Edit 2, 3/09/2012: Revamped the prologue—better figurative writing, smoother transitions and such.
Edit 1, circa 2010: Rewrite number one, though I can't confirm that this will be the last. Many major corrections to vocabulary and description have been made from the original, but the content remains otherwise the same.
Do enjoy, and ensure that you have a lot of time to spare before deciding to embark on reading the entire story (especially in one sitting).
OF THE DRAGON, OF THE STARS
by Absol Master
Prologue: Sparking the Flame
It all began with nothing. Nothing but a cloud of energy at the very centre of the formless universe, neither warm nor cold, neither bright nor dark—not a speck of light that could itself cast shadow. It began as everything must begin—in its greatest simplicity, in emptiness.
But all things begin with coincidences, coincidences that break fatuous patterns and create new things. By some chance—a one-in-a-billion chance that would have come eventually in this trillion-year history—the energy, in its eternal changing and shifting, suddenly found that fragile moment of order. Incidental order, yes—but that was enough, and in that transient moment of order, it split into four.
Light, Darkness, Time, Life. The four orderly parts diverged, as desperately as the sparks of a firework, morphing even then into vastly differing forms.
Thus it was that the four great spirits came into being, in balance with each other—Light with Darkness, Time with Life.
The spirited Dragon, deity of Life, was the first to know His divine Instinct: he desired company, beings with which the world could be shared. So He brought forth the world, and all that lives on it—place by place, element by element. Light, the Goddess, longed order, and saw an incomparable order in the Dragon's construction. She smiled upon His world, and guided creation as it grew through its first formless ages. But Life's counterbalance was Time, whom desired to be alone and last—and Time took Life as it came, slowly and without mercy, the guillotine at the end of a wearying path.
The Spirit of the Dark was born of all that remained of the universe, all that wasn't within the other three. The Spirit of the Dark was a shadow, a desirous void of things it did not have that—longed to devour, yet would never be satiated. And power was the first thing it longed. Power over the bright universe it had been forsaken of. It hated Life and Light most of all, and knew they were Its greatest enemies in this war for the universe.
One day in the history of the universe, when the world had just begun, and only land and seas existed, the Darkness crept from its hiding in the shadows and turned upon the two, wrenching the beginning world from their grasp, and casting it into darkness.
All turned to shadow beneath the Cloaked One's wings, and the young beings upon the world suffered. The Dragon's heart was moved to rending pity, and the Goddess knew she must battle this threat of chaotic evil. Banished from the world to the corner of the universe among Her stars, She began to plot the Spirit's downfall. Together with the Dragon, she began to build a weapon, meant only to defeat the Spirit of the Dark.
With her own power in blood, and the Dragon's sacrifice of bones and teeth, She formed it at last: the Spear of Heaven, the necessary weapon that was a danger to Herself as much as it was to the Dark. It drained every last trace of the power she owned, simply to hold; the Goddess Herself feared it. It was the only thing that could harm any of the four.
And she turned to the world from afar, and threw it through the stars, through the void, the light, to the place where the Spirit of the Dark held the dead world and the empty skies. With an explosion that blazed like a star from the distance, the Spirit was blown apart, now weakened to insubstantiality. As it fled deep below the surface of the world, the Dragon flew forth to see that the spear floated, in its original four pieces, over the world He had created.
So creation started again, and when the humans of his new world had grown intelligent enough, He tossed the four parts of the feared Spear of Heaven through the rooftops and mountains, to be hidden, for it was too dangerous to remain with the three.
And so it was done. The Spear of Heaven—the one thing that could harm the four deities—was now safely split up and hidden in the world, unable to do any harm.
millennia deep in the time of the world
Though it had melted, the Spirit of the Dark had not died. It had fought and tried to regain its rule three times, failing thrice. But long as the core never died, the Dark never died—and Its source of power ever grew. As the human population expanded to conquer the world, so did their hate, fear and grief. Grief, hate, fear, in opposition with Time, Life, Light. They were its nourishment, the blood that fed Its growth.
The hunger grew into an addiction, and beneath that a certain need. A need to burst from this constant prison of powerlessness, from the mistake that had held it under control all these years so far. It had been foolish before, the Spirit knew—foolish making attack when it was barely more potent than the strongest mage of the world. The power It needed for such a coup was more, far more than anything the humans could amass.
It needed a servant, a great and terrible servant with whom to wreak dread upon the humans, make them hate and grieve more than they ever had before—but not by brash terrorism, as It had before. If there was anything that failure had granted, it was learning, and It had learnt of the folly of a sudden wreaking of disaster, for there would be hundreds ready to stand up to the siege. It must be stealthy and insidious. Consume from the inside.
It waited long and waited hard, but Its hunger had built its patience, rather than destroyed it. And finally, that opportunity came, in a dark serendipity.
Lost or perhaps willfully taken here, by her feet and her heart, a woman came to kneel beside the entrance to Its Underworld, tears glittering in her eyes from the blue light around her.
Hurt, shame, anger… The Spirit of the Dark relished the terrible whirlpool of emotions within her heart, and licked them up ravenously like nectar off a twisted stigma. Yes, stay where you are, and your sadness will become my power, and my power will become your cure…
Like a human's spectre, no larger and no more terrifying, the Spirit rose out of the crack in the world, and brushing tendrils down her back, It made Its bargain.
The woman screamed for fear, she did. But her heart had been flayed open by a grief whose every detail It saw, clear as raw streaks of blood across her face. It knew the source of that pain—a broken pride, a life destroyed, an angel's fall to devilhood.
And Its bargain grew tempting, as It coiled more tentacles into her soul through her open wounds—learnt of her heart, her power, her strength which might be turned upon the people she'd made the mistake of trusting. And the world that had brought her to this circumstance.
She accepted, without any fear or apprehension thereafter, misguided by her own grief and anger to believe she longed something worse than mere revenge.
Then the Clock Spirit could only begin to count—count the years until the Spirit burst Its banks, shattered the world that held It.
caleix: the last smile
King Caleix, ruler of Victoria Island, hardly seemed a king at present. He stood in the doorway of the nursery where his sons played, and his eyes were all but gentle with the care of an ordinary man.
He may be a king, richest in the land, ruler of a million—but in familial love the farmer and the aristocrat were but equals.
And King Caleix presently sighed in his weariness, though his heart glowed warm from the sight of his lovely children.
The universe had been started by a coincidence, and a coincidence too had wrought this lovely fortune upon the monarch. All three had been chosen by the stars, for they had been born in the burning throes of a starfall, when the Goddess sank close enough to the world to ignite the asteroids and send them falling, blazing with holy fire, across the land.
Three in the last twenty years: all three had begun their glorious processions while his wife the queen had been in labour. As if the Goddess had meant to gift him, for the good things he had done in his life before. Ah, such generosity from the selfless Lady of Light! He often mused gladly upon his good fortune, when his elbows were upon the windowsill and his gaze among the stars, his wife's head leaning warm against his shoulder.
Children chosen by the stars were blessed, for the sparks of the Goddess' flame had scattered from the shooting stars, and imbued the air of their very first breaths. From those seconds they were filled up with immense, hidden powers, most of which began to show slowly, like incipient dawn, as they matured. The eldest, only four years old, was already showing signs of his great abilities; he had injured a nurse by accident.
There was a timid "excuse me, your Majesty" from behind him. Caleix turned to see a male servant standing behind him, youthful, but already as weary as an old man.
"A visitor, your Majesty," the words tumbled from his tongue. With one more glance at his three sons, and a smile, he turned and followed the servant down the corridor to the throne room.
A coincidence, too, began this tale—coincidence unalterable even by the deities.
Chapter 1: Year of the Rooster
zethis: a beginning
"Dad—I…I should have asked earlier. But was thinking, if I could…you know, like the other kids…"
Heaving another great sigh, Zethis collapsed upon his plush mattress and tossed his fifteenth script out.
Hopeless, completely hopeless.
Why could he not have a better grip on his words, and why wouldn't they ever say the things he wanted them to?
It was only a wish. An old one nevertheless, one that had burned many good gaps in his time—but a wish that every ordinary ten-year-old child living on Henesys' rural outskirts would have cradled in his heart at least once before.
Only, this single odd wish had hung about his head all his life. He was a farmer's son, a child bound to the land. But outside the gates there walked children of the sky, children who had unearthed the secrets of the world, like gems, from its very farthest corners. It must be wonderful, to lift wyvern skulls in evening light, and rejoice in the battles that had won them.
The king of Victoria had long frowned upon the attainment of job achievements, which made their visits all the more precious. And visit they did, in secrecy or in glory, with jangling belts full of keys and mesos, weapons that gleamed with command. The ten-year-old would lower his hoe at the sound of footsteps, wiping sweat from his brow—and longingly, he would gaze where they'd gone. Some stopped for conversation, and Dad would take them in graciously for dinner. A number had dived into haystacks, and horse hooves had thundered by thereafter.
Messengers from the world far away, from whom he'd learnt all he knew about the world beyond Henesys.
All this served to make Zethis dream hopelessly.
The rest of the kids in the Henesys outskirts had already departed long ago. They had spoken of their dreams—of defying the king's orders, of become great warriors, bowmen, magicians, thieves. Then they would disappear from the neighbourhood forever. Occasionally one of them would return with new weaponry and attire—but only very seldom. The rest, Zethis never saw again.
They had found a more wonderful world beyond, he somehow knew. Or perhaps they had already been captured by the king—young fledglings, shot down too soon.
Zethis was the last child in the neighbourhood—a little boy who was too filial and too shy to ask something so outrageous. And his uncommon gentleness was apparent in his appearance too—for his eyes were soft brown, and his hair was gold as the threads of the morning.
The lone child stared on at the ceiling, dustbin at his feet, the images of his lost friends piercing him. He might see them again, if he went. Just maybe. But oh, he wanted to see them again…
"Argh—Dad! I just want to go on my own journey! That's all, really!"
He wasn't expecting any reply. But there and then, he heard the sound of a throat being cleared. With sudden shock, Zethis jerked up and turned—and there stood his father, leaning lazily against his doorpost.
"Dad!" the boy gasped, panicking. "I'm…I—"
"I heard," the middle-aged man replied, no sternness in his voice.
Zethis looked down at the bed sheets, sitting up, too ashamed to meet his eyes. Now what? Am I grounded? Will he make me do the chores? I'm sorry, Dad…
But against the boy's expectations, he did neither. His answer was simple, and ringing. "Then it's time I told you something. Before you go."
Zethis continued to gape at this mild, yet ominous, reply. He hardly realised that permission had been granted, for it was now the most diminutive of his worries. What is it…Dad?
Sighing, the boy's father to came to sit next to him on the bed. Something told him that he was about to hear something that would change him forever.
"I've been—lying to you for nine years already," he murmuring. Now he was the one who couldn't meet his son's eye. "I know I should have said so sooner, but I was afraid that if you knew this, you might leave even earlier."
Alarm swept through him. He stared nervously, not knowing how to respond. No. What does he mean?
"For nine years, I've—I've pretended to be your father," the words finally wrenched themselves from his throat.
For the first few moments, Zethis was numb from the suddenness. He gave no response. He breathed deeply, struggling to find the space in his life where this puzzle piece fitted—finding none. "D—Dad—"
"No, not 'dad' anymore. I'm just a plain old man to you," he replied with a sad smile. "Now you do wish to depart soon, don't you?"
"I—but—" Zethis shook his head. Tears were suddenly stinging in his eyes. "I don't care! You are my Dad! I love you, Dad…"
He merely shook his head. "You have a real father somewhere!" he said in kind reply. Closing his eyes, the man relived a moment from the past, eyes wrinkling with a smile. "I found you in the middle of the Henesys forest and took you in, for fear that the king's policemen might find you and have you killed. But you have a real father, Zethis! You must find him."
The boy would have to take a few deep breaths before he accepted it. Or he might never recover at all. All his life, his entire ten years, he had known no one, no one but his "father". The man had told Zethis that his mother had already died, and that he had brought Zethis up alone. All his life, he had loved no one else.
"I'm sorry," the old man said hollowly. "If you want to start an adventure on your own, go ahead. I hold no more authority over you. You're on your own now—my accompaniment will only hinder you."
Zethis recalled his first request—but that felt like nothing, suddenly. How could he survive alone, he wondered vaguely. How would he carry on, without the hope of being able to see a loved one again? How would he carry on, knowing that suddenly he had no parents?
"Zethis…don't worry," his father—foster father said with a smile, winding an arm around his shoulders. Though he would have expected to feel a wall of distance between himself and the man, the boy felt none. It was like it had always been. Love. Strength. It brought comfort and tears, at the same time. "I'll always be proud of you, alright?"
Zethis sniffled, trying fruitlessly to hold in the tears that were now flowing freely from his closed eyelids. "Alright," the boy answered. "And I just wanted to ask you—how did you find out my real name?"
The smile returned to the aging man's face, eyes wrinkling again. "It came to me in a dream," he replied, gaze rising to the window. "The night I found you. A great, gentle voice spoke to me, and it spoke a name—and at once I knew that it was yours."
He nodded, doubt filling him up. This was all so unbelievable. And to think…would he be leaving the next day. The door was finally open, and he wouldn't refuse it—the distant mountains and forests bade him depart while he still could.
"I love you, Dad," the boy said a last time, not caring that the title was no longer valid, not caring that it never was. The old man smiled and held his Zethis close again, like he always had—when he had been the father, and the boy his son.
One day, yet an entire lifetime.
Zethis finally managed seven hours of sleep that night—seven hours filled with the same dream, coming again and again. It was always the same—a smiling man at the door. Two other children close by. Heavy drapery…
At last, dawn drew itself through the curtains, and Zethis pried his eyes open. As he awakened to the sound of his last breakfast at home, the boy's heart thudded with anticipation and anxiety and cold emptiness. Lifting his bag and the package of food his father had given him, he pushed the door open and proceeded down the pathway. The farewell was short—nothing was exchanged but a wave and a few words. He didn't want it to be too painful.
Then at last, he turned, and began on his way down the familiar sand road, out into the morning. He had walked it hundreds of times, but now, the meaning had changed. He was leaving now. His first step marked a new phase in his life.
ketara: sunlight extinguished
A young warrior-in-training watched from the top of a Perion mountainside as the sun rose between the peaks spread out before him.
It's been almost a year…he thought. Wind swept past, washing his short black hair into a mess. It was already almost shoulder-length; he had not cut it at all since he had left his home in Ellinia.
Ah, dear Mother! You'd be proud of me! He brought the image of the fairy's face to mind.
Again, Ketara wondered vaguely about his true parents. His foster-mother claimed to have found him on the west side of the Ellinian forest, and knew nothing about him except that his true name was Ketara, which she had been told by a dream.
Ketara. Sounds like a girl's name. The thought suddenly made him laugh, inexplicably. He was a child of laughter, he had always known—and everyone else around him, too. A blessed child. The child who enchanted everyone, young and old alike.
The only thing his mother had found on him had been a strange pendant, a broken brown gem on it. Sometimes, Ketara wondered if that alone could tell him who his true family was, and he had studied it repeatedly, in times of boredom. But the gemstone betrayed none of the secrets that it might possibly hold, and Ketara would have to live on not knowing anything about his earliest years.
Already he had been away from home for a year—and was already a level 18 warrior. He had left in late summer the year before, and summer had returned once more, marking approximately his first anniversary of his travel.
Ketara recalled his day of departure, now as he stared down at the sunlit mountainside. It had been a cool day beneath the treetops, the sunset painting the uppermost leaves orange. It had been a day of regret, and of suspense—but now, a year down the road, he realised that it had been a day of blessing.
He had thought that he would be lonely. But he somehow managed to befriend everyone he met on the road—be it another beginner like him, or a powerful Crusader or Dragon Knight on his or her way from Perion. He was a blessed child, as everyone had told him. There was this magical charisma about him that almost no one could resist. And it didn't help that he had the most beautiful face in the world.
Haha, I wonder why I was blessed with this.
That was only one gift among the many he had been given. As he had been told many times, Ketara was progressing faster in levels than an ordinary person. Somehow, he could attack better, his strokes possessing more power than all the others he had watched. His Power Strikes were at least three times as strong as any other warrior's.
Yet there was always this doubt. This doubt that drifted, like a thick fog, through his every moment…
Shaking his head to clear it of the memory, Ketara looked down. In his hands, he now held a Fork on a Stick, heavy armour on his body and a silly helmet upon his head. Just a year ago, he had not been able to envision himself wearing such heavy clothing, or carrying such a weapon. But here and now, he was doing both.
The mountainside was welcoming, beckoning for him to race down without any cares. Ketara gazed beyond the peaks, at the shadow of a distant forest.
Shall I go there one day? He wondered to himself, squinting far ahead. The trees were ominous in the distance, seeming to challenge him to enter their dark embrace. He had heard stories about it, stories about the most bizarre creatures in Victoria Island—all lurking beneath its canopy.
The Dungeon, holding so much terror that even the king feared it, so much terror that even his guards did not patrol its borders. That was where he hoped to go, but never seemed to dare to.
Well, I must get on with my travels, he thought to himself. At my level, I'm sure that the Dungeon would be perfect for me to train. But not today. No, I'll go once all matters have been settled.
With a last sigh at the faint aroma of the forest, Ketara began on his way down the mountain. I want to become part of Perion, he thought. I want a place to call "home".
He had always felt at home among the tribe. Dances with Balrog had been kind to him, despite his weakness at the start. The great Warrior Job Master had warmed up to him so fast, and trained him well in his first footsteps as a warrior. Even outside—the people were hospitable, the potion maker and shopkeepers courteous.
Needless to say, he wanted to stay here. Not just for weeks at a time, as he always had. Forever. If he needed a "home", this was the place he wanted.
With a cry of excitement, Ketara ascended the final steps of the mountain and found himself before the towering shape of the Warrior's Sanctuary—Dances with Balrog's home of granite, totem poles and intricate inscriptions. It was protected by a spell that would veil it from the guards who occasionally came to search for him—as long as he kept the door shut.
The young warrior's hard raps on the door were almost immediately answered. The instant his face poked out the door, the Perion chief smiled. "Ketara, you've returned!" he exclaimed. "Come in, please."
Grinning in reply, Ketara entered the building, as he had on two other occasions. The interior was dark, smelling earthy, marble walls cast over by firelight from the centre. Scrolls lay everywhere. Literally everywhere.
"Why're you here?" Dances with Balrog questioned happily. He was in his thirties, the young warrior guessed as he observed the man again. The feathered headdress on his head, reaching down to his feet, was a mark of his leadership. His muscular build was no doubt the result of many years of intense training.
Ketara sat down by the fire, while Dances with Balrog settled down in his usual position on the chair on top of the small altar at the opposite end of the building. The single room inside was small enough for conversation to be made from one end to another.
"Let me get straight to the point, then," he replied. Somehow, the Perion chief, whom Ketara had once looked up to with such awe and amazement, was now more of a close friend to him than anything else. "I want to join your tribe. How do I do that?"
"Ah, but why?" Dances with Balrog inquired, eyebrows arched in question and interest. "Why would you want to join a tribe that is not from the land of your birth?"
Ketara looked at his feet. "I—I don't really know where I was born," he replied. "I don't remember…and I want a home—"
Suddenly, a flash of darkness. The firelight dying.
A woman, hair, bright blue with sparks, red eyes glowing, clawed arm reaching out towards his head, towards his eyes. An explosion of unthinkable pain and redness in his vision.
The fire suddenly burst to life beyond his eyelids, and Ketara blinked his eyes open, finding himself still on the ground, his breathing fast and shallow. No…not again…
"Ketara? Are you well?" Dances with Balrog was beside the warrior, squatting down by his side. Slowly, he pulled himself up, stunned and speechless.
"Y-yeah," he answered, voice wavering rapidly. "Just…just felt dizzy all of a sudden…"
Blowing air from his cheeks, the chief returned to his chair. "Think hard about it, Ketara," he added. "It's not that I have refused your request. But what I am worried about is if this is the right kind of life for you. As a member of the tribe, you must remain in the mountains of Perion for the rest of your life. You're not allowed to go far, as there might be times when we might require you for battle. Are you sure you want to sacrifice your freedom?"
Ketara stopped. He wanted a home, after spending all his life in a place that he knew wasn't really his, among others who were nothing like him. How often he had gazed at the fairies and their oddly pointy ears, their fluttering wings—and how often he had glanced at his own self, knowing why he never felt like he belonged. But to exchange home for freedom? This was something he had never considered before.
Now, as he thought about it, all the citizens of Perion—Blackbull, Mr. Thunder, the potion shopkeeper—they had never once been out of the tribe's settlement. And Ayan, she had always spoken of her father, living in Henesys all the way across the island. Ketara had always wondered why she never went there herself. Now he knew.
The boy looked up at Dances with Balrog earnestly. "Let me think, for a year or two," he replied. "I'll travel around. And after my second job, I'll tell you what I choose."
After my second job…Better get working.
Dances with Balrog listened and nodded. "Go on, then," he said. "I'll be waiting for you. And till then…" Then he stood. "Anyway, which path do you intend to choose?"
Ketara had already chosen. Only the spear felt right in his hands. Their weight and power instilled in him almost perfect confidence and trust.
"I want to be a Spearman."
As soon as he received Dances with Balrog's nod of approval, he turned and left, not without a smile and a wave of farewell.
Outside, Ketara looked up into the glaring sun, now halfway into the sky. Not yet, he told himself, eyes on the great golden coin in the midst of the chalky blue of the sky. I'll think about it all first.
For the next few hours of the afternoon, Ketara ran down to the street corner on the east side of the town, fighting stumps for experience. There was a doorway leading to a tunnel into the mountain there, and he had often seen people passing through it, but he had never dared to go. He knew that there were Wild Boars on the other side of the mountain—too powerful for him to handle.
As he wiped the streams of sweat from the side of his face, the warrior heard a call. "Hey, you there." Ketara turned. An archer stood behind him, armed with a steel-constructed bow, a smile on his face. He had short red hair, tall and tanned. "Want to go in there?"
Returning the smile, Ketara turned from the bowman to the door behind him. "I'd…rather not," he replied. The bowman's expression changed to puzzlement, then scorn.
"What level are you?" he asked. As the warrior told him his level, he smirked. "At your level, I was killing Wild Boars very well. Lousy warriors, having to go all the way to the monster in order to kill it!"
Somehow, Ketara was offended by that remark. It was simply too enraging for him to bear. "Yeah, alright, I'll go," he replied, accepting the challenge. Something at the back of his mind wondered why he was bothering to risk his life for the sake of proving this bowman wrong.
No, this is important. I'm not lousy. Warriors aren't weak.
"After you," the bowman sneered, raising his bow higher.
Grabbing the door handle and yanking it open, Ketara stepped through and ran down the tunnel as fast as he could. I can do it, he thought fierily.
No, he's playing with you, trying to get on your nerves on purpose—
And let him! Pride, sudden burning pride blinded him as he exited the tunnel. It opened instantly into a bright mountainside, amidst a flaming noon sky. He could already hear barbaric grunts and roars from below the ledge on which he stood. The dread was inevitable.
"Go on," he said, pushing Ketara towards the edge. "Let's see whether you were just pretending."
Swallowing, but forcing fear away for the sake of his pride, the warrior leapt off the ledge.
Oh, Ketara. This wasn't necessary.
In an instant, the roaring of the boars had engulfed him. For moments, he was frozen, frozen in stunned disbelief. But instinct kicked in at that moment, and it drove him to swing his Fork on a Stick. With a thud, it met with the unforgiving bulk of the Wild Boar nearest to him, and Ketara felt his arm jarring with the impact of his weak attack.
A horrible shriek. Ketara only barely gasped out as the Wild Boar leapt upon his body, throwing him to the ground. Only barely he felt the jab of dirty, black cloven hooves as they dug into his chest, the smell of sweat and fur expanding, expanding as breath was squeezed out of his lungs—and he gasped, tears of pain rising into his eyes.
He tightened his grip—and thanked the Goddess that the weapon was still in his hand. Ketara struggled against the weight of the creatures. His strength was slowly vanishing, his resolve thinning as he lifted the weapon. Crap. His arm was still pinned down by one of the animal's feet.
With one final burst of strength, Ketara focused all his energy into his right arm, and felt energy gather in his muscles. Then with a gasp, he thrust the three-pronged weapon into the Wild Boar's belly.
He felt the warmth of blood as it fell onto his body, staining his armour, and the shirt below it. The weight on him fell away, and the warrior stood, breaths coming deeply.
The smell of blood suddenly drove all the other boars into frenzy. They surrounded him, charged forward in one single wave, mad for blood.
Suddenly unafraid, despite the pain in his entire body, he struck out at the closest boar with a Power Strike. Again, his extraordinary hidden power flowed forth, sweeping all his pain and terror away. Briefly he grinned, then turned upon the animals. The first three Wild Boars collapsed and died with a single, burning Slash Blast, their upturned bodies revealing their ruptured bellies, spewing blood into the sandy earth.
Once the drive had begun, it was hard to quell. Like a bulldozer, the warrior ploughed through the boars, tearing limb from body, head from shoulders, innards from belly. Suddenly, he was in wild joy—and joy was his strength. Again, and again, and again, he felt the point of his spear sweep through skin and shred it, throwing blood all over the place.
Gasping, covered with the reek of blood, the sun seemed to pierce right through Ketara's eyes. Around him the bodies of twenty boars languished in the dust. A brilliant shower of green exploded around him.
Level nineteen, at last.
"Not bad," he heard a voice from above. "Not bad at all." Then his tone changed. "But of course, when I was your level, I didn't have to suffer all that pain, all that fear and fake bravery. I simply had to do—" He fell silent, stringing a bow, his arrow aligned with one of the new Wild Boars, feasting upon its herd mate's flesh. With a single shining, blue arrow, its side was pierced, its skin bursting open. "—this."
With one last smirk, the bowman strutted away, leaving Ketara alone among the dead boars. Ketara, the one who hardly ever resented anything. Now, he felt the resentment fill him up to the brim, like water pouring into a bowl that was about to overflow. No, it's worth it, he thought, anger swelling. It's worth the pain, the shame, the terror. I'll become great, you just wait. I'll prove that being a warrior doesn't make me any worse than any of the others.
The training took a lot longer than Ketara had anticipated. Everyday, he would go out into the east side of Perion, training in the valleys and on mountaintops. Everyday, he returned to his tent below the overhang. He met at least a hundred new people, some friendly, and some not so much.
But all tributaries end in the sea. In two months' time, he was ready. Ketara was now a level 20 warrior, only ten levels away from his second job advancement. And he felt, as he watched the autumn sun rise before him, ready to enter the dark Dungeon.
As he descended the last mountain, tasting a adventure in the air, Ketara searched the area for a safe passage past the Fire Boars. They swarmed Deep Valley, ready to devour any unsuspecting victims.
Ketara made his way carefully around the crags and boulders, avoiding areas where the Fire Boars congregated, until, at last, he found himself facing the uppermost layer of the trees of the Dungeon, already the bright red and gold of autumn.
Despite the joyful façade, he knew that the canopy hid some of the darkest secrets of Victoria Island. What is it in there? Why's everyone so afraid of it?
Trying not to question what the island had feared as long as history, Ketara slipped down the last few feet of the rock face.
And those were the last moments he saw the sky. After that, after he was taken into the dark shadow of the Dungeon, there was no more.
The sunlight had been extinguished, and everything was black around him.
zethis: a shadow of things to come
The morning was cool all around him, growing to envelope him in calm, as fields gave way to forest and birdcalls smoothed his frazzled nerves. As he walked, Zethis began to ponder his Dad's advice. The king had increased the security around Henesys, and if anyone caught him entering without authorisation, he would be send straight to prison.
Now, Zethis began to ponder his job choices. He wanted to become a warrior. He always had. They were always the only ones with blood on their weapons. They were strong in body and heart. They went straight in and finished the battle with their strength, never relying on the safety of distance. They were true representations of fortitude.
Perion, he tossed the little thought about in his head. Through the trees, up the mountains. Oh…how long more will that be?
By mid-morning, the young traveller arrived at the edge of the town, where the forests finally ended. There, he froze with awe and unexpected fear—a tall wall had been erected around the little town, dark in the midst of the greenery. Already the black gate loomed ahead of him, at the end of the winding stone-paved road. Stopping in his tracks, he watched as a horse-drawn cart clattered to a stop between two guards, and they began to check it.
The king is ruthless. The guards will try to find reasons to arrest you. They want you captured.
Keeping Dad's warnings close, he proceeded, the lump in his throat growing bigger.
With a shiver, Zethis came to a stop close to the gates, blood pounding louder in his ears. Here was he, in the open, vulnerable. Two stern rows of guards girt the road, their boisterous calls and glinting armour ruining the morning calm.
And before he got another second to observe, those voices came to claim him. "What is your business, boy?" the first guard in line questioned, turning his helmeted head in a way that made him shiver. The man's eyes were invisible behind his visor. "Why are you alone?"
Zethis tried to smile, failing terribly. "I—I'm just…passing," he stammered, keeping his gaze trained upon his chest armour. The guard didn't respond, but Zethis still dared not to move, to breathe.
"You have no authorisation." The beginner stepped back, glancing away, ready to run all the way back to his Dad and his old home, knowing that all along, he would never have made it far.
There was a shudder of armour, and suddenly Zethis realised that the guard's head was shaking. "But you are simply a boy," he murmured, voice soft. Suddenly, he raised his visor to reveal the youthful face hidden behind it. "You can't be a danger to us. Persecuting you isn't…right. I'll make an exception for you today. Don't tell anyone how you got inside."
Pulling the visor down again while Zethis trembled, the guard turned to his companions. "He's clear," he yelled, face hidden once more. All at once, tThe truth pierced through the clouds of his mind—and he remained trapped in dumbness for almost a minute. Were they really doing everything only under the king's orders? Inside each suit of armour, was there really another ordinary man, pledged to the tyrant's service?
He would have pursued the thought, had the sound of wooden cartwheels clattering over the cobblestones not made him snap back to reality. "Go on, boy," the guard said, voice kind. "What's your name, by the way?"
"Zethis," he replied bravely.
"Ah—Esharo here, nice to meet you."
Bowing at the guard's smile, the boy raced through the now open pedestrian gate, gasps of thanks still falling form his lips.
The gate soon gave way to the city within, and as Zethis walked it, he felt his apprehension mount. But what he saw inside, he wasn't prepared for. As the walls slipped past him and opened into light, the talk and bustle came to surround him. All too suddenly, he realised that he stood edge of a huge marketplace.
The boy took a moment to hold his breath. Instead of a cold grey city with angular buildings, there were sandy golden roads outlined by bright sprigs of flowers, grass and leaves lush. Beyond that, the marketplace's many roofs were red-tiled, vines climbing around the thin stone pillars, within which hundreds of people stood and traded goods, the commotion grand and loud.
Seeing the coins they held suddenly made him remember that he didn't have any mesos. Great! Now how am I supposed to get lunch? The first day, and I'm already failing!
Coming to rest in front of a tree house, Zethis began to think about earning money. Oh, money. How could I be so dumb? He could sell something of his to get the necessary earnings. The necklace? He decided against that. That necklace was his only clue to his true origins. What about his book? Then it wouldn't have served its purpose. Sighing, he sat upon the roots of the great plant, and began to rack his thoughts for ideas. Shreds of his father's voice slipped through his consciousness, spinning in his ears…
"Hello? Where are your parents? Are you here to become a bowman?"
Giving an undignified yelp, Zethis glanced upwards. Before him stood a woman, wielding her bow with much grace. She had a fair face, with blue eyes and pale blonde hair—same as mine,he vaguely mused—falling over elf ears. Elf…
Far too beautiful, he then noted. Her voice had a strange, musical accent. And on her forehead…was a circlet that he knew belonged to only one person.
"Y-you—ah-Athena…Pierce…" his weak voice trailed away in his shock. She smiled with much calm, and nodded.
"Are you lost? Or do you want to become a bowman?" she asked again. "You can come in, either way."
Not daring to disagree, he followed her into the tree through a wood door—which he suddenly noticed—and up her creaky stairs.
"W-w-where are we—" he gasped.
"Only my home!" she replied, to his vehement disbelief.
Emerging into the main room of Athena's home, Zethis gasped once more, at the ribbons of sunlight streaming through the window bars. The walls were woody and homely, gently curved to the shape of the tree. There were shelves of practically everything inside—herbs, wooden ornaments, dried mushrooms. Nothing like the castle he had always envisioned. Nothing at all…
"Sit, sit!" With another smile, Athena shoved a large beanbag chair out from inside her cupboard. Zethis settled upon it, while the Bow Mistress walked to her worktable, pulling out her chair.
"I'm…I'm…not here to be a bowman," he quickly said. She nodded, propping her head up on her elbows.
"Life can get really boring around here," she commented. "I was ever so glad when you turned up downstairs. First non-bowman-to-be to actually come around this place. You don't really look strong enough to become a bowman yet, anyhow."
Zethis smiled nervously, murmuring an apology. She shook her head and rose, her ever-pleasant smile gracing her lips. "Don't be so shy," she said encouragingly. "I'm not a monster or anything like that…"
"Um…" Zethis tested how his voice sounded in front of the Bowman Job Master. He couldn't believe it. The fact still hadn't seemed to register in his head—that he was here. He couldn't believe that he was sitting in front of Athena Pierce, in one of her beanbag chairs. He couldn't believe that Athena Pierce had beanbag chairs. "I—I don't believe this," he managed. "I'm…here…"
"Everyone thinks I'm such a great person," Athena murmured. "I'm not really that great, or that important; I'm actually on the run—"
She leapt out of her chair. "Oh great Goddess! I forgot!" Zethis leant back in shock. Leaping from her seat in the most undignified manner imaginable, she stumbled down the staircase, the wood screeching under her weight. Somewhere far down, the door slammed shut. She returned moments later, following a chorus of creaking stairs.
"I can't believe I was so careless!" she gasped, sitting down again. "As long as the door is open, the king's servants can see my house. I've got to close the door every time—in case the king sends another round of policemen to find me. Isn't it silly that I'm the only one in town who's on the run?" Then she looked up at the roof and suddenly added, "Have you been to Kerning before?"
Zethis, taken by surprise, shook his head. "Never been anywhere, other than here," he replied. "I—just began travelling today…"
Athena nodded, observing him from top down. "If you'll allow me to say, you—uh…don't look too experienced," she said. "But anyway, I heard that Kerning's really the best place to live for people on the run. It houses a huge number of thieves, but I guess the confusing-ness of the place makes it good for everyone to hide in."
"Really?" Zethis replied, interested. "That must be why the Dark Lord lives there, then—I've heard that he lives in such a well-hidden place that he doesn't need to worry about the guards finding him."
Athena simply gazed on into the wall opposite. "Glad to know that," she whispered, not really there. Shaking her head suddenly, the Bow Mistresslooked up at Zethis, trying to smile.
"What do you want to become?" she inquired. "Are you even planning on getting a job?"
"I'm—yeah," he replied. "I'm thinking of becoming a warrior." Athena nodded thoughtfully.
"Train around here first," she suggested to him. "Then when you're around level eight, you should go northeast through Kerning to Perion. It's easier that way than through Ellinia. Oh, and if you happen to meet my best friend's daughter Ralinn by any chance, do say hello to her for me. I heard that she lives there now—"
A knock resounded from the door below. Athena nodded and stood. "Must be another bowman-to-be," she said. "Great to have spoken to you, er…"
"Zethis," he answered, standing as well. I told her my name! "T-thanks, Mistress Athena Pierce…" She simply nodded.
"Oh yes, just to aid you," she added, digging in her huge wardrobe and finally producing a sword. "You will find this useful in the hunting grounds." Athena tossed the weapon to the boy, who managed to catch it as it fell towards the floor. Athena apologised. The sword was short and thin, its blade heavy in his hands. It was nothing like the long, beautiful weapons he had so often seen others carrying. But it was still a weapon; the first he had ever held. And it felt wonderful.
"Oh yes, be careful when travelling," she said, a shadow coming to her eyes. "The guards are everywhere. They'll arrest you if they find you taking a job test."
With a last goodbye from the Bow Mistress, Zethis ran down the noisy stairs and left. He saw a boy around his age come in on the way, but they didn't exchange so much as a glance.
Now, to stay alive, Zethis wondered to himself as he walked around the cheery village. I've gotta make money. But how…
He recalled hearing from his father that some monsters held money. Looking down at the sword he held in his right hand, he realised that that would be the very best way to earn money. And perhaps he would come a little closer to the required level of 10…
Standing up with the sword high in hand, he found his way back to the main road, where he saw a signboard pointing the way to the Henesys Hunting Ground.
Fifteen minutes later, Zethis was on the western boundary of Henesys, where a hill stood in the middle of a sprawling field, the grounds crowded with dozens of people of higher levels. Suddenly feeling self-conscious, he looked down at the diminutive weapon in his weak arms.
At that moment, a snail with a gleaming blue shell crept by. Ah! A snail—shouldn't be too hard…
Raising the sword up in the way he had imagined it to be used, he brought the side of the blade down on the tall shell. It gave a squeal of pain, its shell slightly cracked in one spot—but nothing more. Surprised, he directed more energy into his next swing, determined only to kill his very first monster.
Again, it squealed. Its shell cracked further, but now, it had turned to face him, its bright, wide eyes angry.
No, no! Stay away! The sword went down onto its shell again, making it call out with fury. As it came towards him, he tried to send the blade point-first into its vulnerable flesh, but it only managed to bounce off the front of its shell.
A moment before the huge blue snail touched him, he used the sword to shield off its oncoming attack, holding it back with all his strength. Thinking of the only thing he could do in this situation, he stepped aside and lifted the sword, allowing it a stunned second of confusion, before delivering one last, full-weight blow with the edge of the sword's blade. One last call of terror saw it melting away into the ground.
But not a glint of gold fell out of the snail as it vanished. Frowning, Zethis sighed. He had heard that these blue snails were some of the weakest monsters in the world, and yet, he had taken such a long time to defeat it. And for no reward too.
As he watched the snails creep by before his eyes, he leaned back on the bale of hay he had found, exhausted all of a sudden. His sword was held loosely in his right hand, and he dug it deep into the hay.
I don't think I can do this, he admitted to himself. I'm already stuck, here. How will I ever make it all the way to Perion? Somehow, he felt like simply giving up—like going back to his old father, the one who had brought him up for ten years, and living with him for the rest of his life as the farmer he had always thought he would become.
But again he recalled everything. He remembered passing the guards of Henesys, remembered meeting Athena Pierce in person. She had told him how to get to Perion. And now, he had a weapon. He had entered the Hunting Ground, despite his fears. He had killed his first monster.
Here he was, surrounded by snails. The rest were higher up the hill, killing huge Orange Mushrooms and even greater monsters—oh, those godly pigs!
When would he get there? When will I be strong enough to lift a weapon that can kill them?
In that moment, a green snail tried to slip past him unnoticed, but instead of recoiling, he steeled himself. No, he would start now. It was far, but this was a step in the right direction.
Springing up, he raised his amateur's sword once more. With full momentum, he struck—and two smashes with the sharp edge managed to destroy it. Zethis' heart leapt as three coins fell out of its broken shell. Eagerly, he snatched them up, relishing the texture of his very first earnings in his fingers.
Stuffing those into one of the pockets of his haversack, he looked about for more monsters to kill, suddenly sure of himself—for the road seemed so much shorter now.
As the sun broke through the very last layers of clouds to touch the horizon, Zethis finally decided to round up his day. With one last thud, he sliced the blue snail's head off. The rest of it left untouched, the creature's white body sank into the ground, leaving its shell whole and perfect for collection. A flash of green lit his vision for the second time that day, and with that brightness came sudden invigoration.
At last, he was level three, and five hundred mesos richer. His verdict for the day: Not too bad.
Trudging up the pathway, Zethis followed a few higher levelled people into the dusky town. He wondered where he could find an inn or hotel to stay, but clueless as he was, he didn't dare to approach any of the people around him, too much afraid that they might mock him for his weakness, or for something else. Some had already noticed him at the hunting ground for his clothing—white shirt, blue shorts, brown sandals. He had to be thankful already that no one had come to bully him.
"Hey there." Upon hearing the call, Zethis turned, heart racing, and was shocked to see the White Knight who had been kill-stealing from him for a few minutes earlier on. "Sorry about just now."
He shook his head, too alarmed to be bothered by that incident. How many more unexpected meetings must I endure? Oh, I wish I were back at home…
Heedless, the knight came strolling up to him, his huge mace swinging lazily in his left hand. By reflex, the shy boy backed away. "You fight well," he commented. "When did you start training? Last week?"
Zethis stepped a little further away. "Um…um…t-today?" he replied.
"You started training today?" the tall warrior gasped. "You're a rare talent then. Didn't you notice that you're stronger than most others?" The boy shook his head nervously. "Level ones usually take around three hits to kill a normal snail, and you could with one!"
"The snail…well…just died when I hit it," he stammered. "Nothing much to it, they're…weak, aren't they?"
"You don't understand, do you?" the knight tried to explain. "You're three times as strong as an ordinary beginner!" Zethis looked down at his sandals, blushing at his compliment. There was uneasy silence for a while.
"Um…sir? Do you know…where I might stay for the night?" His voice was still weak, but at least he had found the courage to present his request. The knight smiled at him in the dying sunlight and nodded.
"It costs three hundred to rent a room for a day for a beginner," he said kindly. "I'll show you the way if you want, it's pretty near my home." The White Knight's sincere smile finally won Zethis over. Nodding and hoping that it wasn't some kind of trick, he began to follow the kind youth into the twilight
The two went through at least a hundred different streets, all full of people going home. They passed a long queue on the main road, some lazing in horse-drawn carts, some on foot, heavy sacks over their backs. They filled the entire street, all too tired even to look up and see who had just brushed past.
"They're all waiting for their turn to leave the Henesys gates," the knight explained while Zethis watched. "Sometimes, the last person only manages to leave after midnight."
The boy soon came to realise that this was what his Dad had gone through every day of his life. He had stood in line each day, waited till near midnight to go home, to the child who wasn't even his own son…
Slowly, they left the line of tired people behind, and they shrank between the houses, Zethis looking on forlornly behind, as if he could feel their sorrow.
"Here we are!" In the darkening skylight, Zethis saw a long building before the two. It was barely taller than his old home, the walls entirely wooden. But the light in the many windows along its length and the sound of merry talk, audible from outside, betrayed its warmth.
"Well?" the White Knight murmured with satisfaction, folding his arms. Zethis bowed in thanks. "Have a nice day, um…may I know your name, if you don't mind?"
"I'm Zethis," he replied after much hesitation. Three unfamiliar people in a day.
Amused at his lack of confidence, the knight turned to look at the sky. "Should be getting back," he commented. "Nice meeting you, Zethis. My name is Hyrien, by the way—level seventy-four White Knight."
White Knight. Waving one last time with a small smile, Zethis walked over the uneven, stony pathway, towards the door that he could hardly see. The Hill House. The signboard swung over the doorway. Shivering suddenly in the wind, the boy turned—but by then, Hyrien had long vanished down the street.
Well, I have to learn to do this.
An hour later, Zethis had rented himself a room, and he hurried to the common dining room for dinner. After eating the best meal he had ever had in his life, he felt his exhaustion return. It wasn't bad tiredness, though; it was the kind that told him that he had done a lot that day, that made him feel satisfied with himself. It was the kind of tiredness that he felt after a day helping his father—foster father—to chop firewood. A sigh dragged itself through his lips, and he blinked sleepily.
As he lay down to sleep, the boy took in the warmth of the blankets with gratefulness, and at the same time speculated about his future. How long would it be till he became a warrior? How long till he finally got to his second job?
Ah yes, my job choice.
He already knew. He wanted to become a White Knight, just like Hyrien. He wanted to become as strong, as sincere as him. He wanted to take that path.
That was his last thought, before his eyes closed for the night.
shirion: into the world
It was always the same question, the same question everyday. The level 36 Fighter had asked himself that question, right from the start. Work, work, work. He had known nothing else, for as long as his memory allowed. Everyday it was the same—rough, heavy sacks tied to his back, repeated trips from harbour to ship and back again as his skin was rubbed raw, the skin of his back and of his feet.
He hated it, the way he had no choice but to stand and take orders, while the guards owned ultimate power over him and his fellow slaves.
He was thirteen still; why was it that they were so cruel to someone so young? They all said that they were under orders by some "king". What kind of a king was this?
Again, the male youth gazed up into the singing canopies, their voices like that of rustling rivers. Winter was close, he could tell from the colour of all the leaves of Ellinia. And winter meant nothing anymore. Not serenity, not beauty. Only torture, struggle, work.
Shirion turned to observe his mates as they laboured away, dragging huge crates up the ramp onto the ship that was docked at the jetty. Their sorrow wove itself onto his brow—but then he saw someone, and felt a smile slip across his features. On board the ship, at the highest point of the mast, balanced his good friend along the narrow beams—a girl who had spent all her life tying the sails and ropes in the Station. She, too, hated this life. She, too, longed so deeply for escape. Her name was Akera.
A year younger than him, Akera had always been that bit closer than everyone else in the Station. She never spoke much, and only words of anger ever left her lips. She had a sharp tongue, and behind her icy blue eyes, there was this ever-burning hatred, masked by her pale face and snow-white hair. She was the most distant, yet somehow the dearest. It was the countless things they shared, no doubt.
The two of them were the only ones with jobs among the slaves. Akera was a Fire Poison Wizard. She had been ever since Shirion had met her—a child prodigy.
The sight of her made Shirion recall the old days, locked so deep in the past. He recalled his flight into the world, five years ago. He remembered those years, those three years of running away—during which he had trained himself to the high thirties, and received his second job.
But his freedom, as always, was not to last. The king's police force eventually caught up, and at eleven years old, he was returned straight back into the cruelty of his old life. His short stint of freedom had ended, but it only made him thirst for more. It was as if a gate had been opened—and the endless longing could no longer be quelled. He wanted to flee again, to drink even deeper from the river.
To the rest of the world, Shirion appeared severe and unmoved. All he ever showed to them was a stern face, an expressionless gaze of brown. But inside—deep inside, he was a dreamer. He wanted to see the world. He wanted to be all that he could be. He didn't want his life to be stifled by another, a human being greater than himself—no, he would never let himself end this way.
Somehow, he knew that the breaking point had finally been reached. With a deep sigh, he tossed the sack down and leaned against it. With some old regret, the Fighter glanced about at his friends, his companions in hardship. He watched Akera, a rueful smile curving his lips slightly. It would be a long time. He wished he didn't have to leave so much behind.
It was time for him to try again. Time for him to cut himself free from the vines of the forest station. This time, he wouldn't find himself in their nets again, wouldn't fall into their traps. I swear it. The night sky and the rivers could wait no longer. He would run today.
The evening passed in a feverish blur. Nightfall came quickly. Shirion lay awake by the jetty, kept lucid by the perpetual hunger in his belly and the promise in the wind. Sitting up, he glanced about at the others, all asleep from total exhaustion.
Today, yes. I can feel it…
Standing quickly, he glanced about for any sign of the patrolling guard. Nothing moved within his vision, and so, readying himself though his heart throbbed, Shirion stepped over the sleeping bodies, and raced lightly towards the weapon store in the shipyard.
The quietude of the night was ironically nerve-wracking. The Fighter's hands were shaking as he struggled to lift an axe off the rack as silently as possible, when he heard footsteps from behind. A sudden burst of adrenaline swept him up, his heart rate doubling as the winds were doused in ice. Who is it?
Cradling his axe in his arms, Shirion whipped around and stepped forward. In the darkness, he felt his foot meet with a metal bar—and he froze, terrified, as it rang loudly.
"Who's that?" a shout suddenly echoed, low but feminine. And thankfully familiar.
As the person's silhouette appeared at the door, framed against the sky, Shirion let out a breath of relief. "You?" she went on. Akera. Her ghostly pale hair shimmered down her shoulders like a moonlit river.
"I'm—" Should he trust her?
Akera was before him in an instant. She seemed to know where all the metal objects were, and avoided them with ease. "Are you trying to escape now? If you get caught, it's none of my fault!" Her voice was a harsh whisper.
"I…yeah," he finally conceded. "I can't stand it here anymore. I have to get away—"
"With all that noise, you're not getting anywhere!" Akera snapped back. "You're completely useless as escape. And here I thought that you were the law-abiding kind." She glanced briefly backwards, into the leaf-girt window into the night. "Well, if we're going to escape, we'd better hurry!"
Shirion blinked. "We?" he questioned incredulously.
"What, don't want to give me a chance?"
Far too glad for company, Shirion allowed Akera to lead him out of the shipyard—almost failing to rein in his excitement. As their faces met with the seaside wind, his breaths quickened, and all at once he felt a new adventure bearing upon his life, ready to begin.
"I've worked out a safe way past the guards," the Fire Poison wizard beside him whispered. Shirion swallowed. Normally, Akera's ideas worked without a glitch—if their unconventionality didn't first do him in.
And he was right to believe that it would be unconventional. Almost as soon as they arrived back at the main station, the female magician turned suddenly off the road, and proceeded to the edge of the branches. With a light leap, she was on the outer parapet of the Station. A very bewildered Shirion held his breath as he followed, fearing what might come next. Wind buffeted his face and whirled through his long hair. Breathing deep with sudden exhilaration and nerve, he unbound his ponytail and allowed his hair to be tossed by the gales.
"Hey, no time to enjoy!" Akera whispered. Nodding quickly, Shirion continued to follow. The two crept slowly along the narrow wooden parapet along the exterior of the Ellinia Station, bowing beneath the windows, Shirion too stiff with fear and excitement to utter a word. All around him, the world rocked up and down—but he knew that it was only the branch that held the Station up waving in the wind. Yet before him, Akera's footing was sure and swift, from years upon the masts—and with great caution, struggling to balance out the weight of his axe, he followed with a sense of inferior submission.
At this point, the Mage came to a stop. The other end of the parapet was so close now, and beyond it, the Station gate was visible. The dark figures of the armoured guards were still at their posts. With great urgency, Akera gestured at him not to make a sound. He stiffened up even more, afraid that the sentinels might hear his heart beating.
Akera didn't seem half as scared as him. She confidently pointed at a thick branch that passed under the Ellinia Station nearby, leading on into the darkness. This was the main branch. The ancient branch that carried the weight of the entire building.
Shirion backed away a little, suddenly realising what she meant. The branch was their straight path out of the Station…if he didn't first die falling from it. But ever-steely, the female Wizard shook her head with a silent berating smile, and placed her left foot on it—then her right. All of a sudden, she was balancing upon the branch, without any handhold in close sight. The branch shivered ever so slightly, and after that, she proceeded forth. The Fighter swallowed.
Within moments, she had made it a few feet along the branch. Her silver hair shone under the magic torches. "Well?" she mouthed out to him. Shirion glanced up at her. Gulping, he stepped onto the branch, as she had, slowly shifting his weight onto it. It began to shake, suddenly—and he nearly yelled out in fear. What had seemed like tiny bobs from the parapets now almost shook him off.
Slowly, they inched their way along the branch in the middle of the darkness. "A little way more," Akera whispered, over and over. "A little way more." He smiled up at her, barely keeping his balance. She snatched his hand to steady him. Beneath them, the great woody limb was strong, trustworthy, almost warm. Soon, all fear vanished—and he began to relish the taste of freedom.
The warrior glanced back into the dark Station. Free. That notion struck him like a sudden wind. At last…
Akera didn't turn back once. But she did, finally, as they arrived at the crossroads on the branches—only to say goodbye. He knew that they would have to part ways here. She won't go where I want. She will have her own dreams.
Blinking at the Wizard before him, within the embrace of the winds, he thanked her.
For the first time in all his life, Shirion saw Akera smile.
"Well," she whispered. "It's all up to you now." Shirion nodded and turned to the branches. Where do I go?
He knew immediately. Towards the goal of his life. He would simply travel, travel and defy the law. Towards what destination, he didn't know—as long as he remained a free person.
"Goodbye," he replied, waving, half hoping that Akera would say that she wanted to follow him. But she didn't, only continued to smile, and slowly, he stepped away onto the next pathway.
Goodbye…for who knows how long?
zethis: one step closer
Finally. As the Beginner looked up at the cliffs, he knew that he had made it. Perion, the warriors' land, home of Chief Dances with Balrog.
He was a step closer to his dream.
He was already level nine, and his next level-up was impending; he could feel it coming soon, in the air. Zethis had come a long way since his lowly beginnings in Henesys. He had travelled through Kerning City, under Athena Pierce's advice. An amazing place, it was: the splendid electric lights, the people walking the streets without any fear of the law—for there wasn't any. Not to mention, the lodging there was excellent.
Three months, the journey had taken him. Three months, through the course of autumn. Finally, winter was here, bedecking the Perion mountainsides with whiteness as it descended from the cloaks of the sky.
The young boy still wore his old attire—white shirt and old shorts, along with his considerably more tattered sandals. But now, there was a red cap upon his head—he had bought that in Kerning. A sweater also served to keep him warm in the increasingly frigid weather, and in his hands was a double-bladed axe, which he had bought from the Kerning City weapon shop.
Zethis ascended the mountain pathways, knowing that his advancement awaited just a few mountains beyond. The anticipation gave him amazing strength, strength he had never known before.
By sunset, he had already traversed the first two of many mountains, along an abandoned road that the king had long stopped guarding. The sun now sinking beneath the edge of Perion, the warrior-to-be found himself a small hollow in the rock face to rest in.
All the mountains looked the same to him; even the monsters resembled each other—stumps of varying sizes and bark colour, seeming to have taken on a life of their own, their dark bark standing out like tiny dots against the thick snow in the distance. In the barren winter wilderness, he suddenly realised in his hunger that he was clueless as to where to obtain his dinner.
The boy tried to ignore the cold as he curled up in the uncomfortable hollow—but as the dark hours passed, hunger gnawed at him more insistently, and finally he could take it no longer. Standing, he let the blood return to his numbing legs, and he began to walk about.
Goddess curse my stupidity! He thought. Where will I find any food out here, in the night?
That question answered itself. Before his next footfall, there was a loud grunt from the next bend of the road. Glancing about, his heart started to pound warmly in his ears.
What is it?
A yellow brilliance had suddenly appeared, glinting off the ice of the mountainside. Zethis backed away—and leapt back as a streak of blazing fire rushed round the bend. Tusks gleamed upon its frothy snout—it was a fearsome boar, its shape cast into relief by the mane of fire crackling upon its back. Perhaps it had smelt him—a weak, helpless human child out in the open—but whatever it was, he knew that it was after food, just as he was.
Food. Oh, Goddess. No.
Like the wind, Zethis fled down the slope of the mountain, not caring when his feet slid, not caring when he almost tripped over rocks and ledges. This creature, he knew, was something he could never face on his own.
Or can I? The fire. If the fire dies…it dies.
Clutching the handle of his fruit knife hard, Zethis whipped around to face his pursuer. He saw the blinding flame on its back, growing menacingly brighter, its flaming red eyes, and the two sharp tusks gleaming on either side of its mouth.
Willing himself to stand his ground, Zethis waited for its attack. The creature suddenly leapt towards him in a bone-crushing body slam. Stand. Stand. Hands working faster than his mind, he gave a cry and thrust out the blade as it flew at him.
The creature impaled itself upon his knife, but the impact of the blow wrenched the weapon from his hand. It lay there, on the ground, wheezing heavily in a pool of blackness, its flame flickering violently.
The fire. The fire. Put out the fire.
Zethis threw himself down upon its body. His legs crunched in the snow, but his body fell upon the guttering fire, smothering it. The smell of melting rayon mingled with smoke, and the boy knew that his sweater had seen its last day. But there he lay, panting, the heat dying down under his stomach, sweat gleaming in rivers on his skin. In that dizzying moment, green flashed before his eyes—
Level ten. Yes.
Zethis finally got up, five minutes later, limbs still shivering. He tugged the fruit knife out of the animal's stomach, turning away as more blood leaked out. Then, he sat at the food of the mountain, cutting chunks of meat off its back, where its own flames had barbecued its flesh. Ravenous, he ate. He was still breathing hard with terror, his arms and legs too weak to move, but at the least, he was grateful for his life.
What made me do that? He wondered to himself.
Zethis slept well that night, thanks to utter exhaustion. He had managed to find another cave in the next mountain, safe from the snow.
The next morning saw some of the lowest snows being melted. That made his journey uphill even harder, but in the end, he managed to scramble all the way up to his destination, only barely.
Finally. As he finally crested the mountain, the entire village of tents rose into sight, spread out over the entire mountaintop. Already…here? Zethis pinched himself to make sure it was real.
Climbing upwards for his life's worth, Zethis watched as that building at the top, the Warrior's Sanctuary, grew larger in his vision.
Dances with Balrog answered his knocks quickly. The Job Master was shocked when he saw the beginner, to say the least.
"My goodness, where have you been? You're a complete mess," he gasped with an unbefitting grin. Zethis drew his eyes away from his headdress, and looked down at his outfit. He was a complete mess. His clothes were ripped all over; his sandals hanging from two straps each. He felt himself blush.
"I'm—I'm sorry, I should have…presented myself better…"
"Ah, no problems, lad," the chief answered cheerily. "The mark of a true warrior. You're here to become one, aren't you?" Zethis nodded very slowly, eyes still cast down at his clothes. "Look up, then. Don't be shy."
Sadly, the boy was shy. After some gentle mental coaxing, he did so—and to his terror, Dances with Balrog took hold of his face. "You have the makings of a warrior," he said, voice suddenly solemn. Zethis felt his soul freeze with his unnervingly steady tone. "With the strength I give to you, I believe that you will become a great person. Do not ever use it to turn to darkness." Then he took in a deep breath. "I hereby name you…a Warrior."
Zethis saw a flash of white light around him, and for a few seconds, he suddenly found himself flying over a vast field of stars. He heard a male voice calling out, "Come with me…" Then a female one saying, "Do you wish…" Their voices echoed around him, though he was in the middle of the sky. There was a sudden shower of shooting stars, a distant call for help, an endless meadow of snow.
Suddenly, it vanished. Zethis was before Dances with Balrog again, in the same building, on the same floor. He suddenly felt dizzy.
"Well, I won't ask you what you saw," the chief said. "But it must have been quite a lot. Normally, my magic makes the receiver see flashes of the future." There was a pause.
Then he added, "You're different. I could feel all that energy in you. I've only felt the same energy three other times…the last time was when I christened that boy…What was his name, he just visited two months ago…Ketara, yes. You're the first to show such power, after him. And then there's Shirion, and Thaemis, ah…"
While the chief revelled blissfully in his memories, Zethis suddenly realised that he was a warrior now. A true warrior. The fact was almost too overwhelming.
"Alright," Dances with Balrog finally said, presenting the skill book to the boy, who took it with much eagerness. "Have fun with your new skills, and remember never, never to turn to darkness. I know that a great future awaits you, …your name?"
"Zethis," he answered, now used to giving his name to people he almost didn't know at all.
"Yes, ah…Zethis. I'd better remember that name. Congratulations! Would you like a drink in celebration?"
After some polite, conservative refusal, Zethis exited the stuffy Warrior's Sanctuary. Outside, the snows seemed whiter, the skies brighter. Everything felt new. Everything seemed like a gift.
A warrior! I wonder what Dad would say if he knew…
This time, though, Zethis chose not to pursue that thought. He had to move forward now; there was no time to relive old memories.
ketara: shadowy winter
It was winter. Ketara could tell, even in the midst of the darkness, from the gusts of cold wind that were flying through the treetops, rustling the leaves. He could tell, despite the fact that the leaves of the Dungeon had not fallen. He could tell, because the air was growing steadily colder, so cold that it made his fingers numb.
Ketara had already been living in the Dungeon for at least two months. It was dark there, so dark that he followed his paths by sound alone. He had been afraid from the first moment he had entered.
Right from the beginning, he had not been able to see. His first day in the Dungeon had been a total, blind terror. Everywhere he went, he could only hear, hear the footsteps of the creatures in the dark. He could not fight, could not even aim his attacks. And so he had hurried on through the darkness, searching fruitlessly for the tiny shrine that was said to be at the heart of this impossible labyrinth.
Ketara had already gotten used to living in the dark. Everyday, he would wait for an animal to pass him by, and in the blackness, he would somehow grab hold of it and kill it with his Fork on a Stick. Then, because he didn't have a choice, he would eat it raw, cutting off its head and gutting it first. Blood tasted horrible, but he had to do it to survive. Water was easily available in the streams of the Dungeon.
Two months on, the warrior had resumed training. The longer he stayed in the Dungeon, the more accustomed he grew to finding his way in the dark. His sense of hearing had grown so acute that he didn't have to see a monster to know that it was there. He had even gained some sort of augmented night vision from extensive…exposure to darkness. He was now level 22, two levels higher than when he had first entered the Dungeon.
The warrior glanced about, searching the area around him for any sign, any trace at all, of a monster. He was freezing, to say the least; the depths of midwinter were arriving. But he didn't have anything to wear for the weather.
Silently, the warrior trudged through the tangled roots, his innate optimism keeping his footsteps swift and his spirits light. A short way away, Ketara saw, distinctly, the gaping mouth of the cave. He could hear every sort of nightmarish sound echoing from within, making him shiver with more than just the cold.
Then, in his silent musing, he heard a rustle. Glancing upwards, he felt the sudden shower of leaves, and he gave a gasp of surprise as they fell upon his face.
Probably a monster, he convinced himself, walking on in search of training grounds.
But this thing was intent on chasing Ketara. He tried to move to other areas, but the rustling and falling leaves kept following.
"Who's that?" he finally called up into the treetops. In that instant, there was a flash of black above, and instantly, he felt a sharp tug at his belt. The warrior spun around, but saw no one.
Is this…some sort of prank? Wow, native Dungeon pranksters?
"Hey, if you want to chat or something, I wouldn't mind," he called out again.
Suddenly, Ketara heard laughter. Turning again, considerably more frightened now, he found that he couldn't see anyone, but heard footsteps. Light footsteps that barely crackled in the leaves.
"You're definitely not used to living in the Dungeon," a mocking female voice said. She was joined by a male.
"Yeah, look at how blind he is," he muttered. "You didn't realise that my sister took all your money, did you?"
Ketara gasped out, not knowing how to respond. Finally, after two months or so, he had found humans. Company! But they had chosen to introduce themselves by stealing his money.
"Thank the Goddess there are people around here!" he cried in reply, grinning. "I was starting to think that I was all alone out here… So why are you here?"
The girl came forward, and finally, Ketara could see her. She had dark hair and clothes, her facial features vaguely beautiful in the shadows—though he could hardly make them out. She was about his height, a little taller, and he assumed that she was about his age.
"Why? We've lived here all our lives," she replied. "We get our clothes from people we kill."
"And we should be killing you too," her brother added in a growl. His staff suddenly began to shine red, but the girl stopped him with a hand gesture.
"No, no, don't kill him," she said, slightly angry. "He's the most interesting, and good-looking, person who's ever come round here before…" She quickly returned her attention to him. "Why don't we show you the way out?"
Her brother, silent for a while already, stepped forward as well. Twins, Ketara mused.
"I see what you mean by 'good-looking'," he commented. The warrior glanced away from them, blushing with a smile despite the situation. "Alright, we'll show you the way out. Which side, north or south?"
He pondered their question for moments. North, to Perion, or south, to Henesys?
With much deliberation, he made his choice. "You can take me somewhere far away if you want, but I'm not going to leave the Dungeon!" Ketara finally exclaimed.
Both seemed slightly taken aback. Still dumbstruck, the girl nodded. "Fine," she groaned. "Silly kid, wanting to stay. We'll take you to Sleepywood."
"Sleepywood? The shrine?" Ketara asked with deepening hopefulness, silently giving a cheer.
"Where else?" the dark-haired boy asked, eyes flashing with incredulity. Wordless, they lead him through the trees, walking as if they knew all the roads and pathways of the forest by heart. The deep forest, named the "Dungeon"—it was certainly an appropriate name.
An hour of swift walking soon took him to the town's edge, and Ketara found himself being amazed at how silently the twins proceeded. Dim orange torchlight soon showed through the spaces between the tree branches. Squinting ahead, he saw the clear outline of hut roofs. The holy shrine had few inhabitants.
"Thank you so much!" Ketara exclaimed to the two Dungeon residents, a smile filling his face. "I promise, promise, promise to leave you alone from today onwards!"
The girl shook her head at his words. "You're too friendly with strangers for your own good," she sighed. "But don't worry, we mean you no harm at all."
"No harm?" the boy replied.
"Oh, just shut up for once, Rino!"
Ignoring the fact that she had just disclosed her brother's name, the girl left, almost immediately followed by him—of course, he first shot him a dark glare.
Regardless, Ketara continued to muse over the encounter with some fascination. That was pretty cool! Have they been living here all their lives? How'd they end up here in the first place? Why don't they live in Sleepywood?
Ah, Sleepywood. Gazing out into the torchlit little shrine, he proceeded towards the stone arch and allowed the beloved warmth and magical quiet to settle upon his soul.
In the Orbis inn, far over the sky, Ralinn dreamt. She could hear nine different melodies around her, all singing different words, all in harmony.
Nine different voices, nine different temperaments, all surrounding her in a circle.
Light suddenly flared all around her, washing the voices away. Then there was a powerful, singular voice before her, indescribable, neither male nor female, simply there.
"Nine others await your arrival. Form a guild. Find them, and take them in. In the end, three stars will banish the darkness, and a soul of fire will end its reign forever."
Without thinking, Ralinn knew that that was a command from a greater being. Why me? She wanted to ask. But the light had vanished, and she was alone in her dreams again.
shirion: new year
Shirion gazed up at the sky from his resting place on the rocks. Here on one of Perion's eastern mountainsides, he could see the sunset, as it slowly turned the snow a radiant orange, glinting under the slanted sunlight that pierced, perfectly, through the snowflakes on the ground. The ice was thawing already.
Three months on the run already. Three months, and he was now level 39. Everyday, the sunshine, the beauty of the world that he had been denied for years before, greeted him in joy, making him ever gladder that he was free.
New Year is coming soon. The coming of a new year would be marked by fireworks displays from Kerning City in the west. The city of rebellion, which had been a stronghold for so many years—it was a beacon to the rebels of the world, calling them to arms, crying the commands: "Stay free, forever."
Through night, the Crusader walked the marketplace of Perion, buying his dinner and conversing with the few citizens of the place who still dared to walk about during the policemen's patrolling hours. "It's New Year tomorrow!" one excited shopkeeper exclaimed to another as he stood before them. "Winter is ending soon!"
Shirion was surprised. Was it already New Year's Eve? Time passed so fast. Had it already been three months since his escape? Had it already been a year since the last New Year? Had it already been fourteen years since he had come into the world?
In the silent whispers of the mountain night, Shirion stayed at the peak of the mountain, away from the rest of the citizens who congregated down below. His gaze was cast upon the western sky, and his heart was ready.
For a few minutes, the sky was bright with sparks, bangs and whizzes, as rainbows of fire bloomed through the night sky, shining like a starfall as they fell towards the land. It was beautiful, and a sign of hope to all.
zethis: new year
Zethis stood with the great crowd as the fireworks bloomed to life in the sky over Kerning. I'm almost eleven now! was, somehow, his first and clearest thought. For the very first time since he had left his old home, half a year ago, he felt a vast and burning sense of true joy. His journey was just starting, and he couldn't wait, for everything that the new year held for him.
ketara: new year
Ketara stood at the edge of Sleepywood's north border. From there, he saw the fireworks rise in brilliant waves, and instantly, he knew that winter was going to end soon. Against the black sky, they shone like fire, marking the end of one year and the start of the next.
So much had passed, and so much still awaited. Would he even live through to the next year, to the next sunrise? Were there battles waiting to be fought, lands waiting to be conquered, tragedies waiting to be sung?
Answers, answers, as hard to capture as the fleeting seconds. Were these his answers to know? Only time held this authority. Only time would tell.
All over the world, the Year of the Dog had begun.