympathize that you may not like this, and I wouldn't press it if this were any other circumstance," he began. "But you're the only person I can ask. There's no one else whom I call a friend that can bring me here and fulfill this request." Being called his friend, Kody winced a bit, feeling guilty. "If it's not you, I may never learn what it looked like up there."
On his elbows, the Wizard looked from Gaster, then back up to the endless sky above him. He made a reluctant sound, falling flat on his back. "Alright, mister. Fine. I'll do it for ya. But just this once, okay?"
Gaster was overjoyed. He wanted to run over and grab Kody's arm and shake it as he thanked him. He felt more excited than he'd been in a very long time, that he might finally be able to learn what it looks like up there.
He also felt guilty. He felt like it had been a little unfair to press someone as kind as Kody was. They were trying to make him happy, even though they were afraid.
Gaster sighed. He decided he would more than make it up to him when Kody came back down. Maybe he'd do a favor in return, no matter what it was. Or something…
But now was the time for science!
Kody stood at the edge of the floating islands. Usually, he was looking down at the world, gauging the wind, planning how he should fall and catch himself safely to descend back to the Earth.
Never had he ever looked up, with the intent on climbing even higher.
What would he see up there? Was it really just more and more air, like Gaster said? What if they lived inside a bubble? What if he went too high and left their world with a little pop and gravity stopped working, and he'd float away forever and ever? What if the sun started getting hotter 'cuz he was getting closer to it?
He gulped, trying not to think about everything he was afraid of. He cared more about how happy Gaster looked when he had agreed to this. He knew how it was to chase your dreams all alone, and no one should have to feel that way.
"Alright… I'm gonna go." Kody said to Gaster over the sound of the wind. "Umm, if anything bad happens, can you do anything from down here?"
"I don't want you to risk your health for me, Kody." The monster said earnestly. "If you feel anything dangerous at all, come back down at once. This should be no different than what you've done a thousand times. We simply have a higher starting point."
"Yeah… thanks, Gaster." Despite everything, it made him feel better to know he could stop at any time. He took another step towards the ledge. "Here goes!"
He stepped off and began falling to the Earth far below him.
Then, with his speed, a blue platform appeared beneath him which absorbed his weight and energy. It thrummed with magic, glowed bright as he fed even more of his own energy into it, and flew up into the sky in an exhilarating rush of G-forces and rushing wind.
After carrying Gaster, he felt light and agile in comparison as he bounded from one platform to another, using his momentum to reach faster and faster speeds.
He was already much higher than he had ever been. Chancing a look back to the Islands, his heart almost caught in his throat. From the ground, the islands had looked like brown specks in the sky.
Now they looked like specks against the ground itself. And Integreco… he could see the freaking ocean from here! That was hundreds of miles away!
And still he rose higher. His heart pounding with a mixture of wild excitement and genuine fear, he dutifully took in everything he could to tell Gaster when he came back. On the Islands, the horizon's curve was sort of visible. You had to tilt your head, and even then it was hard to tell if you weren't imagining it.
Up here, there was no mistaking the way the horizon bent into an unimaginably huge sphere. Up here, a thought occurred to him that made his mind run wild with things he had never considered before. If the continent was on this side of the sphere... everything and everyone he had ever known… What the heck was on the other side?
Still, he climbed higher. His heart was pounding like it was trying to play the drums. He was feeling dizzy, with adrenaline, with how much fun he was having, with how afraid he was…
Was it just him, or was he going even faster? Was there less wind up here to slow him down or something?
Why did it feel like his breaths weren't doing enough?
By the time he started to wonder if something was wrong, he felt like it was already too late. He slowed his ascent, at least as best as he could while he was panting harder and harder and not catching his breath, and had a moment to look how terrifyingly high in the sky he was.
For a moment, he saw the entire district of Integreco, lined by oceans that disappeared behind the horizon. On the other edge of the sphere, he saw the red leaves of Determino, shaping the District into its red heart. He saw the land as it truly was, with no borders or colors on the map. Imaginary things that people had fought and died for.
And beyond the sphere…
He looked up to the sky and saw an endless, infinite abyss of blackness that could swallow him no matter how high he ever tried to go. Trying to touch the sky had been far beyond what a small and tiny human could ever accomplish.
Then he gasped one last time for air that didn't exist, and he began to fall back down towards the Earth. Unconscious.
Gaster gazed up into the sky with a wistful smile. It was amazing what Kody could do. They had gone so high that he had lost track of the boy, shrinking to such a tiny speck that it had vanished. What kind of amazing sights and stories would he have for him when he came back down?
From impossibly high up, his eyes caught a dark dot, barely discernible from the rest of the deep blue sky above him. He smiled wide, already elated and excited to see Kody was coming back. He felt like a child, wanting to bounce in his spot as he imagined what he would hear.
...They were falling a bit quickly, weren't they? He hoped he wasn't doing that out of fear, descending as fast as possible.
Why wasn't he charting a course to land on the floating islands?
...Why wasn't he moving?
Gaster realized what was wrong all at once. His smile faded, replaced by a terrible, abject horror. Kody wasn't moving. Alive or dead, he didn't know, and that alone made him so scared he felt sick. But he knew that if Kody hit the ground, his friend would be dead without question.
His mind worked as fast as he could, trying to figure where Kody was falling so he could catch him. The Wizard hadn't climbed up in a perfectly straight line. In the precious seconds it took for Gaster to figure where Kody was…
He was too far away for him to reach him from the islands. Gaster's hands could only go so far before the strain was too great, and they became more brittle either way. Even if he tried, the speed that Kody was falling might shatter his hands if he managed to intercept him.
It was a thought that made him want to fall to his knees. It made guilt crawl up through his chest and grip his heart. Kody was falling to his death, and it was impossible to save him.
It. Was. Impossible.
The more he thought about it, the more furious it made him.
It was all Gaster's fault. Kody didn't deserve this. He had made them risk his life to make him happy. And for what? Knowledge and science was a noble goal, but what did compared to his friend's LIFE? How foolish, how stupid and short-sighted and selfish could he be?
It was reality, and Gaster raged against it.
If this was reality, then he would change what reality was.
Gaster was stuck on this floating island. It's what stopped him from being able to reach out and catch Kody. All he had to do then, he decided, was to move the island closer.
Two enormous hands appeared behind and below Gaster. Duality pressed tight against the rocky walls of where he was. With all his strength, the monster scientist pushed with a roar of effort and defiance, against a million tons of floating Earth. From the holes in the hands of Duality, red energy swirled and then ignited backwards like an afterburner.
The ground moved beneath Gaster's feet, causing him to stumble. It was working. With a ferocious smile, he redoubled his efforts. Kody's fall brought him closer and closer. He didn't have much time.
He began sprinting, still pushing as the distance between him and Duality painfully increased. Just when he thought his head might split in two, he let the hands disappear.
Then he leapt from the edge of the island, with nothing beneath him and the ground so far below. Nothing except his hopes.
It all happened in slow motion. Gaster watched the moment as Kody fell, lifelessly, so close but so far away from his outstretched hand.
For the second time in two short moments, Gaster summoned Duality. He had a fraction of a second to reinforce them with a shield of Kindness, both to cover the enormous holes in the hands and to absorb the impact of Kody's fall.
To his relief, Kody hit the hands.
There was a bright flash of blue as his magic aura absorbed some of the fall, and Gaster did everything he could to make his shields have some give to them. But he had been falling so fast…
Expending even more of his power, Gaster summoned seven small hands as he fell. They grabbed the nape of his jacket, his arms, his sides, and his feet. He tried not to think as he carried Kody and himself back to the still-moving floating island.
He tried not to think as he placed Kody's unconscious body on the floor and brought the island to a stop. He didn't want to risk it moving too far from the spring of Integrity magic beneath them and crashing to the ground.
Then, finally, Gaster reached a hand out towards Kody. His eyes were wide and numb as he felt where his Kindness magic tried to heal, scanning where the poor Wizard's wounds were the worst.
Broken ribs. Broken collarbone. Both wrists were fractured. The impact had broken both his shins, too. Gaster felt sick inside. Guilty didn't begin to describe how he felt.
He used the remaining reserves of his magic to heal Kody's broken bones, using his own energy and not Kody's. He didn't stop until they were healthy again. After what he had done, they deserved nothing less from him.
Kody opened his eyes.
"KODY! You're okay!" A very blurry Gaster stood over him with a great big smile. He looked relieved. Also exhausted.
"Oh, man…" The young Wizard sat up, rubbing his head. "What happened? Why am I so sore...?"
"You fell, Kody." The monster told him. "I'm so sorry. I should have never asked you to do that. What—what happened up there?"
"Umm…" Kody tried to remember. He wished Gaster wouldn't look so guilty. He was clearly okay now, so he didn't get what the big deal was. "Gosh, I saw so much cool stuff, Gaster. I could see all the way to Determino. And the ground… it curved away from me, y'know? There was more sky than there was Earth. It made me feel really small."
"No, Kody, that's not important right now." He pressed, worried. "What made you lose consciousness?"
"Oh. That...? Heck, I don't know—" As he said that, his eyes went wide as he remembered. "Wait, I think I remember. It was so weird, Gaster. There was still air up there. There just wasn't… enough of it. I couldn't catch my breath no matter how much I tried to breathe. Then I blacked out."
"Of course. I should have known." Gaster berated himself. "There's only a finite amount of air. It's illogical to think it goes up forever. I should have been careful. I should never have pressed you, Kody. I'm—"
"Hey, Gaster." Kody interrupted him. He gave him a smile. "Don't. I hate seeing you like that. I'm okay. Okay? Don't beat yourself up so much about it."
Somehow, that only seemed to make Gaster feel worse. "You don't know how close it was to me not being able to catch you, Kody." He mumbled guiltily. "You almost died because I pressed you to do something you didn't want to."
"But Gaster…" Remembering again, his face lit up into a bright smile. "That was so COOL!" The scientist gave him a strange look, but Kody didn't care. "It was scary, but holy cow, it was fun! The adrenaline was like nothing! You know how the Islands look from the ground? It was like that except they were below me! Gosh, I could see the whole continent, and let me tell you, Gaster, this sphere we're on is way too big for just us. There's gotta be something on the other side. There's gotta be! And the sky… I was so high and it still felt like it just stretched on forever."
Gaster kept on staring. Despite everything, he now had a tiny smile.
The look on Kody's face was the same one Gaster had when he talked about his science. He had really, truly had the time of his life up there.
"Kody…" The monster smiled. "I'm so glad you're okay."
"Uh-huh! That's all that matters, if you ask me. So stop beating yourself up so much, okay?" He didn't wait for an answer. "You said science was about learning. We'll just be more careful next time!"
"We...?" He managed to sound hopeful.
"Yeah! I don't know if I ever told you, Gaster… I love the stars. Like, really really love them. I think it's because back when I knew Stelle—you know…" He still stumbled a bit when he said her name. "She used to call me her Blue Star. It stuck with me. I've always wanted to learn more about what a star really was. Maybe if I knew, I could live up to what she saw in me."
Kody looked back up to the sky, imagining all the amazing, unknown mysteries there were out there. Although he couldn't see them now, he knew he was looking up at a vast ocean of tiny, twinkling lights. Perhaps it stretched on forever.
"Thank you, Kody. I really mean it." Gaster said, looking up with him. He had to wipe a tear from his eyes.
But they were tears of joy. He still had a friend.